Publishing’s scary self-delusion
I’m busy at LibertyCon this weekend, so I’ve queued up this post in advance. I may not be able to respond to comments for some time, but I’ll do my best.
I wasn’t surprised (but I was disappointed) to read this statement from Penguin Random House CEO Markus Dohle:
“Publishing is undeniably a force for good. But working in an industry that is inherently a service to society, we risk subscribing to the notion that this is enough. It’s not. We ought to do more—and we can—by taking advantage of our capacity as Penguin Random House to drive positive social, environmental, and cultural change, locally and globally.”
The statement was accompanied by a video message to PRH employees.
The scary thing is, Mr. Dohle undoubtedly believes his statement – yet, equally undoubtedly, it’s catastrophically wrong. Almost every corporation (in a capitalist society, at any rate) exists primarily for the benefit of its owners and investors. If they aren’t making a profit, the company is usually seen as a liability to them, not an asset, and they’ll probably sell it or close it down in short order. That’s the reality of modern business in a capitalist society. Investors may care personally about ‘social, environmental, and cultural change’, but that’s generally not why they invest in a corporation. They do so to make money, with which they can then indulge their personal interests and perspectives.
Furthermore, there’s no evidence whatsoever that publishing is “inherently a service to society”. Sure, some of what is published may be regarded as a service – for example, information leaflets and pamphlets explaining government services that are available to citizens. However, the production of those service materials still incurs a cost that someone has to pay. If they can’t be sold at a profit, then their production must be subsidized by some other means – usually by taxpayers, who are seldom consulted as to whether or not they approve of this use of their resources. As for other items, they’ll be paid for by those who benefit from or support them.
- Companies will pay for advertising, whether in the form of column space in a newspaper, pixels on a screen, or self-promoting books published in the name of public relations.
- Consumers will pay for books that they want to read.
- Politicians will write books for sometimes obscenely large advances (that are seldom, if ever, earned back by sales of the books). The payments are often thinly-disguised quid pro quo payments for “services rendered”, or political donations by executives and industry pressure groups. They’re also made at the expense of shareholders in the publisher(s) concerned, who are thus deprived of that income.
Mr. Dohle says: “…we ought to do more – and we can”. My immediate question is: who says that PRH ought to do more? I don’t see most shareholders clamoring at annual meetings for their company – and that’s what it is, after all; their company – to become some sort of corporate social justice warrior. The only such pressure on PRH and companies like it comes from those who see corporations as entities to be manipulated and/or bullied into supporting their positions. Greenpeace is a classic example, as (allegedly) are political activists such as Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. Follow the links to learn more about how they allegedly “shake down” their corporate targets.
There’s also the question of why PRH (and, by extension, other publishers) should do more. Surely their emphasis, their focus, should be on increasing their profitability, and thereby the returns to their shareholders and investors? The latter could then use some or all of the profits on their investments to support causes, activities and individuals with whom they agree or are in sympathy. For a corporation to play fast and loose with its owners’ money, in order to undertake or promote activities that have little or nothing to do with its core commercial activities, is, to put it mildly, disingenuous.
Finally, why should a publisher “drive” change? What makes a publisher omniscient? There have been plenty of unintended consequences in history, some positive, but many negative. How can PRH know in advance what consequences will be produced by the change it seeks to “drive”? There’s also the question of resistance to change. Many advances have been initially resisted by the powers that be, who did not fully understand them and/or comprehend that the benefits they would bring would outweigh their disadvantages. My favorite example is Viscount Melville‘s (in)famous condemnation of steam power in the late 1820’s:
Their Lordships of the Admiralty “felt it their bounden duty, upon national and professional grounds, to discourage to the utmost of their ability, the employment of steam vessels, as they considered that the introduction of steam was calculated to strike a fatal blow to the naval Supremacy of the Empire.”
Quite so! What’s to stop PRH or other publishers being similarly blinkered in their approach, and trying to either oppose change that would actually be beneficial, or “drive” change that’s actually inimical, to true progress? Who’s to say whether such changes will ultimately be positive or negative?
You may wonder why I’m devoting so much space and time to discussing a publisher’s perspective on change. The reason is simple. A publisher is the entity to whom many authors turn to sell their work – to get it in front of a (hopefully) paying public. How can we be sure that a publisher will put our interests ahead of – or, at the very least, treat them as equal in importance to – the causes and changes it hopes to engender, support or encourage in society? What are its priorities? Are they compatible with ours?
Our priorities as authors are, in most cases, relatively easy to state. We want to make a living from our work. If we can’t, we have to work at something else in order to make ends meet, and write in our free time – but such work may not leave us much free time at all, or may make us so tired and crotchety that our inspiration and productivity suffers. If we don’t have our publisher on our side, our priorities are likely to receive short shrift compared to its other interests. That leaves us holding the short end of the stick.
Frankly, I think Mr. Dohle’s statement is one of the best arguments for self-publishing or author publishing that I’ve ever heard! What say you, readers?