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Culture v. Commerce in the UK Publishing Industry Roundtable

The subproject A02 “Literature and the Market” was delighted to host PhD candidate Chiara Bullen from April to June 2022. Chiara Bullen had received funding from the Scottish Funding Council through the Saltire Emerging Researcher Scheme for the Arts & Humanities to work with the PIs of the subproject, Professors Corinna Norrick-Rühl (Book Studies) and Petra Pohlmann (Law), as well as with PI Dr. Koegler (Literature). As part of her fellowship period in Münster, Chiara Bullen (among other activities) gave a public talk, taught a session of a postgraduate class for students of Book Studies, and curated a virtual roundtable event for the subproject A02 “Literature and the Market”. Below, Chiara Bullen gives a brief summary and presentation of the contents of the roundtable, which was titled ‘Culture v. Commerce in the UK Publishing Industry’ and held on May 17, 2022.

Roundtable report by Chiara Bullen

The roundtable “Culture v. Commerce in the UK Publishing Industry” brought together three fifteen-minute papers by Cat Mitchell (University of Derby), Dr Audrey Laing (Robert Gordon University) and Jasmin Kirkbride (University of East Anglia), with all three papers highlighting the tensions within the UK publishing field that have arisen due to the conflict between commerce and culture in 21st-century book publishing.

“Literature is often seen as something abstract, and culturally ‘valuable’, operating far from the logics of law and the market,” as the PIs of the Law and Literature subproject A02 “Literature and the Market” write. Brouillette and Doody note there is a “historically shifting but nevertheless persistent division between art and commerce… which the literary has so often symbolized” (2015, 107), while Greco, Rodriguez and Wharton observe that the publishing industry is both a “cultural endeavour” and “a creative enterprise”, a “double helix filled not with strands of DNA but with great books, great ideas and an outpouring of titles that engulf the channels of distribution” (2006, viii). The ‘division’ between literature and commerce, rooted in the misconceived notion that literature, that books are ‘exceptions’ to the logics of law and the market, often manifests in discussions exploring the ‘value’ of the literary text, the ‘culture’ produced. As Nash observes, “[…] the business of literature is the business of making culture, not just the business of manufacturing bound books” (Nash 2013). The ‘Commerce v. Culture’ roundtable focused on the impact the conflict between commerce and culture has on agents within the UK publishing field.

“Neoliberal Capitalism and Climate Fiction Writing: Exploring the Tensions Between Author Incomes and Creative Resistance in the Earthshot Decade” — Jasmin Kirkbride, University of East Anglia

It is evident that the ‘strands’ of commerce and culture in the publishing industry do not always exist harmoniously, and this has a wide-reaching impact on many in the field. For example, taking the UK publishing industry as an example, the emphasis on the ‘cultural’ aspect of publishing, the romanticisation of creating books (Kiernan 2021), and the belief that to work in publishing is a ‘privilege’ has resulted in ‘an influx of new, willing publishing graduates that are ready to work harder for less’ (Patch 2019). Such romanticisation also surrounds 21st-century authorship, despite the commercial realities of decreasing author earnings and an industry which often favours ‘big’ books (often lead titles which publishers put much of their time and resources behind in an attempt to cultivate a bestselling title; described by Thompson as ‘prize assets’ (2012, 188)) and ‘celebrity’ titles when it comes to their resources. Jasmin Kirkbride’s paper investigating the tensions between author incomes and creative resistance explored these realities, paying special attention to how the capitalist handling of the pandemic in the UK has affected author incomes and careers.

