I think we (or at least the book commentariat) tend to allow our focus to slip when we talk about the future of book publishing. Speaking at the London Book Fair Philip Gwyn Jones warns via Spectator Blogs that modern publishing has been suppressing innovation and experimentation so that we poor readers can only look forward to a homogeneous boring literary future. Now I dare say one could argue that trade publishing is hurtling down this slope, but trade publishing isn’t publishing. And anyway what’s so new about this? Did publishers race to be first to publish Ulysses? Was Moby Dick met with acclaim? Experimentation has never been welcomed by commercial publishing: with good reason. Why waste money bringing out a book which may be (or may not be — because you really need the verdict of posterity to know for sure) a work of genius, but which raises barriers to access for the average reader? What is a commercial publisher in business to do? Foster literature, or make money? The shareholders of Bertelsmann, Hachette, von Holzbrinck, NewsCorp, and CBS have not given the combines they own (“The Big Five”) any mission to promote great literature: their companies have a fiduciary responsibility to earn profits for their shareholders. They don’t mind if they publish a great book or two along the way, but not if that means they don’t make any money doing so.
This is all so obvious that it rather makes one’s knees weak to keep on reading these jeremiads. Great literature is powerful enough to look after itself I think.
Quartz brings a report from Digital Book World’s conference in January giving a more balanced view of the future — or at least a view devoid of that apocalyptic hype about the end of literature. Subscription publishing certainly seems to be here to stay: I guess it will evolve into tomorrow’s equivalent of my mother’s subscription to Boots Library. One of the subheads in the piece is “Everyone is a publisher”, a little hyperbole which however does neatly block Mr Gwyn Jones: even if all the trade publishers, or indeed all the publishers set up as companies, refuse to publish your Finnegans Wake, you can always do it yourself. To me this means that experimentation, serious writing — “literature” — is much safer in its guarantee of a future than it ever was before, when it was in fee to the publishing industry.