Publishing Exchanges

Publishing Exchanges – Publishers in Limbo

[Publishing Exchanges resemble the Flüchtlingsgespräche that took place between Kalle and Ziffel in the station restaurant at Helsinki station in 1936/37]


Wie soll ich unsterbliche Werke schreiben, wenn ich nicht berühmt bin?

Wie soll ich antworten, wenn ich nicht gefragt werde?

Warum soll ich Zeit verlieren über Versen, wenn die Zeit sie verliert?

Ich schreibe meine Vorschläge in einer haltbaren Sprache

Weil ich fürchte, es dauert lange, bis sie aufgeführt sind.

Damit die Große erreicht wird, bedarf es großer Änderungen,

Die kleinen Änderungen sind die Feinde der großen Änderungen.

Ich habe Feinde. Ich muß also berühmt sein.

Bertolt Brecht, Die Gedichte (p1126)


I: About the price of coffee/proper publishers and their meetings/the obsession with security

After several decades of debate on the future of publishing, books are still being produced, read and discussed, and publishing people still spend much of their time at seminars, conferences and book fairs where they debate again and again what is happening to what they, with increasing irony, call their profession. Two of these publishing people are at the latest international book fair and they meet at a coffee shop. One has just returned from spending some weeks at the exile home of Thingummy, a prominent twentieth century poet and playwright; the other has recently been dismissed from a position with a digital content company and is working as a consultant. The woman is tall, in late middle age, with grey hair and quietly spoken. The man is somewhat younger, shorter, with an engaging smile and a loud voice.

LEE: I don’t usually drink coffee from this kind of coffee shop. They overcharge and the companies that own them don’t pay their taxes. That’s the nub of the problem these days: we have to pay too much and the rich pay too little.

LOU: I see that being at Thingummy’s old house has sharpened up your political rhetoric. I think that coffee is good for publishing. Having coffee with your colleagues, talking things over, spending time, that’s how you find out what they think. And as we all know, it’s great training for making decisions. Publishers have to make decisions on size, colour, and strength all the time – just like with coffee. And what is the point of working at something as important as this without meeting the other people who are doing it too? And not just coffee, there’s alcohol. Imagine a book fair without alcohol.  I couldn’t imagine a world where we didn’t keep coming together like this.


LEE: I used to think that, but now I don’t think book fairs are good for me, or for publishing. Alcohol certainly isn’t. It’s just another thing that gives us a false sense of importance, an idea that we are part of something different, something that’s more worthwhile than other productive activities like, say, producing food or education or healthcare. We all drink too much – or used to – but that doesn’t have much to do with publishing being a worthy, honourable profession. If there were any interesting people in this business – and it is a business, don’t get me wrong – most of them have gone. It’s very difficult to work out these days what the point of publishing is. Where is the cultural sense, the moral purpose, the ethical dimension? Take what’s-his-name for example, this great publisher who has just died. These people just don’t exist any more.

LOU: Did you now him? I always heard he was a chauvinist bully who thought nothing of cheating his employees, his authors, his suppliers, his customers and his competitors.   Not true?

LEE: Enough! You see that’s the view of morality and ethics we get now. Did he screw around? Did he drink too much? Was he a bully in the workplace? That’s not the sort of thing you have to look at when you are assessing how good the person was at what he did. Look at the result, the effect that he had on publishing, the writers he championed, the causes he supported. Ethics are about what you do, not who you are. You can treat people badly and still be really good at publishing. Look at sports people, politicians, artists, writers: when we find out about their peccadilloes we tend to like them more, but a publisher, no, he has to be the perfect gentleman in a gentleman’s profession. At least women can play the ‘grande dame’ and get away with it. Although I have to admit they tend to be nicer in the workplace – at least to other women.

LOU: So you knew him and it sounds as if you liked him.

LEE: Yes I knew him. It’s been a bit of a shock, I don’t mind telling you. Not unexpected of course; but still, a shock. He was one of the first people I worked for. Everything was different then of course. You came in soon after university, did a bit of everything, learnt some of the tricks of the trade. Learnt to drink, if you didn’t already know. Part of the reason you were taken on in the first place was that you got on with people and could take your drink. And take it you did. Happy days!

LOU: Didn’t he come from Germany or Austria or somewhere back there?

LEE: Germany. Jewish of course. Only just sneaked out in time. Lost a lot of his family over there. Never talked about it. But what he, and all the rest, brought to British, yes and American, publishing at that time was a vision of publishing as a great cultural endeavour. Great networks – much better than you could get now with all you digital this and social that – people, real thinkers, people who had been through a lot and had something to say about the world. They knew writers who were putting forward the big ideas, politics, society, psychology, sex, art – you name it – they published stuff that made a difference to the way the world developed. It was great just to be a little part of it, a hanger-on really is what I was, but it was invigorating. Made you think that you were engaged in a worthwhile activity, culturally, politically important even.

LOU: I didn’t know any of those guys, but I think I know what you mean. I am not sure I would have got on with them, and I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t have liked me.

LEE: You don’t know that. They had much more tolerance and curiosity about people than you might think.

LOU: You make it sound like a golden era.

LEE: They came over with nothing and worked hard and built up some really impressive companies, publishing some of the great names, the great European and American novels and the great thinkers. And they did well for themselves. Got honours and titles.

LOU: But it’s still going on. Just think of all the companies that came later from the people who started their careers in that mid twentieth century environment they created. They have changed how we do things in the past twenty years.

LEE: That may be a bit the same, but one difference is that the wartime generation were really used to the idea of losing everything. It wasn’t like some venture capitalists would lose their stake; it was in their blood, literally, the holocaust, a tradition going right back to the pogroms. They understood somehow that all of life was risk, and publishing was part of that risk. They had an in-built scepticism, a survival mechanism that stopped them ever being totally won over by someone else’s convictions. They had to have their own convictions to survive. The joy they got out of publishing wasn’t to do with the success of their companies, it was to do with taking on a book, an author, a thinker who would make people change their thinking, stand up for a cause, in other words, act.

LOU: You mean they stuck their necks out? People do that now.

LEE: But they don’t take a risk of getting hurt. They might risk a flop, but if a book doesn’t succeed it will be seen as a ‘learning experience’ or, more likely, as someone else’s fault. Taking a tax write-off isn’t the same as losing your home.

LOU: You mean it used to be more acceptable if a book failed?

LEE: In many ways it was expected. The idea was that you might get the occasional good seller to finance all the really worthwhile publishing. If a publisher had had a whole string of bestsellers they would be seen as suspect in some way – too safe, too beholden to a lowest common denominator. So for many books there might be next to no sales, no reviews, no trade interest. But they carried on; they had a vision, what we called an editorial policy in those days; these days it’s the ‘brand’. But it wasn’t a formal written policy. It was just publishing; it was what they did. Sometime books would get published and lie around for years until the right moment came around. The backlist really could produce surprises in those days. Everything wasn’t instant gratification.

LOU: But you could call it constant gratification. Self-gratification. There used to be a lot of grandstanding in publishing.

LEE: And still is. But now it seems to me that publishing projects pretend to be based on a clear decision to publish this rather than that. The result: everyone is basically publishing the same things. It’s just a question of trying to position it differently in the market. Failure and success are only seen in commercial terms, so there’s no ethical decision. With all the data around we know that we cannot escape the consequences and humiliation of not being able to hide our commercial failures. We cannot hide our financial failures so they become identified as publishing mistakes. In these circumstances why bother to start off trying to do the right thing? Now that everything is known about our sales, it’s surely a lot more difficult not to be straight about what we are doing. So we don’t put our motivation down to anything moral, just to making a splash and making money.

LOU: Are you saying that there is no longer any point in thinking about morality, if people are not going to judge you in those terms.

LEE: Forget about just publishing. This view of things applies to all aspects of life now. Our morality and our ethics are seen only in terms of our compliance to an overbearing audit procedure.

LOU: There’s too much time spent checking ideas against a template rather than examining those ideas in their own terms. No one is checking the way the ideas are put across, the spelling and grammar of argument.

LEE: You could look at the whole security apparatus in the same way. It’s like sloppy editing. It looks at appearances not at substance. It’s not about making sure that the bad guys don’t get to do what they want to do. It’s about making sure that none of us even think there is any difference in doing good or doing bad.

