Publishing Should be More About Culture Than Book Sales

21478693428_e80274e856_hIt seems too obvious to point out that publishing is a cultural activity, not just a process for corporations to make money. That being said, we rarely talk or write about publishing without talking about money, about book sales.

That’s because, even though contemporary publishing has seen the emergence of diverse independent publishers and the self-publishing boom, it is still dominated by multinational corporations. And corporations are all about the numbers.

Most books are produced by one of the “big five” publishing multinationals (Penguin Random House, Macmillan, HarperCollins, Hachette and Simon & Schuster).

Katherine Bode of Australian National University puts this figure at 74% of books in Australia. These transnational corporations are, by their very nature, focused on the creation of profit rather than the creation of culture.

In fact, for some of those multinational corporations, books and writing aren’t even the largest part of their business.

HarperCollins and Hachette are both subsidiaries of media companies (News Corp and Lagardère respectively). Commercial or “traditional” publishing is not so much aimed at telling a story and hopefully making a profit but at making a profit by telling a story.

In this publishing climate culture is always subsumed to business. The book and its story or narrative are merely a vehicle to generate sales and as such are understood as a unit of exchange rather than as an artefact of expression and/ or meaning.

In other words, publishing is viewed as a business not as a cultural activity. This perception of publishing as a business, even a creative one, means that the question of book sales dominates our conversations about it, rather than questions around how readers use books and book culture to develop a sense of the society in which they live and/ or a sense of themselves.


When we talk about publishing there is little discussion about the ways it contributes to culture, to the formation and expression of identity, to constructing notions of gendered, social, ethnic or national belonging.

Multinational corporations are not about culture, not about identity and belonging. And here lies the big problem. Culture (literature, music, cinema etc.) is about the mediation and expression of identity and belonging.

Although culture is sometimes, perhaps even often, accessed as part of a commercial transaction, it doesn’t need that transaction to fulfil its purpose, which is to communicate, express or muse over something.

Culture can and does thrive without being bought and sold. The huge amount of free culture on the internet attests to that. More to the point, the thing we value about culture doesn’t depend on a financial exchange but on a human exchange, an exchange of ideas and/ or experiences.

Most of us (the sane ones) do not value a cultural artefact or experience because of what it costs but because of the meaning we take or make from it. We also value it because of the effort, skill and expertise its creator put into it.

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.

I appreciate JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books because the character Hermione Granger kills me, not because Rowling made her publishers a gazillion bucks.

The process of finding meaning in the books we read, or making meaning from them, is one that goes far beyond any commercial transaction. These days it also goes beyond the page.

Our experience of a book is now supplemented by perusing reviews and blogs, engaging with print and screen media items about the book and its author, viewing or reading author interviews, attending book and writing related events and festivals and, for many of us, by participating in fan communities.

Few of these engagements depend on a financial transaction (excepting a festival entry fee here or there).

Though high sales figures might give an indication of social significance in a specific (often passing) moment, it doesn’t give us any sense at all of lasting cultural value.

The Twilight books by Stephenie Meyer were socially significant for a while, but it is doubtful that they will be valued (or even remembered) a hundred years from now, or even 50 years from now.

Not even the most ardent Twilight fan is likely to say that Meyer’s books are great cultural works.

Likewise, consider Peyton Place, the 1956 blockbuster novel by Grace Metalious. Peyton Place sold 60,000 copies within the first ten days of its release and stayed on the New York Times best seller list for 59 weeks.

It was also made into a successful film and then a hit prime-time television series.

Even so, until you read Grace Metalious’ name here it is likely you had never encountered it before. Grace Metalious is no Jane Austen, not even an Ernest Hemingway. Many books that are commercially and thereby socially significant for a time fail to find a long-term place of prominence in our culture.

When we talk about publishing these days, we have to talk about much more than book sales, even more than the written word and books themselves. We need to talk about all the things we do with and around books, our engagement with book culture.

In other words, we need to talk about publishing as a cultural practice, as something that contributes to or even constitutes who we are as individuals, who we are as citizens. We need to talk about publishing as a socio-cultural activity that helps us to understand our place in the world.

Publishing expresses and shapes our societies. It even plays a part in the kind of nations we live in. It would be wise, therefore, to broaden the conversation about it to more than sales figures.

In short, we need to shift our attention from publishing as a business process to thinking about publishing as an act of culture.

reposted under a CC license from The ConversationThe Conversation

images by mikecoghSGPhotography77

8 Comments on Publishing Should be More About Culture Than Book Sales

  1. Not really sure what point the author is trying to make except to imply that popular culture is somehow a lower form of expression than “serious” culture. And to suggest that in the end, only serious culture matters and lasts.

    Hemingway was a fine author (one of my favorites), but more people can probably name one of the Three Stooges (popular around his time) than a novel Hemingway wrote. And overall the impact of the The Wizard of Oz on culture 100 years from now will probably be more in evidence than either. More people will probably be reading it, and adapting it into other media, than The Old Man and the Sea.

