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To publish good books or profitable books, that is not the question

Last weekend I went to a party with some non-publishing folk, which is a rare occurrence and never fails to make me feel like a circus animal. People ask you what you do, and then exclaim ‘How exciting!’ and ‘That must be interesting!’, and then ask you uncomfortable questions you don’t have the answer to. Like, ‘Do you think publishers should publish books that make money or books that are good?’ This actually happened, and after only about a minute of warm-up. Hardly fair.

I said on instinct that I thought the former, but then they turned the screws on me and we ended up agreeing on a compromise: Publishing profitable books allows publishers to publish good books, so they should publish both. But now that I’ve given it some more thought I would like to go back to my earlier, less forgiving view. See, a couple of things nagged at me about the compromise…

One was a pedantic reason: the framing of the question seemed somehow wrong-headed to me. For an either/or question, you expect opposing and mutually exclusive options, so in this case, either good books vs bad books, or books that sell vs books that don’t sell. The way the question was framed, of course, mixed up the two options and, doing so, implied that good books don’t sell and bad books do sell. This is obviously not true, probably not even if you squint. Thankfully many best-sellers are also fantastically good books and, equally gratifyingly, awful books often end in the discount bins.

Secondly, to address the real spirit of the question: I don’t agree that publishers have a duty to somehow cultivate people’s literary tastes. The cultivation mostly happens through other routes – teachers, the media, bloggers, influencers – and the role of the publisher is to meet the demand rather than shape it. I think it used to be different, and that’s why you keep hearing of publishers of old who perhaps truly were tastemakers and gatekeepers. Fewer books were published and perhaps the reading public used to be more uniform, so the ecosystem was small and straightforward – what you published, readers bought. Now it’s more like what they buy, you try to anticipate and publish in time. The mantle of the taste-cultivator now belongs to Oprah, Richard & Judy, Stephen Fry, Neil Gaiman and other individuals with access to an adoring, reading audience.

I think most of us do want to publish thought-provoking stuff that changes the nation, turns entire generations into readers and is later mentioned in history books as the work of the century, but I’d like to think of all that as a plus. Any business’s duty is to benefit itself by making a profit, and if they also happen to make other people happy, that’s a bonus. Incidentally it’s hard to separate the two. Take a book like Fifty Shades of Grey (which my conversation partner from the party brought up as an actual example). This is a ‘bad’ book that sold tons, benefitting the publisher financially – but also benefitting all the people who bought it and enjoyed it; who decided they would rather have the book than their £7.99. So in fact there is often no choice. Similarly, consider a really high-brow literary masterpiece that doesn’t cover its costs – does its goodness matter if no one knows it? The consumers tend to decide for themselves what is good for them and vote with their wallets.

This is interestingly a question that only plagues the creative industries. Do retailers ask themselves whether they should produce good products, or products that sell? They don’t, because bad products don’t sell.

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