LOU: It’s just a question of not doing anything that might look like it’s wrong, and not running the risk of getting caught doing the thing we weren’t ever thinking of doing in the first place. What were they really looking for back there when we came through security? I wonder.

LEE: Nothing really, but it is the act of looking that keeps us on our guard. In this new world – the post 9/11 world – we accept it, don’t even talk about it any more. We accept restrictions of all sort, expect to take half our clothes off to get through an airport, put up with indignity and suspicion, passwords, restricted access. Surveillance isn’t there to catch us doing things we shouldn’t be doing: it’s there to make us incapable of doing anything at all that might ever be interpreted as something we shouldn’t be doing. We have been deprived of the will to make ethical decisions.

LOU: You know when you were talking just then; I was remembering how many good people we lost on 9/11. That was a bad day for publishing, you know. Not just the people who died, but what it did to the spirit of publishing, particularly in New York. Soon seemed to recover though – after the shock. Early on there was a great market for self-help and don’t forget Nostradamus: I don’t remember how many copies of that were sold but it was a lot. Bookshops did a great trade. Within weeks there were special titles being planned, fundraisers for the families, for the fire fighters, and then there were children’s books all sort of great titles. Publishers did well.

LEE: So we all felt better in the face of adversity. Is that it? Was there really any way publishers were really under any threat?

LOU: Publishers, some publishers, saw the clampdown that was coming and some, even fewer, were pretty good at resisting some of the worst bits of the war against terror.   Libraries and booksellers were more visible, because they were the ones who had to actually stand up when the spooks came demanding information, but eventually, I have to admit, publishers generally hedged their bets by giving support to the idea of freedom of speech but helping to increase the climate of fear by publishing for the prevailing market mood. They just weren’t that visible in formal protest, just as they are generally not too good at campaigning about anything. But then feelings were running pretty high. It was the era of ‘freedom fries’ and ‘cheese-eating surrender monkeys’. Not exactly McCarthy, but pretty close.

LEE: Nowhere near the same thing.

LOU: I am not sure we did too well at all.   But these days it’s difficult; our publishers never seem to know what is allowed or not, or perhaps they do.

LEE: The managers, the directors, the heads of houses often have quite close ties -through school and universities – to the people who run the security services, so in the US and UK it is a bit more problematic. Germany is a different matter. They have a context. And then you have the Scandinavians, the cartoons. That certainly sorted out the sheep from the goats – who would have thought cartoons would be a cause for death threats?

LOU: Are these checks and balances, or control measures?

LEE: Consensus. What other words do we have? Sometimes I think it’s like another thing that came out of the 1930s, the Verschränkung, what we call quantum entanglement of particles that interact and then separate. Thingummy might have included this in the dialectic: I think he met Bohr in Copenhagen, and we know he was interested. Anyway it’s pretty much true that whenever we think of publishing and its world view we start to see at least two publishings, and they interact and separate. It’s difficult to tell which is which.

LOU: It is always a dangerous thing not to have a language to talk about these things. Unspoken rules, unwritten laws, secrets. Not really a way to make people feel comfortable about being different, but now that some difference is allowed, encouraged even, it becomes clearer which actual differences will not be tolerated. Personal and political – we still haven’t really connected the two.

LEE: The freedom to question the nature of these freedoms is limited. If ‘correctness’ is legislated, if some ‘rights’ are enshrined in law, then what about the rest? It’s all the wrong way round. If you want to encourage people to make ethical decisions, you don’t have to tell them what they are allowed to do, or what they are not allowed to do. You need a kind of anarchy. You need the freedom to fail and the freedom to offend. And that goes for publishing too.   Laws should be there to make sure that we can be as clever or as stupid as we like, so long as we are not harming other people who don’t deserve to be harmed. If they do deserve it, and many people do, then it should be liberty hall, a constant saturnalia of insult and name-calling.   Stuffed shirts, those should be one of our main targets.

LOU: I feel free. What do you feel?

LEE: I feel that publishing is a far cry from when I started. Then there was a part of he establishment that was against the establishment. Now? Who knows? Remember the story of the yes-sayer and the no-sayer?   The yes-sayer says yes even when it is against his best interests, but the no-sayer goes against convention even though he knows it will make life difficult for everyone. Do we agree to abide by the rules, and accept the consequences of those rules, or do we take a stand when we think the rules are wrong and work to establish a new way of doing things? Perhaps you have to do that even when it makes things difficult for us and for everyone else.

LOU: I suppose that’s what the Internet was supposed to do. Open up the possibilities o f new ideas and change, and enable people to do stupid things, encourage dissent and new ideas.

LEE: This is too important to leave to the Internet. That’s what I’m trying to come to grips with. If I seem distracted it’s because I have agreed to talk about this at a seminar tomorrow, and I haven’t a clue what I am going to say.

They finish their coffee and stand up to leave. They walk carefully between ranks of other conference goers who are all looking at their computers or mobile phones. No one pays any attention to their conversation. As it is not taking place digitally it has no importance whatsoever.


II: always-on world/data collectors/new gatekeepers

LOU and LEE sit down at a different coffee shop, this time it has an Italian rather than an American name. They have just come from one of the many seminars at the fair, which means they have just come from sitting in a stuffy room for 40 minutes listening to three predictable presentations and about ten predictable contributions from the audience. They look at their notes to see where they are due next.

LOU: Nothing for twenty minutes. How about you?

LEE: No, I don’t think I do, but if I am wrong I may not go anyway.

LOU: Fed up already?

LEE: Every time I go to a meeting I hear more gobbledygook. There are more and more phrases that get me annoyed these days and the latest one I just heard is ‘permanent digital archive’.   How come that, in the age of the temporary, people are now starting to think that permanency is possible in publishing?

LOU: When we were told about the end of history, it also meant that we experienced the end of any historical sense. We changed the way in which we view the past; stopped believing in the idea of endless progress, but with this we stopped understanding change; we forgot that things live and die.

LEE: Up, down, prosper, decline! To everything a time and season doesn’t have any meaning for us any more. And we forgot that ‘every dog has its day’. The way some people now talk, it has the ring of the ‘Thousand Year Reich’, if not the ‘Everlasting Kingdom’.

LOU: I think the best thing about the digital world is exactly its temporary nature. If we accepted that, we could live in much more ‘carpe diem’ way.

LEE: Digital has not helped us to live in the present.   We expect too much of what is after all a pretty limited technology. We thought print-on demand meant that no book would ever be out of print again, and then we took these materials and thought it was a good idea to put it all together, aggregate the good, the bad and the ugly into large special collections. Companies and countries thought it would be a good idea to collect absolutely everything that there was to be collected, and eventually, in order to speed up the process and do something that was called ‘democratize’ the process. More of the collection and adding to the databanks is be done by Joe Public, all put together in a huge data set and made, and here the con trick really began, searchable by anyone anywhere.

LOU: Who decides what you can see and how such collections are searchable? Who decides what is hidden, unhelpfully tagged and indexed? Is it the publishers, the contributors, the users, someone else? All I know is that the more there is to search for, the harder it is to find the thing you were looking for in the first place. And you get so distracted.

LEE: You have probably heard me tell this story before, but I’ll tell it to you again.   It’s the one about the young man who goes walking far from his home and wanders into a wood. As it starts to grow dark he realises that he is lost and cannot find his way home. He goes this way and that but he is still lost in the wood. Eventually he comes across an old man sitting by a fire in a clearing. “Oh, old man,” he says. “ I am so glad to have found you. I have wandered into this wood and I cannot find my way out. Please help me.” “I would be pleased to help you, young man,” the old man said as he poked his fire, “but you see I am a little like you. One day, long ago, I too wandered into the wood and I was unable to find my way out. So I cannot help you to get back home, but don’t be downhearted. If you stay with me I will be pleased to look after you. I cannot show you the way to get home, but I can show you very many different ways that do not lead out of the woods.” There are so many places to go in the digital world that we often forget we are in an artificial – I mean man-made – world and not in the wider less ordered world of analogue reality. It really is rather like approaching a black hole that sucks us and everything else in – but it is not the whole universe.   There is still a world outside the black hole.

