Bibliodiversity: A Manifesto for Independent Publishing

Bibliodiversity: A Manifesto for Independent Publishing

by Susan Hawthorne


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781742199306
Publisher: Spinifex Press
Publication date: 01/01/2015
Series: Spinifex Shorts Series
Pages: 104
Product dimensions: 6.90(w) x 4.90(h) x 0.30(d)

About the Author

Susan Hawthorne is a poet, an aerialist, an adjunct professor in the writing program at James Cook University, and the cofounder and publisher of Spinifex Press. She is a member of the Australian Society of Authors, PEN Melbourne, Poetry Australia, Small Publishers Network, and the Independent Publishers Committee of the Australian Publishers Association. She is the author of Bird, The Butterfly Effect, Cow, Earth’s Breath, Limen, Unsettling the Land, and Valence.

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A Manifesto for Independent Publishing

By Susan Hawthorne, Renate Klein, Pauline Hopkins

Spinifex Press Pty Ltd

Copyright © 2014 Susan Hawthorne
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-74219-930-6



The rich countries that preach free trade apply stern protectionist policies against the poor countries: they turn everything they touch — including the undeveloped countries' own production — into gold for themselves and rubbish for others.

— Eduardo Galeano, Open Veins of Latin America (1973, p. 101)

Just as biodiversity is an indicator of the health of an ecosystem, the health of an eco-social system can be found in its multiversity, and the health of the publishing industry in its bibliodiversity.


Biodiversity is the complex self-sustaining system of an ecological niche in a very particular locale. It includes diversity in genetics, within species and within ecosystems. It includes plants, animals and micro-organisms. It "encompasses all of the species that currently exist on Earth, the variations that exist within species, and the interactions that exist among all organisms and their biotic and abiotic environments as well as the integrity of these interactions" (Gowdy and McDaniel, 1995, p. 182). I expand the notion of biodiversity to take in cultural diversity, and as the inspiration for bibliodiversity.


Multiversity is an epistemological approach that takes account of the location and context of the knower. It values local knowledge. It does not attempt to straitjacket those who bring the most original ideas, ideas that resist the mainstream with its global supports of religion, capital, libertarian consumerism, and militarism.


Bibliodiversity is a complex self-sustaining system of story-telling, writing, publishing and other kinds of production of orature and literature. The writers and producers are comparable to the inhabitants of an ecosystem. Bibliodiversity contributes to a thriving life of culture and a healthy ecosocial system.

It is useful to think of bibliodiversity as a view from below. Like old trees in the right soil, the roots of culture are deep. Time has created a rich seam of knowledge and if a tree cannot tap into this soil of knowledge, it will die for lack of nutrients. But the tree is not alone. It is interdependent with a host of organisms and plants and animals around it.

Just as an ecosystem is biodiverse when it has 'dynamic balance', that is, when one species is not overrunning and dominating others to their exclusion, so too an eco-social system is only in dynamic balance when a host of varied voices can be heard. Homogenisation of ecosystems occurs when global farming, factory farming, agribusiness and genetically modified organisms come to dominate the environment. These are adverse effects of globalisation. Likewise in the eco-social system, the lack of media diversity and the concentration of big publishing and big bookselling reduce the possibility for a diversity of voices to be heard or read. These become 'monocultures of the mind' (Shiva, 1993) and they are just as destructive as agricultural and military monocultures. If the social habitat is overrun by epistemological monocultures — single voices all saying the same thing — there is a loss of dynamic balance and those who have something new or different to say will be ignored. In this context, the search for an approach that emphasises multiversity is the first step. In order for multiversity to thrive, an accompanying phenomenon of publishing is also required and this is where we find the need for an approach that highlights bibliodiversity.

Bibliodiversity occurs when both the deep soil of culture is nurtured and the multiplicity of epistemological stances are encouraged. I refer to this ascultural multiversity. Small and independent publishers contribute to the cultural multiversity through deep publishing of cultural materials (e.g. books that draw on non- homogenised cultural knowledge) as well as producing books that represent a wide range of viewpoints and epistemological positions.

A group of Chilean publishers who had set up the group Asociación de Editores Independientes de Chile in the 1990s invented the word bibliodiversidad [bibliodiversity].

The current financial orientation within the world of book publishing — in which large corporations with no ties to publishing are buying up publishing firms and enforcing high levels of productivity — is leading to a loss of editorial independence (International Alliance of Independent Publishers, 2007, p. 1).

Or as Françoise Benhamou said in a speech at a meeting of the International Alliance of Independent Publishers:

In biodiversity, variety refers very simply to the number of species; in the book world, this would be the number of titles. Yet it is clearly insufficient to leave matters there. I will return to this point later. The second factor highlighted by the concept of biodiversity is balance, the balance between the species. If we look at what that means in biodiversity we see the extremely simple idea that if you have several species but some are present in huge numbers while others are very scarce, the ones with many units are likely to eat or prevail over the others. This is what is happening in the book world where it is a matter for concern that the dominance of blockbusters on supermarket shelves and, above all, in bookstore displays, is pushing out other offerings which are more difficult to promote (Benhamou, 2009, pp. 28–29).

