Cowardice, publishing and science

The publishing industry breeds cowardice. Apparently. Nobody in publishing dare defy commercial sense. Apparently. Profit is the measuring stick for literature. Apparently. Established authors lose their bravery in the face of sales numbers. Again, apparently.

The example used in the above op-ed is Haruki Murakami and his Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, which I’ve not read yet, but I’ve been told isn’t as good as his other books. That’s a shame if it’s true. And it’s an even bigger shame if it is true that the lacklustre Colorless Tsukuru is a symptom of conformity and cowardice in the business. Yet I doubt it.

I doubt we’re on the eve of rampant cowardice. Thinking that authors somehow morph into robot-legged typewriters chasing sales at the first whiff of success, sheets of purple prose fluttering in the wind, is laughable. Thinking that authors cower under their desks, practically taking dictation from the marketing department, is insulting. But do I believe that authors are under pressure to be profitable? Sure. Do I believe that publishing is sales-focused? Yep. Do I believe that profit is necessary in publishing? Absolutely. And do I think this is a problem? Err.. sort of, maybe-ish.

Let me explain. I am a scientist. Scientists are often ranked according to their H-index (after physicist Jorge E. Hirsch). This index is calculated on the basis of the number of papers the scientist has written and the number of citations each paper has received. The higher the H-index, the ‘better’ the scientist. It can be a crude parallel to literature, where an author’s success can be measured in numbers of books and their respective sales. With me so far?

My point is, the H-index is not without flaws.

Firstly, the H-index is field-dependent. By that, I mean that scientific fields differ in how many papers each scientist typically writes and how many citations per paper are typically allowed. The literary equivalents are ‘field’-dependent differences in number of books (depending on length, topic, research burden, and so on) and size of audience. In science, it is understood that we cannot really compare H-indices across fields, and that the full range of fields, from popular to obscure, all add to our current library of knowledge. The same goes for literature. We’d fare poorly with only the popular branches of each.

Secondly, the H-index can be manipulated or inaccurately measured. Scientists can cite themselves, boosting their index, and the number of citations varies with the tools used to measure it, sometimes by a lot. For something that is intended to be objective, the H-index can be surprisingly unreliable and opaque. In publishing, manipulating sales figures is not unheard of. For example, some may recall how loopholes in the system meant you could buy your way up the Amazon Bestseller List (cite yourself, so to speak). Also, sales figures for books are definitely not transparent.

Finally, the H-index doesn’t take into account the future impact of the scientist. Many are ahead of their time, or misunderstood by their contemporaries. Gregor Mendel, now dubbed the ‘father of genetics’ springs to mind. His ground-breaking work was ignored for 35 years. The parallel to literature is obvious, and we have a long list of authors never truly appreciated in their lifetime (Kafka, Lovecraft, Poe, Melville, Keats, even Austen). Establishing their value, cultural or financial, based on contemporary sales is ludicrous in the extreme.

In short, while publishing (science) needs to make a profit (progress), counting sales (citations) probably shouldn’t be the only measure of success. To focus simply on immediate profit is akin to staring at the top stone of the Cheops, forgetting the other ~2.3 million blocks below. It goes without saying that you won’t build a great pyramid that way, nor will you build a business that lasts.

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