LOU: I admit that the publishing business acts in a kind of hit and run fashion, following just behind the trend-makers and cashing in quickly on each ‘big new thing’, but, on the other hand, there’s a legitimate and, some would say, a worthy desire to structure, control and package all of the old stuff, including any and all images, sounds, designs, arrangements, which we, publishers, can make universally available. Out of the anarchy of the Internet comes the order of the web. The analogy works, you see: a spider’s web is a beautifully designed and engineered construction. The fly doesn’t realise this.

LEE: So the technology of the spider is at work here. Other insects beware!

LOU: The accumulation of publishable material is determined to ensnare us. Publishing stops being something that we choose to consume, but is now something we have become trapped in, become part of, something that consumes us slowly. Once it has achieved its mythic hold on us, they sell us on as customers, and sell on access to the silos of stuff to institutions. These institutions will be required in their turn to limit access to a smallish group of members, or to individuals who will only really be allowed limited access for personal use only, and only then if they don’t question either the content or the form of what they have access to. Such riches!

LEE: Publishing has colonised content, which means that it is no longer the equivalent of ‘making public’, but is more akin to a signification ‘making private’. This arose because when we started talking about content. We really went down the wrong track. The term ‘content’ is too mechanistic, like if we talked about the content of our brain being ‘thought’. The content of our brains is a stew of things, a mish-mash, emotions, animal desires, physical determinants like food and narcotics, the effects of interactions with others, history and contemporary context. Publishing, taken as whole, is like that brain, so it’s nonsense to think of publishing having something called ‘content’, except that it enables publishers to concretise thoughts and emotions and present them as something that can be owned, licensed and sold.

LOU: The whole structure is founded on the technology that we use to publish and now we are now forced to use for all the ways we share information. The distribution channels have not just taken over the routes by which publications reach the readers, they now determine what the messages are, what thoughts and emotions are allowed, and, at the other end – the end where the readers are – who is allowed to experience or be exposed to predetermined ideas and emotions.

LEE: Publishers have let this happen, and, even now, don’t seem to have spirit to fight to get back their power as intermediaries.

LOU: Publishers are not fulfilling the role they once had in selecting and organising because they didn’t always understand its importance. Others have stepped in. We need to reassert that role, probably redefine it.

LEE: The idea that the digital world is giving us something pure and unmediated is just as much nonsense as the idea of divine revelation as a direct message from the godhead. The fact that bias now comes from how a large amount of material is presented to us rather than more obvious editorial selections of the past doesn’t alter the way that this is a reflection of an ideology that determines the experience we have of consuming the published stuff. When we had identifiable editors and articulated editorial policies we could at least get a clue of what views and ideologies lay behind the texts. Now it’s much more difficult. The producers either pretend they have no input into how selections are made and put all the emphasis on the idea of user self-selection; or they feign not even to understand the issue. Words like democracy and access are used to validate this approach, evade responsibility. They are used to explain why publishing is a business that provides ‘what the customers want’ which is another way of saying it is out of control.

LOU: Surely we brought it upon ourselves as consumers. It’s not an ethical failing by the publishers. We never asked for this, any more than we asked for the e-book. That didn’t come about because publishers or the market were looking for something to replace the printed book. It came about because people outside publishing wanted to use the technology to get a financial return from selling to a new target group.

LEE: When the man had that sign on his wall saying ‘Die Wahrheit ist konkret’ – the truth is concrete – I wonder if he had thought of the antithesis, the possibility that truth could be ethereal and be given more weight because of it.

LOU: Maybe that’s what we’ve done: we’ve decided that the ethereal, the digital, the electronic is more ‘concrete’ than the physical object.

LEE: By the way, my spellchecker wants me to replace ‘Wahrheit’ with ‘warhead’, which suggests another possibility, one that perhaps says more than we think about the connection between e-everything and the technology of warfare and modern geopolitics. Anyway, if the concrete metaphor works at all it’s got to have another meaning – that if we start calling something truth we have solidified it, made it immobile and, as he might have thought, un-dialectic. Perhaps Thingummy meant that truth is concrete in the sense that it’s got to be tangible and specific.

LOU: Perhaps it really works the other way round: that if we start to think of something as truth, we have already destroyed its vitality by making it concrete? Publishing at the service of power can do just that: tie words and pictures to an idea, or an ideology or some dead thing, when what publishing does when it is being its best is to open up ideas, to question ‘truths’, to give value to what was previously non-specific or badly articulated?

LEE: That’s more of the right idea.

LOU: But make some money doing it of course.

LEE: Of course, but concentrating on making money isn’t always the best way to succeed in making it.

LOU: Perhaps because we have concentrated on the moneymaking, we have had to establish some sort of theoretical underpinnings: some way of making moneymaking a respectable intellectual activity. That’s quite a difficult thing to do and still keep to the ethical and intellectual high ground, but some people think they’ve done it.

LEE: Rubbish! What we’ve done is create a fog around commerce that hasn’t done us any favours.   Since we’ve had all this talk about marketing, branding, image, platform – call it what you will it’s all part of the same thing – people who call themselves ‘creatives’ have either treated other people as stupid like a lot of the mass media have, or tried to make themselves look stupid like all that socially orientated art which has really been taking the piss by pretending to be so earnest – or sometimes by pretending to take the piss. Mostly it has tried to look clever and in the process look stupid. Haven’t we all given up on trying to make any sense out of all the conceptual theoreticians of creativity?

What has altered th­e fundamental way in which creativity is being presented is this focus on the other, the observer, the reader, the viewer, the listener. Where the function of performance or display or publication would once have been to make sure that the ‘content’ reached this user in a useful, persuasive, but really quite neutral way, the obsession with packaging it for a market has produced really quite different results. Nothing is designed for either a functional or aesthetic purpose, but only to be a package, an app, a service. No outcomes, just move onto the next thing like moving onto the next level of some interminable computer game.

And every bit of this ‘content’ is protected by patent and copyright, making it more and more difficult to either criticize or improve on what has been published. And for a longer and longer time. No sequels, no prequels, no pastiche for a period of more than a hundred years in some cases – and the next step will be to extend the periods yet further. Soon nothing will ever be in the public domain.

You know how gangsters put their victims’ bodies in concrete foundations of bridges and tall building? Well that’s what happens when the truth becomes concrete.

LOU: Everything else we do as individuals has been absorbed into the public domain, or do I mean the private domain, the secret domain, the surveillance domain. All the information is somewhere. Data banks. Makes it sound secure.

LEE: Publishing was part of how this security focus developed. It was there at the beginning when the card file turned into the electronic database.   It’s a history that’s still to be written, but even if it was, I doubt many would be interested. Did publishers and librarians lay the foundations of the surveillance state? Discuss.

LOU: We’ve always relied on people who could collect relevant information, put it into some sort of order, and make decisions about the value of that information and the order into which it was going to be presented. All those encyclopaedists, lexicographers, editors: weren’t they all doing the same thing, but manually? Is digital so different?

LEE: They made value judgements that could be, and were questioned and debated. That’s the difference: a difference. It changed when information technologies began to be used for bibliographies, telephone books, dictionaries, genealogies, hierarchies of scientific names and geographical divisions and subdivisions, demographics. Publishers didn’t see it as a huge change. They saw the technology as a tool rather than a new purpose, but most of the elements for the surveillance we have today were there at the beginning. They were just finding a different, more efficient and adaptable way of collecting and organising the information they were going to publish in book form. Having rapidly moved to computer-led typesetting the idea of being able to store the input, not having to re-enter data sets whenever they were updated, represented a huge cost saving. At the same time publishers began using computers to help create indexes and to take on more and more of the design page make-up.

LOU: Remember, at the beginning, this wasn’t done on screen but on paper tape, punched cards, magnetic tape, or on a teleprinter terminal. I notice another interesting thought-provoking spellcheck – ‘teleprinter’ is changed to ‘teleprompter’. Does this suggest that we are being told what to say and think?

LEE: It happened gradually, as machines started having small, sometimes one-line, displays, and then came the screen. I don’t know when governments started to take a serious interest in this technology, but I assume it was pretty early on, and my guess is that some of the spooks or their buddies got onto it by looking at what technologies were doing for the traditional users of information – publishers and librarians. Add this to the ways technology had given new tools to cypher and code experts and it was an unstoppable source of power.

