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Sympathy for the devil?

The publishing industry has never been a convincing example of sound business logic. Even before a page is printed, vast amounts of time and sums of money are spent without any guarantee that anyone will like – much less buy – the eventual product.

For decades, the model was accepted as a happy marriage between art and commerce. But something happened in the 1960s that began a transformation of the book publishing business: the industry was bought up bit-by-bit by conglomerate media corporations and the economic imperatives of the global free market encroached on the trade, imposing alien business norms. Anecdotal accounts describe how the maximisation of returns came to out-trump professional and creative development, how relationships between editors, authors and agents changed from long-term partnerships predicated on ideas to contractual obligations based on marketing, publicity, returns, profit margins and remainders. The so-called ‘Golden Age’ of publishing entered its decline as the communal intimacies of the book world gave way to capitalist competition, and the dictates of the market led to shelves filled with celebrity memoirs.

The public discussion of the process has often taken a moral tone. Fingers are pointed: at readers who consume without regard for the politics of their purchasing power, at a neoliberal logic that requires mind-boggling growth figures, and at the actors in the industry itself – agents, authors, buyers and wholesalers – who have abandoned their sense of collectivity to think in terms of individual contracts, advances and territorial rights.

There is no shortage of media accounts about the miserable decline of the official publishing culture. However, more recently attention has turned to a more optimistic phenomenon. ‘Damn the doom, hope is out there,’ read the headline of an article in the Age newspaper in 2009.1 ‘If small is beautiful, as the economist EF Schumacher asserted, then Melbourne may boast of having a micro-publishing scene that is very attractive,’ ran another a piece that same year.2

In the midst of an economic downturn, small publishing is enjoying a resurgence. In the past few years, small publishing enterprises around the globe have sprung up or been reinvigorated. Both the United States’ Council of Literary Magazines and Presses and the UK’s Society of Young Publishers report boosted memberships while Australia’s Small Press Underground Networking Community (known as SPUNC) is assuming a more visible representative role. As Mark Davis observed in Overland in 2008, the Melbourne independent publishing community is a ‘beaco[n] of hope in an industry dominated by global conglomerates’.3

I want to pick up on a central observation Davis makes: that small publishers, while often ‘signalling the possibility of non-market cultures’, are in fact economically engaged, even though they demonstrate ‘values that undercut prevailing ideological assumptions about how free markets function’. One of the most interesting aspects of the resurgence of small publishers in Melbourne is that their growth has been facilitated by neoliberal economics, which makes distribution and publishing to specific niche audiences easier. This creates an interesting tension: the competitive free market is more-or-less a good thing for small publishers, despite the fact that, politically, they (and indeed the small publishing tradition) often advocate the value of collectivity.

In the past eighteen months, I’ve spent time with ten members of Melbourne’s small publishing community, watching them work and asking them to explain their interests, concerns, motivations and their sense of connection to past publishing practices. Contrary to expectation, many of the newer and younger small publishers have no desire to return to the Golden Age of mid-twentieth century publishing. Instead, they view their work, although it is often unpaid, as a creative business which operates in sympathy with the modern marketplace.

Critics of neoliberalism argue that the expansion of market values has affected all fields of cultural production, undermining their social and cultural foundations in deference to more profitable individualistic tendencies.4 Many people (including me) have expressed distress at the negative consequences of ‘flexible’ pay and contractual conditions, the ‘freedom’ to work for oneself, and the retreat of workplace collectivity, with working life bleeding into the whole gamut of social and personal relationships.5

The publishing industry, like so many of the creative industries, has struggled to match market realities with personal values. As even the most idealistic publisher soon discovers, the logic of the capitalist system is about making a profit in a competitive environment. People are often compelled to act in ways they find distasteful or that undermine the reasons they entered the sector in the first place.

Yet even in the modern world, non-capitalist forms of production, circulation, and consumption of goods can be found. They are sometimes temporary, sometimes just a memory of earlier forms but they do nonetheless exist.

The political economist Andrew Sayer has attempted to introduce the concept of a ‘moral economy’ to debates concerning the relationship between market culture and the primary values of producers and consumers.6 Sayer explains his focus on the moral economy as the study of how economic activities are influenced and structured by moral dispositions and norms.

