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?


  1. I’d say at the very least it makes an incredibly good case for not buying anything PRH branded. It also makes an incredibly good case for shareholders to vote him out as CEO.

  2. Well, personally, I think on the one hand—and bear with me here—he’s kind of right. Sort of.

    Make no mistake, when I sit down and start work on a new book, one of the things I work through is what readers are going to take out of it. It’s one thing to have a grand adventure story, but in the end I want to leave a little sustenance behind that, something that people can think about. I want protagonists and characters that leave an impression on people, not just because they’re interesting and alive, but because they’re in some way making the reader think about themselves. Characters that will make a reader stop and think something along the lines of “Huh, that’s really noble/interesting/etc” and will leave an impact with them. Something to think about and consider in their own life, be it priorities, reaching out to a neighbor. Basically, I want the story I write to have something good in it that a reader can dig into.

    And in that regard, I see where this guys is coming from. You can write a story with a protagonist or plot that makes a reader sit back and think “Huh. I wish I was like that” or “I wish I did that more often in my life; how can I start?” You can write something that does bring with it something positive, that both supports it and perhaps asks the reader—subtlety—to think about it and consider it in their own life. And by doing so, by making some readers contemplate those questions, an author can be a force for some sort of change.

    But … here’s where we run into the part where he’s wrong. Because first and foremost, whether or not an author chooses to do this is entirely up to the author, not the publisher. And that’s where Dohle is going wrong. See, at the authorial level, it’s up to the author to decide what to do, what is “good” and what is “bad” by their context, etc.

    But I get the feeling (and the impression) that Dohle is not talking about that. Instead, it sounds as though he’s talking about the publisher making those choices for the author and dictating what will be sold and what won’t based on their own idea of what is “right” and what is “wrong.” And, quite frankly, we live in a world where there’s a lot of argument over those two terms, and what’s what. And for a publisher to throw down a gauntlet and say “We’re going to publish X to drive X change” … well, that is their choice. They can choose to do so. Everyone has to have standards of some kind.

    At the same time, who says that what they choose to be “acceptable” will be what everyone else agrees on? Which is what you were talking about. The market will ultimately decide, but …

    Personally, on an individual level, I do agree with the idea that author’s works can change the world. Books, even fantasy and science fiction, can teach us. Encourage us to look deeper, or think harder. To lend a helping hand, or consider points of view many have never seen. Books can make us laugh, cry, celebrate, dread, fear … and because of that, a book can make the world a better (or a worse) place. Hence my asking when I sit down to write what my readers will walk away with. What they gain. Maybe I won’t change the world … but if I can get one reader to gain a little more courage when they need it or the thoughts they need to make a change in their life for the better, then I call that a success (and it’s a success I’ve had).

    Now, a publisher choosing for everyone else? Well, that brings to mind any other situation wherein one person has enough power and platform to say “Yay or nay?” to ideas and concepts … it can be good or bad, depending on your point of view. Certainly it’s in Dohle’s power to do so at Penguin. And if people don’t like it, then they’ll vote with their wallets and things will change. And authors that don’t like it will find places that they do approve of. Like self-pub.

    Boy this really got away from me (and if it seems somewhat rambling, it is late and I am tired, so apologies in advance if my sleep-addled mind really went all over here). But bottom line, I think there’s truth to the idea that authors can be a force for change. After all, what reader hasn’t dreamed of being a little more like their hero? But the authors should be making that call the majority of the time, not the publisher. They’re free to reject or accept what they want, of course, but thankfully, as authors, so are we free to accept or reject them.

    And in that regard, and in answer to your question, I guess I would have to say: publish where you think you can do the most good.

    That’s why I went self-pub.

    1. Max, the issue that I have with this screed (Dohle’s not yours) is the attitude that books must have social value to be worthy of approval.

      I respect the writers who write pure “escapist fiction” just as much as any other writers – they may have no “social” value whatsoever, no “life-changing messages” – but they entertain.

      To someone undergoing chemotherapy, they can be an escape – or for the nurse that cares for a ward full of these patients. The firefighter who’s had a long day, and maybe not saved the person that “if we’d been just a few minutes earlier.” The man, woman, boy, or girl who’s just had another day of being bullied and demeaned at a job or school that they hate.

      All, to me, of just as much value in this world as the “thinking” pieces of fiction.

      1. Well, I’m not saying escapist fiction isn’t good, more that there almost isn’t such a thing as pure escapist fiction. Almost everything, even escapism, has ideas and thoughts we can learn from. Pure escapism, with no sustenance at all outside of adventure/entertainment, is very difficult to create. So difficult you’d have to almost deliberately try to create it.

        Most people would consider what I write escapist literature, since there are grand adventures and battles and good versus evil, and they’re right … but there’s still plenty of things buried in there to make readers think.

        I understand what you’re saying, but my personal opinion is that even escapism comes with ideas.

