Austin Meredith: Electronic Publishing

Dear Editor,

There is some good news about publishing-for-profit, and some bad news. The good news is, as you have noticed in IC23, that for-profit publishing filters submitted writings for whatever will be of interest to masses of readers. The bad news is that for-profit publishing filters submitted writings for whatever will be of interest to masses of readers.

There is something called “truth.” It is a problematic notion, but in attending to it we sometimes come to see that we are under an obligation to read things we would even pay not to have read. Such things tend not to come to our notice, having been filtered out by the censorship inseparable from for-profit publishing.

IC23 argues in favour of for-profit publishing and its censorship on the ground that without it the important would be submerged in the trivial. It seems me to that just because of for-profit publishing the important has been submerged in the trivial.

For-profit publishing, in fact, is the reason for the Western world’s freedom from the official censorship found in some other countries. The important, swamped by the mass of published trivia, is deprived of social impact. To hide a piece of paper, stick it in with a mass of pieces of paper.

I don’t see electronic publishing as a real solution for problems of this sort, but for-profit publishing is not a real solution either. The answer, if there is one, is that each of us must grind his or her nose into precisely those writings which we find most disturbing to our equilibrium. And this is a necessity which few will ever recognise; the majority will continue to read only what it expects to agree with.

Austin Meredith, Providence, RI, USA

Answer
It seems to us that Austin Meredith has rather overlooked the greed of for-profit publishers and the desirable effects this produces. The big firms do their best to grab all the profitable material and they get most of it. If the smaller firms are to stay in business they have to make do with what is left, and some of this has been left for them because it appeals only to small groups with specialised interests. Walsby’s Domain of Ideologies was produced by a commercial publisher at a time (1947) when he and his work were even less well known than now. (We have to add that the firm went bust shortly afterwards, but other factors were operative).

There is a story of a shop with a notice in the window:

THIS IS A NON-PROFIT ESTABLISHMENT. (We didn’t mean it to be, it just happened)

“For-profit” publishing is sometimes more accurately described as “hope-for-profit.” We cannot, obviously, know much about what didn’t get published, but Marx, Darwin, Freud and Einstein all appeared at times when they were doubtful commercial propositions.

Much gets published now that even its authors and readers regard as trivial. But it meets a demand, it serves a social purpose, even if one of which the highbrows reading IC disapprove. Electronic publishing opens the prospect of a flood of material serving no purpose but to scratch the egos of its authors. As it is at present, with no arrangements for selection, it would be likely to submerge the trivial beneath the unwanted, with the important getting pushed still farther down.

But the main point comes in Austin Meredith’s final paragraph, and here we are in full agreement. What matters is not so much what gets published as what gets read, and the crucial and insuperable restriction on that is imposed not by publishers, or by censors either, but by readers. In a Bulgarian hotel we once visited the bookshelves were loaded with the dullest imaginable reports of Communist Party meetings and conferences. Any commercial publisher in the West would have bought a special barge-pole so he could refuse to touch the stuff with it. In Bulgaria it got published, but that does not mean it got read.

from Ideological Commentary 25, January 1987.