Is publishing the true cultural engine of our time?

The release today of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, based on Mohsin Hamed’s brilliant novel, reminded me to post this article I wrote for InPrint, the magazine of the Society of Young Publishers.  It was published last month, in the issue timed to co-incide with the London Book Fair.

Who drives our culture? Conventional wisdom says it is Hollywood. After all, it is the film industry that produces the most highly paid artistes and the most visible ‘A listers’. Film is a visual medium and it churns out icons at a steady, lucrative rate. The four-hour Oscars telecast is beamed live around the world.
By contrast, the announcement of the Man Booker Prize does not even get its own TV slot in schedules. The announcement is allowed to interrupt the news broadcasts, but the analysis and reactions are made to wait until a scheduled bulletin and it’s never the lead story.
Film claims global relevance, whereas publishing is parochial. Film claims to be popular, whereas publishing is elitist.
But winning the popularity contest is not the same as being culturally influential. Where are film’s ideas coming from? The answer is: the publishing industry. Of the ten highest grossing films released in 2012, seven were adaptations or derived from books. They included Marvel Comics’ The Avengers, DC Comics’ The Dark Knight Rises, Skyfall (featuring Ian Fleming’s James Bond), the first part of The Hobbit trilogy, and adaptations of Young Adult (YA) series The Twilight Saga and The Hunger Games. Of the top fifty grossing films of all time, twenty-five are drawn directly from books.
One might argue that the adaptations on the list are so numerous because of the large number of sequels, and the prevalence of genre stories like Harry Potter and Twilight, which are both at once fantasy, and YA stories. But why does that matter? JK Rowling and Stephanie Meyer are writers working in the medium of the novel.
What about the Oscar winners? Surely the less populist and rnore worthy Best Picture winners are less reliant on literature’?
Not really. Ben Affleck‘s Argo, which won the Best Picture statuette at the most recent awards ceremony, is based on The Master of Disguise, a memoir by the CIA agent Tony Mendez. The King’s Speech was also a memoir before it was a play and a film, Slumdog Millionaire was adapted from Vikas Swarup’s Q&A. Cormac McCarthy wrote No Country for Old Men.
In all cases, the stratospheric success of these stories began as a partnership between an author and a brave publisher, both willing to take risks, in order to bring their ideas to readers. Hollywood may be making money from these stories now, but it was the publishing industry that incubated the idea and took the real risks.
It is noteworthy how publishing shapes other areas of culture too. Look closely at the investigative journalism or the tales of adventure, power and celebrity featured in the Sunday newspapers, and you will find a great deal of it is extracted from a memoir or other non-fiction. Academic ideas and political philosophies are given their definitive expression in the form of the book. A packaged collection of words is still the most durable way we humans can disseminate meaningful, world-changing ideas and stories.
Why does this most obvious of truths need to be restated? Because driving and changing our culture requires certain arrogance, and I worry that the current mood of the industry discourages such self-confidence in young publishers who are just starting their careers. Publishing has been shaken by the digital revolution, and the threat that cheap print-on-demand and e-Book publishing poses to its business models. Large companies merge, and acquire the independent presses. In doing so, the workforce is ‘streamlined’ to ensure margins are maintained. In such an economic climate, risk taking declines as publishers seek the safety of tried and tested genres and authors. None of this encourages the self-belief that young publishers must internalise if they are to become the cultural influencers that we need.
This is a shame, because it is precisely the digital revolution that will allow a new generation of publishers to make their mark on culture. For one thing, start-up/up-start publishers no longer need to sink money into extensive print-runs, when one can publish digitally or PoD. But more importantly, our networked globe brings new, unheard voices closer to British publishers and Anglophone readers. An author in Australia can submit their manuscript to an editor in the UK, and the editorial meetings can take place over Skype or Google Hangout. The publisher does not need to keep an office in Bloomsbury – Sudbury, Norbury or Shrewsbury will suffice.
Most importantly, globalisation means the increased availability of authors from other cultures and countries. Despite efforts from the publishing industry, and the fantastic work of organisations such as the British Centre for Literary Translation, Words Without Borders, Literature Across Frontiers and English PEN, the amount of literature published in translation in the UK and USA is woefully small.
If were a young publisher today, I would look abroad to the untapped reservoir of literature written in other languages. Pick a country, do some online research, make contacts via social media, and then take a literary trip to discover some new writers to translate and publish in the UK. It is in this manner that the next cohort of publishers will make their names and their fortunes. But to take such a step requires huge self-confidence, grounded in a belief that publishing – and publishers – are the true cultural engines of our time.

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