What Does it Mean to Publish?

On Tuesday Mark Fisher invited me to talk with some MA students at Goldsmiths about publishing, publicity and the public. As is usually the case I didn’t really know what I wanted to say until slightly after I had stopped talking, so I am leaving a couple of notes here.

In the morning session Federico Campagna (who works at Verso, but was there speaking in a personal capacity) talked, among other things, about how a book publisher does more than present individual books to the public. He or she acts as the organizer and articulator of a world-view. And this is a useful place to start.

Publishers are actors in time. They make good on editorial decisions through the market and media relations that they carry from project to project. Most of their books might lose money, some of them will wildly underperform, but the occasional successes subsidise the failures and mean that shops will continue to give them shelf space. Similarly, the publisher might, as it were, mis-speak, publish a book that sits uneasily with the rest of the list. But for the most part the books, taken together, are part of a unified proposition, a way of approaching the world.

The publishers I have met, those who were serious about what they did, were up to something with the books they published. None of the books were exactly right in themselves – the publisher knew that the books belonged to the authors and, ordinary commercial hypocrisy aside, they didn’t go along with everything in any of them – but the individual books were pieces in something larger and more mysterious that they, the publishers, were making. Together they were a self-effacing monument to a publisher’s taste, to their acumen, to their ambition to make the world a little different.

A book publisher, a fully realised book publisher, is in the world-view business. He or she is always one among many in the same line of work, and far from the most important. Nowadays they find themselves inside media conglomerates with limited room for manoeuvre. Even at their most powerful and autonomous they barely registered when compared with the state and the mass media. The development and propagation of world-views is a deadly serious thing. It’s what lies at the heart of the relationship between Google and the NSA, just as it lay at the heart of the relationship between the CIA and the networks, between MI5 and the BBC.

And it’s the world-view business I want all of us to take an interest in. Not because I think we should all be book editors. I don’t want to be a book editor most of the time, and I am a book editor. But because the decision to test our ideas against the best evidence is the decision to become adult. And this is only possible if we are commissioning as well as consuming the information on which we rely.*

An audience that cannot reflect on what is presented to it, that cannot take a view on the sum of cultural output, and that is kept innocent of the material conditions of political reporting, such an audience cannot call itself adult. It cannot function as a governing public.

That’s what I wanted to explain on Tuesday.

*The social media campaign to persuade the BBC to discuss questions about Conservative campaigning in the 2o15 election is perhaps a kind of embryonic public commissioning.

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