Take the growing number of consumers who are seriously concerned about the consequences of their consumption. Their pressure has led to many products improving their ethical and moral credentials – from fair trade coffee and organic free-range chickens to biodegradable packaging, sweatshop free T-shirts and recycled clothing. The recently launched Melbourne IndieBound campaign promotes the benefits of shopping locally, whether at the grocer or the bookstore, reminding consumers that words like ‘free’ and ‘fair’ are about morality as much as traditional economics. While it’s still too early to judge its success, IndieBound suggests that both retailers and consumers recognise alternative approaches to economic behaviour that do not relate solely to the hip pocket.7

Publishing traditionally prided (and promoted) itself as a moral business. The veteran publisher Joseph Epstein, for example, describes the book trade as:

by nature a cottage industry, decentralised, improvisational, personal; best performed by small groups of like-minded people devoted to their craft, jealous of their autonomy, sensitive to the needs of writers and to the diverse interests of readers. If money were their primary goal, these people would probably have chosen other careers.8

As John B Thompson points out in his book Merchants of Culture, the term ‘independent publisher’ once referred to Random House, Harper, Knopf, and Simon & Schuster, houses run by individuals like Epstein who built their lists on the basis of their own judgement and taste, according to criteria that was not always economic.9

In Australia today, an ‘independent’ publisher can be either a large or a small publishing concern. Melbourne’s SPUNC, for example, provides a definition of its membership that acknowledges some of the largest publishers in this country have signed up:

In the small and independent sector of the industry, publishers operate on scales ranging from break-even only and publishing one or two titles a year, up to 40 or more titles per year and a turnover in excess of a million dollars. These small and independent publishers are a healthy mix of established presses and new ventures, across all genres of publishing but with a strong representation of fiction, particularly poetry and short fiction.10

Yet in the globalised, digital era of audience niches, size matters. Small is not just beautiful but has practical business advantages.

The usual structures for selling books rarely apply for small independent publishers. They may have no marketing budgets, no automated distribution chains, no advances – and, very commonly, no profits. But, because of this, small presses are also sheltered from the pressures of the market. If a book sells only 25 per cent of its print run, a small press won’t take the same hit as a large company that invests hundreds of thousands of dollars in a title. As one small press publisher explained to me, ‘If they don’t sell a certain number, they’re in trouble. For us, it’s only a few hundred copies.’

This explains why small publishing enterprises are popping up all around the globe, even as bookstores close their doors and large publishers attempt to consolidate their operations.

The logic of the network and the principle of ‘the long tail’ have done much to advantageously position small presses in the new digital, free market economy. This doesn’t mean that small publishing is lucrative. Instead, as one young publisher chirpily told me:

The internet has split the market into niches … it’s easier … for a small publication [now], we can find our readers and our writers anywhere in the world … so much that sales aren’t even a pressure (a book is viable without needing to sell a zillion copies).

There is a big discrepancy between the value small presses offer to their readers and writers and the revenues they generate.

Indeed, money is rarely the central currency. Instead small publishers benefit from something Thompson calls ‘the economy of favours’. Put simply, the term means that, without the overheads of the larger publishers, small publishers help one another out. SPUNC, for example, brings together small-scale cultural publishers to respond to the professional challenges common to small enterprises (such as marketing, publicity and distribution).

Many small publishers operate on formal and informal networks like these, sharing information and contacts. If you want to start your own company, you call another small publisher and say, ‘Where can I find a good designer?’ or ‘How can I get good distribution?’ These social networks create mutual understanding to promote individual survival in the industry. As one small publisher and SPUNC member explained:

This camaraderie is one of my favourite parts of the current culture of indie publishing in Australia and particularly Melbourne … With so many other new independent publishers I’ve never felt rivalry or jealousy or anything less than support; we swap information, give each other a hand up, publish each other and do lots and lots of chatting about the industry (and what the future industry might be). Although what some of us are doing could be seen as being in competition with each other … we are not competitive.

This emphasis shared experience and shared resources put to the service of business sustainability demonstrates how internal goods (things like relationships, values, culture, skills) are understood in their relation to external outcomes (like profits) – a moral system and a market logic working together. When, for example, a freelancer is hired to work for a small press, they will commonly charge one rate; when they work for a larger company, they charge another, often several times the amount. Value in these markets is renegotiated for each transaction. Self-interest is regulated by an alternative value economy, one which prioritises a binding community with shared professional experience, creative ambitions, geography, cultural interests and social values.

Economies like these are extremely precarious and can only be sustained when each person in the group understands their investment as both social and financial. In small publishing, this is often a given: publishers are themselves writers, poets, and designers, and their investments of time, skills and money as producers are matched by their roles as supportive consumers of others’ outputs.

Beyond the ‘local’ community, small publishers have also done a good job of establishing intimacy with their audiences online. The familiarity that zine publishers from the 70s and 80s developed with their readerships translates well into the digital realm. As publisher told me, ‘More than the large publishing houses that are hampered by their anonymity, with us, there’s a premium on the individual. Getting an e-mail from somebody who says, “Hey, check this out,” means a lot more than spam from the [big publisher’s] publicity department’.

