The movement of literature to digital mediums has been occurring rapidly over the last 10 years. Innovation in the publishing industry has resulted in various products including the Kindle, Audiobooks and self publishing. These developments have gone a long way to make reading and publishing more accessible, both in terms of affordability and being disability friendly. Many have also welcomed the move to digital reading because of the sustainability benefits associated with decreased printing.
However, the ability to publish still remains quite inaccessible. Online self published books have social media and search engine algorithms to battle against. The echo chamber that social media becomes (as well its current monopolisation) means that written concepts and ideas don’t have the reach they used to. Before, you could see a potentially controversial book as you were doing your shopping. Now however, even the presence of physical books in larger and smaller supermarkets have been reduced, often being at the back of the store, rather than as you walk in. This type of presence meant that people were naturally and subconsciously exposed to ideas and concepts they wouldn’t have gone looking for otherwise. Social media sustains this, making suggestions based on things you’ve read before.
The move to digital has paved the way for writers to self publish and avoid the gatekeeping tactics usual publishing processes have, but there are still overlooked opportunities to address some SDG’s through publishing investment and an appreciation for the impact of literature.
Literature and Policy in Sustainable Development
Publishing investment is an important pathway to consider in order to make progress on the Sustainable Development Goals. The literature canon in the UK, books considered ‘classics’ which are often taught in schools, act as a medium through which we perceive and understand the world. Fiction offers platforms to different worldviews which the public may buy into. If the public is buying into a certain ideal or concept, it influences what policymakers prioritise. Popular writing naturally has its own impact upon the public eye, the viewpoints a popular book promotes can become more widely accepted. This can be viewed as dangerous, but the influence of literature is also an opportunity we’re missing out on to promote principles which lead to a more sustainable future.
Rolling with the theory that literature is a valuable tool in influencing policy and politics, investment into smaller publishing houses that reduce costs for writers and especially those that provide platforms for writers from under represented groups would bring new, authentic and localised voices onto the sustainable development (SD) stage. Currently, SD is dominated by academic experts, with years of research experience. They often act as the bridge between said localised voices and policymakers. Literature from these communities’ mouths are valuable, if the thoughts and experiences of these groups were more accessible, they could act as a rich and authentic data source for policymakers, without being filtered through the perspectives of researchers. We must begin to consider writing from authors with those lived experiences as a valued and valid data source. It is a skill to be able to deconstruct and analyse said writing to uncover truths about the world, something that is sorely missing in current conversations since it is still mostly driven by ‘objective’ quantitative data; data analysed by removed academics and public servants, often those answerable to the powers that be. This principle in itself could be considered elitist, since it is the wealthy and literate who have access to these ideas and access to spaces that critically think about them. Often, the privilege comes from a place of being able to enjoy reading and debating the issue, rather than living it.
For example, when Egyptian feminist author Nawal El Saadawi was jailed for ‘crimes against the state’ in 1981, her jailer said ‘If i find a pen and paper [in her cell], that is more dangerous than finding a pistol’. El Saadawi wrote many novels based on the stories of women she had met in jail, many of which were translated into many languages and sold around the world. Her ability to publish so globally and in so many different, accessible languages meant that many more people had an insight into the experience of women in Egypt/The Arab World. It also implicitly advocated for the need for writing to be translated, instead of perpetuating the eurocentric idea that everyone should be able to read English. She had used fiction to perpetuate a nuanced, decolonised view of the Middle East and its women’s solidarity movements, not wanting western feminists to depict it as ‘proof of barbaric oppression to which women are only exposed to in African and Arab countries’. The very fact that El Saadawi was banned, jailed and silenced is proof that literature has the ability to create immense political impact. Though El Saadawi had the opportunities and privileges to gain an education and publish her work, there are thousands of women whose stories could have incredible insight and impact who aren’t able to share their stories. Therefore, this issue spans wider than just publishing houses and their bias’.
This conversation extends to the question of how we can make spaces accessible and safe for people to share their stories and have them remembered, listened to and examined. These may be digital spaces, but it also includes community spaces where stories can be told orally, and recorded for current or future study. History is written by those who can control its narrative, and we have already seen chunks of history erased due to this fact. The publishing industry can take some control of this narrative and go further to help increase literacy levels, help provide funding and opportunity for people to learn how to write and read, and break down the barriers that reserve these concepts for the privileged. All of this therefore has the ability to impact public policy, by influencing ideas, opinions and understandings of public issues.
