Professor Clayton Childress on cultural appropriation in book publishing

Clayton ChildressProfessor Clayton Childress recently published an is a column in the new online publication, The Conversation, Canada, a publication that seeks to bring academic rigour to Canadian journalism. Professor Childress is an Assistant Professor of Sociology with undergraduate teaching responsibilities at the UTSC campus. His research focuses on the sociology of culture and he recently published Under the Cover: The Creation, Production, and Reception of a Novel with Princeton University Press.

You can find Professor Childress’s column at the Conversation’s home page. We have pasted an excerpt below.


Cultural appropriation and the whiteness of book publishing

June 27, 2017

Last month, cultural appropriation became a big issue in the Canadian publishing and media world after the trade association magazine, Write published a special issue featuring work by Indigenous authors. The editor of the magazine, Hal Niedzviecki, wrote a glib editorial in defence of cultural appropriation.

Niedzviecki resigned and immediately after Canadian media executives irreverently pledged donations toward a “Cultural Appropriation Prize” on late-night Twitter in support of his editorial. The main thrust of the offending Twitter conversation seemed to be that white media elites and writers felt they were under threat of being censored.

The argument was framed in the high-minded rhetoric of freedom and creative license, but underneath that thin veneer, it relied on a belief in white victimization that you’d expect from fringe white nationalists rather than the top one per cent of Canadian mainstream media.

As a scholar of the book publishing industry, I can say with empirical authority that the notion of white people being under threat in publishing crumbles in the face of evidence. As I show in my new book, Under the Cover: The Creation, Production and Reception of a Novel, book publishing is the same as it ever was: it is white-dominated and it’s easier for white people to gain entry to it. Although my research on book publishing is based in the United States, as the sociologist Sarah M. Corse has shown, the U.S. and Canadian book publishing industries are deeply intertwined, and more often than not are actually the same industry.

To understand the real barriers to book publishing, the most important places to look are the points of entry themselves. In publishing, those access points are guarded by literary agents and acquisition editors. They are the gatekeepers, and across the U.S., the gatekeepers of publishing are 95 per cent white.

Read the full article.

Professor Clayton Childress on the resurgence of indie book stores

Clayton ChildressHave you noticed the resurgence of independent book stores? Professor Clayton Childress, Assistant Professor of Sociology at UTSC, recently wrote about this in a blog post for orgtheory.net. Professor Childress recently published his first book – Under the Cover which empirically follows a works of fiction from start to finish: all the way from its creation, through its production, selling, and reading.

We have excerpted the blog post below and you can read the full piece on orgtheory.net here.

independent book stores are back!!! a guest post post by clayton childress

Three Reasons Independent Bookstores Are Coming Back

 A couple weeks ago, Fabio had a post about the recent rise in brick-and-mortar independent bookstores, suggesting that perhaps they have successfully repositioned themselves as “artisanal organizations” that thrive through the specialized curation of their stock, and through providing “authentic,” and maybe even somewhat bespoke, book buying experiences for their customers.

There’s some truth to this, but in my forthcoming book, I spend part of a chapter discussing the other factors. Here’s several of them.

Why the return:

1)     The Demise of the Borders Group, and Shifting Opportunity Space in Brick-and-Mortar Bookselling.

This graph from Statista in Fabio’s original post starts in 2009, lopping off decades of retrenchment in the number of American Bookseller Association member stores. Despite the recent uptick, independent bookstores have actually declined by about 50% since their peak. More importantly, it’s worth noting that even in the graph we see independent bookstores mostly holding steady from 2009 to 2010, with their rise starting in 2011. Why does this matter? As Dan Hirschman rightly hypothesizes in the comments section of the original post, the bankruptcy and liquidation of the Borders Group began in February of 2011, and is key to any story about the return of independent bookstores. To put some numbers to it, between 2010 and 2011 the Borders Group closed its remaining 686 stores, and between 2010 and 2016 – after spending decades in decline –651 independent bookstores were opened. It’s a pretty neat story of nearly one-to-one replacement between Borders and independents since 2011…

2)     Independent Bookstores are the Favored Trading Partners of the Publishing Industry.

