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A lack of authentic stories: the consequences of monopoly and monopsony in publishing

By Tom Perrett

Earlier this year, author L.L. McKinney started the Twitter hashtag #PublishingPaidMe, calling for authors to share the advances they had received for their books. The results revealed that Black authors with well-established fanbases still found it difficult to secure advances, as Jesmyn Ward, for example, the first woman ever to win 2 National Book Awards for fiction, stated that she had to “wrestle” her way to a $100,000 advance even after having won the awards.

Publishers typically only offer authors high advances when they are convinced that the book will sell, as according to Constance Grady, authors typically receive royalties of approximately 10% of book sales. The amount an author gets in advances is determined by a subjective judgement on how well the book is expected to sell, according to profit and loss calculations. But this is filtered through a lens of each editor’s biases, reflecting the tastes of the management sector and upper echelons of the publishing industry. These financial and commercial barriers to entry are particularly punishing in the United States; low salaries of around $30,000 are combined with requirements for publishers to live in places such as New York City or Los Angeles, with astronomical living costs. As a result, those who typically work in publishing are those with alternative sources of income, or rich families, and these are the people determining which voices are heard, and which are excluded.

The monopolistic nature of the publishing industry means that, in the absence of genuine predictive data for the projected success of a book, publishers have nothing but precedent and the word of editors on which to base their judgements, meaning that books are likely to be selected on how well they can appeal to a white, middle class target demographic, and which books cover genres that are already popular.

To rectify this problem, it has been suggested that the commissioning, editorial and managerial positions which are overwhelmingly occupied by privately educated people are occupied by groups not traditionally represented in publishing, allowing the decisions about which books are marketed and which authors receive advances to be made by a diverse and representative body. This may also help to broaden the scope of the subjects that emerging authors can write about, as at present, the need to appeal to the aforementioned demographics creates a lack of interest in authentic stories, with writers encouraged to appeal to the preconceptions of a voyeuristic audience.

But it is not only at the most senior levels within publishing that these disparities exist; it is at lower organisational levels that substantive change must take place. Publishing is intimately connected with sales and marketing professions, who bear much of the responsibility for the promotion of new books. The BWG (Black Writers Guild) have cited the representation of Black professionals in these areas as an important element in improving the presence of Black voices in publishing, but this applies to the industry more generally. Within retail, book purchasing remains a centralised, monopolised affair, as an increasingly small number of firms wield an increasingly disproportionate amount of market share, encouraging the purchase of a limited range of books by authors who already have a reputation for lucrative sales. When combined with the white and middle-class demographic that publishing appeals to, it is unsurprising that the monopsony control over the book distribution market by a few firms is such a significant contributor towards the disparities within publishing.

This is not only a result of the demographic of the sales and marketing professions, but the underlying dynamics that drive the accumulation of Capital and the preclusion of high street retailers and smaller, regional establishments from being able to command large audiences, or justify paying high advances. Action, therefore, may have to be taken at the State level, as part of a broader initiative to widen participation in the arts and culture more generally, breaking up the monopsony of major buyers such as Amazon, and opening up markets to smaller, more independent retailers.

Bibliography

de León, C. & Harris, E. A. (2020) ‘#PublishingPaidMe and a day of Action Reveal an Industry Reckoning’, The New York Times, 8 June. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/08/books/publishingpaidme-publishing-day-of-action.html (Accessed: 21 July 2020).

Grady, C. (2020) ‘Black authors are on all the bestseller lists right now. But publishing doesn’t pay them enough.’, Vox, 17 June. Available at: https://www.vox.com/culture/2020/6/17/21285316/publishing-paid-me-diversity-black-authors-systemic-bias (Accessed: 21 July 2020).

Lee and Low Books. (2020) ‘Where is the diversity in publishing? The 2019 diversity baseline survey results.’, Lee & Low Books, 28 January. Available at: https://blog.leeandlow.com/2020/01/28/2019diversitybaselinesurvey/ (Accessed: 21 July 2020).

Rowe, A. (2020) ‘Diversity in Publishing Hasn’t Improved in the Past 4 Years’, Forbes, 31 January. Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/adamrowe1/2020/01/31/diversity-in-publishing-hasnt-improved-in-the-past-4-years/#73f9c67f5c41 (Accessed: 21 July 2020).

Saha, A. & van Lente, S. (2020) Re:Thinking ‘Diversity’ in Publishing. Available at: https://www.spreadtheword.org.uk/projects/rethinking-diversity/ (Accessed: 21 July 2020).

