Guest blog: Why publishing matters

Blog (2017)

By Max Porter, Author of Grief is the Thing with Feathers

It is hard not to feel conflicted about publishing. Feeling conflicted is healthy.

In this current global crisis some thoughts of futility are inevitable. What’s the point of publishing books now? What does any of this mean, these novels, these picture books, these text books, these poems. I have a fairly strong conviction on this front. It is more important than ever. Literature is the lifeblood, the future, the resistance, the collective intellectual identity, the pulse of a civilisation.  We have an astonishing array of weapons in our arsenal, as a community.  These clever people, these brave and intelligent and soulful people. If it is our job to support them, nurture them, protect the conditions whereby they can still have a voice, then that is a job worth doing.  Writers are our conscience and our arm. JK Rowling for prime minister.

But inside the physical world of publishing, once these existential worries have been put aside, it’s still likely we might feel conflicted about this industry.

It is possible to envisage an analogy of publishing as a crusty old man.  Dining in his club, still making books and still selling books as he did in the 18th century. Publishing IS systematically flawed.  Unfair, irrelevant, out of touch, sexist, racist, elitist, clinging sadly to the old fantasy that printed matter is sacred, that editors have unique insights possibly gleaned from their years in an Oxbridge college, guarding the old ways, fiercely protecting this eccentric pastime of reading from the dangerous threats of a rapidly changing world, lurching about in dusty bookshops railing against the short attention spans and vulgar appetites of the youth.

We feel all these things, it is only right that we do. But we can allow that some of these things are OK, some of the old ways. I myself AM VERY FOND of the crusty old man. He has some things to teach us, for sure.  He means well and tells good stories and we have to love stories.  And printed matter is still radical technology.  Still fit for purpose.  Editors are still useful.  Bookshops are still citadels of light.  The royalty system is fairly fool-proof and pleasingly adaptable.  Literary agents are necessary, in some instances even brilliant, people.  And so on.  We can’t chuck the old ways out, we just need to pay close attention and keep the old ways interrogated, checked against the new ways, respectfully listening to the old man while not being afraid to call him out on his antiquated ways, some of his language, his wandering gaze, his belching, his habit of mansplaining to interns.

And then when we’re in a good mood, we have a publishing industry it’s hard not to feel almost tearfully proud of.  It’s hard not, in this times, to walk into a book fair and scream, “MY PEOPLE – I LOVE YOU!”  Publishing is a living, breathing, radical, open, constantly changing hive of brilliant minds plugged into the world, a fluid membrane and a powerful vehicle for change, for preservation of important things, for education, for diversity of opinion.  It’s a family affair and it’s an extraordinary family to be a part of.

The trailblazers nominated for tonight’s award represent the absolute best of this, appreciation for the old ways, combined with a relentless and imaginative quest for new skills, new ways of doing it.  If these people on this list represent the industry today it’s an industry we should all be hugely excited to be a part of.  It’s become very popular for CEOs to speak of content, to think of publishers content seekers, hashtag content, and these trailblazers are a phenomenal case study of the breadth and depth of the content being sought, handled, transformed, packaged, sold, shared, pulled apart and refined, investigated and understood.   From digital platforms to audio, to theatre, to research, they are looking the good old ways of doing business and checking them against the challenges and possibilities of today’s changed and charged environment.

And they are being kind.

And they are being nice.  And funny, and collegiate, and curious, and ambitious, and astute.  They are working laterally, sharing expertise, having conversations outside of the narrow economic imperative. And they are doing it for the right reasons.

Their CVs alone are enough to make the crusty old man of British publishing run away sobbing to his country house, but he should not be scared, these trailblazers are his friends, his heirs, they run the game now.  The trailblazers are 360 degree publishing professionals, and this is exciting.

They are obliged to look forward, 5, 10, 50 years ahead, to what publishing will mean, what is can do, how it must change.  But they are also keenly aware of what has come before, they extend an olive branch of peace and respect to the extraordinary heritage of trailblazers before them.  Publishing is nothing if not a lineage of passionate trailblazers all with a penchant for good stories and well-designed printed objects.

But perhaps most importantly and excitingly, the people on this list tonight are looking sideways.  They are looking at other platforms, other media, other industries, other countries, other traditions, to ensure that publishing is as vibrant and relevant and fit for purpose as possible.

It is an honour to recognise these people with you here tonight.  Thank you to the judges and London Book Fair for having this category, for seeing the need to celebrate innovation and ambition.  It shows that they are an organisation concerned with change, and this is hugely encouraging.  It shows that as an industry we want to take punts on people.  It’s good to take a punt.  Publishing is built on punts.  I’d still be picking my nose in a bookshop if someone hadn’t taken a punt on the notion that a bookseller might make a decent editor.  And as a fusty Luddite more at home with a weathered poetry pamphlet than an iPad, with one foot in the old world and one foot in the new, I am simply thrilled to meet these people tonight, celebrate their achievements and follow the trail they are blazing.   Please raise a glass to the ambition, intelligence, passion and brilliance of the Trailblazers.

This was first published on BookBrunch 02.02.17

Photo credit: Lucy Dickens