LOU: The people who were collecting the first organized information were often quasi-governmental bodies, but a lot of the publishing elements were sold off. The telephone book, the electoral register, mailing lists, membership registers, ownership records for stocks and shares, and land, these and many more things became part of commercial activities owned and managed by private enterprise, often by quite large corporations that had had nothing to do with publishing up to that point.

LEE: And it suited the government that this should be so. Then it became more difficult for private companies to collect and to hold data without persuading the public to give up certain rights, and the public surveillance took on a new and more important role. Obviously in some parts of the world that didn’t have the advantage of private sector, these considerations didn’t apply.

LOU: The rise of the tech companies is tied up with the collection of data rather than with providing services. If publishing had been up to the task, had seen beyond the use of technology to produce books more efficiently, then publishing would have been at the centre of the data gathering and manipulation furore. As it is, they didn’t see what was coming, or didn’t care. In the process of playing catch up they have never had the time or inclination to work out if what they are catching up on is good or bad for the society they live within.

LEE: Data collection drives marketing, and that’s why publishers lost control of book distribution. They misunderstood the importance of channel control, something they may have done more ethically than those who came to take their place. That’s why it’s now all seen in terms of content and distribution. It’s exactly because publishers lost touch with the readers that they have had to make such a big thing out of being content managers, metadata manipulators, curators and re-versioners – and the guardians of IP! In the retreat to this role, in abandoning their contact with readers and users to the distribution mechanisms they have moved behind a curtain: a bit like the Wizard of Oz, bellowing self-importance to hide a fusty timidity.

LOU: And isn’t it worse? They have voluntarily moved away from the other ways in which they might have communicated with readers – ways of empathy and understanding – and compelled writers and other intermediaries to make their own direct contact with the public. This was a failure of spirit, a failure of purpose; you might even say a failure to defend the moral right of publishers to have any influence in the world. I agree with you, it has been, I think, an ethical failure.

LEE: Do you know Thingummy’s verse version of the legend of the origin of the book tao-te-ching on lao-tsu’s road into exile? The border guard, the customs man, the gatekeeper if you like, realizes that the seventy-year-old has something powerful to communicate when he hears his version of the lesson that water in movement can, in time, be more powerful than a mighty stone. When the old man has dictated all the eighty-one epigrams of his wisdom to the boy, we are reminded that the words of wisdom only become a book when they have been handed to the border guard. If he had not demanded that they be written down, they would have been lost.

LEE: That is the role of the publisher. Wrenching meaning from the reluctant wise.

LOU: Yes, publishers should be doing just that and more: recognizing value, and making sure that it is not lost. Most of what publishers are doing now, it seems to me, is the other way round. If you look for things to ‘monetize’ you are not likely to find value, and not likely to give value either. Monetizing is something you do to something when there is nothing else you can do to it, except put it out of its misery.

LEE and LOU have finished their coffee and go off to wander round the acres of publishing exhibits


III: big names in literature and sport/property law/ elephants and art

LEE and LOU pause for a few minutes at one of the large exhibits and look at the titles on offer. It is easy to tell that this is the stand of a major European or American publisher. The photographs of the company’s authors show the same faces, with a few local additions, as those of other similar publishers from Europe and America.

LEE: There they are! The same faces we have seen at all the other publishers’ stands. There are no surprises here, nothing unusual, a consensus of bankable books and promotable personalities. This is the global A-list: the people who are the main beneficiaries of the agent system and the group that benefits most from enforcement of intellectual copyright.

LOU: And you haven’t mentioned that some of these companies are a little bit more than local publishers. It’s a question of look local, act global for them. But the law is universal, isn’t it? Everyone is protected equally.

LEE: No way. The law is applied to publishing in exactly the same way that it is applied to every other part of life. The powerful, the famous, the rich can get all the protection they want for themselves and their work. That goes for the companies and for the people who write for them. The inexperienced, the unknown, those lacking in friends or funds are ripe for exploitation. That’s the truth of publishing.   Few people make any significant amount of money out of being published. And small publishers? You still have to start off with a small fortune if you want to try that game.

LOU: Publishers want to deal with a few big names who can be promoted into even bigger names, and those authors are able to deal with the publishers on their own terms, through very dogged and determined agents, to get an ever-increasing piece of the publishing pie.

LEE: It works for both sides, just like any other cartel. Joining the club is all that’s needed to be sure of being taken along on the gravy train.

LOU: But isn’t a main purpose of publishing still the development of new talent, publishing new authors and developing projects with people who will become the solid sellers of the future? The way I see it is that the people who want to be taken seriously are taking responsibility for their own careers by really learning the trade. All those people signing up for writing qualifications and courses on how to promote your own writing: I admire them.

LEE: Like you might admire a free-range turkey preening itself before the chop. These courses are run by universities, publishers or other media companies struggling to see how they can continue to make money when the readership of print newspapers and magazines is collapsing. Ask yourself, why do they do it? Is it to foster creativity and self-fulfilment? No, it’s just another group of willing lambs to the slaughter, the befuddled and deluded looking for another quick fix solution to their bleating insecurity. And bleat they do. Surely you don’t think everyone who thinks they can be helped to write and develop a career in writing is going to be successful? These courses aren’t helping people fulfil their ambitions and explore their own creativity. On the contrary, they are for suckers, who are being taken advantage of, being given the impression – and they are lapping up the fantasy – that everyone can become a writer if only they go to this or that course, follow these rules or those plans. No, it might have been true at one point that publishing firms were always on the look-out for people with talent, but now it looks for people with some talent who are prepared to put in the work to make that talent productive for the market, who will learn how to apply a formula and add just a dash of difference, something that can focus the marketing message. A pretty face will do, or a tragic back-story, a famous ancestor. Misery loves company, and companies love misery. The courses aren’t a way of identifying the lucky few that will benefit from the workings of the publishing mill.   That’s done through the back door. As with the construction of all castles in the air, the cost is always with the many and the profits go to the few.

LOU: But it’s the same in sport, if you have some talent and you train hard and well then you can have success.

LEE: Let’s look at the similarity with sport, which I must admit is not the place I would go if I were looking for an ethical profession. In sport, if you are lucky, look good, have the right nationality – and you can change that easily – and you aren’t in an overcrowded sport, or one where there are a few even better people of roughly the same age, then you might build a good career. So yes, maybe publishing is a bit like sport in some ways. A way with words, a marketable image, and an identity that can be readily compared to those of other successful writers are valuable attributes for a successful writer, just like the attributes of a successful sports star are body, technical skills and charisma. Notoriety isn’t a bad here disadvantage either. The person doing the hard work is really just software for the media to run and to fine-tune. All with one purpose – to encourage spectators or readers to be loyal to this or that body of work, that team, that uniform. The reason to develop an audience, though, goes further and ultimately it’s a matter of perfecting a tool, an application that can be coupled to other, often more lucrative ways of squeezing money out of the public. Like football shirts.

LOU: That’s what’s called curating and discoverability. Getting a little ahead of the crowd, the individual component. But remember a successful sportsperson is often part of a team, a group where the different talents support each other.

LEE: It’s a willing alliance of the self-obsessed, the greedy, the exploited narcissists. Train or be trained more like it. Start early. Get a mentor, a sponsor, develop a story, develop your skill of self-promotion while you develop your sporting or writing skill. Talent is the word, but I don’t mean a talent you were born with or been lucky enough to work on in your own time and in your own way, but talent as in theatrical talent, media talent, star quality that will enable you to parlay your skills into fame and fortune. This you will only be able to do if you have the right trainer, the right mentor, the right sponsor – and of course talent in the other meaning can be important. Sport or writing, if you don’t have the structure in which you can succeed and then push home any advantage you gain, it will be very hard to develop an audience and be able to earn a living. That’s what publishing does: it preens and pimps, sells and sells out, monetizes and monkeyizes.

These photo portraits of the world famous writers. You cannot imagine publishers bothering with a blank space – someone who doesn’t want to be part of the collection of mug shots. I call them mug shots not because they are accused of any crime but because they have become part of the mug shot club. And if you don’t want to be part of the mug shot club, then just try making a living if you are anonymous and retiring, but don’t expect any publisher to help you. Publishers lost their own heads when it came to celebrity culture, so they act like the victors in a war; they put the heads of their victims up on pikes to show they have won and to silence any further opposition.