    Shakespeare was a singular genius but the very low brow Punch and Judy show, created around the same time, also lasted for hundreds of years and had a big impact on story telling and theater culture.

    Jane Austin certainly was also a genius, but is her impact on culture stronger than Mary Shelley’s more pop-culture friendly Frankenstein?

    The post gives Harry Potter a pass (wise move) but decides to pick on Peyton Place and Twilight.

    Peyton Place was written by Grace Metalious who tragically died young at 39 after only publishing the one amazingly successful novel. Jane Austin also died young, but at least had four solid novels published during her life. I’m not sure the comparison says much, whatever you think of either’s writing. (If Sandra Bullock ever makes her film version of Metalious’ life, or someone else does, I wouldn’t write the Peyton Place off to the graveyard of obscurity.)

    As far as Twilight, it’s also a little early to write it off too. It’s creator, Stephenie Meyer is still in her early 40’s. She’s now a very successful film producer and I suspect she’s got more stories in her. It’s very likely there will be a remake of Twilight in ten-twenty years and a TV series and more books. I wouldn’t assume it won’t be read or talked about 100 years from now.

    Before the advent of self-publishing, there was more validity in worrying that the kinds of books being published by big companies might be too focused on generating short term profits. But given that any writer with a modest amount of effort can get their work out into the world, I’m not sure what the hand wringing about shifting the thinking from business to socio-cultural activity means. Does it mean that people should try to seek out less popular work? Or that government should financially support the arts?

    Lacking specific suggestions, it just smells like an argument for literary snobbery. Readers have more choice today than ever. Let them decide what has merit in their lives and let the next generation decide for themselves too. If history teaches us anything, it’s that many, many important cultural works were initially dismissed by serious reviewers and critics before they went on to become classics. Rarely does a society correctly predict what will last into future generations. I wouldn’t rule out Team Edward or Team Jacob.

    • I’m not really sure what he was going for, either. I was hoping someone could tell me.

    • “Peyton Place was written by Grace Metalious who tragically died young at 39 after only publishing the one amazingly successful novel.”

      Metalious published several novels after Peyton Place, including its sequel. She died at 39 from cirrhosis of the liver because she became an alcoholic after hitting it big with Peyton Place.

      The article isn’t an attack on popular culture. The author made his thesis quite clear: books are cultural artifacts and we should be more concerned with their cultural impact than their sales figures.

  2. There is a long history of the sniffy “cultural elites” denigrating pop culture in all its forms. They even coined the totally artificial distinction between “high culture” (ballet, symphonies, poetry) and “low culture” (pop, rock, country, genre fiction, etc).
    The biggest bone in their craw is that the masses enjoy and willingly pay for their preferred forms and hardly anybody votes their wallet for their favorites. You see it in litfic’ers and their volcano of crap theories.

    It is all baloney, of course.
    Nobody rational truly sets out to create culture. Culture is an emergent phenomenon that results from a society living its lives and making its decisions individually. It is constantly changing.

    The typical goal of the “high culture” proponents, usually from their ivory towers in academia is the proposition that if the masses won’t willingly pay for their forms of “artistic” expression they should be forced by the government to pay indirectly, through taxpayer subsidies.

    I enjoy a good ballet or symphony as much as any but these self-annointed “arbiters of culture” annoy me mightily. They are just another form of morality police trying to force *their* mores upon others. I’d happily see the entire snotty breed wiped off the face of the Earth.

    Ignore them.
    Better yet, mock them.

  3. To put it another way: no, publishing is a commercial venture.
    If you are asking to be paid you are creating commerce not culture.
    If you want to “create” culture post your “literature” online, for free. lets you put up websites for free.
    Or, there’s this place called WattPad…

    If the goal is to “create culture” then money should play no role whatsoever. Anything else is just posing.

  4. Shakespeare was thought to be low-brow, vulgar garbage in the English-speaking world for several hundred years after his death. His reputation was “rescued” in fact by German scholars around the start of the 19th century. Had these German scholars not seen something nobody in the Anglosphere did he very well might be forgotten today. (This tidbit is discussed in some detail in Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence.)

  5. Terrible article

  6. The other side of the coin from the big publishers is rising Independents, the cultural revolution of self published authors who, to gain readers, must create their own cultural persona to attract readers. Indie authors, like me, must attract readers by offering them a vision of things they offer the readers, with personal connections through newsletters and email lists. This is the opposite approach of the mega-publishers with huge sales techniques aimed at masses of readers which, as the author points out, creates sales, not culture. The new computer revolution of independent authors presents authors with both a challenge and an opportunity: to sell books through a personal connection with readers that creates culture, rather than a pure economic transaction as the big publishers are prone to do.

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