Starting during the Great Depression, in order to keep bookstores in business, book publishers began letting them return any (damaged or undamaged) unsold books, meaning that for nothing more than the cost of freight bookstores could pack books up to the ceiling without taking on much financial risk on stocking decisions (if you’ve ever been curious why so many bookstores seem so overstuffed with product, here’s your answer)…

From the cooperation system with independents the chains developed “co-op”, but a publisher’s relationship with Amazon is closer to coercion. With the chains, publishers can decide to nominate for “co-op” or not, but as soon as publisher sells a book on Amazon they’ve already entered into an enforced “co-op” agreement, in which usually around 6-8% of all of their revenue from selling on Amazon is then withheld, and must be used to advertise on Amazon for future titles. This tends to gets talked about less as “coercion”, and more as “just the way things are” –it’s what happens when you have a retailer that dominates the space enough to set its own terms.

As a result, while book publishers like independent bookstores because they believe them to be owned and staffed by true book lovers (Jeff Bezos was famously disinterested in books when launching Amazon – books are just fairly durable objects of standard size and shape and therefore ship well, making them a good test market for the early days of ecommerce), they also do everything they can to support independent bookstores because their trading terms with them are most favorable to publishers. In their most extreme forms, we can see publishing professionals collaborate in opening their own independent bookstores, but more generally, they engage in subtler forms of support: getting their big name authors to smaller places, and maybe over-donating a little bit to the true cost of printing flyers, and covering the cost of wine and cheese for when the author gets there. Rather than doing this out of the goodness of their hearts, however, publishers do it because independent bookstores are good for them to have around, as they’re the only booksellers who are too small and diffuse to make publishers do things.

3)    A Further Reorientation to Niche Specialization at Independents

Here we get to artisanal organizations, and the independent bookstores that are sticking around (or even more importantly, opening) have mostly given up aspirations of being generalists. In Toronto, we’ve got an independent bookstore which specializes in aviation, another for medieval history, and a third which has found a niche for discount-priced theology.* They’re like the Cascade sour beers to Barnes & Noble’s pilsners. While it’s definitely a trend, it’s not one I’d trace back just to 2010, as instead, the artisanal organization market position is one that independent bookstores have been relying on at least back into the 1980s

In addition to just being niche, while independent hardware stores and grocers were going the way of the dodo, independent bookstores were also able to both capture and foment the formation of the “buy independent” social movements of the 1990s. It’s not many retail outlets that can successfully advocate for their mere existence as a public good. For instance, when was the last time that the New York Times unironically quoted somebody referring to the closing of an independent laundromat halfway across the country as a civic tragedy? As generalist independent bookstores have come to terms with their inability to compete on breadth with Barnes & Noble and Amazon, we see not only a transition to niche sellers, but also more sellers overall, as each one tends to take up a smaller footprint and have lower overhead costs than the independents of the past…

Just how much do book prizes matter?

childressBook prizes play a monumental role in contemporary literary culture. Not only do they boost sales for winning and short-listed authors, they also help to define what is seen as “quality” in literature. If the effects of the prize are long lasting, book prize judges wield a tremendous amount of power over culture and literary trends.

To learn about the lasting impact of book prizes, Professor Clayton Childress has recently embarked on a new research project studying the effects of the Booker Prize. Funded by a SSHRC Insight Development Grant, this project will compile and analyze a dataset of all books submitted to the Booker Prize between 1983-1996 and compare the characteristics of the books that were shortlisted with those that weren’t, and which books remained important in terms of their prestige among literary elites, and their popularity among regular readers.

The Booker Prize (now the Man Booker Prize), is arguably the most influential book prize in the English-speaking world. Though focused in the United Kingdom, it has always included books from former Commonwealth countries and has recently broadened its scope to the entire English-speaking world. The publicity that surrounds the Booker prize each year is also remarkable in comparison with other literary prizes.

Professor Childress has already learned a good deal about the Booker prize. His first publication from these data is forthcoming at Poetics and co-authored with Craig M. Rawlings (Northwestern) and Brian Moeran (University of Hong Kong). Together they look at factors that correlated with shortlisting and winning the prize. When compared to all submissions, they found that after first filtering out stories and authors based in England, the prize committees then favour male over female authors and stories. Then, when picking winners, the prize favours stories by and about men in the former colonies that have been published by high-status English publishers. In this way, Professor Childress and colleagues are able to provide some empirical evidence for what the humanities scholar Graham Huggan has argued is a fundamental contradiction of the Booker Prize as an attempt to reconcile “anti-colonial ideologies with neo-colonial market schemes.”