          1. Hah, no, most certainly not. But that’s also a good thing, since it shows they’re not overbearing, but they’re there if one looks, which is a pretty good way to be.

          2. Huh? HGTTG is full of ideas. Most of them involve nihilism in one sense or another, and none of them are particularly inspiring, but…

      2. Speaking as someone who’s has several loved ones unexpectedly pass away in the past few years and has had a deeply depressing, upsetting past couple of years, I couldn’t agree more. Escaping into a story of fun and adventure has been one of the few ways I’ve found respite from grief and disappointment.

        I don’t know if I could have coped as well without them.

        Stories that shriek at me for not being “progressive” enough (translation: For not being a special snowflake who bullies anyone not on the Approved List) interest me not at all.

  3. All business that are run in accordance with the law are a force for good.

    They produce products that people want to buy, which is a benefit to their customers. They provide jobs for people, which is benefit to their employees. They make a profit, which is a benefit to their shareholders and investors. They purchase goods and services from other companies, which is a benefit to their vendors.

    However, they are a force for good only in proportion to the efficiency with which they operate. A business that does not produce those goods that customers want to buy fails to be a force for anything, because it has less money to use to support its employees, investors, and vendors.

    Producing large quantities of books which are destined to be destroyed as unsalable–which all traditional publishers do–far outweighs any benefit that the content of the books they sell may have.

    1. What’s Penguin’s institutional culture about legal compliance anyway?

      Do they keep their books honestly and by best practices, so that they have no excuse not to pay their authors what they agreed to? Have executives been involved in any criminal conspiracies in the last decade or two?

      Is their organization something that engages the workforce and gets the job done, or is it a clusterfuck that alienates workers? (I’ve heard that thanks to management fads of the sixties and seventies, the general rule for large businesses is the latter. I blame communists.)

      ‘Good corporate citizenship’ is an emotionally attractive concept for very many people. It is also nebulous, and very likely outside the few things any institution actually knows how to do. (An organization can no more do everything perfectly than I can.) It seems easily turned to the ends of that portion of the lunatic fringe whose ideas are not actually illegal. (Someone who wanted to provide employment and services only for white people could not legally implement that in a very large business.)

      1. I had to take a class in “business ethics” some years ago. The basic thrust was that “good corporate citizenship” is exactly the same thing as “good individual citizenship” – except with responsibilities to the investors.

        You can ethically drive a less capable competitor out of business, even if they are all “good people.” So long as you are doing so by being more capable – not less ethical. That is the one big difference from individual “citizenship.”

  4. In the Western corporate world, there seems to be an embarrassment about being driven by such base criteria as the need to make a profit. My employer recently went through a company-wide and department-wide exercise in defining our vision and statement of purpose.

    Now, any company in any field has the same vision (to make money) and statement of purpose (to produce a product/provide a service that people will purchase), but that doesn’t seem to be enough for the modern corporation and employee.

    I was baffled at how my colleagues were trying to cram the equivalent of an encyclopedia into our department’s statement of purpose (in contrast, I was operating on the KISS principle). I’m pleased that my job isn’t mind-numbing boring (most of the time) and I feel a sense of accomplishment after a good day’s work. My job doesn’t define me, but I can’t say the same for my colleagues.

  5. Hey, if publishers want to do good, why not start by helping the people without whom they wouldn’t be in business? You know, the ones that provide the content that allows them to do well, while earning very little for the most part, except for the celebrities that get inflated advances. I didn’t notice anything about helping the authors in those lofty pronouncements. Because, as usual, the little people actually writing the books are not a priority. If Random Penguins has money to spare, why not raise royalty rates or mid-list advances? I’m sure the beneficiaries can use those spare funds to donate to charity and do even more good in the world (well, after paying the bills, which they probably won’t be able to do even then).

    And it’s even worse than that. Random Penguins only recently distanced itself from Author Solutions, a vanity press dedicated solely to exploiting naive writers, bilking them out of thousands of dollars and giving them nothing they couldn’t get on their own. How a corporation cold-blooded enough to do that can claim to be a force for good eludes me.

    1. “But that’s hard, and not popular among our friends. Why would we do that?”

    2. +1 to all of that, C.J. Carella.

      If a publishing company wants to be a “force for good,” why not stop drafting contracts that move ever closer to everything-for-me (the publisher) and nothing-for-you (the writer)?

      It sometimes seems to me that the more someone talks about their desire to be a “force for good,” the less they actually do about it.

    3. Some years back, a friend told me that Penguin had offered him a publishing deal. He refused. I was shocked, and asked him why. He said that Penguin wanted to buy the rights to his series, his world, his characters, and he wouldn’t be able to get them back, even if they decided he wasn’t selling, and they stopped publishing or circulating his book. In fact, if they decided to give his creation to another author to remake and write he’d not be able to protest, and he wouldn’t be able to sue.