Supporting a diverse, independent publishing industry

The impacts of COVID-19 on all sectors have been immense, but perhaps one of those hardest hit is the independent publishing industry. Already heavily reliant on events to garner income, as well as book sales, with no dedicated financial support from the government, many small publishers across the UK are on the brink of closure.

Yet the importance these outlets play in society is immense. If the publishing landscape folds in upon itself, with only the largest and strongest companies surviving, all evidence suggests there will be a huge fall in diverse authors – not to mention those from disadvantaged backgrounds. The drive for profits and perceived commercial viability, arising from the stereotyping of those from privileged backgrounds who dominate the industry, means supporting diversity will have little priority.

People from Black and Minority Ethnic Backgrounds; those with disabilities; group who have direct experience of significant social exclusion, with powerful accounts to convey – all these (already under-represented within literature) will be pushed further to the sidelines.

Our charity, The Arkbound Foundation, has therefore launched a collaborative crowdfunding campaign, with the sole aim of continuing its key work with diverse and disadvantaged authors, whilst supporting the wider sector.

To find out more, please visit:https://www.crowdfunder.co.uk/access-to-publishing

Publishing’s Disparities

By Tom Perrett

The regional, social, cultural and economic disparities in the publishing world are overwhelming, as the publishing industry remains dominated by a white, middle class, privately educated cross section of British society. According to ONS figures, 47% of British authors, writers and translators had professional middle class parents, in contrast to just 10% whose parents had worked in routine, manual professions. The Big 5 Publishing houses (Macmillan, Penguin, Simon & Schuster, Harper Collins and Hachette) are all based in London, with only the latter two having revealed plans to relocate staff outside the Capital. Given the astronomically high costs of living and renting there, and the necessity to work to supplement any internships or placements, it is unsurprising that the publishing industry remains such a nepotistic, exclusionary environment. Only the Northern Fiction Alliance, a network of publishers headed by Manchester’s Comma Press, has come close to challenging the dominance of the London-based publishers.

Sociologist Mike Savage conducted a study into how social, cultural and economic capital can be analysed together as a means of engendering class divisions, arguing that inherited networks of privilege and prestige have enabled white, middle class writers to monopolise the most prominent positions. The surveys carried out by the Common People anthology found a widespread belief among the writers that creative or literary pursuits were not looked upon as viable in many working class communities. The perception of working class identity as exclusively Northern and focussed around manual, practical work is rapidly becoming less accurate; automation and deindustrialisation have stripped communities of these professions, and tertiary, service-sector occupations are becoming more entrenched.

The importance of recognising the plurality of voices that make up British society through the medium of publishing cannot be understated; the recognition of a broad range of identities and experiences is a means of self-assertion for otherwise marginalised groups. In a world increasingly dominated by the interests of monopolistic multinational corporations that have stymied the opportunities for working class or BAME communities to have their voices heard (5 billionaires own 80% of the British media), it is crucial that other platforms can be utilised to foster a diverse, pluralistic portrayal of what the working class is really like.

Moreover, the 2019 election result and the collapse of Labour’s ‘Red Wall’ represented, in part, a frustration with not just a political establishment, but a perceived metropolitan, London-centric cultural elite. The decentralisation of publishing, and the ability for more working class writers from provincial towns and otherwise left behind areas, could not only provide a means of self-assertion and job creation, but a counter to the narrative of a bigoted, parochial and insular working class. A common refrain among right-leaning commentators was that winning back the ‘Northern heartlands’, required the adoption of a socially conservative, nationalistic worldview, reflecting an older section of the population. This indicates that the multiplicity of perspectives that constitutes the diverse working class areas across Britain is not being represented in its entirety.

Kit de Waal cites the work of Scottish writers such as James Kelman and Irvine Welsh and its role in capturing the experiences of unemployment and urban decay in Scotland when Thatcher closed down the mines, and the work of Thomas Morris, who chronicled unemployment and the precarity of work in Caerphilly. The recognition of the multitude of voices that constitute working class identity allows these stories to become commonplace, rather than playing into the expectations of a voyeuristic middle class audience, writing fiction which is tailor-made to focus on the exceptional stories. Dr. Anamik Saha, currently a lecturer at Goldsmiths, has noted that these problems also affect British Asian writers, as they too are often compelled to write constricting and one-dimensional narratives for the consumption of white audiences, that portray a limited vision of their experiences. The broadening of the publishing industry to include more such voices could potentially allow a greater authenticity and depth of writing to come to the fore.