Against the backdrop of neoliberal capitalism arising to prominence in the 20th century (you can read Kirkbride’s previous work on this topic here). Kirkbride briefly charted the development of author incomes, noting that the dissolution of the Net Book Agreement in 1995 acted as the ‘harbinger’ of falling author incomes, despite the 2000s being seen as the ‘golden years’ of publishing. The combining financial crash and digital revolution, largely fuelled by neoliberal capitalism, also contributed to decreasing author incomes, with Kirkbride arguing: “Profit over people: an unsustainable ‘growth-or-die’ attitude to business, resulted in increased corner-cutting in the publishing process.” Kirkbride also observed that a “more books, more money philosophy” resulted in a flooded market. Such a flooded market results in authors ‘competing’ for resources; stemming from author advances to space in publishers’ marketing campaigns. Kirkbride then demonstrated how this situation has been further heightened throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, in part due to the lack of support authors received from the UK Government:

Overall, 65% of writers lost income during the first half of the pandemic, ‘with the situation worsening as it progressed’. 56% reported their 2021 income was lower than 2019, with 49-58% losing at least a quarter of their income and 36% losing at least half. Just 14% of authors experienced stable incomes during the pandemic. All this, without the long term impacts from political shifts such as supply chain and copyright issues following Brexit, will affect author incomes into the future. ‘Big book’ bestsellers increasingly dominate, consuming oxygen needed by other titles: as The Bookseller says, it has been a feast for those few authors at the top, and famine for everyone else.

Paying close attention to authors of climate fiction — “authors for [whom], resistance is in part enacted through creative practice and publication” — fighting climate change via their work, Kirkbride’s future work will investigate the pandemic and neoliberal capitalism’s impact on author’s creative resistance, as well as their ability to continue a career in the wake of diminishing financial returns. She asks, “how as climate fiction writers, can we unite against the economic forces that threaten to curtail our profession, execute necessary philosophical enquiry into our creative practice, and at the same time remain united?” and brings a timely interpretation of ‘culture v. commerce’ in the publishing industry to the table — that of creative resistance, of ‘activism’ in the form of writing, versus ‘selling-out.’ “We must not be seduced by the myth that, in the act of not selling well or making a viable income, we are somehow free to produce more authentic, paradigm-shifting art,” Kirkbride concludes for now. “Commercial authors rarely create fiction with sales in mind, rather their personal definition and expression of art happens to be commercially successful.”

“Culture v Commerce: Disability and Publishing” — Cat Mitchell, University of Derby

Another timely interpretation of the ‘culture v. commerce’ theme was delivered by Cat Mitchell. Mitchell began by noting that the cultural aspect of publishing they would discuss was that of ‘workplace culture’, and how that impacts diversity within the industry. Mitchell observes: “There is a growing culture of overwork in the publishing industry, which is partly due to commercial forces that are leading to more and more books being published with fewer workers there to support those publications,” which reflects Kirkbride’s observations of the consequences of a ‘flooded market’. This culture of overwork draws upon Uwagba’s observation that such a culture is ‘fetishized’, with overwork seen as a virtue by employers (2021), and it is a notion that serves as an additional barrier to entry to the publishing industry for disabled jobseekers. The Accessed Denied report, conducted by Mitchell in 2021, focuses on disabled people’s experiences in the UK publishing industry. Mitchell found that 23% of respondents with a disability or long-term health condition were not open about this at work, with 20% saying that no one in their publishing workplace was aware of their disability or health condition. “What the statistics show is that there are two key issues at play here,” explains Mitchell. “First of all, the lack of acquisition of diverse staff and disabled staff, and secondly the retention of disabled staff. Why are they not feeling able to be open at work? Are they potentially not getting the support that they need?” Drawing on the theoretical framework of the ‘ideal’ worker under capitalism (Foster and Wass 2012), Mitchell highlights that the idea of the ‘ideal worker’ combined with the fast-paced nature of the publishing industry makes for a difficult work environment. As well as this, the surplus of labour supply – with Mitchell noting that a recent Penguin Random House internship with six positions attracted three thousand applicants – means there is “very little incentive for employers to make adjustments to this work culture, because they know that people are interchangeable—if someone leaves there’s going to be someone there to take that job.”

