Books are lives compressed, humanity summarised into screaming or striking stories.
One would think the book world would be a safe haven from inequality. But instead the traditional publishing industry — the big corporate publishers — is perpetuating prejudice and limiting ideas by elevating certain authors, characters, and thoughts above all others, with significant social consequences.
The big publishers are big businesses with monopolies over a product, as much as other industries. They are driven by profit, rather than the social importance of books. They only publish books that are a “sure thing”, causing quality to be lost to lowest common denominator marketability.
“Sure things” tend to be books by celebrities, books with a guaranteed (forced) market such as text books and required readings in schools and universities, books on popular genres such as horror and romance, and books by authors who have already been very successful.
Just as food monopolies limit food choice and news monopolies restrict our understanding of current events, the book corporations have a monopoly on the ideas, identity, history and perspectives available to us.
Publishing industry profits are strong and stable: the rumours that they have been hit by the digital book boom are exaggerated. Publishing companies' profits sit at around 10%, and higher for digital books. This is a middle of the pack profit margin compared to other industries.
The US publishing market is worth US$30 billion. According to Forbes, Amazon's annual revenue from book sales is $5.25 billion.
Meanwhile, the number of independent book stores, which usually try to sell books for their literary or intellectual quality rather than profitability, have fallen by 50% over the past two decades: from 4000 to under 2000 in the US. Independent publishers are also struggling.
Further, news monopolies are playing a bigger role in publishing. In 2013, two of the biggest publishers, Random House and Penguin Group, merged to form Penguin Random House. Random House, though, is owned by media conglomerate Bertelsmann, while Penguin is owned by Pearson, which also owns the Financial Times.
Pearson also had shares in The Economist, but sold them in August. Penguin Random House is believed to control about one quarter of the global book market.
HarperCollins was bought by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp in 1987. Last year, News Corp also bought romantic publisher Harlequin.
Thomson Reuters owns legal book publishers West and Sweet & Maxwell, as well as, obviously, the multinational media company Reuters.
Despite the profits, authors continue to be among the most exploited workers, in terms of pay to work time ratios — seeing many potential authors excluded from the start.
Fiction writers especially work for years for no pay, with no security or labour rights. Then when, and if, a book is published, they receive 7% of the sale price or net profits. That figure can go up to 12% if they are well known.
Further, publishers leave most of the promotion work to the author — with the exception of the likes of Harry Potter author JK Rowling. Bookshops charge hundreds of dollars just to do a book launch, on top of book profits.
When traditional publishers do dare to publish a first time author, they prefer those from economically comfortable backgrounds, who are known by people from the same background who will purchase the book. All this means that poor writers — and therefore the ideas of the poor - are virtually boycotted.
Putting the market first, the publishing corporations are promoting the status quo and overlooking books that are critical, have new ideas or atypical characters or use new techniques. They are under-representing oppressed groups such as women, migrants and LGBTI as authors, characters, and experts (in the case of non-fiction).
They seek celebrities and the big sell, with 0.01% of fiction titles accounting for 50% of sales, and 0.1% for 80% of sales.
Last year, just 14% of children's books in the US were by or about non-white people, despite people of colour making up 37% of the population, according to the Cooperative Children's Book Center.
The director of the centre, Kathleen Horning, said the buyers at Barnes and Noble, for example, believe “multicultural” (a misuse of a word to mean non-white focused) books don't sell.
When the books aren't stocked in book stores, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Black poet and author Nikki Grimes also noted that there were few people of colour in decision making positions in publishing.
Even though more women buy and read books than men, women account for just 17–22% of book submissions in the US, according to the National Endowment for the Arts. That is, women are 50% less likely to submit their finished work to publishers, according to Mslexia — perhaps because there are less female author role models.
In the 2012 VIDA count, 216 male authors were reviewed in the New York Review of Books, compared to 89 female authors. What all this amounts to is a censoring of a diversity of viewpoints and experience.
The disparity is even starker when comparing books published in first world countries to third world countries. UNESCO found the US published 305,000 new titles and editions in 2013 and Britain 184,000 in 2011, compared to 250 in El Salvador in 2003 and 14 in Mali in 1995.
English language books written outside Britain and the US — in India, Nigeria, New Zealand, South Africa, and so on — are much less likely to be published. Those that are often have to convert their manuscript into US English and are pressured to lose local jargon and references.
The traditional big publishers are often seen as a sort of quality control, choosing the best books of the many that get written. But those making decisions at these companies tend to be comprised of more privileged people — and are not always qualified to determine what we read.
One writer, for example, described some editors giving a speech at a book event and referring to Asian Americans as “exotic”. Editors often do not understand oppressed peoples, nor consider their issues important.
For publishers, a “good” story is the same old story, a familiar one that fits into a popular genre, with the same old characters and following the same old formula. The formula tends to be sexist (women are trophies), racist (main protagonists are white), ageist (you're only interesting when you're young) and classist (a mansion house is normal and the lives of workers aren't interesting).
This is repeated so often in the book and movie world that it becomes what most people aspire to and judge themselves by. It creates a disfigured version of the world, where young, white, straight, well-off men are life's protagonists.
Debbie Reese, tribally enrolled at Nambe Pueblo, told Lee & Low Books' blog, The Open Book, that there were many books by not-Native people that were marked as being about US Indigenous peoples. US people love a “certain kind” of Indigenous person, she said.
“They adhere to the bogus images in books (such as Susan Cooper's Ghost Hawk) but they find books about real Native people boring,” Reese noted. “If we don't walk on water, they're not interested in us. They don't care to know what sovereignty is or means.”
Similarly, publishers assume that only women want to read books by or about women, and that only Blacks want to read about Blacks, and so on, whereas the white male author is universal, classic, read by all. Anyone else is marketed as “multicultural” or “foreign”.
Jane Gangia, an associate professor, told The Open Book: “We grow up in the myth that whiteness is and should be the default; we don't question it. Not even my students of colour question it.
“One student from Puerto Rico asked me, 'Why did I have to wait until college to realise there was something wrong with this picture?' She did not know Puerto Ricans wrote books until eighth grade.”
The social consequences are inequality and a limiting of understanding — also known as the creation of prejudice. Books — and movies, art, music and other creative formes — are our consciousness: they reflect it and create it. That consciousness determines how we think, what we prioritise, value, and therefore, in a large part, how we act and how we view the actions of the powerful.
Who owns the words matters because democracy can never be real if the opinions of some social sectors matter less, or if ideas are monopolised by a small minority.
Unwritten, unpublished books are so many unsung stories, so many perspectives made invisible: the forced disappearance of books. Squandered poetry, wasted stories. The invisible majority barely making it into the slums of our imagination.
A giant hole in life where the books critical of giant injustices should be, where the middle aged heroes and non white protagonists and Third World thinkers should be. It is a more boring world, without all that.
[Tamara Pearson is an activist, journalist and editor living in Latin America. She is the author of the novel, The Butterfly Prison (Open Books, 2015) and will launch the book in Sydney at the Resistance Centre, 22 Mountain Street, Ultimo on October 23 at 6.30pm.]