Publishing is not one thing, it is many. Publishers can be big, small, good, bad, incompetent, indie, corporate, fun, cynical, efficient, exasperating, guileless, greedy, generous, tireless and tiring—a few are adept at being all of these things at the same time. But they have one thing in common: what they do matters. Publishing is not really a business at all, it is a verb, the act of putting something into the wild, usually with a consequence. They are creationists—in a good way. They need to believe.
Yet there is a flip side. Publishers occupy positions of power: what they project into the world has an influence precisely because it has been“published”. As Society of Authors c.e.o. Nicola Solomon puts it in her interview with the publishing journalist Danuta Kean, publishers add value. One could argue, in fact, that this is their only value. It is little wonder that, as Richard Charkin’s opinion piece, written ahead of the International Publishers Association’s annual congress, reminds us “since forever, publishers have been criticised. It’s all part of the job”. He is right, and one does not need to travel too far to find that criticism: publishers have become the target for everything that is wrong with the business, from its lack of diversity to its rates of pay, from what is published through to what isn’t. In fact the one constant during these inconsistent times is that this crescendo of consternation has intensified—and though much of it can be nonsensical, there is some that stings.
The good news is that publishing may now be starting to listen (and act). Earlier this year, Penguin Random House sold its self-publishing business Author Solutions, acknowledging, one might hope, that investing in authors with one hand, while taking their money with the other, always looked at best uncomfortable and, at worst, an existential disaster.
This week PRH UK rolled out its Creative Responsibility strategy, with c.e.o. Tom Weldon remarking that a “publisher of our size really could be a force for good in society above and beyond the books we publish”. It is a smart move. PRH is not just attempting to seize the high ground by extending its reach, it is looking to seed the fans of tomorrow for a business that Weldon rightly wants the wider world to see as a “cultural institution”. Not all publishers will feel the need to go the same route, but as Charkin says there is an opportunity to show that publishers “are not what some people think we are”.
Publishers have a duty of care not just to their authors but also to their fellow publishers, particularly right now, when there is so much about this business being written and re-written. Charkin alludes to the bigger battles, but getting the chorus on-side looks crucial.