Saturday 26th July 2014


 

This Aint the Rosedale Library

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Politics and the English-language publisher

Nic Boshart

Digital Services Coordinator at the Association of Canadian Publishers

“Our civilization is decadent and our language — so the argument runs — must inevitably share in the general collapse.” – George Orwell, Politics and the English Language

Recently, one of the best remaining independent Toronto bookstores, This Ain’t the Rosedale Library, closed down and part of the problem with this sad passing is the same one that publishers are having; their old role as community centerpieces has been devalued. Online sales certainly didn’t help, but the traditional role of books as a focal point for shared cultural experience has died.

Charlie Huisken, co-owner of one of the world’s best bookstores as named by the Guardian, said in an email:

“…there has been a narrow but strong response on blogs to the idea of what we do and Pages did as being a ’boutique’. And that boutique idea is precious and outdated. The posts are by technophiles and nerdy types – it’s often true. But they stand on the middle ground which we grassroots arts and letters people have to win back.”

Where is that middle ground? It’s a respectable and accessible space between practical life and imagination. It’s a space where everyone feels comfortable. It’s a barbershop in Etobicoke (New Jersey for Americans and wherever Chavs are from for the English) with an ashtray sitting on the cover of an old issue of Rolling Stone. Or something everyone likes. TV Guide.

Online fills the old role of books. Online is the new tool to educate, experience and commune with fellow revolutionaries and share ideas. Online poker tables can replace card games, Club Penguin replaces a playground, and World of Warcraft replaces your partner because you spend too much time on it. So here’s the bigger problem; how do we bring real-life back to publishing and the written word?

(And to brush some dirt off my shoulder, don’t blame illiteracy. Everyone reads now, can’t get a Facebook profile without knowing your words. We probably hit the literacy wall in the late ‘80s or early ‘90s, just before the first Angelfire site went up.)

Publishing is a funny industry. It walks a fine line between art and industry; we make paint and canvas or build concert halls. Our craft takes a certain type of skill, and certainly the work of an editor takes a kind of art. But at the end of the day, we’re really not anything more than skilled craftspeople, and this is something we need to deal with. Why can’t machines replace us? Do publishers really fulfill a role that’s any better than spell check, or all-too-realistically, a community of writers and editors?

How do we bring real life back to publishing and the written word? It needs to be practical, it needs to be fun and interesting, and it needs to be inclusive to the point that you don’t even notice. Publishers have not been in control of culture since the 1950s, and in fact have been at the bottom of the entertainment pile for quite some time. Don’t kid yourself, even the New York snooty Times has a great sports section; book reading is dead last, we’ve lost our connection.

There are two things that need to happen; one is that we need to figure out a way to get the larger populace to read, and two – which could also be a path to the first – publishers need to act more like the skilled craftspeople they are.

So again, let’s follow the technophile line. This is the new entertainment, it’s the new exciting thing that unifies people and everything publishers were back in the heyday of the swinging book industry. They’re connecting people in new ways and they’re creating new flashy objects. And they, too, are skilled craftspeople. Same as us.

But anyone can make an app or build a website, it just takes time and practice. As computers get better and more essential to everyday life, programs will develop that make it easier to create apps, digital content, webpages, etc. Hell, any jerk can already run WordPress. But as computers become cheaper and pervasive, people will learn programming languages in schools. HTML will become standard curriculum, such as spoken and written language. But for now, programmers are revered for their skill and hold control over the place where we have our shared experience.

First, and there’s been talk of this already, publishers need to give value to what they do. Everyone is trained from a young age to read and write, told that they know how to construct a sentence. People don’t think it’s hard to write, and those who do think it’s hard won’t read a book. Tech people don’t let you forget that what they do is hard, but they have an interesting and super-duper effective way of going about it: by telling you exactly what they do and how they do it.

Tech people write blogs on how to do what they’re doing. They participate with other people in their fields to build better things. They purposely interact with outsiders to help them learn for free. They point them at products, not necessarily their own, that they think the non-techie needs and/or would like. The real clincher is that everybody does this, so it comes back around.

What do publishers do? Close Book Expo America to the public. You seriously can’t hire some underlings for a day to work a table and gain some new readers?

As an indie press, I’ve noticed that other indie publishers rarely reference each other on their sites. Why is no one doing this? Why am I not doing this on the Invisible Publishing blog? (To be fair on other blogs I almost always recommend an indie title from a different publisher. Case in point Andrew Hood’s Pardon Our Monsters is the best book I’ve ever read except for Be Good by Stacey May Fowles.)

Non-readers will read books; it’s just a matter of getting those books to them and making them available. It’s more rhetoric that you’ve heard at a million conferences, but it needs to be approached in a different way. Books are add-ons that accentuate life. They help you learn, entertain you, but the only culture built around books is… well, publishers.

At the end of a reading we had outside the locked doors of This Ain’t the Rosedale Library, Charlie stood with his son Jesse and said promised us they’d be back. I can’t wait to see their next iteration because they’ve been forced out of the selling business. Charlie mentioned the store as a cultural crossroads and that’s all he wants to be, a place for those who love literature to convene.

Publishers, successful ones, are going to need to be more. We don’t need to connect with readers, we need to be a bridge for the reader to a piece of knowledge and we need to become craftspeople to do it.

