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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).

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.