The culture of overwork in the publishing industry therefore, makes for a workplace environment that disadvantages disabled jobseekers and workers, with Mitchell highlighting that the reluctance to disclose their disability due to fear of discrimination leading to lack of support at work​ was in part due to the prioritisation of in-person work and ​over-emphasis from employers on social capital, networking and visible enthusiasm. One participant of the study echoed this conclusion, telling Mitchell: “A lot of publishing roles are completely inaccessible to disabled people due to unreasonable workload, unpaid overtime expectations, networking and social expectations outside of the official job description.” Mitchell’s Access Denied report highlights the prominence of these issues in the UK publishing industry, despite the fact that the UK Equality Act (2010) requires ‘reasonable adjustments’ to be made for disabled people (Mitchell 2021, 3).  Mitchell concluded her talk by arguing: “There is a problematic workplace culture in publishing involving overwork, social capital and the expectation of enthusiasm. We need to reimagine work culture and practices to benefit everyone, and to benefit disabled people and to reframe what we consider an ‘ideal worker’ in the industry.”

“Culture v. Commerce: Scottish Independent Bookshops” — Dr Audrey Laing, Robert Gordon University

Over the past few years, the tensions between commerce and culture have certainly been felt by independent bookstores. Hailed as bastions of culture and pillars of the community, many have struggled to get by – especially during the pandemic – turning to crowd funders (Flood 2021) and social media sales to support their businesses (Morris 2020). Audrey Laing explored this tension in her talk, specifically in the context of rural independent bookshops in Scotland by highlighting the unique challenges they face in remote areas. “Back in 2006, Miller suggested booksellers may be reluctant capitalists – that ties in with the idea of culture vs commerce,” begins Laing. “However, more recent research from O’Brien says instead they are actually skilled capitalists to manage the various economic and administrative challenges they face.” Laing’s research consisted of semi-structured interviews with rural booksellers, highlighting how they have responded to such challenging economic and administrative challenges. In general, Laing observes that despite such challenges, the number of independent bookshops in the UK is experiencing growth for the fifth year in a row, which Laing notes could be the result of “a larger cultural shift away from the mainstream, for those people who can afford it.”

Back to rural Scottish bookshops, Laing reported the inevitable results of digital disruption posed by Amazon, highlighting the Scottish Government’s support of jobs created by Amazon ensures an economic focus at Government level, rather than that of the ‘qualitative contribution to the local community’, takes precedent. Local booksellers, in comparison, suffer significantly from business rates and taxes. As well as this, the power of chain bookshops and supermarkets as loss leaders means such independent stores find it difficult to compete. “If it’s cheaper in Tesco than from a distributor or publisher,” notes one of Laing’s interview participants, “something is wrong. It’s not a viable business model. I can’t think of another industry where a brand new product, what should be one of your best sellers, is so vastly discounted.”

Laing also noted that when it came to rural booksellers seeking support from local authorities, there was a “sense that people working in local councils, which were sometimes situated in local towns rather than being rural, often didn’t have a good understanding of specifically rural problems. While some individuals in councils were singled out as supporters, in terms of strategy and management, there was a general feeling that councils were not especially helpful.” However, Laing’s findings also highlighted positive results. Booksellers in rural areas “are usually deeply embedded and invested in local communities,” explained Laing. “They often have close working relationships with other local businesses, are often active in local civic societies, and coordinate with other independent stores if there are others around. Quite often there is what I’ve called Cross-pollination in small communities – so they may work in a bookshop, volunteer in the local museum, volunteer at local school, etc.” The ‘cross pollination’ concept of Laing’s is an important reminder of the significance of booksellers in local communities, not only due to the books, the ‘culture’ curated and sold in their spaces, but the contribution to the community they make as a whole. Laing calls for recognition and support for such cultural contributors, as well as an overhaul of government policy to support local sellers, and suggestions that a percentage of council budgets could go to local suppliers. Laing’s published work on this subject can be found here.

