Just business?

24 September 2010 | Letter from the Editors

Money, money, money... Photo: Twid/Wikipedia

Through his work, a writer provides a living for both himself and his publisher. The publisher makes his profit through the work of his writers, and both parties are satisfied. Is this how it goes?

The novel Puhdistus (Purge, 2008) by the Finnish author Sofi Oksanen (born 1977) has been translated into 13 languages, including English, and by now it has sold who knows how many copies.

One would imagine her publisher would like to live happily ever after with his superstar, and perhaps also vice versa – for WSOY (est. 1878) has long been one of the most powerful, as well as the most enlightened, publishing houses in Finland.

Well, no – Oksanen had not been happy about the way the directors at WSOY had begun to treat the company’s authors, and after a period of public acrimony, also involving other authors, WSOY last June announced it would not be publishing Oksanen’s next work, and so the two parted ways. (Obviously Oksanen had no problems in choosing another publisher, and her next book will be published by Teos.)

In June WSOY also sacked about 30 of its employees. This made its authors wonder who they will be working with in the future, as the number of editors in the Finnish fiction department was reduced just to a couple.

The internet publisher Leevi Lehto notes in the interview we published last week that according to Jacques Eijkens, the Dutch CEO of Sanoma, which owns WSOY, ‘the financial significance of works of literature was just “small potatoes”.’

From the CEO’s point of view, or in purely monetary terms, that may be so: in 1999 WSOY became a part of Sanoma, one of the biggest media concerns in Europe (even though the ownership still is Finnish by 90 per cent); WSOY’s turnover is less than one per cent of Sanoma’s.

In Finland, as elsewhere, the publishing world has been perturbed by, among other things, an overly narrow focus on the profits demanded by publicly quoted companies and the influence of electronic readers on printed books. When any business starts to grow, it faces the question of whether or not to issue publicly quoted shares. And if it does, its first responsibility becomes a financial one, to its shareholders.

Worried authors – just ‘small potatoes’ in the business? – may then bleat, ‘Publishing is not just business…’ And they are right.

Traditionally writers enjoy a more or less close relationship with a representative of their publisher, i.e. a human being (an editor). Hannu Raittila, an ex-WSOY author, has said that despite the fact that a publishing company is a business, it is also a cultural institution, which in turn means that the business idea must be based on the continuity of the business, not on the maximising of the profit for the shareholders.

As marketing likes to deal with ‘brands’, authors, too, according to this overweening pursuit of profit, had better make themselves easier to ‘sell’ to book buyers. A very annoyed Jari Tervo (one of the best-selling writers of WSOY – and of Finland), declared, in an article published in Suomen Kuvalehti this autumn, that he’s certainly not ‘a brand’ – as a brand is something predictable.

Raittila’s claim seems viable, as small publishers do thrive – if they handle their business skilfully. A good-quality work of fiction may not bust blocks, but it will be modestly profitable. And it won’t be a brand.

It will be read. Which is, we believe as readers (and buyers) of books, the idea of publishing.

Let’s hear it for the small potatoes.

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