Michael LewisPhoto credit: Tamara George, permission/ Heather Parsons

A Book Publishers’ Tale

Interview by Mike Gismondi

A couple of years ago I met Heather Parsons on the internet. She was studying in my Athabasca University class exploring aspects of globalization. Heather had worked for years in the Canadian book publishing industry. Currently she is Sales Representative for Heritage Group Distribution, specializing in helping book publishers reach the Canadian retail market.

She proposed an MA research project using concepts from Community Studies and Social Economy to explore book publishing as a site of social transformation. She carried out her study with great success, interviewing workers and owners at Tara Books of Chennai, India as well as interviewing editors and staff of Canadian book publisher New Society Press, of Gabriola Island.

Here is what Heather had to say to the Aurora about her experiences and her thoughts on publishing in an age of neo-liberalism and globalization:

Aurora: Heather can you speak to how you discovered these connections between publishing and social transformation?

Heather: As a student of the MA-IS Community Studies program I was introduced to a lot of concepts about social change, such as collaboration, democratic economic arrangements, and cultural re/production. In my “real” life, I work in publishing and have for over 16 years. This work connects these two worlds for me.

Aurora: In what sense do they intersect?

Heather: Publishers are generally construed as businesses, in other words, organizations that economize the arts and crafts of literature and writing under a capitalist model. This is the basic model. However not all publishers operate under the profit-seeking logic of the business world. There are many examples of publishers who, although they are technically a business, they operate under a model that is more similar to a non-profit or a social business. Despite this world of increasingly competitive, corporate, neo-liberal and globalized model that is we are being told is the only “efficient” and “sensible” way to publish, there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of publishing houses that continue or have begun to publish under a very different system of ethics. It is these houses that interest me for my project.

Aurora: And why book publishers specifically?

Heather: Publishers are in a unique position as cultural co-creators, shaping what we see in the zeitgeist in a permanent sense. Books, especially print books, are relatively permanent in comparison to other media. What and how they publish informs and shapes our values for generations. Our children read what book publishers publish. A narrative is formed about issues based on the kinds of books that are published. Our thinking is shaped in this way.

Each publisher is also enmeshed in social relations that extend and link communities (geographical or otherwise) so they act as community-connectors, reflecting and connecting people, validating certain narratives and values and excluding others. 

Aurora: In an age of e-books what you are describing sounds like a sort of social activism.

Heather:  It is a sort of activism. You have to be bold and stand your ground in this age of multinationals that will set a certain agenda for the way we think about publishing.

I have witnessed patterns between publishers, especially in small independents that include social principles and transformative goals in their daily work, in an approach that can be called a “wholeness” rather than “divided” approach. I mean that we can divide in our lives sometimes, between our values and what we do. But many of these publishers attempt to first and foremost do what Howard Gardner called “good work”, bring socially conscious and long-term thinking into their business practices. I interviewed two publishing houses, New Society Press (NSP) on Gabriola Island, and Tara Books in Chennai India, both are models of how publishing can be used for social change, and how social change and new business practices can apply to publishing.

Aurora: India and Gabriola Island (British Columbia, Canada) are pretty disparate locales. What did you uncover?

Heather:  I found that publishing can directly become a form of community transformation.

Aurora: That sounds great, but in this age of e-books and mergers isn’t there some talk that publishers might be disappearing, centralized and concentrated into larger companies?

Heather: Yes there is a lot of that sort of talk and debates around this. How I see it is that these are economic and cultural shifts that are happening on a larger scale, in the context of late capitalism.

I see two major concurrent threads happening in English language publishing (for e or print books): on the one hand a major shift towards centralization, rationalization under a neo-liberal, globalization paradigm. But as this applies to publishing, the attempt to sell as many books as possible, the larger effect is a watering down of the content for the largest number of readers. As well that content becomes disconnected from place, especially places that are peripheral.

