Andrew Murphy, Trinity College DublinWalk into any decent bookshop today in search of Shakespeare’s plays and you’re sure to find at least one. And even if you can’t find what you’re looking for on the bookshelves, there is always the internet, where a great variety of different complete works and editions are also available – almost all of them free of charge.
This, however, has not always been the case. In fact, in Shakespeare’s time, the texts were rather hard to find. The incredible access we have now to Shakespeare’s work is thanks to a handful of enterprising publishers who saw the earning potential of making the bard’s texts readily available to read.
The first publisher to take a chance on the plays was Thomas Millington in the late 1500s. Millngton was a small-scale operator who specialised in throwaway popular texts about murders and monsters and whose business was tucked away in an obscure corner of London. Millington issued editions of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus and of the second and third parts of the trilogy of plays that he wrote about King Henry VI. Despite the out-of-the way location of his shop, Millington’s editions sold well and his success encouraged others to take a punt on some of the other plays.
Shakespeare becomes expensive – then cheap
By 1623 – seven years after Shakespeare’s death – sales had been good enough for almost all of the plays to be published together in a collected edition – a volume conventionally known as the “First Folio” (folios were the largest-sized books). But this edition was very expensive, costing about £1 – the equivalent of almost nine days’ wages for a skilled craftsman. It was thus a luxury item that only the wealthy could afford. And it set the pattern that was followed for many decades, with Shakespeare’s plays remaining largely confined to an elite readership who had the funds to buy expensive editions.
The first person to try to break this pattern and open up access to Shakespeare was Robert Walker (circa 1709-61).
Walker had a lot in common with Millington in that he mostly published cheap, disposable, sensationalist texts. He also had a sideline in quack medicines, as he manufactured and sold “Daffy’s Elixir”, a concoction advertised as an effective cure for almost all known diseases.
In the mid-1730s, Walker waged a price war with the London publishing establishment, driving the cost of individual play editions down to just one penny each. This led to a significant expansion of Shakespeare’s readership and, consequently, to a much greater demand for performances of Shakespeare’s plays in the 18th-century theatre.
Shakespeare for all
In the following century, another out-of-the-way publisher, John Dicks, followed Walker’s example and lowered the price of access to Shakespeare even further.
Dicks came, himself, from a very humble background and was determined to make great literature available to the poorest sectors of British society. In the 1860s, he issued Shakespeare’s plays individually at the rate of two plays for a penny – half of Walker’s price more than a century previously.
Dicks then collected all of the plays into a single, paperback volume which he offered for sale for just 12 pennies, the equivalent of less than a third of a penny per play – far and away the cheapest price ever for a complete Shakespeare. Dicks estimated that he sold almost a million copies of this book, making it the most successful Shakespeare edition that had ever been published.
Dicks can be said to have done more to popularise Shakespeare than any other publisher. But even his achievement has been surpassed in our own time. The key figure today is, again, a rather obscure figure: a computer programmer called Grady Ward, who created a digital edition of the plays in 1993. Ward made his files freely available to others and they became the basis for a wide range of free-to-access Shakespeare websites and apps. The chances are that if you’ve ever looked at a Shakespeare play online, you will have been looking at some version of Ward’s original files.
We have seen that John Dicks sold nearly a million copies of his shilling edition of Shakespeare. Figuring out how many people have made use of Ward’s text is a little harder. A possible guide may be the number of users of just one version of it: Eric Johnson’s Open Source Shakespeare. Between 2006 and 2020 this site attracted just short of 19 million distinct users. Given this level of traffic on just one site, it does not seem unreasonable to speculate that the combined number of users for all the various sites and apps may well be approaching 100 million.
In our own time, Shakespeare is a global phenomenon, freely available to tens of millions of people around the world, either in print form or online. But we should never forget the debt we owe to those obscure figures who have helped to popularise his work over the centuries – the Millingtons, Walkers, Dickses and Wards – those unsung heroes who have helped so much to make Shakespeare what he is today.
As you indulge in summer reading, consider this fact. If not for the path-breaking women in Canadian publishing, some of Canada’s best-known writers might not have made it: Margaret Laurence, Farley Mowat, Carol Shields.
