Thinking about the Legacies of Colonialism in Publishing

Wet'suwet'en Strong march, Jan 11, 2020

In the vast European colonial project, from the 15th century onwards, three institutions – church, school, and book – formed the non-military means by which European empires and cultures established social and economic dominance over practically every continent on earth. Publishing has been central to this; the rise of print culture in Europe coincides neatly with the rise of imperialism and colonialism.

In 19th-century Canada, this played out as part of a nation-building project: an effort to secure an enormous resource base, which involved explicitly racist efforts to centrally control both the First Nations and the waves of diverse immigrant populations that already had and continued to move into North America – while at the same time working to resist American “manifest destiny.” Colonial and later national governments in Canada promoted a curriculum and a school system designed to assimilate and normalize British culture across a diverse and dynamic population. That the earliest publishers in Canada were the same people that designed the Residential School system is not coincidental; these were parts of the larger nation-building project.

It began with religious, government, and educational publishing, but in the 20th century, as “colonialism” ceased to be an orienting term in public life, the project was articulated more in terms of class and social mobility. Books and literature had long been the markers of class distinction and indeed self-improvement for the middle classes. The ways in which trade and mass-market publishing shaped up in the 20th century reinforced notions of what it meant to be cultured, educated, well-read.

The idea of a best-selling book – the book that everyone reads – comes out of the colonial paradigm: gathering and sustaining mass audiences around a small number of texts in heavy circulation. The “economy of scale” in mass production means that the more copies of a book that can be printed and sold, the greater the profit. So, while publishing has often prided itself on plurality and freedom, the economic logic of the best-sellers can’t help but to reinforce cultural hierarchy: the big book, by the star author, that everyone reads, succeeds both in making money and in generating cultural capital for the author, the publisher, and the ideas — this is the force behind all the “cultural industries.” 

But that means that exclusion is part of the mix; it’s a constitutional part of how cultural markets work. It doesn’t have to be exclusion by design or intent, but exclusion is a result of choosing what to include, and what to take a risk on. If as a publisher I decide that a particular thing is worth publishing, that means I am also deciding that something else isn’t. As we elevate certain things to the status of cool or desirable or important, we are making a distinction in favour of those things and against other things. We can call this “curation,” but the other side of it is “gatekeeping.”

So, if by its very nature publishing is trading in distinction, then it always risks participating in and trading on the forms of oppression that are shot through the social order of the day. Our social order is pre-conditioned by racism, by class structures (or the legacy of class structures, if you want to deny that class still exists), by gender normativity, and by the persistent capitalist mass-market reification of all sorts of “norms” – all of which serve to guide a publisher’s ideas of where a profitable market is likely to be. And here is where the systemic, hidden racisms are most dangerous: in the unspoken, unexamined assumptions about what and who is important, and where so-called “colour-blindness” is such a liability, because it leads back to an unexamined white normativity.

The result is a nasty feedback loop, as in the incredibly oft-reported claim that “people [who aren’t white] don’t read,” which then discourages publishers (who are mostly white) from taking risks on any books that don’t assume the usual white audience. Which means those books don’t get published, and by extension, that readers of colour remain invisible (while invisibly reading those same white books). A recent piece in The New York Times, “A Conflicted Cultural Force: What it’s Like to Be Black in Publishing” provides a stark illustration of this pattern. 

There isn’t a straightforward way out of this loop. Five years of Lee & Low’s Diversity Survey tell the publishing industry over and over again that it is shockingly homogeneous, and publishers claim to have heard the call. But It’s hard to get out of the rut because a good deal of economic energy is devoted to staying in the rut. And because this is such a ‘constitutional’ problem to the publishing industry, it’s not easily solved via any means already sitting on the desk of industry insiders. 

Rather, it is going to take a lot of different actions and agendas working in concert. Yes, publishers can make more informed and proactive decisions, both about acquiring books and about hiring staff. Affirmative action-style plans help because they directly address patterns of marginalization; this is necessary but not sufficient. There also needs to be a diversity of publishing organizations themselves: Indigenous publishers; Black publishers; LGBTQ+ publishers – and booksellers too. And the cultures of literature and reading themselves have to change – the recent calls for white readers to go find and read books written by people of colour are important because this addresses that invisibility and also helps to broaden the discourse across formerly distinct reading audiences.

The late Greg Younging – Publisher at Theytus Books, Professor at UBC Okanagan, and tireless advocate for Indigenous publishing – made me believe that a decolonized kind of publishing was possible; that it was possible to escape these colonial legacies and the logics that perpetuate them. His optimism — and his dogged work on this — inspired many of us. The surge of activism and awareness around racial justice in 2020 also inspires me. This defines the work to be done right now — by everyone in publishing, but especially those of us in publishing education — to bust open these old assumptions and hide-bound ways of thinking about publishing, and markets, and culture. We need to understand these legacies and how they shape us, and we need to tell ourselves new stories about what writing and publishing mean in today’s world, about who it’s for, and why.