HarperCollinsVictoria Barnsley, Chief Executive and Publisher at HarperCollins UK since 2000, announced her unexpected exit earlier this week.

According to the report in the UK’s The Bookseller, expanded on the circumstances and on her own view of her profession in a valedictory speech at the annual HarperCollins author party, held this year in the Orangery of  Kensington Palace. (My thanks to author and illustrator David O’Connell for his picture of the party.)

In this, she called for her peers to keep their focus on publishing as a content business, not a media business.

As quoted by The Bookseller, Barnsley said:

“My advice to publishers, and I think on this occasion I’m probably allowed to give a little piece of advice, is by all means play with tech companies, but please please don’t try and become one. Remember where your true strength lies—we are content businesses.”

Now, I have a problem with that. Notwithstanding Barnsley’s many years in the business and the respect due to her decision. Several problems, in fact.

To deal with the straightforward industry questions first:

I consider publishing a distribution and marketing business at least as much as it is a content business, if not more. The ones actually in the business of producing the content, who get paid directly for content, are the authors.

Yes, that ignores a whole sub-ecosystem of non-books, series titles, spinoffs, and other marketing-driven product where the publisher is the instigator for its own business reasons, but even those anonymous apologies for books need writers. Publishers need the content as window-dressing for their nakedly commercial operations and to make them feel better about themselves, that’s all; like Renaissance petty tyrants commissioning artists and poets to exonerate them through art.

The tech companies that Barnsley cites actually proved that the content doesn’t need publishers. It can go straight to the consumer without them. They have transformed writing. Self-publishing has led more people to write and circulate, and even actually market and sell, their writing than ever before, without visible aid from publishers.

Blogging has become a semi-respectable literary form, at least on a level with the 19th-century feuilleton. Kindle Direct Publishing threatens wholesale to eat the publishers’ publisher’s lunch. They, meanwhile, fought tooth and nail to keep writers and readers under the same old limits and restrictions.

Above all, though, it distresses me to hear a leading publisher describe their business as a content business. To my mind, that’s practically a self-condemnation. Why? Because that word ‘content’ for me reduces the contents of books to mere data, filling, so many DPI or bytes without any intrinsic worth or capability to transmit ideas, embody culture, change minds, or become part of our feelings and thoughts.

In the media context, Wikipedia defines content thus:

“Information and experiences that may provide value for an end-user/audience in specific contexts.”

The word is purely what’s in the container as seen from the container’s POV. It disparages content from the start. It gives me no reassurance whatsoever that that publisher actually knows, or cares, about what is inside a book, let alone what distinguishes a good one from a bad one, or makes one or other worth producing.

The HarperCollins authors’ party 2013, courtesy of David O’Connell.

Everywhere, thanks to Bill Gates, you can hear the cliche: “Content is King.” I’m not content with this content cant. Would you describe what’s inside your head as just content?

If you subscribe to much modern cognitive science and philosophy, words, language, writing, are what make us self-conscious, self-aware. Words are the machine language of the human soul. Language itself is the root or embodiment of human being. Words, literally, speak us. They create us, as rational beings and individual personalities. Can you imagine content doing that?

You don’t have to sign up to those particular and much-contested theories to see the value of what lies inside books, though. “That so many writers have been prepared to accept a kind of martyrdom is the best tribute that flesh can pay to the living spirit of man as expressed in his literature,” wrote Anthony Burgess. Can you imagine martyring yourself for content?  “The living spirit of man as expressed in his content”? The tongue shrinks from even saying it.

Still, I could almost be grateful to Barnsley for coming clean. By describing publishing as a content business, she’s confirming all my worst—and best-informed—suspicions about that suburb of the Arts, Entertainment, and Recreation sector. (Code 71 in the North American Industry Classification System, in case anyone’s interested.)

All human self-awareness, consciousness, thought, feeling, will, and action, down there under NAICS Code 71?  I don’t think so somehow. And that helps me understand why so many writers and thinkers now stand on the tech side of the fence, over against HarperCollins and the other content pumpers.


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