On Orwell, the internet and book publishing

I have recently re-read George Orwell’s short essay ‘Politics and the English Language’ and strongly recommend it. Orwell wrote that writing clearly and making good sense are at least the beginning of a world that is more just, more humane. (Of course these ideas were later framed in their more famous but inverse forms as ‘newspeak’ and ‘thoughtcrime’ in Nineteen Eighty-Four – but does fear of fear make for a better world?) I don’t think Orwell was talking about brands and business in any way, but I’m sure there are some important lessons for us in a later era.

In my 30 years in the book publishing business I have often tried to help authors’ writing reach most readily the kinds of people most likely to be interested, so Orwell’s high-minded ethos – along with his helpful, practical and detailed analysis too – makes me feel good. Looking back, it seems odd now that I have never heard publishers claim for their work itself – as opposed to the content of their books – any kind of political (in Orwell’s moral sense of the word) or even utilitarian significance. I have worked for a number of independent publishers who wanted to sell lots of books for various ideological reasons, but writing well was simply, naively, even tritely ‘a good thing’. Curiously again, printers and typographers – perhaps because they usually have very little control over content – have written and printed some modest but also fine words about the dignity of their work. Their complex self-reflexivity as servants to the power of their medium may even trace back to the astonishingly reverberant Johannine ‘In the beginning was the Word’.

Yet in today’s ultra-commercial book publishing world some publishers – the ones whose costcutting has now got as far as giving up on proofreading – have lost sight of their core values. In my view the blinkered pursuit of value-free market-driven commercialism has undermined the sustainability of the book publishing brand itself. The golden age of publishing for me was when Penguin founded Pelican after the Second World War – the perfect storm of a publisher in tune with the zeitgeist, publishing books that people wanted to buy, at prices that helped grow the market, about subjects that extended public awareness of ‘the best which has been thought and said in the world’ (Matthew Arnold).

Nowadays the internet makes everything available, good and bad. As Alberto Manguel writes in his excellent The Library at Night (London: Yale University Press, 2008, p. 322):

If the Library of Alexandria was the emblem of our ambition of omniscience, the Web is the emblem of our ambition of omnipresence; the library that contained everything has become the library that contains anything. Alexandria modestly saw itself as the centre of a circle bound by the knowable world; the Web, like the definition of God first imagined in the twelfth century, sees itself as a circle whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.

As the internet matures as a medium, the growing problem for us users is quality. So much of it is rubbish, how can we know – before we look at it – what is good? If so much of it is free, how can publishers justify charging even a modest price? The answer: a return to core publishing values. Sell a product that is good. ‘Good’ only has meaning if you chase after something oblivious to commerciality. Let people know that your stuff really is good – and make sure they are right to trust you. Build the value of your work for reasons completely unrelated to value. Reframe what you do – Katie Price’s autobiography (for example) appeals to hundreds of thousands of women because it is an aspirational and inspirational story of a woman using her intelligence to overcome her difficulties. Grow up: it is not credible to expect people to like you all the time. Be self-aware: model what you do through broad and creative reading, thinking and experience that extend rather than repeat your view of yourself. The antidote to internet panic is the calmness of confident judgements and the telling of truth.

I’m not saying, by the way, that the traditional mainstream publishing model isn’t doomed – there are plenty of fires breaking out all around. I am saying that perhaps the kind of ethos Orwell wrote about in his essay can help the sustainability of the fragments that shoot off.

About Propagandum

I’ve been working in book publishing for over 30 years – an industry now in rapid transition. So I’m interested in foundational principles for media, writing and language – what lessons can we learn for how we can and should communicate? How can we make sense of media/technology? Can we transfer some skills from the old to the new? I hope to share (every week-ish) some things I think are wonderful, rich and important. I write longish posts because our complex and fascinating world cannot be reduced to soundbites. Please let me know what you think – contact me at david@propagandum.com
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