Although it’s known that women have always participated in Canadian publishing, the lasting influence they’ve had on the industry remains largely unacknowledged. It’s time we honoured Irene Clarke, Claire Pratt, Anna Porter and Bella Pomer — Canada’s own Diana Athills, the famous British editor — whose contributions count alongside those of men like Jack McClelland, a name that still dominates the history of Canadian publishing.
My research focuses on Canadian authors and their publishers, editors and literary agents. It has led to many happy hours immersed in archival collections in Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom, where I’ve uncovered the record of women’s labour in mainstream Canadian publishing. In making a place for themselves in the mainstream press, these women helped lead the way for the feminists who established their own imprints, such as Press Gang Publishers (1970-2002) and Sister Vision Press (1985-2000).
Who were these trailblazing figures?
Irene Clarke, publisher
Irene Clarke (1903-1986) was Canada’s first woman publisher of English-language books. In 1930, she co-founded Clarke, Irwin.
In 1941, Clarke took another bold step and published Emily Carr’s first book, Klee Wyck, under the Oxford University Press Canada imprint. At the time, in an unusual arrangement, Clarke, Irwin shared staff and premises with Oxford.
Carr’s book of sketches, which had been rejected by other publishers, won the Governor General’s Literary Award for non-fiction and helped generate new recognition for her paintings.
A close bond formed between Irene Clarke and Emily Carr, two women who broke historic ground, one as a publisher, and the other as a writer and a painter. Clarke not only launched Carr’s literary career. She went on to publish and acquire the copyright to all of Carr’s writing, which now endures alongside her more celebrated paintings.
Claire Pratt, editor
From 1956 to 1965, Claire Pratt (1921-1995) was senior editor at McClelland & Stewart, where she worked closely with individual writers.
Pratt came to know Margaret Laurence through her fiction set in Africa and recommended the novel This Side Jordan (1960) and The Tomorrow-Tamer and Other Stories (1963) for publication.
When she read the draft of The Stone Angel (1964), the first novel in Laurence’s Manawaka series, the editor was deeply moved. Pratt’s appreciation won the author’s trust and she remained a touchstone figure in Laurence’s life.
Pratt was most vivacious with the spirited poet Irving Layton. Pratt worked with Layton on four volumes issued by McClelland & Stewart, the first of which was the Governor General’s Literary Award-winning A Red Carpet for the Sun (1959).
Layton sought Pratt’s opinion of his poetry. He tested her patience by continually revising a manuscript until the moment it was forwarded to the printers. He bartered constantly: if he were to remove one poem from a collection, might he replace it with another? He also enriched Pratt’s professional life and offered some of the most heartfelt expressions of thanks she received over the course of her career, even an ode glorifying “Saint Claire.”
Anna Porter, publisher
Following a similar path taken decades earlier by Irene Clarke, Anna Porter (born in 1943) became the first woman to head a Canadian publishing company devoted to English-language non-fiction trade books. In 1979, she co-founded Key Porter Books, and then in 1982 assumed the lead as publisher of the firm.
Today, non-fiction is a popular and steadily growing genre that appeals to a wide audience. When Porter established her company, however, she broke new ground by rejecting fiction in favour of the expanding category of non-fiction.
Porter pursued journalist Allan Fotheringham, whose Malice in Blunderland or, How the Grits Stole Christmas (1982) was Key Porter’s first best-selling title and the first of Fotheringham’s six books to be issued by the press.
The crusty Farley Mowat was one of Key Porter’s more outspoken and popular authors. Mowat and Porter shared a long and fruitful connection characterized by impassioned and vigorous debate and reconciliation.
Bella Pomer, literary agent
Bella Pomer (born in 1926) established her own literary agency in 1978. One of Canada’s first agents, she was undaunted by the prospect of entering a burgeoning field that soon was dominated by a cluster of women based in Toronto.
Pomer’s most prominent client was Carol Shields. Their agency agreement lasted 20 years, from 1982 to 2002. Pomer’s vision and tenacity helped shape Shields’s career.
When Pomer placed The Stone Diaries with Random House of Canada in 1993 — after 11 lean years of representing Shields — the response was immediate. Critics and readers alike were intrigued by the novel’s structure and captivated by its elusive protagonist, Daisy Goodwill. It was short-listed for the Booker Prize and went on to win the Governor General’s Literary Award and the Pulitzer Prize.
Soon, Pomer was handling the countless administrative details that increased exponentially in the wake of The Stone Diaries. She orchestrated U.S., British and foreign publication of all of Shields’s books, ensuring that each edition received individual attention. She negotiated with publishers and sub-agents to secure handsome royalty advances for Shields’s subsequent books.
