It’s both, obviously. The Digital Reader reposts an essay from The Conversation which starts “It seems too obvious to point out that publishing is a cultural activity, not just a process for corporations to make money.” Their headline “Publishing should be more about culture than book sales” kind of tips the hand. And of course, emotionally we all cherish the hope that this should be true. Which one among us is going to shout “No, no it shouldn’t be more about culture”? — Well, it’s dirty work, but someone has to do it; so here goes.

If a publisher doesn’t make any money then he/she won’t be a publisher for very long. Now there are eccentric millionaires who use their money to fund hopelessly uncommercial publishing operations, but these are very few and far between. And should they, in any case, be the pattern which the “industry” should follow? Being able to publish whatever you want to regardless of the demands of the marketplace can be a two-edged sword. It can result in the publication of important works of art too recherché to be in demand from a larger audience, but it can also result in a bunch of partisan nonsense. With millionaires, you pays your money and you takes your choice.

It’s nonsense to suggest that the reason we talk about money and book sales in publishing is because “it is still dominated by multinational corporations. And corporations are all about the numbers.” The second sentence is almost true, as long as we don’t put too much weight on the “all about” bit, but its context here is meant to make the reader think “large multi-national”, not “any business at all”. It’s become a lazy trope to contrast the virtuous self-publisher with the wicked Big Five, even if the small traditional publishing houses occasionally (as here) benefit by being lumped in with those white-hat indie guys. Don’t we all know that there never was a self-publisher who was motivated by anything other than an overwhelming artistic drive, nor an indie publisher who ever set out to make money? Sure: we all know that’s rubbish: making more money is one of the main reasons advocates give for choosing to self publish.

Now we all (or most of us anyway) would like to be able to say that publishing is a cultural activity. If you expand your definitions far enough of course almost anything can be a cultural activity, even going to the supermarket, but we know that what’s meant here is something along these lines: we intrepid publishers are the ones who bring you Finnegans Wake and its like, because we are smart, and can judge what’s valuable. If we didn’t make the good stuff available to you you’d all be rubes. However, very little of the flood coming from book publishers is that kind of culture. Your Big Book of Dogs, How to Cook Stuff, Super Guy, Super BowlHow to Help Yourself by Helping Others, Miranda’s Bodice Gets Ripped, and much contemporary fiction and trade non-fiction do nothing to advance “culture” of that sort. If anything, the opposite; though they do of course feed the bottom line (or are intended to). A university press is the closest one can get to a publisher motivated by a desire to advance culture, and their primary focus is that subset of our culture which is education — but university presses are unique in that they often/ occasionally publish a book because it is important rather than because it will be profitable.

The fact that our author, Dallas J. Baker, Lecturer in Editing and Publishing at the University of Southern Queensland, can assert “I appreciate Mark Rothko’s painting Untitled (yellow and blue) because of its simplicity, skillful use of colour and the delight I get from it, not because it is worth US$46.5 million” is fine but doesn’t alter the fact that the painting is worth a whole heap of money. No doubt he appreciates War and Peace despite the fact that it’s “worth” $85 in the Folio Society edition. To the extent (and I do think this was Prof. Dallas’ intent) that he’s saying we spend too much time talking about the business side of publishing, I again have to disagree with him. If he visits sites dealing with the business of publishing, as his job probably dictates he should do, he will of course find discussion of this sort of thing. However the great majority of book sites and print writing about books consists basically of book reviews with sites reviewing hundreds and hundreds of books — judging their cultural content, not their contribution to the bottom line. But if the publishers, even indie publishers, don’t spend a good deal of time focusing on that bottom line there won’t be any publishing for the professor to lecture about.