Yesterday evening I attended a panel discussion at The Stationers Company in central London. The building itself was beautiful and the panel consisted of representatives from Pluto Press, The New Statesman and Bloomsbury Publishing. All speakers left leaning and all taking a positive attitude to the current political climate. In particular they were keen to express the role that books and journalism can play in the debate. People are still reading books and quality journalism because these media provide answers to the myriad questions which arise from the chaos in which we currently exist.
The audience was assured that the creativity of the publishing industry, and its ability to learn from the music industry’s failings, meant that the perceived threat from digitisation is being held at bay. Bloomsbury is experiencing record years and Pluto Press is going from strength to strength. These were the messages of the evening.
Despite this I left the event with mixed emotions. The optimism expressed by each of the members of the panel was encouraging. However, I felt that they overlooked some major difficulties and I would have been interested to know what they see as the solutions to these, if they think there are any.
For example the subject of internet trolls was touched upon briefly. The New Statesman has turned off commenting on its website. Although this seems like a good method of protecting journalists from abuse and keeping the website a space for curated content I cannot help but be reminded of debates raging around universities about the values of the creation of safe spaces. I am inclined to see that shutting down comment shuts down debate and in the end only serves to enforce the algorithms which increasingly control our lives.
It seems to me that if books cans be such a force for good in the hands of the ‘good guys’ it can be a force for hatred and fear in the hands of the ‘bad’. I am concerned that the publishing industry is falling into a self-affirming cycle wherein we reassure ourselves: if some people are still interested in what we have to say then everyone is.
While it is encouraging that some people are interested in books which confirm my worldview I want to see a publishing industry which focusses on enlightening new readers and expounding narratives of hope and optimism in these turbulent times. To do this we need to open our eyes to the reality that not all book readers are liberal and that not all people are readers. Tapping these markets will be key to the future of publishing as we continue to weather the storm of the 21st century.