As a top agent, Pomer was more than a professional who shared in Shields’s triumph. She was also an attentive listener, an ally and a strong defender of Shields.
Pomer’s business approach to her many book deals was a boon to writers. With understanding and skill, she brokered better terms and royalty advances for her clients and sold their work outside of Canada. Such intervention succeeded in altering Canadian publishers’ negative perception of agents. More importantly, it helped reform dated practices that favoured publishers over authors.
Clarke, Pratt, Porter and Pomer were among the women who changed the face of Canadian publishing. Their achievements, which resonate in today’s highly charged publishing environment, deserve our attention.
In the literary world and among those for whom fiction is an interest beyond simply reading books, a great deal of attention will be given to the winner of 2018’s Man Booker Prize, Milkman, by Anna Burns. The chair of the judges, philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, said Burns’ novel, about a young woman being sexually harassed by a menacing older man and set in Northern Ireland, “is a story of brutality, sexual encroachment and resistance threaded with mordant humour”.
Of course, each year, following the announcement of the longlist in July, the shortlist in September and finally the winner in October, a discussion takes place as to what each announcement might mean. As the Man Booker is the most prestigious, remunerative and talked about literary prize in the UK, this “what does it mean?” can be made to reach into just about every crevice of contemporary culture.
This year has been no exception – discussion of the longlist was dominated by the inclusion of a graphic novel, Nick Drnaso’s Sabrina, and discussion of the shortlist by the presence or absence of millennial writers. Discussion of Milkman will no doubt be dominated by the history of Northern Ireland, by #MeToo and by the fact that Burns is the first UK-born winner for six years.
In these accounts, the significance of the prize is restricted to thinking about those novels that reach the long or shortlist or the one that is declared the final winner. But a range of work from various wings of literary studies over the past few years can help us to answer the question of what winning means in other, perhaps more challenging, ways.
1. It’s a competition
The underlying claim of James F. English’s pioneering 2009 work in the sociology of literature, The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards and the Circulation of Cultural Value, is that both the power of and the problem with prizes consists in the way they equate “the artist with the boxer or discus thrower”. Prizes are competitions.
But while the publicity might go to the winning writers, the real winners are the publishers, who need not just the increased sales and chances of film and TV adaptations that are likely to follow, but also the less tangible boost to their authority and prestige given by a prize. The real winners are also more likely to be not just any publishers, but those that have already been successful. As the novelist Joanna Walsh, among others, has noted, the Man Booker rules make submissions from small publishers very tricky because of the size of the print run required and the amount of money that involves. Because of this, a win can be a drain rather than a boost, and costs can outstrip sales if you don’t win.
2. A competition that maintains a monopoly
It’s not just that the competition is hard for small presses to enter – the big publishers have an near monopoly. In the 50 years that the prize has existed, literary publishing in English has been transformed from being made up of numerous independent companies, often family run, to being almost entirely dominated by the “big five”. These are Penguin Random House, Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan and Simon & Schuster. And, further, each of these is itself owned by a multinational media conglomerate.
As the sociologist John Thompson noted in his book, Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century, the economies of scale made possible through mergers and acquisitions have created this almost complete monopoly. But through publishing via supposedly “separate” imprints, the big five have maintained an aura of smallness which is more conducive to the “creativity” on which their profits are ostensibly based.
Over the past 20 years, while 12 different publishers appear to have published the novels which were awarded the Prize, six of these wins were for imprints belonging to Penguin Random House. This monopoly is maintained through the prize’s rules for submissions – the number of novels a publisher can submit is directly tied to the number of longlisted novels they have had over the past few years. An imprint already marked as prestigious is more likely to win again.
3. It maintains a certain model of publishing
In his article about Amazon and its relation to contemporary literary fiction, US literary scholar Mark McGurl suggests the extent to which reading of material normally scorned by the literary critic can deliver new insights.
And close reading of the Man Booker’s rules of eligibility – while perhaps dry in comparison to reading the winner on the bus or with a reading group – is also revealing. It shows that it is not just a competition for a small number of large publishers, but that the prize is largely about the maintenance of a certain idea of publishing, too.