When feminists were faced with a male-dominated international publishing industry in the 1970s and 1980s, similar challenges confronted them. The result was a coming together of publishers, booksellers and writers to share skills and engage in networking which in turn created opportunities for co-publishing.

In 1984, the First International Feminist Book Fair was held in London. This book fair brought together publishers and writers from several continents — and over the subsequent decade thousands of writers, readers, translators, publishers, booksellers, librarians and a host of others met at fairs every second year in Oslo, Montréal, Barcelona, Amsterdam and Melbourne. This was grassroots bibliodiversity. We knew that what we were doing was important, but we did not know that this thriving international network would collapse so soon. As feminist-run autonomous organisations, we had no structure, no long-term funding, and no ongoing administrative centre (ironically, many of our fairs were held in places soon to host the Olympics with its giant infrastructure).

The international feminist book fairs were possible because there was an intense upsurge of interest in feminist writing and publishing. But this too would soon be undermined by depoliticised theoretical 'positionings' as well as the development of the superstore.

The 1980s saw a gradual build-up of postmodern theory in universities. Postmodernists turned their attention on feminism, on lesbian theory and on radical class and race analyses. Soon we were hearing terms like 'gender', 'queer', 'hybridity', 'ethnicisation', instead of 'sexism' and 'misogyny', and prejudice based on sexual orientation, class and race. These new words tore the radical heart out of mass social movements. Who can attend a demonstration and yell out anything about ethnicisation? No one wants to yell about gender. What sort of slogan would 'gender- based sexual violence' make when the perfectly good word 'rape' exists? It's hatred, oppression, misogyny and exploitation that demonstrators want to make a noise about. Women call out: 'Take Back the Night', or 'Not the Church, Not the State, Women Will Decide Our Fate'; activists want to demonstrate about war, racial discrimination, poverty and destruction of the environment. Protestors want to be vocal about eugenics and discrimination based on disability or age or social exclusion. The linguistic weakening of mass social movements, the idea that your position in a society means you can't speak for anyone not the same as you, silenced millions of voices.

Postmodernism dissipated political energy (Brodribb, 1992; Bell and Klein, 1996). It took theorising out of the activist meetings into the ivory towers. Political energy was buried in some attic and left to gather dust.

The invention of the superstore was another nail in the coffin of feminist publishing. In 1993 at the American Book Expo, feminist publishers began to discuss the strategies of the superstores. Feminist booksellers had noticed that Borders was setting up across the street, around the corner or even next door to the best independent stores, many of which were feminist bookstores with a very loyal customer base. Borders immediately ordered the same key stock for their stores but they could sell books more cheaply and also offer coffee and snacks, and before long feminist writers were being asked to speak at events at superstores. It's not hard to conclude that the 'loyal' customers were soon visiting these stores instead. Remember that women generally have less disposable income than men, so the appeal to cheapness worked alongside all the other niceties. You might think that, even if the feminist bookstores didn't make it, this situation would be good for the feminist publishers of those books with double the number of outlets available. Initially it was. But feminist publishers found themselves with insufficient stock and consequently ordering reprints (in this period a reprint would need to be a minimum run of 1,500–2,000 copies to keep the unit cost low enough). Having arranged a reprint they sometimes found that Borders had over-ordered stock and was now returning massive numbers of books, leaving the publisher with far too many books and increased warehouse bills. It was also soon the case that when the original independent feminist bookstore folded due to lack of customers, the superstores no longer ordered the core stock that had been held by the feminist bookstore. They certainly held none of the more obscure titles which found customers in the feminist bookstore. Indeed, many of those titles were not ordered by the superstores or, if they were, would be difficult to find in the overstocked stores with their less precise categories. Both bookstores and publishers struggled to survive. This coincided with two other developments.

The technologisation of the book industry was just beginning. Borders and other superstores had the financial resources to computerise all stock in their retail outlets. The lower turnover independent stores relied on knowledgeable staff who knew their stock and who could take a customer to the correct shelf in the shop. Most of the independent booksellers had neither the knowledge base for technology, nor the finances to move into this new way of operating. And even those who did, rarely survived. The other element was the establishment of This was a direct attack on one of the most established feminist retailers, Amazon Bookstore in Sacramento. The proprietors of this store protested. They took to court. They wona payout, but they still lost because they could no longer stay in business. When other store owners saw this outcome, many lost heart and gave up struggling to survive.

