Positioning Publishing Studies in the Cultural Economy

Anyone who is conducting research into the intricacies of the contemporary literary economy and publishing industry has likely questioned exactly where their research ‘belongs’. Simone Murray’s seminal 2007 essay Publishing Studies: Critically Mapping Research in Search of a Discipline adeptly highlighted the near constant push and pull that can be felt by the contemporary publishing studies scholar. More recently, Daniel Boswell wrote an excellent piece for this site entitled What We Write About When We Write About Publishing which once again interrogated the difficulties of defining Publishing Studies as a field, calling it an ‘often ill-defined premise’ and noting that ‘when it comes to clarifying the purpose and boundaries of the pedagogical and theoretical side of the field […] definitions are harder to come by’. The largely interdisciplinary and multi-method approaches taken by those of us conducting research which falls under the umbrella of ‘Publishing Studies’ broadens the opportunities open to us for collaboration with both academic and industry partners, and expands the potential impact our research can make (both in terms of cultural/industry policy change and further development of critical discourse of the field). But while such scope makes our research exciting and innovative, it can make defining our research difficult.

UNIVERSITY OF LEICESTER © Matt Neale

UNIVERSITY OF LEICESTER © Matt Neale

In May 2017 I attended a Cultural Economy research workshop at CAMEo Research Institute for Cultural and Media Economies, University of Leicester, where I am currently working as a Research Associate. The purpose of the afternoon was to bring together researchers based in the East Midlands whose research interests are largely focused within the cultural industries. It was a select group, whose expertise ranged from cultural policy, art activism, music and geography, to infrapolitics, business and employment, as well as my own research of the literary economy. It was a brilliant afternoon of critical discourse, friendly and encouraging feedback, and shared research with colleagues from all over the region. I would be lying, however, if I didn’t say there were a few moments when I questioned where my work ‘fit’ amongst the other research that was being shared and discussed. I was presenting some of my own current research into online celebrity book clubs, particularly those of the YouTube star Zoella (which is a collaborative project with Maxine Branagh-Miscampbell, a colleague from the University of Stirling) and the social media mogul Kim Kardashian-West, and while I knew my audience were engaged and interested in my research, the tiny devil on my shoulder whispered, ‘It doesn’t belong here’.

That said, even though there were moments when it felt like my research didn’t quite fit alongside that of my co-presenters at the research workshop, there were also moments of remarkable (and, to me, surprising) synchronicity. In nearly all of the research discussed at the workshop I recognised critical theory (Bourdieu, Foucault), methodologies (both quantitative and qualitative ranging from statistical data analyses to semi-structured interviews and examinations of social media) and questions (Who holds power in the Cultural Economy? How do people engage with culture? How is value articulated and circulated in the Cultural Economy?) that related directly to my own work on the literary economy. One paper in particular, about the independent music industry in the Northwest of England, struck a chord with me since the analysis paralleled so precisely developments in regional independent book publishing, particularly in relation to deliberate disassociations with London, which is traditionally (and erroneously) considered to be the centre of cultural production (publishing included) in the UK. What I found so intriguing about this paper was the fact that it came from Dr Allan Watson, a lecturer in Human Geography, who is based at the Department of Geography at Loughborough University. I would likely never have come across this research by Watson, and therefore would never have noticed the equivalences between the independent publishing and music industries, if it wasn’t for the Cultural Economy research workshop we were invited to speak at arranged by the Director and Deputy Director of CAMEo, Professor Mark Banks and Dr. Doris Eikhof.

Outside shot of Pilkington Library, LOUGHBOROUGH UNIVERSITY © Rich Grundy

Outside shot of Pilkington Library, LOUGHBOROUGH UNIVERSITY © Rich Grundy

Being brought together with scholars from fields that are not commonly associated with Publishing Studies, or the literary economy, encouraged me to reconsider where I position my research and, indeed, where Publishing Studies is positioned in relation to wider critical and sociological discourses surrounding the Cultural (and Creative) Economies. Of course, this isn’t the first time the publishing industry has been recognised as being part of the Cultural Industries and I can provide a few examples. In David Hesmondhalgh’s leading textbook on the subject, The Cultural Industries, he is explicit in his inclusion of ‘print and electronic publishing: including books, online databases, information services, magazines and newspapers’ as one of the seven ‘core cultural industries’. Some Publishing Studies scholars may wince at the oversimplification of the categorisation of what Hesmondhalgh counts as publishing products, but the fact remains that publishing is at the centre of the cultural industries since their primary function is ‘the industrial production and circulation of texts’. Similarly, in her 2014 book Literature and the Creative Economy, Sarah Brouillette reiterates ‘how literature has reflexively exemplified, internalised, and critiqued vocabularies and phenomena that are integral to our unfolding creative-economy era’. Finally, there is a chapter dedicated to Publishing by Christian Hjorth-Anderson in A Handbook of Cultural Economics, Second Edition, edited by Ruth Towse, alongside chapters discussing Cinema, Broadcasting, Museums, Performing Arts, Opera and Ballet. What is problematic, however, is that Hjorth-Anderson argues that:

The knowledge about publishing is very scattered and comes almost entirely from outside the academic world, with Caves (2000) as an exception. The material relating to publishing is enormous, including official reports from various countries, memoirs, biographies and a large amount of anecdotal evidence, but solid knowledge based on research published in academic journals is scarce.

This, of course, simply isn’t true. But is it surprising there is such disconnect between Cultural Industries and Publishing Studies scholarship when there is little explicit interaction between the two? Indeed, despite Hesmondhalgh and Brouillette’s eloquent illustrations of the publishing industry’s position within the Cultural Economy, academic contributions to Publishing Studies are rarely described as being part of the wider critical discourse concerning the Cultural Economies. It is rarer still to see Publishing Studies research sitting alongside its counterparts in the Cultural Economy in journals, conference papers and round table panels. While each scholarly field may have its own set of experts, journals and favoured publishers, many of the themes discussed in relation to the various facets of the Cultural Economy, such as markets, production, value, audiences and economics are the very themes Publishing Studies scholars consider in their research.

What I would argue, therefore, is that the publishing industry should be considered a key feature of the Cultural Economy and defined in such terms regularly and persuasively. The publishing industry’s role within the Cultural Economy is obvious, but it needs to be clearly articulated, both in academic, trade and cultural policy discourses. As I have indicated, examinations of the Cultural Economy are, at times, doing this, but it feels like Publishing Studies scholarship hasn’t quite made this connection and it isn’t utilising the relationship. Building upon these already existing foundations could make it easier for Publishing Studies scholars to position their work alongside peers who are conducting research into other aspects of the Cultural Economy (such as Theatre, Video Games, Music, Film & Television, Radio) and, in the long term, such associations may lead to productive developments within these respective fields as scholars could share methodologies, practices and critical frameworks within the same spaces, such as journals, conferences and institutional departments.

Comment /Source

Stevie Marsden

Stevie Marsden is a Research Associate at CAMEo Research Institute for Cultural and Media Economies at the University Of Leicester.  Her PhD thesis ‘The Saltire Society Literary Awards, A Cultural History: 1936-2015’, was completed in October 2016 and is the first comprehensive analysis of the Saltire Society Literary Awards, Scotland’s oldest series of book awards.  This PhD was completed through an Arts and Humanities Research Council Collaborative Doctoral Award and her research has been implemented by the Society in the development of their Literary Awards.  Stevie’s research is situated within the literary economy and contemporary publishing culture.  Her key research interests include literary award culture, judgment culture and gender, and diversity and representation in the publishing industry and literary culture.