The rules of eligibility are almost entirely now about the publisher, rather than the novel or novelist – and key to them is the exclusion of anything with a whiff of self-publishing about it. In order to be eligible, a publisher has to prove that they are based in the UK or Ireland, but the only way of proving this is by having the accoutrements of the conventional publisher. Eligible submissions must come from publishers with ISBNs and head offices who use retail outlets for print books and who publish at least two literary novels a year. Rule 1g, through its strange, uncomfortable tautology, betrays something of just what is at stake in this: “Self-published novels are not eligible where the author is the publisher.”
What the various methods of literary studies can suggest, then, is that, contrary to nearly everything written elsewhere about the Man Booker Prize, it arguably doesn’t really matter which novel wins. Whichever wins, I’d suggest that the real winner is an intensely conventional notion of publishing. It’s an idea of publishing where sales and prestige are the most important consequences of winning prizes and where a few very large publishers dominate.
And, to continue that domination, the most novel uses of contemporary technology, which can open up spaces for the most innovative aesthetic forms become illegitimate. If you want to see examples of this kind of work, look to the recently published novel, Gaudy Bauble, by Isabel Waidner (published by Dostoyevsky Wannabe) – a book of experimental writing published in an innovative way. Under the current rules, such novels could never gain the coverage and attention offered by the Booker. And that’s a great pity.
It has been a big 12 months for Australian small publishers, who have swept what are arguably the three most important national literary awards. Sydney press Giramondo published Alexis Wright’s biography Tracker, winner of the 2018 Stella Prize; Melbourne’s Black Inc. published Ryan O’Neill’s Their Brilliant Careers, which won the 2017 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Fiction; and Josephine Wilson’s Extinctions (University of Western Australia Publishing) won the 2017 Miles Franklin Literary Award.
Another work from a small publisher, A. S. Patric’s Black Rock White City (Transit Lounge) also won the Miles Franklin in 2016. Small publishers have dominated these awards’ shortlists as well, comprising 80% of the shortlisted titles for the last Miles Franklin and Prime Minister’s awards and 66% of the shortlisted titles for the last Stella.
This is a significant reversal: these awards have historically been dominated by large publishers. Since 2000, for example, only 21% of shortlisted titles for the Miles Franklin have been published by small publishers.
There are dozens of important and respected Australian literary prizes, which help to solidify authors’ reputations and subsidise their writing (this is not an exaggeration; as Bernard Lahire has demonstrated through sociological surveys in France even most “successful” authors draw the majority of their income through other, and often unrelated, work).
But these three awards — the Stella, the Miles Franklin, and the Prime Minister’s — are particularly important because they have broader recognition among the media and the reading public. These three prizes not only increase authors’ and publishers’ status within the literary field but also tend to increase book sales. This is particularly important for smaller publishers, where one successful book can cross-subsidise the publication of many others.
Small publishers have a long history in Australia, and have played a culturally important role. Many of Australia’s most famous contemporary writers started out at small publishers. Peter Carey’s early books were all published by University of Queensland Press. Helen Garner’s Monkey Grip (1977) was published by the influential small publisher McPhee-Gribble, which launched the careers of many other notable writers before being wholly acquired by Penguin in 1989. While large multinationals dominated much of the market for Australian literary fiction in the 1980s and 1990s, small publishers started to become particularly important in Australian literature again in the 2000s.
Retreat of the large publishers
There are many reasons why larger publishers have moved away from literary publishing, as Mark Davis discussed in his 2006 essay The Decline of the Literary Paradigm in Australian Publishing. As Davis argued, the big drivers of this change were increased competition and the rise of data-based decision making among publishers. With the appearance of book data provider Nielsen BookScan in Australia, publishers suddenly had good and fast data on what kinds of titles were selling and which weren’t.
Moreover, the rise of literary blockbusters in the 1990s, including series such as Harry Potter and, more recently, Twilight, has had a huge impact on the way publishers do their business. Blockbuster titles are worth an inordinate amount of the market. For example, Fifty Shades of Grey, at one point, sold one million copies in four days; a novel in Australia is usually considered successful if it sells 6,000 copies in total.
Not only do blockbusters sell in greater numbers, but the marginal costs associated with manufacturing books decrease as more are sold. For these reasons, large publishers have increasingly chased bestselling titles, rather than investing in literary works. The latter, although culturally important, rarely become blockbusters, unless they have won a major award or been adapted into a successful film or television series.
