(The first of a few articles I'm cross-posting here and on the eight cuts blog as I start to migrate opinion pieces from here to there - I hope you'll come and join me over there)
Yesterday The Guardian published its list of the 100 most powerful people in books. The list was, as lists are, problematic in several ways. But it will do its job in stimulating conversation. I want to have two such conversations here.
First, the list’s remit is confusing. Rather, the way it has been both acted upon and spun is a little slippery. At most points, The guardian tells us this is a list of the most influential (on reading habits) people in the book business. Fine. Nice and narrow and easy to follow. But at another point, the header copy states these are “the people exercising the greatest influence over theUK's reading habits.” So which is it? The two are clearly not co-terminus. The days in which our “reading” was confined to books is over. Only, of course, it never existed. Would anyone actually argue that written news media do not form an important part of our reading habits?
The list clearly embraces non-storytelling – Jamie Oliver is at number 8. Yet newspapers have gone walkies – and the likes of Huffington Post, The Onion, Mashable, and Wired. Well, they’re as absent as Heat and Hello. And the way the list is handled is confusing. The CEO of Google is at number 3 – fine, but in his Google Reader capacity? Really? And if it’s because we use Google to find reading material, where are Facebook and Twitter? Google’s plans may well revolutionise how we read, but this is about what influences how we read now (Google are good at this – spinning a future idea and having us believe it’s more important than it is *now*). And going the other way, Stephen fry as tweeter in chief? This time last year maybe, but things have moved on.
But let’s allow that talk of “reading” is simply the kind of editorial hyperbole newspapers may allow, and look at this as a representation of the books industry. A little aside first. I'm intrigued how different this looks from how it would have done 2 years ago when Seth Godin, Cory Doctorow and Chris Anderson would have been no-brainer choices to sit alongside Malcolm Gladwell, and maybe Richard Nash too. There's a real feel that digital pioneering and experimentation has been subsumed within the existing structures. And seriously, not a single blogger on the list? If you'd said that 2 years ago no one would have believed you.
But what is most obvious are the demographics of this list, in gender, age, and ethnicity. I commented, in accord with others, “if these are not the 99 [in a piece of populism that further confused what the list is for, the Guardian placed ‘us the public’ at 100] most influential then this list is a stinging reproach to its compilers. If these *are* the 99 most influential then this list is a stinging reproach on a way wider scale”
One of the list’s compilers, Lisa Allardice, asked whom I would include instead. Given the narrow remit, I realised that’s actually a very difficult one. Which means that actually, the problem is a very big one. This is an industry that serves the wole of the public (ostensibly) yet is representative of just a tiny fraction. I actually can’t think of anything I would want to change from an article I wrote two years ago, which attracted a little attention (and some comments that completely missed the point – and this worries me most of all, when people just don’t understand the problem let alone start talking answers), called From Pitch to Perpetuation of Privilege. I think I’ve mellowed a little from the position of the last couple of paragraphs. Or maybe I’ve hardened, I don’t know. And I don't any more think the problems will kill the publishing industry - but in a way I think that's a bad thing. I think if the problems persist the publishing industry should die, but it probably won't. But I’ll reproduce it in full here. Most of the points directly address this list.
The pitch is the publishing Industry’s equivalent of the University Entrance exam, a selection system that perpetuates disenfranchisement, and serves to narrow the pool of available applicants to a point where the literary world becomes nothing more than the chattering classes talking among themselves. As was the case for hundreds of years in our universities, no one has really noticed this until now, because the people the literary industry marginalise had been marginalised from other forms of communication. Worst of all, they have gone unnoticed because they have until now had no expectation or belief that literature is their world.
But as wider and wider portions of society become cultural consumers, so their hunger for stories by and about people like them grows. Television, through initiatives like the BBC’s My Story, is beginning to take notice, but the publishing industry is standing back and does not, it is my firm belief, even realise there is a problem.
This is just another example of an introspection that will in the not too distant future kill the industry off if it doesn’t do something. The fact is the internet is making culture by and for previously unrepresented voices (be they inner city teenagers, battered sex workers, refugees fleeing from, and would-be refugees trapped in, the world’s war zones, or the women of the world’s shanty towns) widely available. And it’s great. Millions of voices are being heard that would never have been heard before – hope that “I am not alone” is being offered to millions more who never heard culture spoken in their own voice before.
