Yesterday, I flew from Edinburgh to Rome to spend New Year with my boyfriend and his family. I woke up, and my dad drove me to the airport. On this journey through the deserted motorways of East Lothian, the headlights of my dad’s aging Volvo lit up the billboards at the side of the road: two car adverts, one insurance advert and a car dealership sign. We arrived at 5.45 and I made my way through customs to catch a 7.05 plane. I passed signs telling me just how good Starbucks coffee is, as well as similar pleas for me to buy various alcohols and chocolates. By the time I’d sat down in seat 25F and fastened my seatbelt, I had switched my phone to airplane mode and the only advert I could now see was the one stuck to the seat in front me. The image of crisps made my stomach rumble, despite the early hour.
Today we can connect with the world and the world can connect with us in return. This is great, but we are nonetheless bombarded with images, slogans and sales pitches everyday; cars and crisps are the least of it! The mechanics of all of this can range from the obvious to the crafty, but it all comes down to the same thing: certain people want you to think a certain way and, where possible, for this enforced inclination to inspire you to part with the cash in your pocket.
For the most part, I like to consider the world of literature to be above such things. Book-related advertisement, as far as I can tell, remains subtle: televised advertisements for books are few and far between; posters- comparatively inoffensive in my opinion- are more numerous but nonetheless do not crop up everywhere you look. By all accounts, if you aren’t, in fact, already on the prowl for book deals, you most likely won’t find yourself wandering into Waterstones urged on by nothing but a subconscious desire planted the previous day by ITV2.
That being said, books do constitute media and it’s important to think about this. A book, whether fact or fiction, is a tightly-packed, 200-page anthology of information. Just like with forms of communication that are more conventionally considered as ‘media’- newspapers, radio, television, news channels, etc.- authors across the world also suffer censorship, both overtly and covertly.
What both interests and alarms me, moving onto the real crux of this post, is the way that Western styles of publishing fall in line almost identically with general (and scary!) statistics regarding media and publicity.
Christopher Bell in his inspiring Ted Talk about female superheroes tells us how 90% of American media outlets are controlled by only 6 companies, giving the leaders of these huge sway over how events are perceived across the US.
Astoundingly, publishing statistics are similar to this. 80% of all books published are from the ‘big 5’ (Penguin Random House, Harper Collins, Macmillan, Simon & Schuster and Hachette). This means that four fifths of our bookshops will be stacked with books from only 5 corporations. This lack of diversity is dangerous. Because someone, somewhere, has a hell of a lot of control over a massive chunk of the market. And the book market is a market of ideas that will shape and influence the thinking of thousands of people.
(See here: an illustration of the Big 5 and their imprints https://almossawi.com/big-five-publishers/)
I have written previously about the merits of reading. I firmly believe that the perspective you gain from reading books is nothing short of essential. This perspective, however, relies on the content of a book challenging a reader and their perceptions.
And someone, somewhere, can decide which perception they feel like challenging.
There is no immediate solution to this issue and I don’t mean to paint a picture of some kind of totalitarian book market. At this point, however, I must stress what I myself have only recently discovered to be the case: that a reader’s choice of publisher can be incredibly important.
The ‘Big 5’ may publish 80% of books, but the remaining 20% is divided between independent publishers and self-publishers. Independent publishers have absolute freedom over their choice of release; often non-profit organisations, these publishers have priorities that go beyond yearly turnover. Among these priorities are such things as diversity amongst authors, experimental writing, or even the simple matter of quality and literary merit. This means that some of the smallest publishers with the tiniest of profits are publishing the most exciting fiction.
Before I became involved in the publishing industry, I like to think that I would walk into a bookshop and think relatively carefully about what I would buy. My browsing process may not have been especially thorough, but it was not lackadaisical. I would be attracted to certain cover designs (that’s what they’re there for after all), I would recognise certain authors, I would ask advice where necessary, and I would read the first paragraph to assess whether I liked the style before making my way to the till.
This is where the browsing ended, completely unconcerned with the publishing house insignia dotted at the base of a book’s spine.
What I now know to be the case is that if you find a small publisher, or even a magazine, that prints the kind of book you like to read, they will likely deliver time and time again. The same team of staff are looking for the same kind of content, style, language or quality from the pieces they choose and there is a certain reassurance in this.
From this perspective, it’s a far better avenue for searching for new reading material.
And there are plenty to choose between. Even just in in Minneapolis, my current literary base, there are three highly respected independent publishers: Coffee House Press, Milkweed and Graywolf.
I’m by no means claiming that the publishing industry is warping our minds with subtle forms of brainwashing. Book lovers, however, are the smartest of the bunch in my opinion and the most willing to accept new avenues of thought. It may be worth us all taking some time to think about who is producing our reading material and why.
(See here: Christopher Bell’s Ted Talk, I can’t recommend it more! https://www.ted.com/talks/christopher_bell_bring_on_the_female_superheroes)