Sunday, July 10, 2011

On Publishing as a Moral Economy

Here is a copy of the paper I delivered on Friday at the Moral Economies of Creative Labour conference hosted by CRESC, at the University of Leeds...

Anecdotal wisdom tells us that as an example of a sound business model the publishing industry is flawed. Before even a page is printed, vast amounts of time and sums of money are spent without any guarantee that anyone will like–much less buy–the product. Taking this as a starting point, this paper examines the degree to which publishing reflects a moral rather than a market economy.

Andrew Sayer explains the moral economy as the study of how economic activities of all kinds are influenced and structured by moral dispositions and norms; he also notes how those norms may be compromised, overridden or reinforced by economic pressures.[1] Changes in publishing over the last sixty years -- particularly the ever larger mergers of once independent, small houses demonstrate precisely this process. Economic imperatives have encroached on a trade that prided itself on being, at least partially, unmotivated by economic imperatives in deference to the greater cultural ‘good.’ The veteran US publisher Joseph Epstein, for instance, advances his belief that in spite of these changes, at heart…

Trade book publishing is by nature a cottage industry, decentralized, improvisational, personal; best performed by small groups of like-minded people devoted to their craft, jealous of their autonomy, sensitive to the needs of writers and to the diverse interests of readers. If money were their primary goal, these people would probably have chosen other careers.[2]

Epstein is just one among many of his era who have written memoirs eulogizing their old industry, although he is perhaps unique in not abandoning hope that the new digital economy offers great promise for publishing to return to its roots. His optimism comes partially from the fact that he believes the real motivators in publishing are intangible things like the autonomy, satisfaction, craftsmanship, and fellow feeling engendered in the activity – not the outcome.

In Sayer’s lexicon of the moral economy these are “internal goods”:

… those [things] which are internal to a practice […] such as the specific achievements, skills, and satisfactions of participating in sports, art, music, academic study, cooking, or medicine, or which, alternatively, are internal to relationships, such as a friendship or parenting. […] Whereas the internal goods of making music, intellectual work, friendship, or cooking, etc are specific to each relationship and activity, the external goods [fame, money, etc] are less related to their character.[3]

In trade publishing, as I’ve said, the ‘internal goods’ that were the drivers of the moral economy have been devalued. Unsurprisingly, discussion of this devaluing has itself taken a moral tone: fingers are pointed in various directions:

- At the neo-liberal business logic of multination media conglomerates that require mind-boggling growth figures to be created out of thin air

- At the industry – agents, authors, buyers, wholesalers – who have surrendered to market logic in spite of their better judgment.

- And, at readers who act as sovereign consumers with little regard for the politics of their purchasing.

Less discussed however, are the positive moral interventions that are already occurring in those areas of publishing less invested in the logic of supply and demand and the fluctuations of the market.

In the rest of this paper I want to focus on evidence for the maintenance of a moral publishing economy by offering a case study of small-scale, independent publishers in Melbourne with whom I’ve conducted fieldwork in the past 18 months. The approach I have taken with this work is empirically grounded, drawing on the local contacts in Melbourne’s very energetic small publishing community. Participants in my research are all members of the Small Press Underground Networking Community (SPUNC). Formed in 2006, in an attempt to formalize the communities that have developed in Australian independent publishing, SPUNC brings together a range of small-scale cultural publishers (many located in Melbourne) in order to develop collaborative schemes that respond to the kinds of professional challenges common to small enterprises (esp. things like marketing, publicity and distribution). In this sense SPUNC demonstrates something that goes beyond Epstein’s ideal of a return to the cottages: SPUNC’s emphasis on the value of shared experience and shared resources put to the service of business sustainability demonstrates Sayer’s principles of the moral economy. Namely, that internal goods (things like building relationships, values, culture, skills) are understood in their relation to external outcomes (like profits).

In this respect, my research confirms data found in Mark Banks’ work on the moral economies operating in Manchester’s cultural industries. These ‘creatives’ are

self-consciously engaged in forms of practice that contain ideas about what is ‘good’ (and therefore ‘bad’), [and] exhibit moral ways of acting towards others.[4]

Banks’ essay draws attention to the (often overlooked) moral/ethical motivations for cultural industries work – And yet, the economics of the cultural industries, like economics everywhere, are intimately tied to moral judgments. Words like “free” and “fair” are words about morality, not economics. Recent transformations in capitalism also illustrate that morality is reestablishing a firmer footing in economic discourse and practice: the rise of ‘social entrepreneurs’ and ethical consumption habits (which can mean anything from fair trade bananas to second-hand clothes shopping) demonstrate morally diverse business models with diverse orientations to the market. My intention today is to provide some empirical evidence of these practices in publishing.