By the end of the 1990s, few feminist bookstores remained. Only those with good marketing skills, the resources in knowledge and money to move into the era of computerised inventory, and a solid customer base which understood the politics of survival, continued to exist. The first impact was felt in North America with feminist stores in Canada and the USA succumbing, while feminist publishers followed suit leaving only a handful. Booksellers and publishers in other parts of the English-language world were also soon affected as globalisation spread and superstores were established in other territories.

Feminist publishers were the canary in the mine. Other publishers are now feeling a similar pinch. An American editor, in an interview with Gisèle Shapiro in 2007, commented on the difficulty of getting translated books into large chains:

Because the big chain, when we arrive with these fictions in translation, they now have what is called a 'skip', which means that for instance there is a [chain] which has 1,200 bookstores they take zero, not one available copy among books in translation (Shapiro, 2014, p. 39).

This scenario reflects, in the publishing industry, what had been going on in the manufacturing and agricultural industries for some time. This is well documented elsewhere (Hawthorne, 2002). What is not, is that another parallel industry was in a period of massive expansion. It too was assisted by the new technology of the Internet, new rules on global trade and the postmodern theoretical coup in universities and governance institutions, such as national governments, but also supragovernmental organisations, such as the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the United Nations (UN). This was the sex industry: pornography and prostitution, which also included the trafficking of women's bodies as well as body parts (surrogacy and organ trafficking).

I make this link because the two — the advent of the Internet and increased commodification of women's bodies through prostitution — are not unrelated (Bell, 2001). The demise of the spread of ideas is always connected to new forms of oppression. As centres for feminist ideas disappeared, the rise in a libertarian ideology of individual consumerist 'choice' came into prominence. Instead of centres of activism, many feminists were directed to put their energies into non-government organisations (NGOs) which were dependent on funding from governments or corporations and therefore were often too compromised in their objectives. A few, who understood the underlying political agenda, managed to continue with their original objectives. What became critical to their survival was independence from institutions, including governments, universities, and large corporations, especially those with shareholder-driven decision making. The disaster of 'bathplug publishing' — where books are more or less the same product in different colours — was exemplified in Australia when REDGroup, a corporate entity made up of Borders, Whitcoulls and Angus & Robertson, owned by Pacific Equity Partners, went into voluntary liquidation in February 2011. A combination of the high debt-burden policies of private equity groups plus errors of judgement regarding eBook retailing (Lim, 2011) meant that corporate memory was fragmented, lost and not replaced. Bookselling in the hands of large corporations means that all the bookshops sell the same stock from stores that look the same. It might be a windfall for some mainstream publishers with big marketing budgets, and the occasional quirky book from the margins, but it is not a model that is useful for local communities with particular interests and needs.

In the same period as superstores were entering the landscape of publishing, moves were being made on writers. In the USA, where the film industry has a lot of clout, scriptwriters would be commissioned and paid a flat fee for a film script. The studios contracted the assignment of copyright to the producers. Writers in this market lost their copyright for a fee. Universities, academic journals and presses soon followed suit. They argued that writers were already being paid for their writing through academic salaries, so universities could claim copyright on the basis that it was done as part of the writer's employment. And journals and academic publishers argued that writers did not need the income and their work would not be published otherwise. In an environment of publish-or-perish, academics needed refereed publications for promotion and tenure.

The academic environment has shifted once again and there are good reasons to argue against these conventions.

Assignment of copyright remains an unethical provision when academics do not have security of tenure. This is more and more the case as academics work on a sessional basis. Many ongoing contracts have provision for a summer recess, meaning that the job is active for only nine to ten months of the year. Salaries for such positions are lower, and courses can be cut without notice, leaving the academic without paid work.

There has been an explosion of creative industry courses in recent decades. Not only art and music schools, as in the past, but degrees in creative writing, design, poetry, theatre, circus arts and more are filling university quotas. If a poem is written during working hours or during a sessional contract, is it reasonable that the university should claim copyright? Poets are perhaps the worst paid of all creative artists, so it is not equitable that a poem should be treated in the same way as a patent for a scientific invention made on a tenured university position. The copyright law is framed around the scientific breakthrough —'the top end of town', if you like. But the poet is treated as if her or his poem will go on earning millions of dollars for the next seventy years. This sounds foolish, but it is what some publishers are asking of authors when a contract includes the words 'assignment of copyright' and that copyright is extended to the institution.


Excerpted from Bibliodiversity by Susan Hawthorne, Renate Klein, Pauline Hopkins. Copyright © 2014 Susan Hawthorne. Excerpted by permission of Spinifex Press Pty Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


1. Bibliodiversity,
2. One size fits all,
3. The soil,
4. Multiversity,
5. Production,
6. Feminism,
7. Pornography,
8. Free trade and free speech,
9. Fair trade and fair speech,
10. Recolonisation,
11. Digital bibliodiversity,
12. Organic publishing,
13. Principles of bibliodiversity: Patterns and processes,
14. Bibliodiversity in the twenty-first century,

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