One of the biggest windows of opportunity to invest in publishing and the market of ebooks was the coronavirus pandemic. The Book Industry Group noted that ‘the level of technology spending across the publishing business is impossible to estimate’, but it is clear that the physical book is slowly but surely becoming less relevant to consumers. For example, the accuracy in translating books to different languages, social media and search algorithms, the security and safety aspects associated with downloading digital media, making ebooks compatible with accessibility features, are just tips of the iceberg when it comes to changes which could be made to improve the world.
The inevitable move of higher education and academic research to the internet is also a trend to watch. Currently, few top Universities offer online degrees, usually only at the postgraduate level. But the insecurity of HE after the Pandemic will likely force Universities to rapidly upgrade their IT infrastructure, including their digital library resources, to be able to deliver the same quality education they sell and keep a consistent income. The Global Publishing Industry report (2018) noted that the UK saw 19.6 percent of their revenue in this sector coming from digital editions, and in 2019 Forbes reported a 3 percent rise in this figure, alongside a 5 percent drop in physical sales. There is currently little data on 2019 and 2020, but we can predict it will be drastically different.
Investing in the accessibility of publishing
Amazon’s self publishing platform is probably one of the best for amateur writers, allowing them to retain up to 70 percent of royalties and the ability to decide how much your book should cost, where it is distributed and what language it is in. However, there is a trade off here with buying into a global corporation that has been condemned for its unethical and unsustainable practices.
Investing in smaller companies similar to Amazon such as IngramSpark or Blurb would help dilute Amazon’s self publishing monopoly. But, as they currently hold the title for most digital ebooks sold in the world, we once again find those with less funds under pressure to sacrifice their ethics to achieve their goals. Governments are vital in advocating the principles of free speech and accessible education knowledge as human rights, however in many nations government’s lack the economic resources or accountability to provide these to a full extent. Private sector businesses have the benefit of being distant enough from the government to not be under their thumb, but also have influence within powerful networks where decisions and priorities are made. Private sector investment is also vital in advocating for the principle of free speech. When the private sector is not monopolised, the interests of different businesses could help to create a space shared within different conversations more effectively than a government that has its own singular political interests. We will never be free from bias, as everyone will have their own motivations and interests to serve, but investment that keeps ideas, money and opportunities in the hands of the people creating and sharing them through writing is arguably the best way to avoid said exploitation.
Other publishing houses are slowly moving in the right direction. Penguin House’s collaboration with Rapper and Activist Stormzy to create Merky Books is an excellent example of a publisher using their platform to elevate underrepresented voices. These investments only alleviate the symptoms of a wider systemic problem, rather than unpacking the cause. Merky Books are dedicated to elevating minority voices specifically, giving them more of an opportunity and streamlined pathway into mainstream literature. However, there is only so much space for this, and often minority voices will have to compete with each other for space due to limited resources and demand. Though some have debated the effectiveness of spaces that are reserved for one group, the recent Black Lives Matter movement has shown us that there is a need for specific spaces that support and elevate specific voices which can otherwise go unheard by many for far too long. These spaces help by removing the competition which has forced these voices into the background.
The publishing industry needs to reflect on where its resources are invested. We have an ethical duty to bring more localised voices into the global conversation on all of the Sustainable Development Goals. With SDGs 1, 3, 4, 5, 8, 10, 11, 13, 15 and 16, it is the localised stories that we need to inform us on how we tackle these issues. For example, when trying to identify positive action points and strategies on tackling climate action, we need to listen to indigenous populations, by sharing and elevating their experiences and knowledge. When trying to tackle zero hunger, we need to listen to the experiences of people who have experienced food poverty, and how different factors such as geographical area, gender, agricultural space, societal norms, cultural knowledge and public health access all affect this. When trying to tackle sexual violence, we need to listen to writers like El Saadawi to understand all the other factors that surround this issue, otherwise we are essentially blind to them. Increased access to publishing is one pathway into exploring more localised and situational knowledge, and this expands across all types of publishing. From the literal meaning to just record and put somewhere, to the market meaning of publishing and the economic returns. Otherwise, the SDG’s may end up being a part of the problem they are in name attempting to resolve. After all, it’ll be what is written today that historians will be reading, studying and understanding. Opportunities for legacies are in what we immortalise through writing and publishing, and we must ensure we do not continue erasing histories and supporting unequal systems.