The data was collected via email interviews conducted throughout 2010; with 16 publishers taking part. There’s not room to debate definitions of independence so here let me just provide SPUNC’s definition based on their member base:

Independent publishers operate on scales ranging from break-even only, [to] publishing one or two titles a year, up to 40 or more titles per year.[5]

This range demonstrates the degree to which independent publishers walk the delicate line between curating their content and commercial concerns. Often writers, poets, and designers themselves, their business is primarily non commercial – although not non-professional. They are eager to satisfy their own creative and business needs and provide an opportunity for others; many work without pay.

A colleague of mine, Mark Davis, has written about the work ethic in this professional community, noting that,

the motivations that drive it tend not to include the accumulation of financial capital... They are motivated, rather, by social and cultural values that are pursued irrespective of their ultimate market worth. The wilful altruism of small publishers cuts across the belief, central to economic libertarianism, that people are motivated primarily by rational self-interest.[6]

These qualities were – as I’ve noted – once not unique to the small indie presses; independent once meant Random House, Harper, Knopf, Simon & Schuster... These were houses run by individuals who owned their businesses outright and built their lists on the basis of their own judgment and values. The president of SPUNC noted something similar when she explained the shared philosophy of its members, saying,

there is pretty much one over-riding purpose that they share. Regardless of their size, small publishers love to provide a location for writing that doesn’t or can’t find a voice in the mainstream media. Which isn’t to say that any of their output is restricted to the independent scene, but it does shed light on one thing: small press publishers are artists of sorts, and what they seek to publish is an expression of their artistic temperament, their values towards ideas.

It became apparent in fieldwork that publishing, as expression of ‘values towards ideas,’ was also an expression of a broader set of social and cultural values. Although participants explicitly rejected the notion that their work was “political” in any sense, they did regularly voice the opinion that the books, magazines and journals they produced were designed to celebrate not only diversity of talent but diversity of opinion and accessibility.

[This publication] is very anti-mainstream, it celebrates being different and weird. … A big motivation in me publishing is to be able to put diverse points of view or unusual/different/non-mainstream/non-commercial voices out in the world – I think that’s really important.

A recurring theme was publishers’ resistance to producing material that could be misperceived as overly exclusive and artistic. Accessibility and inclusion were high priorities for publishers, not just for the obvious reason of maximizing audience. Rather, participants felt that their publications should be inclusive in order to further debate and discussion and to demonstrate the publisher’s commitment to a shared set of principles and standards. These are comments from a publisher who explains the charter devised before beginning to publish:

We talked about being for any forms, as long as the work is engaging and intelligent. We also talked about being for work with genuine insight and honesty. We talked about being against derivative, uptight polemics and diatribes. And against vacuous writing and art that trades on a currency of cool.

Throughout, a sense of community, strong social and cultural ties and a regard for the ‘can-do’ and creative ‘atmosphere’ of Melbourne were cited as incentives to action. Melbourne’s diverse configurations of social and spatial relations, underwritten by a rich history of creativity, were often alluded to as a source of inspiration and value:

[…] the audience we hope to interest with this work are much more attuned to the non-traditional tumult of creativity happening in people’s houses and the back rooms of clubs… The amount of wonderful material of all varieties being produced even just locally sometimes feels like some incredible roiling ball of gas at constant threat of explosion.

And another:

This camaraderie is one of my favourite parts of the current culture of indie publishing in Australia and particularly Melbourne. …With so many other new independent publishers I’ve never felt rivalry or jealousy or anything less than support; we swap information, give each other a hand up, publish each other and do lots and lots of chatting about the industry (and what the future industry might be).

These statements demonstrate evidence of non-instrumental motives for work, particularly prioritizing a sense of a binding community born of shared geography, shared cultural interest, shared professional skills and shared commitment to a set of moral values about publishing.

It was the discussion of funding that provoked some of the most interesting data regarding moral economies in the creative industries. Where one might expect grants and funding opportunities to play an important role in the support of small publishing, participants rejected this idea outright. Saying, for example,

We find grant dependence problematic. We want to try to make the publication as efficient as possible, not wasteful with expenses. The first issue was completely funded by us.


…[Funding is] damaging, because magazines have less of an incentive to sell copies to readers, which to my mind involves publishing electrifying writing of one type or another – whether that’s writing that’s challenging, or writing that’s popular.