      I thought about it and decided yeah, under those circumstances, I’d refuse too. It wouldn’t matter if I wasn’t selling huge amounts, but goddamn, that’s MY work, and my hard efforts. Why have someone else take that away from me, for a pittance? (Yes, the offer was also insultingly small.)

    4. > helping the people … the ones that
      > provide the content

      The slushpile is deep enough to provide “content” solely from people who would write for the chance to be “a real published author!” and a box of author copies.

      The only reason authors get paid at all is corporate inertia.

  6. It’s the same mentality that drives most of our modern media now. They don’t want to tell stories, they want to shape the world. And one look at the world they’ve shaped shows you how successful they’ve been.

    1. Dan Blather, when caught fabricating stories, angrily said “I don’t report the news, I *am* the new!”

      Yeah, Danny. You’d passed your sell-by date a few decades before…

    2. Consider that like lawyers, journalists make their living primarily off the misfortunes of others, and all is explained.

      (Now consider that in light of about 75% of the U.S. Congress being one or the other…)

    3. And how you can’t possibly be successful without being like them, and how being too successful means you’re stealing someone else’s success if you don’t, etc etc

  7. > What makes a publisher omniscient?

    They’re at the top of their own food chain, and they’re so used to holding the carrot and whip that they can’t visualize there’s life outside that system. “And next week all employees will submit to drug testing, and then you’ll report to work half an hour early every day for unpaid voluntary calisthenics and singing the company song.” [whipcrack!]

    Writers and readers still have use for publishers, but they can do without them if they want to. Now there can be direct contact between the writer and reader; the entire publishing industry is now optional, instead of the only choice.

    Better communications bypasses the gatekeepers.

    “The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.”

  8. I for one fully support the decision of Penguin Press, and hope other traditional publishers will also take this stand. Let them sell their message fiction, while we sell what people want to read.

    1. The problem is bad stuff(and over-priced at that!) drives readers away from reading altogether and into more fun stuff, like games.

  9. I suppose “Publishing”, in the larger sense of a channel for connecting the creative output of authors with the public that wants to read it, IS a force for good – and for bad, and for boredom, etc. depending on how well the creation meets the needs of each customer.

    No individual publisher can with certainty make the same claim – it may not succeed in creating or maintaining such a channel. But the desire to believe that YOUR particular instance of a general meme is representative of all that’s good in that meme is pretty common, so I can’t greatly blame Mr. Dohle’s self-delusion in that regard.

    Attempting to enlarge the meme to include your pet hobby horse is also common, but evidence of the sort of sloppy thinking that leads to bad management, unenviable financial results for your business, and competitive disadvantage against those with clearer visions.

  10. I don’t see that Mr. Dohle’s comments and Penguin’s corporate responsibilities to its shareholders are necessarily in conflict. There is a recognized asset value in a corporation’s “goodwill,” which is to say, its reputation. If Penguin feels its reputation will be enhanced by supporting what it feels to be positive change, then it is attempting to increase its goodwill, which directly impacts the bottom line. Not everyone will agree with this approach, but at least it’s a effort. If it doesn’t work then the market will voice its opinion. I suspect that the announcement was intended more for internal consumption, in any event, and whether it bears upon actual policy remains to be seen.

  11. ” 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.”

    The CEO of Penguin needs to be locked in a room with this speech playing continuously for 24 hours.

    1. This was the very exact thing that popped into my head when I read this post. I was going to post it as a reply, until I saw you had already done it.

  12. My comment to the CEO of Penguin is, that in looking though my idiotically large collection of SF, I find damn few of his books published in the last ten years or so.

    I do not deliberately boycott publishers. Yesterday I was -very- excited to plop down $30 [PLUS TAX!!!] for the latest Neal Asher. Why? Because I want to find out what Penny Royal has been up to. I did not know or care who published it. Turns out it was TOR. I hate TOR. But don’t care because Penny Royal!

    Is Neal Asher a visible minority? A woman? A liberal, or a conservative? Don’t know. Don’t care. Because Penny Royal.

    Maybe if publishers paid a bit more attention to awesome characters doing amazing things in outrageous places, they’d be selling a shit-locker full of books every month instead of watching all the book stores in the country slide slowly under the waves, like a torpedoed freighter. The merch section and the cafe at Chapters/Indigo gets larger with every passing season, while the books shrink.

  13. Went to my first LibertyCon. Enjoyed it a lot. Don’t think I met you Mr. Grant.

    As a business professor, firms have two obligations. Follow the law and make money. You go beyond that and you tend to hammer your profits. This is what I teach in class.

    By following the law and making money your employees, managers, owners all pay taxes. Taxes (through imperfect government) helps “do good” in society.

    When students tell me that business must help “other stakeholders” I respond that managers get fired for:
    1] failing to follow the law
    2] failing to follow company policy (including making the company look bad)
    3] not making enough money
    and that is it. Managers don’t get fired for making “stakeholders” angry.

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