Politics and the English-language publisher

Nic Boshart, Digital Services Coordinator at the Association of Canadian Publishers

“Our civilization is decadent and our language — so the argument runs — must inevitably share in the general collapse.” – George Orwell, Politics and the English Language

Recently, one of the best remaining independent Toronto bookstores, This Ain’t the Rosedale Library, closed down and part of the problem with this sad passing is the same one that publishers are having; their old role as community centerpieces has been devalued. Online sales certainly didn’t help, but the traditional role of books as a focal point for shared cultural experience has died.

Charlie Huisken, co-owner of one of the world’s best bookstores as named by the Guardian, said in an email:

“…there has been a narrow but strong response on blogs to the idea of what we do and Pages did as being a ’boutique’. And that boutique idea is precious and outdated. The posts are by technophiles and nerdy types – it’s often true. But they stand on the middle ground which we grassroots arts and letters people have to win back.”

Where is that middle ground? It’s a respectable and accessible space between practical life and imagination. It’s a space where everyone feels comfortable. It’s a barbershop in Etobicoke (New Jersey for Americans and wherever Chavs are from for the English) with an ashtray sitting on the cover of an old issue of Rolling Stone. Or something everyone likes. TV Guide.

Online fills the old role of books. Online is the new tool to educate, experience and commune with fellow revolutionaries and share ideas. Online poker tables can replace card games, Club Penguin replaces a playground, and World of Warcraft replaces your partner because you spend too much time on it. So here’s the bigger problem; how do we bring real-life back to publishing and the written word?

(And to brush some dirt off my shoulder, don’t blame illiteracy. Everyone reads now, can’t get a Facebook profile without knowing your words. We probably hit the literacy wall in the late ‘80s or early ‘90s, just before the first Angelfire site went up.)

Publishing is a funny industry. It walks a fine line between art and industry; we make paint and canvas or build concert halls. Our craft takes a certain type of skill, and certainly the work of an editor takes a kind of art. But at the end of the day, we’re really not anything more than skilled craftspeople, and this is something we need to deal with. Why can’t machines replace us? Do publishers really fulfill a role that’s any better than spell check, or all-too-realistically, a community of writers and editors?

How do we bring real life back to publishing and the written word? It needs to be practical, it needs to be fun and interesting, and it needs to be inclusive to the point that you don’t even notice. Publishers have not been in control of culture since the 1950s, and in fact have been at the bottom of the entertainment pile for quite some time. Don’t kid yourself, even the New York snooty Times has a great sports section; book reading is dead last, we’ve lost our connection.

There are two things that need to happen; one is that we need to figure out a way to get the larger populace to read, and two – which could also be a path to the first – publishers need to act more like the skilled craftspeople they are.

So again, let’s follow the technophile line. This is the new entertainment, it’s the new exciting thing that unifies people and everything publishers were back in the heyday of the swinging book industry. They’re connecting people in new ways and they’re creating new flashy objects. And they, too, are skilled craftspeople. Same as us.

But anyone can make an app or build a website, it just takes time and practice. As computers get better and more essential to everyday life, programs will develop that make it easier to create apps, digital content, webpages, etc. Hell, any jerk can already run WordPress. But as computers become cheaper and pervasive, people will learn programming languages in schools. HTML will become standard curriculum, such as spoken and written language. But for now, programmers are revered for their skill and hold control over the place where we have our shared experience.

First, and there’s been talk of this already, publishers need to give value to what they do. Everyone is trained from a young age to read and write, told that they know how to construct a sentence. People don’t think it’s hard to write, and those who do think it’s hard won’t read a book. Tech people don’t let you forget that what they do is hard, but they have an interesting and super-duper effective way of going about it: by telling you exactly what they do and how they do it.

Tech people write blogs on how to do what they’re doing. They participate with other people in their fields to build better things. They purposely interact with outsiders to help them learn for free. They point them at products, not necessarily their own, that they think the non-techie needs and/or would like. The real clincher is that everybody does this, so it comes back around.

What do publishers do? Close Book Expo America to the public. You seriously can’t hire some underlings for a day to work a table and gain some new readers?

As an indie press, I’ve noticed that other indie publishers rarely reference each other on their sites. Why is no one doing this? Why am I not doing this on the Invisible Publishing blog? (To be fair on other blogs I almost always recommend an indie title from a different publisher. Case in point Andrew Hood’s Pardon Our Monsters is the best book I’ve ever read except for Be Good by Stacey May Fowles.)

Non-readers will read books; it’s just a matter of getting those books to them and making them available. It’s more rhetoric that you’ve heard at a million conferences, but it needs to be approached in a different way. Books are add-ons that accentuate life. They help you learn, entertain you, but the only culture built around books is… well, publishers.

At the end of a reading we had outside the locked doors of This Ain’t the Rosedale Library, Charlie stood with his son Jesse and said promised us they’d be back. I can’t wait to see their next iteration because they’ve been forced out of the selling business. Charlie mentioned the store as a cultural crossroads and that’s all he wants to be, a place for those who love literature to convene.

Publishers, successful ones, are going to need to be more. We don’t need to connect with readers, we need to be a bridge for the reader to a piece of knowledge and we need to become craftspeople to do it.

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