It’s a WONDERFUL thing.
And it’s a phenomenon that is going to kill publishing dead. Or rather, pass it by on the road whilst publishing kills itself. Unless the industry does something serious and soon.
There are many thins the publishing industry needs to look at if its isolation from the consumers of the majority world is not to prove fatal, and I’ve got time to talk about them all eventually. But today I want to focus on the flagship ridiculosity: the query.
This is NOT a piece about higher education. I am merely referring, in passing, to an allegation levelled at the entrance exam (because it IS true of publishing, and it’s a good analogy). The problem with the university entrance exam, the argument goes, like the problem with the 11+, is that you do better if you’re coached for it. Which means you do better if your parents have the money AND the inclination to pay for a tutor. Which means two children of equal “ability” will finish with very different marks. Which means, finally, that if selection is based on entrance exam performance alone children whose parents lack either the money or the inclination to pay for coaching will be disadvantaged when it comes to getting a university place. And to add to all this, the privilege this perpetuates means that those from marginalised backgrounds expect not to get places, so they don’t apply, furthering the divide.
That may or may not be true of universities, but I’m sure you get the logic. And if you don’t get where I’m going, then frankly, well, I can’t say in polite company.
At the moment (and especially in the US where you don’t submit ANY script with your query), whether you get an agent depends on the quality of your query, and a huge part of that is the synopsis and, even more, the query letter. There are many wonderful websites and books devoted to polishing your pitch, and I have benefited immensely from them (and still do). But the system reinforces the status quo in a way that is both shocking, and seemingly invisible to the industry.
How are those who do not currently read their voice in books, written by people like them, and who have stories to tell, and a talent for telling them, get published? They must submit a query – for which they have no training – not just because they have no access to the great query sites and books out there (they may well HAVE the internet), but because they are not surrounded by people who know about sites like this. They may not even know what the “application” method is. It is a mystery. So what happens? They don’t send off their stories – “people like them don’t write books”. And the divide is reinforced.
So what? Well one, it’s just wrong that people be denied a voice for their story – and the notion that the vast swathes of people underrepresented in publishing are underrepresented because there is no talent is just nonsense. Systemic barriers are wrong. Full stop.
Two, these are groups of society for whom the internet allows, more and more, instant access to the consumption and production of culture by and about “people like them”. Whole groups are realising that culture is for them. But books aren’t – and THAT is the problem for the publishing industry. A vast swathe of ever more powerful cultural consumer is ignoring books because books are irrelevant to them.
So what does publishing need to do? Well, more than anything else, what it needs to do is what the “Russell Group” of universities (the UK’s “old elite”) sort of tries to pay lip-service to doing. It needs to stop talking to itself. It needs to stop telling would be writers about “show not tell”. It needs to stop focusing on how to write a query letter. Stop focusing, mind, not stop doing – there is, and always will be, a very large, commercially and culturally important group who like books done that way. What publishers need to wake up to is the fact that this is a segment of the population – a segment whose share of wealth, purchasing power, and access to culture, is shrinking.
What the publishing industry needs to do is not try and “help” people on the “outside” to get to the “inside”. People don’t need it. They have other ways of telling their stories. IT needs THEM. And that is something I have NEVER heard someone on the “inside” admit. So what SHOULD the industry do? It needs to find ways to convince the new generation of storytellers that books are a good medium through which to tell those stories. It needs to think like an “outsider”.
Sadly, I really don’t think it can. Which is why more and more of us who would, ten years ago, have been part of the “trying to get inside” crowd, are ignoring it, letting it slowly eat itself to death, whilst we get on and enjoy the exciting future.
Half of me thinks it’s a tragedy. The more so because, like an animal walking to the abattoir, or a patient slipping gently from a coma, I really think most of the industry doesn’t recognise it. But half of me thinks that systems which perpetuate divide and exclusion SHOULD perish, and wonders if we shouldn’t offer a helping hand.
[addendum - one good thing about self epublishing is that it will prove markets exist. Publishers are locked into a vicious evidentiary circle - they will publish what has been proven to sell, but that proof can only come from things that have bene published in the past. It's about carving up an existing market not finding a new one. This is something self-epublishing *can* do]