Is publishing in the tech industry or the media industry? Perhaps neither, since it always likes to see itself as both inside and outside the paradigm at once. Books are ostensibly a technology, one of the greatest and most versatile inventions of all time. What they communicated, though, was art, or at the very least entertainment. But since the corporate takeovers from the 1980s onward, book publishing has become increasingly a media business. It’s about revenue, it’s about numbers and it’s about riding the zeitgeist, not creating it.
Publishing has always been about producing what is important, and each publishing house or imprint has always had its own mission statement. But if all of the major houses are going to start going the diversity route, then I foresee an environment of same-same books. The interesting thing to note is that it is the smaller publishers who have pushed this most forcefully, so much so that it has trickled up to the big guys. However, it should not be that publishing has to be forced to reflect society, no matter how mixed and muddled it becomes; it should be that as society changes, the books begin to reflect it, naturally. This still leads to the inevitable problem of trying to please far too many specialty groups at once. And that is bad for the bottom line. Ironic, given that companies push for diversity thinking it will help business.
I’ve written about the push for diversity in publishing before, but now it has come home to roost. Yes, the CEO at work has instigated a Diversity and Inclusion committee, no doubt to be entirely made up of the most woke white girls in the office. I knew this day would come. Perhaps I should volunteer so as to undermine the whole project, accelerate the process as it may be. But no, I cannot drag myself through that. This push comes at the same time as we are seeing a series of incidents pop up around diversity within the publishing microcosm.
Specifically, the world’s biggest publisher is going all in. It wants to represent what the future society of Britain will look like. The Spectator article by Lionel Shriver has been contested, though I think on superficial points, but what Shriver really does is show how absurd the entire notion of identity has become. Race, sexual preference, none of this matters when it comes to doing the work. You should not be relying on quotas to fill a publishing schedule, unless you want to admit that the author’s identity is a marketable genre. (Truth be told, it apparently is at this stage.) The new mission statement of Penguin Random House reads thus:
‘new hires and the authors we acquire to reflect UK society by 2025.’
Nothing Shriver said was wrong, just a little hyperbolic. The responses were then hyperbolic in turn. Shriver never says that minorities can’t write good literature, only that their identity should not take precedence. Of course her critics somehow infer that she means exactly this, as a straight white female. She is slowly becoming unpersoned: she has even been removed as judge of an upcoming writing competition. And yet for all this publishing companies are covering their arses. Authors have always had moral rights to their work, but now their contracts are containing morality clauses. They are giving themselves protection in case any of their authors act out. Say, like Lionel Shriver.
But I digress from the issue here on whether publishing is tech or media. Let’s take PRH again. In their push for diversity, they are opening the field by not requiring degrees. Fine in theory, but I hardly see this opening up the field that much. The people who tend to want to work in publishing…tend to get degrees in publishing. And the entry level jobs are still going to be mindless grinds until you can get up that first rung of the ladder, degree or not. While it is clearly a branding exercise for the company to say ‘look at us’ there is something to it – namely that doing a degree in publishing is a waste of time. That might be endemic of the whole thing.
How much of the book business is useless? David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs looks at many of the factors surrounding jobs that suck the life out of us, and I think much of publishing skirts this. One of the reasons Graeber gives is that in the FIRE industries, there is so much money it pays to make up jobs:
The moral of the story is that when a profit-seeking enterprise is in the business of distributing a very large sum of money, the most profitable thing for it to do is to be as inefficient as possible.
The corporate publishers have a lot of money, and they tend to shuffle it around. We pay huge advances for authors that are never going to sell enough copies to earn out the cash. Unlike academia or finance though, we seem to have to cut staff if we don’t make appropriate profit. But that doesn’t stop us from punting on useless crap. Publishing is made up of committees of people pretending they know what people want to read, but actually having no clue. The best use of money that I never see happen would be consumer insights. Instead, decisions are made by middle-aged women and male directors. That’s not to say that great books aren’t published, but they happen in the cracks, in between the corporate bullshit and easy titles. The entire industry revolves around trying to convince a bunch of gatekeepers that certain books are better than others, but very few salespeople ask the people. That’s why most stand out successes are word of mouth ventures. Where tech companies try to make something people can use, more and more publishing is just an industry trying to advertise itself. And it feels bullshit, because as Graeber says, ‘A human being unable to have a meaningful impact on the world ceases to exist.’ Your impact in publishing is likely zero, or if there is some small impact, you aren’t even aware of it. How much impact do you have in your job? (Don’t answer that, I value my self esteem.)
As so many companies get woke, publishing, I think, might resist it, or at least not embrace it fully. Unlike movies and music, there actually aren’t too many people spoiling the soup. Books are still made by single authors, for the most part. The people making the decisions still mostly like good writing, even if progressivism is the flavour of the hour. And readers are really liberal; there isn’t much to change. Counter-intuitively I think the majority of people in publishing don’t think there is that much to do. The danger is that this means it is very easy for those with the levers to push things in the direction they want. Diversity in a hum-drum and sanitised sense is inevitable.
But you know what? It’s perfectly possible to get diversity without forcing it, like with the English football team. Woo! This make it feel like everyone is just confused when the Spectator allows Lionel to decry enforced quotas, but the same rag praises the changing of an English sports team. Diversity here, not here. Patchwork when? As the diversity push grows and grows we are going to see continual need for separation. And yet publishing houses want to become homogeneous. Most books now have gay characters or gay themes. Abortion is all good. Fuck religion, right? It all feels so tepid, so samey. Yet another book about #TheResistance or a Trumpain dystopia. The medium of the book could push more and more readers into the progressive mindset. But conservatives and religious folk still have some outlets, particularly in the States where religious publishing can still make decent bucks. In the end publishing companies have always been gatekeepers. We want gatekeepers, but these gatekeepers have to focus on quality, not the individuals. This fracas is also coinciding with another diversity debate, this time at Harvard.
Diversity is bad, full stop. As Bishop Robert Barron says in his book Catholicism, ‘If God is a great gathering force, then sin is a scattering power.’ Now, that doesn’t mean you can’t have diverse groups, but mingling groups is going to end in misery. Diversity expends energy and leads to entropy. What diversity does is precisely the opposite of what we should be doing. It looks for those on the margin not in terms of quality, like a work of genius, but those who just haven’t been given a voice. There is no predicate here that that voice is worth listening to. I know progs will agree with me and say that Nazis should be punched, not listened to. But they want to enforce their rules for their in-group, and not allow a healthy ecosystem. What really gets me is that if the West wanted diverse books, it would ask for them. I can tell you right now that stories about African immigrants don’t fucking sell. The problem with letting in hordes from the impoverished, non-English speaking countries? They don’t read books, or at least ones written in English. Publishing is going to have to cater to every niche market – a different book for every reader! Publishing only works when it can appeal to as wide an audience as possible.
Diversity is just another power play. Publishing as a media business is merely putty in the hands of those who take hold. It can be influenced by the whispers from the HR department and the shouts of a handful of very loud consumers. But how do you counter power plays that are based on, essentially, kindness? Show that any supposed advantages are but illusions. Diversity not only diverts energy and attention, but disperses any and all sources of energy. Publishing is 100% a media business, one that is inherently part of the Cathedral. Each publishing house is a lumbering beast that knows not what it does, only that it wishes to please as it succumbs to a thousand cuts. and collapses to the left.