The retreat of large publishers from literary publishing is particularly visible in their virtually non-existent investments in low-selling but culturally significant forms, such as short stories or poetry. While large publishers occasionally publish high-profile collections of short stories, like Nam Le’s The Boat (Penguin, 2007) or Maxine Beneba Clarke’s Foreign Soil (Hachette, 2014), they rarely bring out more than one or two such collections per year. Large publishers have basically no investment whatsoever in contemporary poetry publishing. Australian poetry, in particular, is kept in circulation by a handful of small publishers, such as Giramondo, Cordite, UWA Publishing, Five Islands, and Puncher & Wattmann.
Large publishers’ withdrawal from these areas of literary publishing has also left space for smaller ones to flourish. On the one hand, it has meant that a number of well-known Australian writers have decided to publish their later works with smaller publishers. J.M. Coetzee, Helen Garner, and Murray Bail, for instance, publish their books with Text in Melbourne. Gerald Murnane and Brian Castro publish with Sydney-based Giramondo, while Amanda Lohrey has published her last several books with Black Inc.
On the other hand, small publishers have also been very good at identifying new and unique voices. Steven Amsterdam’s first novel, Things We Didn’t See Coming (2009), was published by the (now-defunct) Melbourne small publisher Sleepers Publishing, and went on to win the (also defunct) Age Book of the Year award. More recently, the Melbourne-based literary journal The Lifted Brow has entered into book publishing, and had great success in selling overseas rights to Shaun Prescott’s The Town (2017). It has just published a new work, Axiomatic, by the lauded author Maria Tumarkin.
Small publishers have become so important within Australia that, as I have argued elsewhere, they now publish the majority of Australian fiction and probably have done so for about a decade. Despite their significance, they have not had particularly great success with major awards like the Miles Franklin and Prime Minister’s until quite recently. But these trends appear to be changing.
Crunching the numbers on major prizes
The chart below shows a strong upward trend for small publishers over the past two years in relation to titles shortlisted for the Miles Franklin. While the historical average since 2000 was only 21% of shortlisted titles coming from small presses, this jumped to 40% in 2016 and 80% in 2017. This is a particularly dramatic spike, and I would be surprised if small presses continued to dominate at this rate, but there are good reasons to believe that the general trend is real.
Indeed, the shortlisting data from the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Fiction shows a nearly identical trajectory to the Miles Franklin data over the last two years, as the chart below illustrates. Like the Miles Franklin, this award saw a jump in shortlisted small press titles in 2016 (40%) and 2017 (80%). In 2017, in fact, both awards shortlisted the same four small press titles: Josephine Wilson’s Extinctions (UWA Publishing), Ryan O’Neill’s Their Brilliant Careers (Black Inc.), Mark O’Flynn’s The Last Days of Ava Langdon (University of Queensland Press), and Phillip Salom’s Waiting (Puncher & Wattmann).
On the one hand, this suggests an enormous shift in the way that the Prime Minister’s award values small publishers; on the other, the unusual — and even bizarre — correlation between the shortlists of the Miles Franklin and the Prime Minister’s awards suggest that this particular instance of small press dominance may be to some degree anomalous. Regardless, the trends are clear, and are also supported by data I have collected on longlisted titles for the latter two awards, which match the trends in the shortlist data.
The Stella Prize longlists and shortlists have also recognised small publishers, as you can see in the chart below. Moreover, despite a lower result for small presses in the Stella’s inaugural year (33% in 2013), at least half of its shortlisted titles have been produced by small publishers in every year since.
Small publishers comprise a slim majority of Stella Prize shortlisted titles, with 19 of the 36 shortlisted works (53%) coming from them. Similarly, three of the six winning titles have been produced by small publishers (Text, Giramondo, and Affirm Press). In other words, the Stella Prize has recognised small presses at effectively double the rate of both the Miles Franklin and the Prime Minister’s awards. The dominance of small publishers in the Stella is also replicated in the longlists, with 40 of 72 titles (55%) being produced by small publishers.
Small publisher acceptance
There are material reasons why the Stella Prize has probably been more open to small publishers. Co-founder and former executive director Aviva Tuffield is a highly regarded editor, who has worked at small publishers such as Scribe, Affirm, and Black Inc. Current General Manager (and original Prize Manager) Megan Quinlan previously worked at Text Publishing and The Monthly (which has the same ownership as Black Inc.) Many of the Stella Prize judges past and present, such as Tony Birch and Julie Koh, have published their fiction solely through small publishers.