Nic Boshart is the Digital Services Coordinator at the Association of Canadian Publishers. In his spare time he is coordinating editor at Invisible Publishing, a small literary press dedicated to publishing authors who might not normally be published commercially. In his other spare time he blogs for Book Madam and draws the world’s only MS Paint publishing comic at www.ftpubw.com. He tweets at @nicboshart.

Photo credit: John Elmslie

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10 Responses to “Politics and the English-language publisher”

  1. Kate Pullinger Says:

    July 8th, 2010 at 2:01 pm

    Thanks to Nic Boshart for this interesting post. I think looking at book publishing as a craft and book publishers as craftspeople is very useful. However the odd thing about this post, with its useful thoughts about publishers and readers and booksellers, is the way you’ve left out writers. A rethink of the publishing industry can’t happen without writers themselves being on the forefront of innovation. The last great innovation of the booktrade – the paperback – was indeed invented by publishers; however this time round the change seems to me to be so enormous, so all-encompassing, that writers need to be in there, helping to strengthen the connection between the reader and that fabulous bit of content that I’ve written and you’ve published.

    I could go on – but one final thought. I think you are wrong about kids being taught HTML – there is no sign of that as writing and publishing on the web becomes easier and easier without any coding and programming skill required. They don’t even teach kids to type, despite the fact that most of us, kids included, spend all our days typing typing typing.

    Kate Pullinger

  2. Shawn Says:

    July 8th, 2010 at 5:05 pm

    the only culture built around books is… well, publishers. I think library culture is also (to its detriment) built around an outdated ideas and is feeling similar pressures from online alternatives.

  3. Nic Boshart Says:

    July 8th, 2010 at 5:17 pm

    re: kids – Yeah, but that really needs to change, and I think it will, hopefully soon. I took one very basic computer course in high-school (like twelve years ago), but I hope computer sciences will become part of the curriculum like biology and chemistry. Eventually.

    As to writers, they are innovating! There’s an incredible self-pub and writers online community, and they’re the ones pushing technology forward in a lot of ways. And using social media to build connections to the audience. They are the ones that need to make the connections, publishers need to learn to step back and facilitate however best they can.

  4. Nic Boshart Says:

    July 8th, 2010 at 9:32 pm

    Yeah, sorry Shawn, I was thinking of including Librarian culture. But still, I think they have immense value outside of books as curators of information, and perhaps the leap isn’t as large?

  5. Michelle MacAleese Says:

    July 9th, 2010 at 3:32 pm

    Thanks for an excellent post that challenges me to “bring real life back” to publishing.

    One of my priorities as an editor is to discover what people want to read and that can’t be done by watching only their book-buying habits; one must pay attention to where else readers and non-readers are paying attention, especially (as you point out) online and in different media.

    Translating that “watching” into useful, elegant, engaging products (“building a bridge” between reader and a piece of knowledge) can be a mysterious process. Other times, it’s simple: make books about interesting subjects and amazing stories, the good stuff from real life.

  6. Not quite open-source literature  ¶  Personal Weblog of Joe Clark, Toronto Says:

    July 9th, 2010 at 7:05 pm

    [...] I’ve met two men with Alsatian surnames – Nate “Koechley” (aboriginally Köchle) and Nic Boshart, esteemed colleague at a nonprofit dealing with Canadian publishing, who writes: [...]

  7. The Daily Square – Mare Imbrium Edition | Booksquare Says:

    July 12th, 2010 at 5:15 am

    [...] Politics and the English-language publisherInteresting thoughts from Nic Boshart on bringing books and readers together. [...]

  8. Morning Links 13 July 2010 | The Digital Reader Says:

    July 13th, 2010 at 11:26 am

    [...] Politics and the English-language publisher “Our civilization is decadent and our language — so the argument runs — must inevitably share in the general collapse.” – George Orwell, Politics and the English Language [...]

  9. Clive Warner Says:

    July 29th, 2010 at 5:39 am

    A very interesting essay.

    – needs to be part of a song.
    You’re a lot behind regarding teaching technology. I used to teach Jr High in Mexico and my computing course included QBASIC and HTML and a bit of Javascript. Later I taught Scratch.
    And there is a strange coincidence, there is a development kit available for making book apps on phones and it is based on Scratch.
    What worries the hell out of me as a small press and author is that the power to reach the public will be subsumed by a new layer of guilds: the Objective C and Cocoa programmers who turn books into apps on the iPhone.
    So you thought AGENTS and PUBLISHERS were unreasonable gatekeepers? Haha, think again, now that robots are replacing them. It all reminds me of the broken book spools lying in the dunes at Vermillion Sands . . .

  10. Baron of Cleveland Says:

    July 30th, 2010 at 11:41 pm

    Nice points in this post. Has anybody questioned schools for forcing children and adolescents to read only classics when classics are too advanced for undeveloped reading skills? What result–nobody reads. I often wonder how many adult readers schools could produce if they allowed students to read less difficult material in order to acquire reading ability. Perhaps a reader who gradually gains skill as a reader would graduate to reading culturally relevant texts rather than say ‘reading is boring.’ Oftentimes the failure is in the reader not in the text. People are better movie watchers than readers, I hypothesize, for this reason. I think this is one way we could make reading and books culturally relevant again. Along with what’s in the post, of course.

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