But all is not lost. When you die lonely and unknown, you can take on a new identity with a more marketable story, the loser, the tortured soul. Then a publisher might find someone more personable to tell your posthumous story, someone for whom your story will become their story, and they’ll be good at telling it. In this way publishing is not only unscrupulous in selecting those to whom it will allow fame and fortune, but it will also cannibalise talented no-hopers after their death.

LOU: There are always winners and losers.

LEE: The law that rewards the exploiters and the willingly exploited makes sure that continues to be the case. It’s hard to see it as a level playing field.

LOU: The one level playing field surely is the stability provided by copyright. It is at the core, and it’s done people like me good.   In a changed way of course, more nuanced, with new kinds of flexible licensing. But on the whole it’s a good thing to be able to get all the value you can out of a bit of property, including intellectual property. But then I am not sure you like the idea of private property at all.

LEE: Perhaps I don’t. Anyway this is getting us off the subject. I think that copyright probably does you harm. So what if it gives you some ownership rights, it gives the other people so much more, particularly if they have a lot to start with. Have you been to the Caribbean recently, or Long Island, the Gulf or Sardinia or anywhere else where there’s that unbeatable combination of beautiful beaches and luxurious villas? What do you find? Some people have access to the waterfront, and some people don’t. The laws about this differ in different places but what you have in all cases are some restrictions on what you can do. Some places there will be armed guards keeping you off the beautiful beach; in others you might have a technical right to be there, but it will be only, say, in a narrow strip up to high water mark, and all access from land will be fenced off; in others you will be allowed onto the beach but parking or other facilities will only be available to local residents or to visitors at a fee. Isn’t this the way it is with copyright materials?

LOU: Many places have a right of access or a right to roam. We have the principle of fair use. And if I want to I can allow much more access than on your beachfront.

LEE: Perhaps you can, but then you don’t own any beachfront property do you?

Copyright has been governed to the benefit not of the owners of the copyright but to the benefit of those who have the means to exploit them. A license to any work is the only bit of copyright that has a lasting meaning, and it certainly isn’t the creator who decides how the license is handled.

If ownership of an intellectual property makes any sense, then the means of exploiting those rights have to be fought for. In publishing it never seems to be the publishers who have to fight for the rights, they just assume what they can get. Sometimes writers fight to retain a better range of rights to their works and then they might find it is against their own financial interests; sometimes libraries fight for the public good, sometimes booksellers but hardly ever publishers. No solidarity, no longer-term thinking, no backbone.

LOU: Publishers and governments in individual countries and groups of countries protect the interests of their own copyright holders, and the rights of their companies to demand money from others.

LEE: Copyright has taught lessons lie those learnt by the people who draft patent laws and those who exploit them that you can take control of lives through hijacking exploitable rights to basic things like genomes of food, recipes, technologies created by groups formed on non European lines. There is no God-given justification for the idea of intellectual property.

LOU: But it is something people developed at a point in history to manage their affairs, like all law.

LEE: The idea of intellectual property may have been developed as a tool to fight arbitrary feudal and regal power, but it has become a power of the capitalist class. Of course there should be a worth put on the creative work done but it doesn’t have to be a property right.

LOU: You will have a real battle on your hands. Even the acceptance of open access and creative commons has had to be fitted into the legal structure. In many ways it’s become a part of the same framework now.

LEE: You see. So how can there be any balance in the way rights are managed? The structure always absorbs alternatives. So away with the lot!

LOU: Let’s look at this in terms of any other sort of change. What works? Well usually it doesn’t work to fight out the same old battles year after year. There is a kind of attrition that eventually means you lose. You can renegotiate on the basis of your current position or you can put together a whole new kind of defensive structure. Publishers and their associations haven’t been over-eager to do either of these, so basically they have lost – even when they think they have won. This is not just a question of who is right, but it is a question of how you deal with change that is having an effect on your livelihood. In order to act rationally you have to negotiate more equitably, otherwise there is no likelihood that the result will be sustainable or ethical.

LEE: I know you like the stories from my famous exile, so I’ve found one from the same time, when he was exiled in Denmark. As well as writing his little book of epigrammatic stories about the thoughtful Herr K, he wrote at least one poem about Herr Keuner’s favourite animal. He lists all of the many virtues of the chosen animal, the elephant. The elephant is sociable, thick-skinned, humorous, he loves other animals and little children, he can be sad or angry. In addition he is not edible, works hard, likes to drink and gets merry. In the last line we learn the contradictory cultural value of the elephant: ‘It does something for art: it provides ivory.’

LOU: Do publishers do anything for art and culture?

LOU and LEE have no immediate answer to this question so they go off to their next seminar, which might give them some ideas on the subject. They are not hopeful.


IV: Games/libel, obscenity, blasphemy /anonymity & no name people

LOU and LEE meet again in a bar area. Nearby there is an exhibit that relies on banks of computer screens, bigger versions of the electronic gadgets that shine in the hands of nearly all the other people present.

LOU: It’s amazing that the book fairs never show the kind of computer games that most people play. Go to a specialist games show and you’ll see the violent, misogynistic, racist crap that real kids are playing in their rooms and squaddies are using to get rid of their surplus rage. But here it’s just sweet kid’s games, story adaptation apps, self-help find-yourself mazes, and bestseller TV-type participation games. Why is publishing always determined to appear so benign – at least when it isn’t being saccharine.

LEE: And at the same time there are so many books we cannot publish any more. There is a real hypocrisy. Differentiating media has allowed media groups to put up internal barriers between mass media and a respectable public media – and allowed dark media to develop. So we have TV stations that are frankly pornographic, news websites that cater to the most prurient of interests, games that are at the far end of gratuitous violence. All these are produced and distributed by the same media industry that sets up committees to protect the vulnerable, has violence and sex watersheds, polices correctness. On one side of this respectability divide publishers conspire to propagate strict codes of conduct and present themselves as guardians of a kitsch morality, and on the other they represent a non-critical baseness that prevails in the popular media culture and present themselves as defenders of the freedoms this is said to represent. They are not even sitting on a fence on this one; they are astride it with the spiked railings well and truly up their arse.

LOU: In the meantime a whole tradition of publishing and its sensitivity to the history and richness of language is being trashed. Words that were and are still commonly used are erased from books, images are modified, and titles are changed on penalty of prosecution.

Take the Tintin titles over there – are these new ones? What would people now make of the ‘land of the Soviets’? They certainly won’t have Tintin in the Congo, and I’m not sure that Cigars of the Pharaoh will escape the anti-smoking lobby. I wonder what happened to Rastapopoulos’s cigars. Have they gone the way of Popeye’s pipe?

LEE: You know I was thinking about just that last year when I was in that place the writer had lived in. I wondered how people would react to his ubiquitous cigar. So much so I nearly started smoking again.

I was there for a month trying to write about exactly some of the issues we are talking about here. At first I thought I could really crack it, got really excited, lots of reading, lots of notes. I set off thinking, right, this will be it, I’ll get this out of my system, I’ll maybe get a few other people to see what I’m on about, and then I’ll move on. Obviously it was more difficult than that. It was difficult to settle: I always have been a bit of a butterfly like that, you know.

LOU: I know.

LEE: While I was trying to work out what I wanted to say, I found myself more and more thinking what might he might have said. Thingummy would have been sure to have a view; but I could never pin him down.

LOU: Well what would he have thought if someone had airbrushed his cigar? They have done it to Churchill’s and to Jackson Pollock’s cigarette.

LEE: Thingummy would have had a theoretical analysis, that’s for sure. CGI and cigars, pixels and pissing about with reality. He would have been familiar with airbrushing of course, the amount of pornographic pictures there were in the thirties. I’m sure he took an interest.

LOU: Pubic hair and politics. I can see a rich vein to be mined. Titles like that might work as the theme for an academic conference thee days, or might be added as subtitles for a titillating non-fiction book.

LEE: Publishing is primmer in some ways, but it likes to talk dirty sometimes. He might have gone that way himself if he hadn’t had so many other more immediate political realities to think about. Instead he mostly kept sex to his private life, and his poetry.

LOU: One thing is certain; it’s getting harder to publish some sorts of books.