It is also not coincidental that a prize championing women’s writing and gender equity would recognise small publishers. Indeed, these publishers, as Sarah Couper has demonstrated, have a significantly higher proportion of women in executive roles than large publishers do.
I suspect, too, that small publishers are probably more inclusive both in terms of the authors they publish and the kinds of views and perspectives they present. In this sense, the dominance of small publishers’ titles in the Stella is unsurprising given that it is an award that seeks to champion diversity as well as literary quality.
The Stella’s tendency to recognise small publishers has probably influenced the other prizes to do the same. The routine appearance of such works on the Stella lists has normalised the recognition of small press books by prestigious prizes and thus made it more acceptable for other such prizes to do so. While it’s unlikely that small presses will continue to dominate the major prizes at this rate, I nonetheless suspect that they will continue to be taken much more seriously by such awards than they have been in the past.
Six books, six languages, two former winners and a bonanza for independent publishers: the Man Booker International Prize – the UK’s most prestigious prize for translated fiction – has announced its 2018 shortlist. Whittled down from a longlist of 13 titles spanning the globe, the six titles to make the cut are translated from Arabic, French, Hungarian, Korean, Spanish and Polish.
This year’s nominations have been selected by a panel of five judges, chaired by novelist Lisa Appignanesi with fellow writers Hari Kunzru and Helen Oyeyemi alongside poet and translator Michael Hofmann and journalist Tim Martin. The shortlist includes Han Kang and Deborah Smith – who won the prize in 2016 for The Vegetarian – and László Krasznahorkai – who won the prize in its former iteration in 2015 – when it was awarded for an achievement in fiction evident in a body of work.
The winner of the 2018 prize will be announced on May 22 at a formal dinner at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London – and the £50,000 prize will be divided equally between the author and the translator of the winning book.
The Booker Prize Foundation has rejigged the flagship award in recent years. An awful lot of handwringing has been devoted to the decision to include US authors as contenders for the “main” award, The Man Booker Prize. But very little attention has been paid to the decision to overhaul the group’s international prize. Originally introduced in 2005, the Man Booker International Prize was intended as a global-facing sister award – with a twist. The original version of the International prize was a biennial award honouring an entire body of work by a living writer of any nationality and in any language (as long as their work was available in English).
The original format was a noble pursuit, but the Man Booker International was inevitably overshadowed on the global literary stage by the Nobel Prize for Literature. As of 2016, the Man Booker International Prize now awards a single book – but one that has been originally written in a language other than English, then subsequently translated and published in the UK.
The International Prize’s unique selling point is the emphasis on collaboration between author and translator, even down to sharing the prize money. The focus on collaboration is what makes the International Prize, for me, a truly exciting event in the literary awards calendar.
Focus on translation
Arguably, the change has been for the better but the comparative lack of attention on the international award is still indicative of mainstream publishing’s general disinterest in translated fiction – bar the occasional bestselling “Scandi Noir” and international phenomenon such as Italy’s Elena Ferrante, of course, the latter shortlisted for the prize in 2016, along with translator Ann Goldstein.
Although we shouldn’t be tempted to see the commercial popularity of Jo Nesbø and the relative success of Ferrante as a sea change in translated fiction’s fortunes in UK publishing, there are reasons to be cautiously optimistic. Adam Freudenheim of Pushkin Press suggests that “there’s definitely greater and wider awareness of fiction in translation as a result of such successes”, pointing to the new format of the Man Booker International Prize as “doing a great deal to raise the profile of such books”.
The role of independent publishers in supporting translated literature is not lost on the judges for the International Prize: announcing the longlist earlier this year, Appignanesi declared: “I think we have to raise our hats to independent publishers. It does cost money to translate, it’s harder to publish, harder to sell.”
The International Prize has even had a direct impact on the range of translated literature available in the UK: Kang and Smith’s inaugural win in 2016 for The Vegetarian meant that Smith had extra funds for her non-profit small press, Tilted Axis – which is “on a mission to shake up contemporary international literature”.
Translated fiction may be a small part of the British reading diet but it is one that is steadily growing. In 2015, The Bookseller reported that translated fiction only accounted for 1.5% overall and 3.5% of published literary fiction. Yet translated fiction provided 5% of total fiction sales in 2015.