These practices dehumanize the process and the role of publisher. Under this paradigm we see mergers in giant publishing houses for example the Randomhouse-Penguin merger, or standoffs between corporations like Amazon and Hachette over new terms of business. We see Harper Collins buying Harlequin, and big houses taking on smaller, successful houses under their own umbrella. Another move we see are consolidation of distribution centres which leads to closures in periphery zones (similar to the closures of factories in the last few decades), like the recent announcement of the closure of the Harper Collins Canada warehouse in 2015.

This centralization makes place-based print books less available from the bigger houses, they become less timely and responsive and more watered down in their content; it leads to a greater dependence on consumer-direct purchasing through online booksellers because there is a consolidated distribution network (and this provides further challenges to community bookstores). This leads to an inevitable shift to electronic media forms and peer-to-peer publishing. On this side we do indeed see a sort of extremism in publishing.

But another thread that is happening in publishing is a growing number of community based independent publishers providing cutting edge books that are in some sense a response to this mass-model approach. We see this especially in markets like India and China, but also it provides opportunities here in North America as well. Some small publishers still attempt to mimic the growth model in an attempt to stay competitive, subscribing to the cult of efficiency.

But more to my purposes were those publishers who operate under an entirely different model, who reject the growth and neo-liberal paradigm in favour of a social or sustainability model.  For example, Tara Books in India. They describe the growth model common in the book business like “riding a tiger” in publishing; inherently dangerous and uncontrollable. Instead, they focus on doing what they do in a small, local way and doing it well; their vision is to “genuinely change the perspective from which stories are told” and they cannot do that if they are mimicking the big houses. Tara also partners with people from marginalized communities, for example a female tribal artist from a scheduled caste, and in dialogue they open up the book publishing process to them. They publish stories that would be dismissed as too regional or too marginal a big multinational and in doing so are creating something entirely unique, while simultaneously reinvigorating Indian art forms and ancient stories. The book production is sustainable: their books are handmade by local people in their workshop, using local materials, eco friendly handmade papers and inks. Tara Books also has a “book building” in India where they host events and seminars for  the public, educating them about indigenous and women’s art in India, but also a space for these artists to gather and share. These are artists that don’t have any contact in some cases to other artists.

Tara also is inclusive and democratic in its internal business arrangements: they operate as a worker-owned collective, rather than a profit-based business model. Any profits are going back into the company each year.

Clearly they are an excellent example of what I am describing and they are being noticed for it - they won Best Children’s Publisher at the London Book Fair earlier this year.

Publishers like Tara books are linked closely to their communities, geographic or otherwise and don’t aim for growth yet they are successful and sustainable businesses. So they are an example of this vast movement in multi-localism that is happening within publishing that can make it a more social enterprise.

Aurora: And here in Canada?

New Society Press on Gabriola Island is another example: in many ways they are “cut off” from the mainland of Canada. They don’t attend publishing events and trade fairs, but what they are linked to is the world of activism and this fits their mandate to “build a new society” that has the means to be socially just and ecologically sustainable. They spend their time linking to other homesteaders and activists who are attempting to build a better world, one pig-driven plow at a time.  In this way NSP connects to others and becomes a particular sort of community hub for these people; not only for one to one but as a constant, stable, “address” for like-minded homesteaders and eco-activists.

These are two examples of how publishers act as community “hubs”, orienting members towards one another and reaffirming their particular vision, connecting people who might be feeling isolated in their thinking about a particular issue. They connect thinkers across space and time with ideas. If these ideas are revolutionary or critical of the mainstream culture then this constitutes a sort of activism and social transformation.

Aurora: In some ways “the book” and publishing is an act of mediation and an act of legitimation of some voices over others.

Heather: Exactly. How the publisher approaches their curation of manuscripts, whether it is inclusionary or not is also a huge part of the democratic process. Inclusion of the most marginalized as a legitimate source of cultural production, such as the work that Tara Books does, is a huge leap forward for us culturally. Tara Books presents stories from a truly alternate perspective to the mainstream, from indigenous perspectives, often of people who in Indian society have no official voice or little influence, such as the tribal people or scheduled castes such what were known as untouchables. It is through opening up these perspectives to others and connecting what may forever remain unconnected that this builds a sort of community and new cultural vision as well.