LEE: But not others. There are new kinds of publishing that are regarded as transgressive, but what is this transgressiveness? What rules are broken? What lines overstepped? With the Internet and computer games, the whole idea of pornographic publishing seems pretty irrelevant. This may seem like a good thing but what it really demonstrates is another area where publishers have got themselves off the hook. They present themselves as purer than the web-based publication, people who don’t need codes of conduct or investigations, who are the responsible face of the media. But how far is this from cowardice or kowtowing? There is a growth of this pseudoporn stuff – titillation, prurience, sentimental kitsch. Fur-lined handcuffs, stuff to buy rather than use, a laugh. But it’s a nervous laugh, the sort that what’s called banter produces, something that makes all sex seem acceptable so long as it is commodified.

LOU: Soft porn, soft violence, soft bigotry – like the chap in the pub who says ‘can’t you take a joke?’

LEE: Some publishing takes on this sort of role, encouraging the reader to adopt the voice that accepts injustice. It’s part of the hurly-burly of contemporary insecurity. Something we cannot do a single thing about except laugh nervously. But the real difficulties are in social and political areas. The war that has been going on all this century has changed more than just publishing, but publishing has mostly ignored it.

LOU: I know that it’s easy enough to get a shoot-em-up game produced and distributed, and but what about the book equivalents that show some of the same characteristics: they are adventure stories. Even if they do tell stories of fuck-ups, these are our fuck-ups, the noble fuck-ups. So long as there’s heroics involved, either the heroics of the winner or the loser.   But anything serious, say a study of the whys and wherefores of these wars and it’s likely someone will exert power and stop publication. You’ll remember that one of the big publishing successes just after 9/11 was an academic book on the Taliban.   A chance bestseller. I don’t even know if that book would get published now, even a book of poetry from the wrong region or in the wrong language can be suspect.

LEE: The military and security forces can usually find a way to censor or stop publication of critical books. There is violence or the threat of violence when publishing gets to be too honest. So why bother? It’s too scary.

LOU: And they have managed to write laws that make it an offence to possess or download some publications.   Publishers have been slow to object to this sort of state control.

LEE: Publishers think they might be called traitors or criminals. Few of them dare to test the limits of these laws, and those that do dare are the small ones. And the choice of language has changed. Thingummy could publish in his own language even if it wasn’t in his own country, these days people writing, say, in Arabic may only be able to publish in English translation and the place of publication will be outside of their linguistic region.

LOU: And any publishers posting stuff on the Internet know they will be watched, closed down and prosecuted perhaps, imprisoned or executed if they happen to live in the wrong place. In general publishers work in public, they have to, while people in digital communication keep trying to preserve anonymity. It’s not easy. There is a lot of confusion about the whole area of anonymity. Some idea that if you want to keep your anonymity you must be concealing something, so the whole idea of the nom de plume has gone out of the window. Some publishers might use it as a ruse to get publicity like when a children’s writer publishes a detective story under another name. Then someone lets it slip and there is a whole load of publicity, an explosion of sales, more money all round, whatever the quality of the text.

LEE: Or there are known ghost-writers. But they keep up the pretence that some inarticulate celebrity has managed to produce what can still be a pretty inarticulate book Open secrets.

LOU: Is it important who says what, who writes what, but doesn’t anonymity have its place?

LEE: Attribution is one way we hold people to account, how we understand subtexts. Now, even though many more people are writing and publishing, it seems that the more powerful people want to hide things they are doing. Ideas of privacy are important to everyone but some people, those with money and power, have really found ways to protect their privacy: injunction, libel, privacy legislation. How many poor people can take advantage of the tools that are available to protect their integrity? They cannot get a book banned and destroyed.

LOU: Back to book burnings? It’s the advantage of the digital, doesn’t burn so well.

LEE: No need, just pull a switch.

LOU: And keep your head down.

LEE: Thingummy found that out later when that other government was after him for something he might or might to have thought – it was better to bend the truth. Being economical with the vérité – or is it the actualité – adjusting the facts, telling lies, is a good idea when your survival depends on it.   Getting out just in time was another wise choice more than once. That was OK for a writer, but for a publisher the choices are not always so easy. Publishers can move to other cities, but if they do that they will probably lose most of their assets, income and access to their markets.

LOU: Those who stay behind will probably have to compromise, obey the laws and accept the new acceptable moralities. There’s no room here for a clear ethical decision.

LEE: It is either stay and change, or don’t change and leave, or end up in jail or dead. Prosper, survive, go under – and then if things change again, have you kept enough self-respect and reputation to be able to pick up where you left off. Imagine the choices some publishers had to make to survive as long as they were able to in totalitarian times. I’m not talking about those who join the party and run the established publishing houses into disrepute, but the others who try to take a pragmatic course to protect some vestige of free expression.

LOU: Perhaps publishing is always a balancing act, although now I think the seesaw might have tipped right over and the fulcrum has rusted. Time for bit of lubrication.

LEE: When publishers say that there is no market for this or that kind of book, it’s nearly always a response to pressure and this pressure is not always purely financial. The way a publishers develop their programmes may well be influenced by actions they have taken, policies they have supported, pressure to which they have succumbed.

LOU: Do we know who is making the decisions in publishing today? I am not sure that anonymity hasn’t also been taken to extremes in management. We have the few figureheads, and like all figureheads they give the statements that are expected of them. Whether they are in control is another matter. There’s a fear, I think, that once someone has got to the top of any profession these days, they are already behind the times. It’s a new kind of management principle that people are promoted to the point where they are actually up to the job, but no one believes it. How could they know what they are doing when there are so many younger more energetic people telling a version of the future that runs to different rules?

LEE: Now you are starting to sound as old as I sometimes feel.

LOU: On the contrary, all this talk is making me feel younger.

LEE: We still value books at least. Despots value books until they burn them, and this is still true today. Sometimes, like the man said, writers want their books to be burned to prove they are on the right side. Remember what he wrote for the radio: ‘I order you: Burn me!’

LOU: Is there any book in this place worth burning?

LEE and LOU start to look through a large pile of books on the table in front of them. They do not appear to find many of the titles interesting.


V: Guests of Honour/the instruments/translation

LOU and LEE have stopped for another snack. This requires them to balance on badly designed stools at a very narrow counter. Their sandwiches spill off their plates and the plastic cups move skittishly around the polished surface when they pour their drinks from plastic bottles.

LEE: I think someone is trying to develop a real signature book fair cuisine. They think it’s cosmopolitan, but I call it precarious. Sushi, salad or sandwiches, a lot ends up on the floor.

LOU: Why do you think they still keep having the country focus, the guest of honour thing? When they started it seemed like a bit of fun, you know you might get invited to a reception where they had food or drink you had never had before. But then it gradually changed, you had to be prepared to spend a lot of money, and I mean a lot, to be the ‘guest of honour’ and that changed the power balance. It’s a lot like the Olympics or the World Cup. Mostly it’s just the really big or rich countries that can afford it, and we know that they are the countries that can potentially get the most political advantage. So now we have countries that we all know probably have strong censorship; that lock up writers or force them into exile; that make it difficult or illegal or outright dangerous to publish books that the government doesn’t like.

LEE: I can see what’s in it for the country being invited.   Putting a positive gloss – sounds better than whitewash doesn’t it – on the publishing in their country gives them a nice new bargaining chip in their ‘cultural diplomacy’. Not because we believe they are open and free societies with a due respect for individual and social rights to free expression and all that. No. What the whole thing does is show that the publishing establishment in this or that major publishing country (US, UK, France, Germany) has accepted them into the fold. They know that even if some dissident writers and exile publishers are brought along to the fair, they will not be allowed to disrupt the real business of the host publishers – rights sales, joint ventures, translation subsidies.

LOU: So the guest countries might sometimes focus on tourism and food, but really what they are getting out of it is the silence of the people who might be expected to be the very ones to publish critical works about these more repressive places.

LEE: Hush money, and disorientation. There was an African publisher who used to tell how he came to a book fair for the first time and presented himself quite reasonably as a world publisher, and a publisher worth considering in the world market. He had academic and general interest books to show and tried to interest colleagues in Europe and America in co-editions.   The publishers looked at his books politely but weren’t interested. They asked him whether he had anything ‘African’, folk tales, local traditions, art and food. He published books like that for his local market, but hadn’t thought to bring these to the book fair because he expected the world to be interested in titles that had a more international appeal. He went home with no new business but lots of food for thought. The following year he left his business suit at home and came dressed in traditional costume. He displayed colourful books on African animals, traditional customs, and children’s tales. This time the international publishers looked at the books politely, but told him they were too specialised and there really wouldn’t be any interest in them outside Africa. He was too local one year and too global the next, or vice versa.