Only time will tell if the appetite for translated fiction in the UK can continue. In the meantime, let’s toast the shortlisted authors and translators. If you’ve yet to enjoy translated fiction, this year’s shortlist is a good place to expand your global reading life.
It has now been 20 years since Amazon sold its first book: the titillating-sounding Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies, by Douglas Hofstadter. Since then publishers have often expressed concern over Amazon. Recent public spates with Hachette and Penguin Random House have heightened the public’s awareness of this fraught relationship.
It has been presented as a David and Goliath battle. This is despite the underdogs’ status as the largest publishing houses in the world. As Amazon has become the primary destination for books online, it has been able to lower book prices through their influence over the book trade. Many have argued that this has reduced the book to “a thing of minimal value”.
Despite this pervasive narrative of the evil overlord milking its underlings for all their worth, Amazon has actually offered some positive changes in the publishing industry over the last 20 years. Most notably, the website has increased the visibility of books as a form of entertainment in a competitive media environment. This is an achievement that should not be diminished in our increasingly digital world.
In Amazon’s early years, Jeff Bezos, the company’s CEO, was keen to avoid stocking books. Instead, he wanted to work as a go-between for customers and wholesalers. Instead of building costly warehouses, Amazon would instead buy books as customers ordered them. This would pass the savings on to the customers. (It wasn’t long, however, until Amazon started building large warehouses to ensure faster delivery times.)
This promise of a large selection of books required a large database of available books for customers to search. Prior to Amazon’s launch, this data was available to those who needed it from Bowker’s Books in Print, an expensive data source run by the people who controlled the International Standardised Book Number (ISBN) standard in the USA.
ISBN was the principle way in which people discovered books, and Bowker controlled this by documenting the availability of published and forthcoming titles. This made them one of the most powerful companies in the publishing industry and also created a division between traditional and self-published books.
Bowker allowed third parties to re-use their information, so Amazon linked this data to their website. Users could now see any book Bowker reported as available. This led to Amazon’s boasts that they had the largest bookstore in the world, despite their lack of inventory in their early years. But many other book retailers had exactly the same potential inventory through access to the same suppliers and Bowker’s Books in Print.
Amazon’s decision to open up the data in Bowker’s Books in Print to customers democratised the ability to discover of books that had previously been locked in to the sales system of physical book stores. And as Amazon’s reputation improved, they soon collected more data than Bowker.
For the first time, users could access data about what publishers had recently released and basic information about forthcoming titles. Even if customers did not buy books from Amazon, they could still access the information. This change benefited publishers as readers who can quickly find information about new books are more likely to buy new books.
As Amazon expanded beyond books, ISBN was no longer the most useful form for recalling information about items they sold. So the company came up with a new version: Amazon Standardized Identifier Numbers (ASINs), Amazon’s equivalent of ISBNs. This allowed customers to shop for books, toys and electronics in one place.
The ASIN is central to any Amazon catalogue record and with Amazon’s expansion into selling eBooks and second hand books, it connects various editions of books. ASINs are the glue that connect eBooks on the Kindle to shared highlights, associated reviews, and second hand print copies on sale. Publishers, and their supporters, can use ASINs as a way of directing customers to relevant titles in new ways.
Will Cookson’s Bookindy is an example of this. The mobile app allows readers to find out if a particular book is available for sale cheaper than Amazon in an independent bookstore nearby. So Amazon’s advantage of being the largest source of book-related information is transformed into a way to build the local economy.
ASINs are primarily useful for finding and purchasing books from within the Amazon bookstore, but this is changing. For example, many self-published eBooks don’t have ISBNs, so Amazon’s data structure can be used to discover current trends in the publishing industry. Amazon’s data allows publishers to track the popularity of books in all forms and shape their future catalogues based on their findings.
While ISBNs will remain the standard for print books, ASIN and Amazon’s large amount of data clearly benefits publishers through increasing their visibility. Amazon have forever altered bookselling and the publishing industry, but this does not mean that its large database cannot be an invaluable resource for publishers who wish to direct customers to new books outside of Amazon.
Radio National’s Background Briefing recently presented a grim academic tale of identity theft, shambolic conferences, exploitation, sham peer review and pseudoscience.
