We’ve brought climate activism into our publishing–but is it in our industry?
I started work in publishing in 2002, soon after Fast Food Nation was published. It became a bestseller, a book of expert reportage about how the workings of the fast food industry contributed to a number of social problems, from insecure and dangerous jobs to childhood obesity. Inspired by this and other campaigning bestsellers, such as Naomi Klein’s No Logo (1999) and Michael Moore’s Stupid White Men (2001), I came of age as an editor surrounded by authors who were sure that the world could change, and would change, as a result of social activism; and that books were part of that activism. I felt that the work I did, in terms of the authors I was privileged enough to work with, was a way of making a contribution to the issues I cared about—and yes, I am the kind of person everyone regularly assumes to be earnest and vegetarian—even if the industry itself didn’t always practise what its books preached.
I remember going to the office of one trade publisher in 2007. It had just been through a major green review following a wave of climate action triggered by, among other things, books, Al Gore’s film "An Inconvenient Truth", and the UN’s 2006 conference on climate change. But every office had an individual fridge filled with bottled water. It was still just about possible to find this grimly amusing. Now, as the climate emergency accelerates, in tandem with other social and economic disasters including a pandemic and the widespread erosion of democracy in the West, it seems clearer than ever that publishers need to do more than respond to the readers who care about these subjects.
Received wisdom used to be that it was near impossible to get people to care about books on climate. But as The Bookseller has reported, books about the environment are increasingly commercially successful. This reflects a shift in public opinion—52% of people in Britain now describe themselves as "very concerned" about climate change, according to market research firm Ipsos Mori.
It’s exciting that Ebury is launching a green list with David Attenborough, and that Bluebird has launched One Boat, a sustainability imprint. But while we respond in our commissioning, what more could—should—we do as an industry?
Publishing has always been a fun dance between creativity and commerciality. Do we cater to audiences or create them? Do good books sell because they’re good? Are commercially successful books devoid of literary merit? Do we need to believe in what we publish or simply know the audience? These are the kinds of questions that get wrangled through in acquisitions meetings. The underlying principle has been a commitment to freedom of speech, that—with a number of notable exceptions such as Verso—the publisher is a neutral distributor in the free exchange of ideas, while making more of those that take off (and perhaps even helping them take off, if we’re doing really well). But perhaps that position can only be held at times of general security and confidence across culture and society. We are not in that time now. We’re being held to account on our choices in new ways. Shouldn’t one of those ways be on our response to the climate emergency?
We ought to be seeing more discussions about what we could do in this moment of unprecedented uncertainty. It might be using our creative skills to bring the issue to readers’ attention, through talks or advertising or partnerships. It might be using our collective weight to push the government towards a green new deal (after all, we’re out there pushing to protect copyright). It might be agreeing to ban all flights across the industry. It might be accelerating the change begun in our supply chain by the Publishers Association and by large publishers such as Penguin Random House.
To be able to continue our dance of culture and commerce we need to invest in protecting the physical world that allows us to do so. The book industry, like most others (ignoring war mongering, dirty money and other elite pursuits) thrives when the majority of us—and it should be all of us—are fortunate enough to live in relative security and comfort. That security and comfort is under threat from a wide range of disasters, all of which, as Naomi Klein argues, are interconnected: “There is no such thing as a singular disaster any more—if there ever was. From Covid to climate, every disaster contains every other disaster within it. Every fire is a conflagration of all the other fires.” If we want to keep publishing we need to be confident that people will be free and secure enough to read.
Books have always been symbols of power, entwined in our cultural understanding with the principles of democracy and freedom. Knowledge has been regarded as empowering. So what we publish matters. But if we believe in the power of books, then publishing them isn’t enough.