LOU: Did the books need translation? Weren’t they already in English?

LEE: English isn’t the same in different places you know. English English and American English don’t really have much in common with the language as it is spoken by most of the world.

LOU: Some people say publishing takes thoughts from one realm to another: from the private to the public, from the avant-garde to the mainstream, from one culture and time to another, from one language to another. Now I know you’ve thought about this and must have some views.

LEE: Well I’ve thought about it, but I don’t know how far I’ve come towards a conclusion. What are we translating? With what results? Does translation like travel purport to open the mind but really just reinforce prejudice – either our own or that of the person translating and publishing? I was reminded recently of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám and FitzGerald’s comment on translation when his own work was thought by some to be too free an interpretation of the Persian original. ‘Better a live sparrow than a dead eagle,’ he said. Far preferable that a translation should contain at least some of the vitality of the original than that it should be a faithful but static re-production of a work in another language.

LOU: What does this say to our modern fixation with authenticity? And didn’t FitzGerald self-publish the Rubáiyát?

LEE: Yes, but with very little success. The success came decades later – for others. I wonder what is hidden amongst today’s translations that no one is reading? Look on the Internet and you’ll find so much unauthorized private translation. No one’s reading it, and they won’t until a publishing mind gets engaged in the task. Then the IP issues might easily make it more trouble than it is worth. It’s really only commercial sense if there is a broad market, and that means that publishing is very picky about what to take on. Most of the decisions end up making a serious contribution to the homogenization of the world’s cultural capital.

LOU: Back to the English question, you mean?

LEE: I am not sure English is really a language at all any more. It’s a means of communication, but its universality is making it less and less useful to anyone trying to express anything but crassly commercial messages or kitsch emotional outbursts. And detective fiction of course.

LOU: I thought that was up to the Scandinavians.

LEE: Publishers like this Nordic noir stuff because it goes so well into English.   Translating work that requires a more nuanced languages is much more problematic. Then you have to translate difference, and publishers now want texts that can slide effortlessly from one culture, one language market, to another.  When you hear about this or that market being more ready to accept translated work, it really means that that more and more works in other languages have already – in a broad sense – adopted the values and idiom of the target language, the big market language, the hegemonic language that we all speak and none of us care about any more.

LOU: It’s all part of the overproduction of texts and that isn’t helped by the tendency to over-retention. You know the little waste paper basket in the corner of your screen, it’s actually different from the waste paper basket we used to have. Because people keep too much, they don’t empty the trash, and so there are always versions, a history – something that a lot of journalists have come to realise, often too late and to their great regret. That could have been good for truth and democracy, but I’m not sure quite how.

LEE: Can there be democratic truth?

LOU: Or true democracy?

LEE: Phaw! It’s been good for the data storage business, that’s for sure. It didn’t take writers as well as publishers long to pick up on the hunger for different versions, for the whole backstory. Authors are obsessed with keeping stuff to sell to libraries rather give it to a research centre or destroy it.

LOU: And let’s not forget how good that is for the server industry, energy firms, and the people who sell heavy metals to hardware manufacturers. Publishers were really slow to get on the sustainability bandwagon in terms of paper supplies and they are doing the same when it comes to the environmental cost of data farms or the mining of rare metals and other minerals that technology needs. No one mentions coltan when they are developing mobile-based reading platforms. When I talk about ethical issues, I would include these things.

LEE: Books have had a privileged position: no harm should come to them, they shouldn’t be dropped or defaced or destroyed. Except by publishers of course who are always pulping books when they are not needed, or when they are not wanted for political, religious or moral reasons.

LOU: Does your man have anything to say about these genres?

LEE: Well he liked Westerns. And the Krimi was part of the Zeitgeist then as it is now. Elemental battles, I suppose. I think it’s interesting that we have moved on in our choice of fictional villains. No more cold war now, so no more Russian and Chinese plots. We cannot have those any more or we won’t get the joint ventures that are so important for our publishing business. We have books about terrorists, psychopaths, religious fundamentalism – don’t tell me that doesn’t fit the political mood. Who points this out? Does anyone wonder if publishing is adding to the distrust and paranoia?

LOU: But surely it’s so much better than the games world.

LEE: In many ways games would probably have suited him, if he could have found a way to keep the players aware of the distance from reality. Perhaps that is what they do, supply an irony about violence that we don’t allow in other parts of public life, and that might be what makes them so powerful. Players know they are not dealing with reality and so are able to do things that they would never do in real life, but that perversely makes the undoable more thinkable. Who knows? Perhaps we should go for some finance to develop a game called ‘Tschich and Tschich’ or ‘Zics and Zacs’? Iberin toys, now that would be the thing. I still go with the idea that this is a political, a class issue, not one of religion or ethnicity.

LOU: Didn’t he write somewhere: ‘Gott ist ein Faschist’?

LEE: And rightly so.

LOU: It wouldn’t be allowed now.

LEE: Think about all the books that have quietly disappeared from the shelves because they have offended one or other religious group? Publishers have been more than willing to give up without much of a fight against religious threats, whatever the religion is.

LOU: They have been obeying the law, that’ all.

LEE: Or just obeying orders?

LOU: Holy Orders!

LEE: Armies give orders, and governments and their security fetish determine what those orders are. The ex-soldier whose work has been quietly dropped, the diplomat whose memoirs have been side-lined, the civil servant whose book has been subject to pressure. Where were the publishers when it came to the crunch? Self-censorship has matured as a central part of self-interest, taking its lead from the mass hysteria the powers have fostered in the popular press. I can remember very few recent occasions when a publisher has stood up for the right to say something the government didn’t want told.

LOU: That’s because cultural capital is like any other sort. There is either a move to monopoly cultural capital or the drift to state capitalism. Everything else either gets suppressed or is lost in a kind of lumpen cultural space. Good to go slumming, some people never leave, but not likely to have any serious effect on the way different world populations view each other.

LEE: Until recently – I mean in the past hundred years – there was usually somewhere in the world where alternative visions were propagated and that drove the developments. It was this complex dialectic that he could take advantage of in all his exile homes and his return to a changed homeland. Creation, performance, publishing – all were usually possible, and could be kept alive, in those or other places of exile and resistance. Now, there are certainly still great differences of point of view in different parts of the world, but the surface, the public face, the stated intention is presented with the same articulacy that is used to conceal the underlying ideological differences.

LOU: No one is forcing anyone.

LEE: Remember that it wasn’t actual torture that made Galileo recant. All they had to do was show him the ‘instruments’. That was enough to silence him. Was it wise? Was it cowardly? He did eventually get someone to smuggle his manuscript out to be published.

LOU: Good old Andrea.

LEE: But he was disgusted by Galileo hiding the new knowledge for so long. Galileo was drawn from Venice, to Florence to Rome, getting ever more closely entangled in the world that was going to stop him being able to publish.

LOU: But whatever Andre thought about Galileo he took the risk to smuggle the manuscript out to be published, and he was able to do this, remember, because he had so many other books with him. The border guards couldn’t be bothered to check them, and so Andrea was able to slip by with the Discorsi. If the other books hadn’t existed, perhaps he would not have been successful in putting one over on the authorities.

LEE: I don’t know about Andrea, but I certainly have too many books to carry. Why do books have to be so heavy?

The two pick up their bags and start the longish walk to the exit. They appear to have too much to carry with comfort, but are glad at last to have a reason to go in a particular direction.


VI: politics and history/the academy/false courage

One final coffee. LEE and LOU know they are leaving something behind and are not sure what they may find on the next stage of their journey.   Around them are numerous tried and dishevelled publishers.

LEE: And of course they now insist that book fairs are not political events. Well they always used to be and I think they always were. It’s just the way in which politics is practiced and the way in which people react to and participate in political events has changed. There are always events that affect writers and publishers. Think of book burnings in Germany in 1933; the Soviet interventions in Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Afghanistan; the assassinations in the US in the 1960s; the regular wars in Latin America, Asia, Africa and the Middle East. There were some brave publishers in those times. Now I suppose there are other places where the publishers show courage. They get awards from us, but they get bullets and bombs from the others.

