These Charming Men: Digital Publishing and the Cult of Personality

This weekend I came across an interesting observation from 2002 by Alistair McCleery, concerning ‘the general erasure of the human from book history’, being:

‘[A] loss of legitimacy within book history for the kind of exercise that critically examines the role of a publisher as an autonomous individual, rather than as an agent subordinating personal will to impersonal forces emerging from the nexus of change, the market place, and legal liabilities.’ (Alistair McCleery: ‘The Return of the Publisher to Book History’, Book History, Vol.5.)

That passage speaks to a perception of the general movement within mainstream publishing that occurred from the 1970s onwards, when publishers were incorporated and corporatized, and how the longstanding historical ideal of publishing bookmen such as Allen Lane and William Heinemann leading from the front, transmogrified into imprints seen to be serving the needs of a mega-scale corporation.

It made me think of the latest post by Mike Shatzkin, ‘Introducing the North American Big Six’, positing a New Publishing World Order where the ‘behemoth’ publishers of North America (Penguin, Random House, Harper Collins, Hachette, Macmillan and Simon & Schuster) -  if they were not exactly being supplanted – were being joined by their direct selling partners: Amazon, Apple, Google, Ingram, Overdrive and Kobo. (I don’t want to get into that debate here, there’s a lively one going on in the comments thread of Mike’s site.) What struck me is that only one human being was mentioned in the post: Michael Tamblyn of Kobo. Whereas the others retained a 3rd person plural identifier: THEY.

It’s one of the stranger paradoxes of ‘digital publishing’ that we often speak of the predominance of monolithic entities threatening our industry, whilst at the same time grasp for personalities that humanize those entities. If the Digital Book World and Tools of Change conferences are about anything they seem to be opportunities to bathe in the speakers’ ideas and presentation skills or engage with  them in deeper level interviews or networking sessions.

Within the publishing industry we need people with charisma (Christ, even just personalities) to guide us. The importance of trusting and communicating with others should not be underplayed. Why else would the Futurebook awards seek to crown a ‘most inspiring digital publishing person’? Big corporate companies (on the publishing and retail side) are composed of people: many are as dynamic, agile and creative – if not more so – than their counterparts at smaller, independent organizations, which too often claim those qualities as if they belong to them by default.

But we struggle with the will to find empathy with other people and the seeming need to objectify players in the industry as BEHEMOTHS, MONOLITHS, or huge SUPERPOWERS presaging our DOOM.

Adam Curtis – the BBC archive specialist and creator of superlative documentaries exploring power, THE POWER OF NIGHTMARES and THE TRAP – made an appearance at The Story event last week. His recent (coruscating and brilliant) blog post about Rupert Murdoch illustrates how a fusion of the person and his corporate interests can lead to a damaging cult of personality. Interestingly, also last week, Victoria Barnsley (CEO of Harper Collins – but you know that) put herself in the most vulnerable position of any television appearance: the panel on QUESTION TIME.

What’s most puzzling about the attraction of figureheads is the contrasting, often self-contradictory, effect this has on commentators. So an ‘exciting and interesting’ memo by Nokia CEO Stephen Elop sets the blogosphere alight on the eve of an announcement of a partnership with Microsoft, a move that itself caused a lot of consternation and criticism of the corporate entities. This is the constant push and pull of the figurehead and the companies they head up. God knows a lot of people hate Steve Ballmer of Microsoft.

As governments fall in the Middle East, are we too reliant on these ‘benign’ dictators mapping out our destiny, who we seem to love and hate in equal measure? Or does recent speculation about the deterioration of Steve Jobs’s health signify that the real terror we harbour is at the loss of whatever humanity big corporations do have?

 

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