By Susan Hawthorne
Bibliodiversity is a complex self-sustaining system of storytelling, writing, publishing and other kinds of production of orature and literature. The writers and producers are comparable to the inhabitants of an ecosystem. Bibliodiversity contributes to a thriving life of culture and a healthy eco-social system.
Global publishing in the twenty-first century is marked by a decreasing number of megapublishers and megaretailers achieved through mergers such as Random House and Penguin. These giant corporations are blurring the boundary of what it means to be a publisher or retailer. In this world of “products,” little importance is given to working with writers over an extended period, to publishing the quirky and the brilliant, the inventive, indeed to publishing anything but formulaic books based on the latest commercial success. Risky publishing – the books that will become staples for the next generation of readers because they have something new and daring to say – mostly emerges from the houses of independent publishers. Think of Virginia Woolf or James Joyce, even poets like HD (Hilda Doolittle). These three all have industries around them today but were self-published (Woolf by the Hogarth Press), published by a tiny outlet (Shakespeare & Company Bookshop in Paris for Joyce), or privately published (as in the case of HD).
By contrast, megacorp publishing is all about numbers, about sameness, about following a formula based on the latest megasuccess. Is it a JK Rowling lookalike story, a new erotic twist of seventy shades or a twilight zone filled with zombie characters who walk like those red-coated wooden soldiers? Big publishing and big bookselling with their big marketing will weed out anything different, flatten it, make it a one-size-fits-all cultural product. A line of books, like a line of lingerie. André Schiffrin wrote about the tension between the market and ideas in his book, The Business of Books: How international conglomerates took over publishing and changed the way we read (2001). He argued that a diversity of ideas should be aired publicly, in order to have a chance to be fully expressed and debated and that publishers should look to the long-term survival of ideas, rather than a quick sales boost.
But this model of ideas driving publishing cannot work in megacorp publishing where each book is expected to pay for itself and all the externalities of publishing such as offices and CEO salaries (although there can be small pockets where an individual or two is given their head for a while). It means that books which take off slowly but have long lives, the books that change social forms are less likely to be published by large multinational conglomerates.
Independent publishers are seeking another way. A way of engagement with society and communities and methods that reflect something important about the locale or the niche they inhabit. Independent and small publishers are like rare plants that pop up among the larger growth but add something different: perhaps they feed the soil and bring color or scent into the world.
The International Alliance of Independent Publishers defines an “independent publisher” as one who is not in receipt of funds or support, financial or in-kind, from institutions such as political parties, religious organizations or universities, that in return have rights to make decisions on publishing. This definition does not prevent publishers from receiving grants, but their publishing program should be one that is not decided by the granting authority. Other elements of the Alliance’s definition include the active participation in the running of the publishing house by those who provide the finance (e.g. publishing books is not a short-term profit vehicle for a bank or corporation). Furthermore, that the list is one in which frontlist and backlist work in conjunction with one another. Independent publishers should ask themselves questions about their ability to promote books with a wide-ranging bibliodiversity through public debate, working with independent booksellers and developing international partnerships with other independent publishers by producing co-editions and translations. The publishing of original work by authors is also an important element, in contrast to purchasing a sublicense for a mass-market book commodity.
Independent publishers are not hybrids, they are instead original seeds, the matrices, the sources of cultural diversity. They bring bibliodiversity to face the humongous behemoth of megapublishing and bookselling.
There are many challenges for independent publishers operating in the global marketplace. The advent of digital publishing opens new opportunities while simultaneously threatening a form of recolonization of ideas and intellectual property. Writers, publishers, booksellers, librarians, readers and reviewers operate in a politically charged environment. Publishing is a social, cultural and transformative activity, but it is also one that can be appropriated by those who are not on the side of social justice and fair speech.
Between the big publishers, the gloves are off: legal disputes, battles for market share are constantly in the media. But independent publishers are the heart of the industry. While definitions of what counts as independent vary to some extent across different territories and cultures, the key is that for independent publishers it means treating every book and every author in their specific context as part of their practice.
It means treasuring cultural knowledge and its creators. It means celebrating the power of ideas.
Susan Hawthorne is the author of Bibliodiversity: A manifesto for independent publishing (2014). She is Director of Spinifex Press in North Melbourne, Australia and English-language co-ordinator for the International Alliance of Independent Publishers, on the Board of the Independent Publishers Committee of the Australian Publishers Association. She is also Adjunct Professor in the Writing Program at James Cook University, Townsville.