The Problem With Publishing

I’ve posted about how publishing has gone off track, but this comment from John Wright on Vox Day’s page lays it all out.

““Publishing is undeniably a force for good,” Dohle continued. “But working in an industry that is inherently a service to society …”.”

Would that Robert Heinlein could rise from his grave, and with a scabby, undead but talented hand grasp this prideful weasel by the throat and explain the following in the breathy whisper stinking of the fumes from hell:

Markus Dohle, you dolt. We are in the clown business. Our job is to make the customer smile, or laugh, or on rare occasion, ponder some new thought, but only if it entertains him. We are not his teacher, his father confessor, his mother or his guru. We are his servant, the fool the king keeps by his throne to kick. In a free market, the customer is king.

We are competing for his beer money. He could buy a computer game, a comic book, a pack of songs or a pack of smokes instead with the money we ask him to plunk down on the barrel head for books about space marines in power armor or men from Mars named Smith.

If the customer wanted us to do social engineering, they would have voted for us for alderman. If they wanted us to lead a crusade, they would have written a letter to the Pope.

They want us to sing a song, say a poem, tell a love story, tell a tall tale of adventure, make dark days bright, boring days memorable, and to remind them of what the world really should be.

It is a godlike task, not to be taken lightly. But that is the whole task.

Shut up and publish books. If honest love of honest craftsmanship is not enough to make you love your work, them go pass out soup to the poor in a soup kitchen.

MR. Wright is paraphrasing a bunch of things that Heinlein said over the years that are even more true now than when they were first written.

Peter Grant also has more to say about Mr. Dohle’s pronouncement.

I wasn’t surprised (but I was disappointed) to read this statement from Penguin Random House CEO Markus Dohle:

“Publishing is undeniably a force for good. But working in an industry that is inherently a service to society, we risk subscribing to the notion that this is enough. It’s not. We ought to do more—and we can—by taking advantage of our capacity as Penguin Random House to drive positive social, environmental, and cultural change, locally and globally.”

The statement was accompanied by a video message to PRH employees.

The scary thing is, Mr. Dohle undoubtedly believes his statement – yet, equally undoubtedly, it’s catastrophically wrong.  Almost every corporation (in a capitalist society, at any rate) exists primarily for the benefit of its owners and investors.  If they aren’t making a profit, the company is usually seen as a liability to them, not an asset, and they’ll probably sell it or close it down in short order.  That’s the reality of modern business in a capitalist society.  Investors may care personally about ‘social, environmental, and cultural change’, but that’s generally not why they invest in a corporation.  They do so to make money, with which they can then indulge their personal interests and perspectives.

Furthermore, there’s no evidence whatsoever that publishing is “inherently a service to society”.  Sure, some of what is published may be regarded as a service – for example, information leaflets and pamphlets explaining government services that are available to citizens.  However, the production of those service materials still incurs a cost that someone has to pay.  If they can’t be sold at a profit, then their production must be subsidized by some other means – usually by taxpayers, who are seldom consulted as to whether or not they approve of this use of their resources.  As for other items, they’ll be paid for by those who benefit from or support them.

  • Companies will pay for advertising, whether in the form of column space in a newspaper, pixels on a screen, or self-promoting books published in the name of public relations.
  • Consumers will pay for books that they want to read.
  • Politicians will write books for sometimes obscenely large advances (that are seldom, if ever, earned back by sales of the books).  The payments are often thinly-disguised quid pro quo payments for “services rendered”, or political donations by executives and industry pressure groups.  They’re also made at the expense of shareholders in the publisher(s) concerned, who are thus deprived of that income.

Mr. Dohle says:  “…we ought to do more – and we can”.  My immediate question is:  who says that PRH ought to do more?  I don’t see most shareholders clamoring at annual meetings for their company – and that’s what it is, after all;  their company – to become some sort of corporate social justice warrior.  The only such pressure on PRH and companies like it comes from those who see corporations as entities to be manipulated and/or bullied into supporting their positions.  Greenpeace is a classic example, as (allegedly) are political activists such as Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton.  Follow the links to learn more about how they allegedly “shake down” their corporate targets.

There’s also the question of why PRH (and, by extension, other publishers) should do more.  Surely their emphasis, their focus, should be on increasing their profitability, and thereby the returns to their shareholders and investors?  The latter could then use some or all of the profits on their investments to support causes, activities and individuals  with whom they agree or are in sympathy.  For a corporation to play fast and loose with its owners’ money, in order to undertake or promote activities that have little or nothing to do with its core commercial activities, is, to put it mildly, disingenuous.

Finally, why should a publisher “drive” change?  What makes a publisher omniscient?  There have been plenty of unintended consequences in history, some positive, but many negative.  How can PRH know in advance what consequences will be produced by the change it seeks to “drive”?  There’s also the question of resistance to change.  Many advances have been initially resisted by the powers that be, who did not fully understand them and/or comprehend that the benefits they would bring would outweigh their disadvantages.  My favorite example is Viscount Melville‘s (in)famous condemnation of steam power in the late 1820’s:

Their Lordships of the Admiralty “felt it their bounden duty, upon national and professional grounds, to discourage to the utmost of their ability, the employment of steam vessels, as they considered that the introduction of steam was calculated to strike a fatal blow to the naval Supremacy of the Empire.”

Quite so!  What’s to stop PRH or other publishers being similarly blinkered in their approach, and trying to either oppose change that would actually be beneficial, or “drive” change that’s actually inimical, to true progress?  Who’s to say whether such changes will ultimately be positive or negative?


Publishing’s scary self-delusion

Of course the self indulgence has spread to just about every type of media. Which is to be expected because Mr. Dohle’s boss runs in the same circles as the bosses of the other media conglomerates.  That’s the big problem with near monopolies. especially when they lose touch with the customers. The forget why they exist and pursue ends that may not appeal to the customer, causing an inevitable drop off in business, like marvel comics is having.

When you hear people in media talk about the lost customers lately they tend to insult them.  The lost customers are all bigots or racists, they are too stupid, to crude to understand.  Look at the response when most people responded negatively to the recent ghostbusters trailer.  Here’s a clue people, it’s not us, but you that you have to worry about.  We, the reader and viewer will take our dollars elsewhere if we don’t like what you produce. That’s not our fault it’s yours.  As is said above, the customer is king and if you don’t a product that meets our needs for entertainment, yo are going to have to change the product.

Insulting and demeaning the customers does not end well.  Calling your customers racists and Nazis, like an employee of a major science fiction publisher did last year  is not going to make them want to read your stuff.  In the end the only way to success is to know your markets and keep them happy. It’s just that simple.



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