Kirkbride, Mitchell and Laing’s research demonstrates how the commercial aspects of the industry impact the cultural aspects in more ways than merely the ‘production’ of culture. All of the presentations also indicate how the UK book industry was impacted by the fall of the Net Book Agreement 25 years ago, which tied in very well with the work of the SFB 1385’s subproject A02. As the industry tentatively emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic, the calls from each presenter for unity, overhauling of difficult working conditions and recognition for cultural contributors feel more significant than ever since the pandemic has served to further highlight the challenging conditions agents in the publishing field face.

Works cited

General

Brouillette, Sarah, Christopher Doody. 2015. “The Literary as a Cultural Industry.” In: The Routledge Companion to the Cultural Industries. Ed. Kate Oakley and Justin O’Connor. London: Routledge.

Greco, Albert N., Clara E. Rodríguez. 2006. The Culture and Commerce of Publishing in the 21st Century. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Nash, Richard. 2013. “What is the business of literature?” In: VQR (Spring Vol. 89). https://www.vqronline.org/articles/what-business-literature (accessed May 30, 2022).

Patch, Bethany. 2019. “The Book Industry Isn’t Dead. That’s Just an Excuse to Keep Salaries Low.” In: The Guardian, March 28. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/mar/29/the-book-industry-isnt-dead-thats-just-an-excuse-to-keep-salaries-low (accessed June 28, 2022).

Wharton, Robert M., Anna Kiernan. 2021. Writing Cultures and Literary Media: Publishing and Reception in the Digital Age. Cham: Springer.

“Neoliberal capitalism and climate fiction writing: exploring the tensions between author incomes and creative resistance in the Earthshot decade.” — Jasmin Kirkbride, University of East Anglia

Campbell, Lisa. 2018. “Publishers Association Corrects Key Figure on Author Pay.” In: The Bookseller. www.thebookseller.com/news/pa-admits-figures-author-paywere-wrong-847566 (accessed January 23, 2019).

Chomsky, Noam. 2011. Profit Over People: Neoliberalism and Global Order. New York: Seven Stories Press.

Flood, Alison. 2020. “Support funds for UK authors hit by pandemic are running out.” In: The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/aug/10/support-funds-for-uk-authors-hit-by-pandemic-are-running-out (accessed June 28, 2022).

Solomon, Nicola. 2018. “The Profits from Publishing: Authors’ Perspective.” In: The Bookseller: https://www.thebookseller.com/blogs/prof its-publishing-authors-perspective-743226 (accessed June 28, 2022).

Thompson, B. John. 2012. Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-first Century. London: Polity Press.

“Culture v Commerce: Disability and Publishing” — Cat Mitchell, University of Derby

Foster, Deborah, Victoria Wass. 2012. “Disability in the labour market: an exploration of concepts of the “ideal worker” and organisational “fit” that disadvantage employees with impairments.” In: Sociology 7.4. 705–721. 

Uwagba, Otegha. 2021. “This year, I stopped being productive. Why is it so hard to come to terms with that?” In: The Guardian 31.12.2021. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/dec/31/stopped-being-productive-overwork-virtue (accessed June 28, 2022).

“Culture v. Commerce: Scottish Independent Bookshops” — Dr Audrey Laing, Robert Gordon University

Flood, Alison. 2021. “Crowdfunding Offers the UK’s Independent Booksellers a Pandemic Lifeline.” In: The Guardian 06.12.2021. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2021/dec/06/crowdfunding-offers-the-uks-independent-booksellers-a-pandemic-lifeline (accessed June 28, 2022).

Miller, Laura J. 2007. Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Morris, Steven. 2020. “Oh What a Night! Twitter Brings £1,000 Worth of Orders to Empty Bookshop.” In: The Guardian 15.01.2020. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/jan/15/twitter-brings-1000-pounds-worth-of-orders-to-empty-bookshop (accessed June 28. 2022).

O’Brien, Gemma T. M. 2017. “Small and Slow Is Beautiful: Well-Being, “Socially Connective Retail” and the Independent Bookshop.” In: Social & Cultural Geography 18.4. Routledge. 573–595. DOI 10.1080/14649365.2016.1199814.

Fotocredit: Bookshelf © Alfons Morales


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