On one hand sentiments such as these point towards a neoliberal consciousness: the market is the ultimate arbiter of value; publications should sustain themselves on the basis of their success in the market. But opposition to funding schemes is also motivated by a moral opposition to a system that is deemed ‘bad’ for both readers and writers:

a lot of the Australian headspace has to do with this “Fair go, mate!” idea: a prevailing sense of blanket fairness that is actually nuanced and uneven. […] you have this grant culture where the problem is even embedded in the text of the applications: they want to see that you’re providing a space for young Australian voices. So it’s about young writers, not young readers – which is what you’d think the writers might want anyway. …So in general, a generous and ostensibly great space is made within which writers can be published, and not a whole lot of space is dedicated to readers.

Small publishers like this reject funding because they believe it nurtures the status quo – asking recipients to perform a particular creative identity (the “young Australian voice”) and encouraging them to think only of themselves rather than their audiences.

In the early stages of fieldwork I wondered whether this anti-funding position was simply one (extreme) example of what is often referred to as ‘indie cred’ or status positioning; whereby members of a social/cultural group nominate an alternative system of value against which to distinguish themselves from the mainstream. However, in the case of independent publishers, the evidence pointed away from this motivation with respect to funding. These publishers reject the idea of accepting grants not because they reject economic imperatives to their creative projects, (indeed, they are up front about wanting their products be popular with paying audiences), but because they believe that grants devalue the internal goods to be found within their practice. To return to Sayer’s analysis – he points out that status needn’t be the only reason producers and consumers seek to distinguish themselves from the wider field of production.

the struggles of the cultural field include competing claims about the valuation of objects and practices themselves and about what is good for us, not necessarily in order to change actors' status by raising the (exchange) valuation of the cultural capital associated with them, but because they care about the objects and practices themselves.[7]

For these small publishers, accepting funding positions them in an unacceptably amoral relation to the wider social field of writers and readers – That is, the current funding system requires its beneficiaries to abandon the moral contract between readers and writers. In this way, small-scale, independent publishers who reject the funding model believe they are making a declaration of principles, rather than a statement about their cultural capital:

the best way to support my causes is to put out the best magazine that I can twice a year and otherwise STFU [shut the fuck up].

For these publishers instrumental and non-instrumental values reinforce each other; there is no shame to acknowledging the business of their enterprise because the business is instrumental to the success of the creative and community-building project.

As a business venture publishing has been, from its earliest beginnings, a practice that incorporates aspects of the moral economy. However, these new independent publishers don’t voice any desire to return to the Golden Era of Random House and Knopf romanticized by Epstein and others. Instead, they advocate a business approach sympathetic to modern moral/ethical standards. In the words of Johnny Temple, head of the successful US indie publisher Akashic:

It’s a good thing that our culture has moved on from those days in the 50s and 60s and that now there is a much greater diversity of voices that can be published. We need to embrace cultural and technological change. It’s our mandate to keep up with the time and stop wishing that culture had stopped evolving 40 years ago.[8]

Because of their size and the flexibility of their production methods these small scale publishers don't often feel the reverberations of the larger economy to the same degree; this has meant that over the last five years small scale publishing has continued to grow, bucking the wider industry trend. This is certainly the case in Australia where SPUNC’s membership continues to grow, and the creation of similar organizations in the United State, such as the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses and the UK’s Society of Young Publishers point to comparable growth in other locations. These operations and their slow sustained growth provoke important questions about: the cultural industries and the presumed primacy of their commercial imperatives; and the limits of consumerism and market logic in our practices of cultural consumption, pointing towards to a strand of morality embedded in the relation between creators and audiences.

[1] Andrew Sayer, “(De)commodification, consumer culture, and moral economies,” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 21 (2003): 341-357

[2] Joseph Epstein, Book Business: Publishing, Past, Present and Future (New York: WW Norton, 2002) 1.

[3] Sayer, 347.

[4] Mark Banks, “Moral Economy and Cultural Work” Sociology 40 (2006):455-472. 456.

[5] Kate Freeth, “A Lovely Kind of Madness: Small and independent publishing in Australia” SPUNC, Nov 2007. 3.

[6] Mark Davis, “Literature, Small Publishers and the Market in Culture,” Overland 190 (2008)
 (19 Mar, 2008) .

[7] Andrew Sayer, “(De)commodification, consumer culture, and moral economy,” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 21 (2003): 341-357. 350.

[8] Jason Boog, “Media Beat: Johnny Temple,” GalleyCat 28 Feb, 2011 <>.

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