Publishing as activism

Publishing as activism

Right now, publishing matters. 

Of course, publishing has always mattered, but in the recent past it has been all too easy - whether you're an agent, bookseller, author or publisher - to convey a vague sense of apology that you don't have a proper job, like a bin man or a doctor or a climate change scientist. The idea that publishing is full of white middle class people lounging in isolated garretts and cosy little shops and Bloomsbury offices, pondering where to put a semi-colon or what whisky to order with lunch, has exercised a tenacious hold over the collective imagination.

However, one shining silver lining emerging from our current political and social maelstrom is the electrifying sense that publishing has never been more engaged with the pressing issues of the day - or more empowered to make a positive contribution in how they play out.

This has partly come from the industry's courage in taking real actions to broadcast its overwhelmingly pro-diversity, anti-extremism stance, from the indie publishers vowing to promote more writing from marginalised nations, to Hachette's Diverse Leaders Future Mentoring Scheme, to Waterstones Piccadilly's satricial anti-Trump window display. But it has also been reflected in the self-publishing market, particulary in the growing genre of crowdfunded essays with an overt social or political agenda.

In a blog introducing its Nasty Women anthology, independent Scottish publisher 404 Ink declared that "2017 is the year to push back against post-truths and champion real experience." Having reached its funding target on Kickstarter in just three days, Nasty Women - a collection of essays about being a woman in the twenty-first century from voices "that are increasingly phased out of public conversations by those who can shout loudest" - was inspired by Donald Trump's comments about Hillary Clinton being "such a nasty woman" and the subsequent #NastyWoman Twitter trend.

Published last month to coincide with International Women's Day, having raised £22,156 from a £6,000 goal, it has been described by Margaret Atwood as "an essential window into many of the hazard-strewn worlds younger women are living in right now."

Nasty Women's younger spiritual sister can be found in Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls, a children's book that reinvents fairy tales through stories of 100 great women from Elizabeth I to Serena Williams, each one illustrated by a different female artist. With 13,454 backers pledging $675,614 of a $40,000 goal, Rebel Girls is another big success story, but it's also interesting for the nature of its add-on 'rewards', which go far beyond the usual signed-hardback and tea-with-the-author offerings. 

Here, generous pledgers receive a PDF bundle called 'How To Raise Confident Girls', comic books designed to inspire girls to embrace science, and even "an inspiring, one-day workshop run by one of the creators in a school of your choice" to "help children (and grown-ups) get over gender stereotypes with games, stories and engaging activities." The scale of the funding has also led its creators to unlocked further 'Stretch Goals' which include gifting 400 copies to Read to a Child, a chairty that inspires adults to read aloud to at-risk children, and a seven-day tour of Rwanda in which the creators delivered workshops on female leadership.

It is age, rather than gender, that provides the common thread for Nikesh Shukla's Rife: Twenty Stories from Britain’s Youtha book of essays by writers under 24 on what it's like being young in the UK today, which is crowdfunding on Unbound now. Shukla - whose first example of the genre, The Good Immigrant, tackled race and national identity to brilliant effect - gave a potent rallying call in his launch blog.

"The voice of this generation is noticeably absent from mainstream media, online comment pieces and from news reports. Oi, editors! What are you so scared of? Why aren’t you commissioning us? As usual, it looks like it’s up to us to commission ourselves."

This is not publishing that puts the message before the medium; all of these collections feature writing, design and illustration of exceptional quality. These books are wonderful books, regardless of their activism; but the fact that making a difference has been woven into the fabric of their production and distribution makes them all the more rich and relevant. And the fact that they've been financed by readers, so quickly and at such scale, proves that they are catering for a large, hungry and under-served market.

Of course, there is much left to do. There is still too little diversity and risk in the traditional industry, too few conversations happening betwen the high-prpfile leaders of those big-name houses and the hungry young poitically-engaged self-starters, as Shukla's comments suggest. But the ground is getting churned up, and becoming ever more fertile for bold ideas and direct action on all sides.

Everyone seems agreed on one thing: it isn't just publishing's job to describe the change we want to see. It's our job to help make it happen.