Aurora: What can publishers contribute in the social economy?

Heather: Publishers can take a leadership role as businesses that model human rather than economic values. Many publishers do not expect to make money on a book project. Paying for the cost of the project is their main goal, simply to stay afloat, because they believe that the story or the ideas need to be told and they become of the conduit for doing so. There is this sense that without them, these voices would not have a means to be heard. Giving voice to the marginalized; supporting a non-profit initiative for the good of the community, and investing profit back into their organization. These are areas we traditionally think of as being arenas for social services or non-profits to fill, and it puts many publishers squarely into the social economy (even though many would not identify themselves this way).

Some publishers are actively pursuing a social-economic model. Recently McSweeney’s Publishing for example, announced that they are shifting to become a non-profit http://www.mcsweeneys.net/pages/an-exciting-note-on-the-future-of-mcsweeneys.

McSweeneys has led a literacy initiative called 826 which has grown into 826 National, which tutors and provides a space for underprivileged kids to read and write together. The non profit change allows them to take more risks, and broaden into areas of publishing that are not known for making money. They can apply for grants, ask for pledges from the reading public, and invest profits back into the company. It is seen as giving them the “freedom” to pursue other interests. Usually freedom is associated with a capitalistic model so this is an interesting connection in the discourse. I would say by definition McSweeney’s fits a social economy model.

Aurora: And what about social leadership?

Heather: Publishers can provide social leadership is in modelling the behaviour they want to see. One example of this is a story I heard when I interviewed New Society Press in Gabriola Island (http://www.newsociety.com/).

Years ago they wanted to begin using forest friendly paper. At that time NSP tried to get other Canadian publishers on board with buying forest friendly paper, but it cost more and no one was doing it. They made the case to their competitors, showing it was in everyone’s interest. No one wanted to take the financial risk and “at one meeting we finally said, well screw you guys. We’ll buy the truckload ourselves and we’ll print all of our books”. Now everyone does it, especially since Harry Potter, it has become the standard in publishing. Judith and Kip at New Society Press led that change. (Note: We are sad to inform Aurora readers that Kip Plant passed away June 2015 - http://www.straight.com/blogra/484551/new-society-publishers-cofounder-christopher-plant-dies-65.)

Aurora: In your initial remarks you mentioned democratic arrangements

Yes I witness some of this in publishing as well. I am referring here to collaboration, dialogue, participatory decision making and democratic ownership, practices that encourage participation in governance and decision making. These practices are known in the non-profit world as being essential in community engagement but most businesses do not operate under these principles and tend to use more hierarchical and traditional approaches to decision making. Some publishers use these democratic models. Tara Books are a collective, meaning they are managed collectively and non-hierarchically, a really hard thing for many of us to grasp in the business world, because we think flat organization leads to chaos and inefficiency (the myth of the lowest common denominator).

New Society is also a relatively flat organization that has participatory decision making approaches. Both are really radical and democratic arrangements that focus on a strong internal cultural vision, shared values, strong employee engagement and commitment on everyone’s part to that vision. Employees are empowered and encouraged to contribute their talents to achieving the shared goal.

The commitment to the vision is always the primary concern and it is not just a concern as much as an entire orientation that could never be compromised. The business is merely how they get there and keep it operating in the world to get to their goals.

Related Links

Heather Parsons
Publishing for Social Change: Tara Books, Democracy, and Social Transformation


A qualitative case-study analysis of Tara Books, this paper reviews the mission, activities, organization and profit structure of this independent publisher and worker collective in Chennai, India within the context of contemporary Indian publishing. The research finds that Tara works towards democratic social and economic relations, social justice, fair representation and inclusion, and thus social leadership. Tara’s activities go beyond an alternative business publishing model towards a new model for social change.

Tara Books Wins London Book Fair Award 2014


Interview conducted August 2013

Dr. Mike Gismondi is Professor Sociology and Global Studies, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Athabasca University.

Update March 2018