The subject of the underrepresentation of working class voices in the publishing world is not a stand-alone problem; other industries such as retail, printing and marketing are affected by publishing, which is why the decentralisation of the publishing trade and its expansion into areas outside of London and the South East could create jobs and stimulate investment. The impact that publishing has on creative sectors such as film and theatre is also considerable; the dominance of the middle class and privately educated in the creative sectors is more entrenched now than ever before. But for as long as publishing continues to represent such a minute cross-section of British society, a multiplicity of perspectives, experiences and outlooks will continue to be neglected.

Diversity and the Publishing Industry

Tom Weldon, chief executive of Penguin Random House UK, noted that the book industry will ‘become irrelevant’ if it continues to fail to reflect and represent the diverse range of voices within our society.

There are many reasons for this, including a lack of contacts within the publishing industry, low levels of confidence, poor experience of mainstream schooling and sometimes greater needs around developing young people’s writing. There are many under-represented communities within the book world, including individuals from poorer backgrounds, from LGBTQ or BAME communities, or writers with a disability.

‘The past 10 years of turbulent change affecting the UK book industry has had a negative impact on attempts to become more diverse’, Professor Claire Squire states in The Writing Future, and if the publishing industry continues down this path, it ‘risks becoming a 20th century throwback out of touch with a 21st century world’.

Attempts have been made to tackle the publishing diversity deficit; Random House launched its new #WriteNow Initiative aiming to discover and mentor authors from the UK’s most under-represented communities in 2016. Authors Sunny Singh and Nikesh Shukla created the annual Jhalak Prize for Book of the Year by a Writer of Colour, an award that intends to ‘celebrate the achievements of British writers of colour’. Pioneering efforts by English PEN, the founding centre of a worldwide writers’ association with 145 centres in over 100 countries, who campaign to ‘defend writers and readers in the UK and around the world whose human right to freedom of expression is at risk’, matching writers with marginalised groups such as people in prisons, in refugee or detention centres and young people in disadvantaged areas. The Arts Council England dedicates funding to support writers from disadvantaged backgrounds. However, disproportionate obstacles to getting published for disadvantaged authors continue.

Whilst the rise of digital publishing and self-publishing services means that more writers can get their work published, there are still challenges in effectively stocking and selling books, which directly impacts what gets read. Promotion and distribution are challenges that self-published authors and even those with an independent publisher face.

The result is a gap or omission in whose accounts, voices and experiences are heard, causing common stereotypes to go unchallenged, or even reinforced by other, more privileged accounts who may misappropriate or misrepresent different narratives.

Literature plays a huge role in exploring the current socio-political climate and debate, reflecting on various aspects of society and highlighting the need for action or change. From the work of Charles Dickens to Zadie Smith, a book can really change the world. However, when some authors are excluded from being published and platformed, it is not only unfair to them as individuals but denies society the opportunity from accessing their unique perspectives.

At Arkbound, we recognise the diversity deficit in publishing and seek to address it by supporting authors from disadvantaged backgrounds. Founded in early 2015, Arkbound is an innovative and unique publisher that bridges the gap between contemporary and ‘vanity’ publishers by offering writers a chance to publish their work in a supportive and sustainable manner.

Supporting individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds, Arkbound believes firmly in the power of writing as a healing and inspirational tool. Invested in developing creative talent, promoting social inclusion and breaking down barriers within the publishing industry, Arkbound is a publisher with social enterprise at heart. Many of our titles focus on under-represented voices and have supported authors working with charities like First Stop Darlington on Roofless and Emmaus for No Homeless Problem (to be published in April) to curate collections of poetry that looks at narratives of homelessness and the critical issues that are at the heart of current social and political debates.

Arkbound’s social enterprise efforts are centred around training individuals who want to enter the publishing world, offering alternative routes and equipping people with the skills and knowledge to make their dreams a reality. The Publishing Excellence Programme, launched in 2017, is just one way we try to ensure that everyone gets the opportunity to work in publishing, with many candidates carrying on to secure paid work placements. Our ‘Zooker Award‘ also endeavours to acknowledge debut books by diverse authors with an environmental or social message that encourages their readers to make positive changes, whilst Arkbound’s annual writing competition can sponsor entries from disadvantaged writers.

There is still a great way to go, with many challenges making things difficult to tell a range of stories that are truly representative of our time and society. Arkbound is committed to building sustainable futures for a diverse range of authors and will continue to keep bridging divides within the publishing industry.