In small publishing, any economic surpluses are used to maintain, support and enhance these networks and communities.

The small publishers I spoke to all rejected the notion that their work was ‘political’ but nonetheless argued for the importance of strong relations between readers, writers and authors. They were also very keen to break out of the ‘coterie model’ with which small presses are traditionally associated:

Without having articulated it, we were trying to make something to fit a gap we sensed in the independent publishing panorama – at least locally – in which really high quality, intriguing and intelligent work is presented in a way that makes it very accessible even to those who might not usually identify with the independent press market.

For small publishers, the instrumental value of catering to the widest possible market is reinforced by the non-instrumental value of encouraging readers and writers to break away from received wisdom about who does and doesn’t read or write.

The concern for developing and sustaining new audiences fosters an ambivalence about external financial support in the form of funding and grants. Where one might expect small publishers to embrace grants from funding bodies, those to whom I spoke offered a different opinion: ‘We find grant dependence problematic. We want to try to make the publication as efficient as possible, not wasteful with expenses.’

Put simply, grants, which, in effect downplay the commercial value, of a publication are anathema for some small publishers. Younger publishers who had begun operations in the past five years associated market success (or at least breaking even) with self-sustainability and community value.

According to one publisher, the problem with the current funding models was that they gave publishers ‘less of an incentive to sell copies to readers, which to my mind involves publishing electrifying writing of one type or another – whether that’s writing that’s challenging, or writing that’s popular.’

In this light, funding is perceived as promoting a dangerous dependence, a safety net that could encourage producers to forget the interests of their readers. Such an attitude suggests that, within the sphere of the moral economy, publishing success relates to a publication’s ability to hold its readership. Funding models, as they currently stand, are perceived by some small publishers as undermining these values.

Organisations like SPUNC and other informal networks in the small publishing sector demonstrate a finely-tuned recognition of the interdependent responsibilities and relationships that are necessary for all participants’ survival. Many such publishers act against capitalist logic while still engaging in capitalist activity.

The American independent musician-turned-publisher Johnny Temple (who recently assumed the role of head of well-known publisher Akashic Books), summarised this well:

It’s a good thing that our culture has moved on from those days in the 50s and 60s and that now there is a much greater diversity of voices that can be published. We need to embrace cultural and technological change. It’s our mandate to keep up with the time and stop wishing that culture had stopped evolving 40 years ago.11

As the large corporate publishing companies continue to worry about revenues and annual growth, small publishers are doing their best to meet the market on the middle ground somewhere between commerce and community.

1. Jane Sullivan, ‘Damn the doom, hope is out there’, Age, 11 July 2009, p. 29.
2. Simon Caterson, ‘From little ventures small wonders emerge’, Age, 24 January 2009, , accessed 26 September 2011.
3. Mark Davis, ‘Literature, small publishers and the market in culture’, Overland, no. 190, 2008, , accessed 26 September 2011.
4. For a detailed analysis of the social affects of neo-liberal consciousness see Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Modernity, Polity Press, Cambridge, 2000.
5. For an account of this change to work life see Ulrich Beck, The Brave New World of Work, Polity Press, Cambridge 2000.
6. ‘Valuing Culture and Economy’ in Larry Ray and Andrew Sayer (eds), Culture and Economy after the Cultural Turn, Sage. London, 1999 pp. 53–75; ‘For a Critical Cultural Political Economy’, Antipode, vol. 33, no. 4, 2001, pp. 687–708; ‘Decommodification, Consumer Culture and Moral Economy’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, vol. 21, 2003, pp. 341–57; Moral Economy, http://www.lancs.ac.uk/fss/sociology/papers/sayer-moral-economy.pdf
7. For an account of these alternative modes of ethical consumption see the recent book by Tania Lewis and Emily Potter (eds), Ethical Consumption: A Critical Introduction, Routledge, New York, 2010.
8. Jason Epstein, Book Business: Publishing Past, Present, and Future, WW Norton, New York, 2001, p. 1.
9. John B Thompson, Merchants of Culture, Polity Press Cambridge, 2010, p. 62.
10. Kate Freeth, ‘A lovely kind of madness: small and independent publishing in Australia,’ SPUNC Report, November 2007, p. 3, < http://spunc.com.au/what-is-spunc/report-into-small-publishing-in-australia>, accessed 26 September 2011.
11. Jason Boog, ‘Media Beat: Johnny Temple: “We in the publishing business need to complain less”’, GalleyCat, 28 February 2011, , accessed 26 September 2011.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Caroline Hamilton is the McKenzie Research Fellow in Publishing and Communications at the University of Melbourne. Her research concentrates on the small publishing and literary cultures of contemporary Melbourne.

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