Presenter Hagar Cohen provided an eye-opening introduction to predatory academic publishing and conferences, with a particular focus on the publisher OMICS Group. It was also a very human story, including researchers travelling across the globe only to find they’re attending an imitation of an academic conference.
Why do predatory and vanity academic publishers and conferences exist? Why are they flourishing now? And what can they tell us about the failings of academia?
“Publish or perish” is a simplification of academic life, but contains an element of truth. There’s little point undertaking research if you don’t tell anybody about it, and this has been true for centuries. Four centuries ago, astronomers such as Copernicus, Galileo and Kepler discussed their observations, calculations and methods in books.
Understandably, academic publications, citations of publications and conference presentations have become metrics for academic performance. One can (and should) argue about the legitimacy of such metrics, but they are a fact of modern academic life.
Peer review of manuscripts by academics is also critical to academic publishing. Does the manuscript add to the body of knowledge? Does the manuscript accurately discuss previous work? Are there significant errors in the manuscript? Does the manuscript clearly communicate relevant methods, results and arguments? Are the conclusions of the manuscript justified?
Peer review is imperfect, but prevents many dubious manuscripts from being published. It effectively excludes authors who are unwilling or unable to meet the standards of mainstream academic publishing.
Vanity and predators
Both vanity and predatory academic publishers exploit opportunities created by legitimate peer review and academic performance metrics. In particular, they allow authors to publish articles that would never survive legitimate peer review.
Vanity academic journals have existed for decades, and these imitations of legitimate journals often promote particular (discredited) ideas or have strong ideological biases. For example, the Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons may sound respectable, but publishes pseudoscience including HIV-AIDS denial, climate contrarianism and anti-vaccination scaremongering.
More recently, there has been an explosion of predatory journals, which seek to make large profits by publishing (for a fee) virtually anything that comes their way. While predatory publishers claim to peer-review articles, this is often a sham.
For example, on Background Briefing I discussed “Discovering the Total Contents of the Universe”, which was published in an OMICS journal. This article was supposedly peer-reviewed, but isn’t based on observations nor a scientific methodology. Instead, it makes claims about aliens based on “ancient Indian scriptures” and “a mathematical language, which has long been forgotten by mankind”. To be blunt, it is nonsense.
I’ve also seen activists reference studies from predatory journals in an attempt to bolster their arguments.
Predatory publishers often exploit the goodwill of legitimate academics. Being invited to present at a conference or edit a journal is usually evidence of being held in high esteem by your peers. It can be an opportunity too good to miss, but with predatory publishers there’s a sting in the tail.
Predatory publishers often invite academics to join editorial boards, giving journals an air of legitimacy. However, they often ignore academics’ feedback on manuscripts or even use academics’ names without permission.
Similarly, predatory outfits will invite academics to present at conferences, for a hefty fee, but those conferences may be pale imitations of real conferences. Background Briefing attended a shambolic conference in Brisbane with fewer than 30 attendees. Many of the speakers listed on the program did not attend. One has to wonder if the missing speakers even knew they were on the conference program.
This proliferation is an unfortunate side effect of online open access publishing. Online publications do not have the overheads of printed journals, as they require only a website and correctly formatted PDF documents. Conference venues across the globe can be booked online with a credit card. Since this requires only a computer, many predatory publishers operate from modest offices or suburban houses.
Traditionally journals have been available via subscription only, often at considerable expense to institutions. Open access publications are available to everyone instantly, which potentially unlocks academic knowledge, but requires fees from the authors (or funding agencies) to remain viable. This opens the door for predatory publishers seeking to prise money from authors, resulting in thousands of new suspect journals.
Can the vanity and predatory publishers provide lessons for academia? Clearly, no sector of the community (including academia) is free from shonky online operators.
While it would be cute to assume there are just good and bad publishers, sometimes the practices of the dodgy operators can be found elsewhere. Springer and IEEE have published gibberish produced by a computer program. Elsevier publishes Homeopathy, despite homeopathy having no scientific basis. Academics must strive to maintain and improve academic standards, including at major publishers.
It would also be wrong to assume that functioning peer review is a simple arbiter of right and wrong. There is a spectrum of peer review, with quality varying from journal to journal. Peer review is only a quality-control process that can sometimes fail, even at the best journals.
That said, those who knowingly avoid peer review by submitting to vanity and predatory publishers are effectively avoiding scrutiny and rigour. They are deliberately avoiding what is needed to advance knowledge and understanding.