LOU: Wasn’t it supposed to be the end of history a while ago? There was supposed to be a new politics that made it look like we were all pulling in the same economic and social direction.

LEE: Publishers should always take it upon themselves to show that politics has no end, and to stress that humans need to be aware, to work diligently to make sure we don’t become smug. That has become so much harder this century when we have been presented with the idea of an unseen enemy and told that we mustn’t rock too many boats.

LOU: Yes. Everything changed. The first year after the turn I remember that US publishers reacted by staying away from events like this. Was that political or was it just personal cowardice?

LEE: Pusillanimity, I would call it.

LOU: I like that word. It seems really insulting while at the same time being patrician. I recollect that Queen Mary once used it when she insisted on going against advice to stay away from London in the worst of the blitz.

LEE: Was the reaction to terrorism a question of politics or bravery? I wonder if political events don’t always colour particular book trade events. Certainly in previous years they did. Colour, but not overshadow. What you hope to see is a publishing world that wants to have its own humanist reaction to world events. We can have our own way of reacting to possible violence. I remember a fair like this at the time of one of the Middle East wars. There must have been some concern that there might be bombs or shootings and the organisers settled it by maintaining the arrangement then common of keeping both Israel and what I imagine was then the United Arab Republic in the same section of the international hall. They were guarded, if that’s the right word, by Germans with machine guns. Not a common sight in those days either, particularly near any Israeli. Anyway, I always imagined that this was purposeful so that if anyone caused trouble, if they did try to harm their neighbours, or if the guards were forced to shoot, all of them would get hit. A very localised mutually assured destruction.

LOU: Publishers stand and fall depending on their recognition that they have common interests, not just with each other, but with all the other people on whom they depend.

LEE: A sort of solidarity of self-interest. There was a book fair just after Indira Ghandi was assassinated: such solidarity with the Indian publishers. And at the time of the Mogadishu hijack – I remember the troops rushing onto the roof of Frankfurt airport as I taxied ready for take-off. There have been some boycotts at nearly all the major fairs, and some quite lively protests about things that were not directly book related, like the Ogoni and Shell.

LOU: And now there is the additional worry that some natural event might disrupt business – like that Icelandic volcano. Whatever its name was.   There are legitimate causes for protest though, surely. Nowadays there seems much more activity on freedom of expression. But often it’s the same small group of known dissidents that get recognized. Most of the poor sods who do the real suffering just continue to do that – suffer.

LEE: There’s more noise. That’s my point. The issues appear to have been given more prominence, but in reality they have been put in their own box. There are special events and displays about things like freedom of expression, but the fact of the special events means that the rest of the industry can just get on with its business. It’s the way of modern politics and of modern life. Have a ‘special focus’, a ‘programme of events’ and then you can say you are doing something to raise an issue or encourage change, when actually what is going on is a diversionary tactic, a ghettoization of the political and the ethical so that any questioning is put in a box where it can be admired, contained and ultimately ignored.

LOU: But I learn a lot from the things that are done, the meetings, the conferences. And are you discounting all the changes that have taken place since the fall of the Berlin wall – the end of history? Do you think that things were better in the old days?

LEE: I think that more publishers in more countries have been able to make more money now they don’t have to worry too much about their own skins.

LOU: Which must be a good thing. Surely you don’t think that publishing is better when people’s lives are in danger. That’s like saying writers produce better writing, artists produce better art, when they are starving in a garret. So romantic.

LEE: If we are going to get the level of critical publishing that is required to gives us a real role in determining the future of our culture and society, then we have to get away from two things are dogging the way in which we control the expression of opinion and the development of dissent. These, you will be surprised to hear arise not in the world of fiction or ‘creative’ literature but have more to do with the world of science and academic publishing.   The first is the whole idea that ‘evidence-based’ is he most important epithet to apply to any policy analysis or proposal. Evidence is nearly always something that is cobbled together after the fact and not before. Did Jesus say anything that was evidence-based? Or Kant? Hegel? Or, and I know there is lots of economic mumbo jumbo, Marx, or Freud? No these people wrote imaginatively, figuratively, and their publishers were brave and willing to court controversy. We need more of that. Second we need to get away from the stifling idea of ‘peer review’. What value is there in any opinion or conclusion that has had to pass muster with a self-serving group of ‘experts’ before it ever sees the light of day. No. Open up the floodgates, let’s have more opinions that outrage, more far-stretched analogies, more imagination. Let’s have fewer constraints on what can be written and what’s published. Let’s decide the value of something after it is published, not before.

LOU: Sounds like what social media is supposed to be doing.

LEE: You might think that, but no, no, no! Blogs galore, tweeting by twits, self-gratifying codswallop. That’s why we need publishers, people who can recognize the social or political possibilities of variety, but within the context of an overall point of view, a direction, and an editorial policy. Publishers can do anything so long as they have developed an idea of their own role in determining what art and culture is for, how all our activity is social and political. They don’t have to be right. They cannot be right. But they can raise the possibility that there are right and wrong ways of acting and being that need to be imagined and narrated, postulated and put up to be fought over. We don’t need to focus so much on things like the death of the novel, the death of reading, the death of the book. We need to show that all this can only be talked about meaningfully so long as we keep an eye on the fact that there is a connection between what publishing does and the direction the world takes in social and political terms. Publishing cannot be ‘evidence-based’ or governed by ‘peer review’: it must be in the forefront, leaping in front of the evidence and always challenging consensus, or it is nowhere.

LOU: The whole thing about the relationship between publishing and the universities has me confused. Didn’t it used to be that universities were places where there was dissent and disagreement? Now it seems that they too are all about consensus, which is bound up with this thing about peer review and evidence. There is no disagreement in the academy, so there isn’t much disagreement within publishing.

LEE: I think there may still be disagreement but it’s linear. What I mean is that everyone at a given time will think and publish one thing, and then months or years later they will think, write and publish something else. That way you can always be sure that you are in the mainstream – by which both academics and publishers mean in the market – but nothing goes off, gets the chance to turn rancid or stale, because next season there’ll be a new paradigm, a new focus, a new flavour of the month. It’s a question of all change, more of the same thing. This way everyone is at the forefront of publishing, and at the same time everyone is on the verge of obsolescence. A gnat’s life.

LOU: Is there any point in caring about a literary culture except on the most egocentric level? We don’t wonder how we are affected by what we read and how we read. ‘Fifty grades of shame’’ my friend says, but people seem to enjoy it. There are books that do nothing but present us with a previously unconsidered personal possibility, but one that is bound in kitsch. So many books have no ethical content, require no intellectual effort, come out of imitation of an illusion. Does it matter?

LEE: ‘Kitsch is an attempt to have the life of the spirit on the cheap.’ I read that somewhere. Well, don’t we tend to offer that as publishers: an insightful novel, a stirring personal victory over adversity, a route to self-fulfilment through cooking, gardening, yoga or sexual experimentation.   Do you remember the story of the clowns and Herr Schmitt? He kept complaining about things that hurt and the two other clowns helped him by cutting off his limbs one by one. The chorus introduces the piece with: ‘Der Mensch hilft den Menschen nicht’. Schmitt ends up with no limbs and eventually loses his head. In the course of the dismemberment one of he clowns tells a story about two men who are having a fight outside a pub. They throw horse manure at each other and a large piece sticks in the mouth of one of the men. ‘I’ll leave it there until the police come’ he says. The two clowns laugh, but not Herr Schmitt. There’s something about clowns that we don’t understand any more. We either think we should be laughing with them or laughing at them. What we don’t understand is that the clowns are laughing at us. We may not like it, but we have to learn to live with it.

LOU: Isn’t all our talk about the ethical poverty of publishing a bit like that?   It’s a serious activity, but perhaps we don’t learn anything by trying to pull it into its component parts.  When publishers have worried about their function and worried about purpose, all the while others have been more than happy to dismember the very things that made publishing valuable.

LEE: We’re dismembered – time to be like a worm or a newt and grow a new tail, reinvigorate the organism if it’s possible.

LOU: I think you are beginning to see what to put in your talk for tomorrow.

LEE: Perhaps. Thingummy was a great one for talking things over, and it’s been good to chat with you. It’s getting a bit clearer. Epic work to be done. Epic publishing?