Is publishing creative?

John Howkins in his book The Creative Economy (reviewed on this blog, 4 Feb 2011) defines the creative industries as follows: advertising; architecture; art; crafts; design; fashion; film; music; performing arts; publishing; R & D; software; toys and games; TV and radio; and video games. According to Howkins, publishing belongs to the creative economy.

Though it might seem difficult to argue with that – I’m not sure I’ve ever heard anyone set out to articulate the argument that publishing is not part of the creative economy – it is certainly possible to overlook the fact.

Indeed, at a pragmatic level, publishing often is excluded. The British Library recently posted a notice entitled ‘Do you work in the creative industries?‘ It says it would like to hear from you “if you’re an author, or if you work in film & TV, design, fashion or computer games” – but evidently not if you’re a publisher. Similarly many ‘Creative Industries’ courses – for example, at Foundation Degree level in the UK – are much more likely to have photography, music, design, performing arts, and digital media at their core than publishing. 

So is publishing a creative industry?

The answer ones gives depends both on how one defines creativity and how one perceives publishing. I hesitate to raise the question of the definition of ‘creativity’ – it’s one of those questions that people write entire doctoral theses on. But we need some sort of operational definition, so here I will take ‘creativity’ to refer to (1) the making of something, in particular (2) the making of something of value (however defined), involving (3) something in some sense innovative.

I don’t claim this definition captures the essence of creativity – indeed, I don’t believe there is an essence of creativity – but at least you now know what I mean by the term. Using these components as criteria, then, how creative (if at all) is publishing?

Publishing most clearly involves making something. In fact, this has always been one of the pleasures of working in the industry. My son comes home from school and says, “Look what I made,” and shows us the apple crumble (or whatever) that he’s baked. I’m the same: when a book that I’ve commissioned, developed, or published arrives from the printer, I want to show someone. And, like most editors, I smell the paper. That act celebrates the thing-ness of it all.

Admittedly, digital publishing problematises this somewhat. When our Creative Writing Studies imprint published its first e-book, Rethinking Creative Writing, I felt the same kind of celebratory pride that I feel about print books. But then I’ve been on a bit of a journey, following the development of e-books for a number of years and committing myself to them professionally. Not everyone feels the same way. To some people – some creative writing academics, for example – e-books don’t feel real somehow.

But there’s a reasonable consensus that publishing makes things. Does it make anything of value? The answer I think is: usually – though not always. Nobody seriously doubts the value of great reference works, novels, textbooks, how-to books and so on. Sometimes books are published that add little or nothing of value but market forces place a limit on that kind of thing – if you keep doing it, you go out of business.

Authors, though, might doubt whether publishers contribute to the value of a book: they might argue that if a book is great, that is because of what s/he has written, rather than what the publisher has done.

I understand that argument because the value that the publisher adds is not always very evident, at least to the senses. (In my own case as an author, I’ve been lucky: Cambridge University Press added value to Writing Successful Academic Books by, for example, employing an expert copy-editor – Leigh Mueller – and giving the book a stylish cover designed by Jackie Taylor.) As I have argued in a previous post, however, publishers typically add value through co-ordinating services and branding products. At the very least, they get the thing into print and distributed.  One might say that until a book has been published its value is merely potential.

What of our third criteria – innovativeness? Innovation and value aren’t necessarily related: if the innovativeness of a product (or process) doesn’t contribute to its value, we should surely resist calling it ‘creative’. Equally, a product can be non-innovative yet valuable (the AA Road Atlas, say): again that seems less than creative. Yet to the degree that innovation contributes to value, to that degree the attribution ‘creative’ seems justified.

Where publishing falls short of being creative, it is usually under this third criterion that it does so. Much publishing is the same old same old. Here I want to float a hypothesis, modestly entitled Monographer’s First Law of Publishing (M1LoP). This states that the larger the company, the less creative it is likely to be – especially in trade publishing.

Consider the ‘big books’ that large-scale trade publishing is organised around. They are published with minimal creativity. A publishing house buys the autobiography of a television celebrity or sports star. Great. The ghost-writer, the jacket designer, the publicist etc. all know exactly what to do – which is, in fact, not to be creative but rather to do the obvious. It’s the same if they acquire the latest novel by some well-established Booker candidate. Ditto. There’s nothing wrong with all this,of course – it’s just that it’s not creative.

More rigorous proof of M1LoP will have to wait until another occasion. The good news is that M1LoP does not disqualify publishing as a creative industry, for two reasons: (a) though value-from-innovation is far from ubiquitous in publishing, equally it is far from absent – test this at a book fair by walking from the sterile grandiose stands of the large trade publishers to the smaller stands of members of the independent alliance (or the IPG); and (b) the other creative industries – advertising, architecture, television and so on – exhibit a similar pattern.

In short: (1) publishing makes stuff; typically, (2) it makes stuff of value; and (3) some of the time, publishing is innovative and in a value-producing way.

John Howkins Creative Economy 1, British Library 0.


3 Responses to “Is publishing creative?”

  1. […] this year tended to tended to confirm Monographer’s First Law of Publishing (introduced in  ‘Is publishing creative?’), i.e. “the larger the company, the less creative it will […]

  2. […] I’m not over-impressed with the creativity of the large trade houses (see, for example ‘Is publishing creative?‘) – but hats off to Random House for creating this […]

  3. […] There’s nothing wrong with all this,of course – it’s just that it’s not creative. (‘Is publishing creative?‘, 15 Sept […]

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