Last week, the Asian edition of the International New York Times was distributed with no headline article, because the printers in Thailand had removed it before going to press. Under Thai law, you can be jailed for up to fifteen years if you criticise, defame or insult members of the royal family; this article discussed Thailand’s fading 87-year-old king, and problems that may arise regarding his succession.
When we talk about press freedom, we’re normally discussing journalism. But ‘the press’ is named after the machinery that mass-produces the printed word; issues of political encroachment also affect book publishing. The whole idea for this post came from a conversation I had with a Rights Assistant at an illustrated publisher, about printing in China. Virtually no colour printers still exist in the UK, because, as with jeans and call centres, it’s much cheaper to outsource this production to Asia. My current employer prints in India; the International New York Times prints in Thailand; these guys print in the PRC. I asked if there were downsides to this business decision. Yes, she said – they couldn’t print any books featuring Ai Weiwei. If you’re an art publisher of international stature, not being able to mention or reproduce the work of one of the world’s most famous artists is a serious concern. (I’m being glib – they just use a European printer on those occasions.)
Someone in Production at the same publisher brought my attention to another thorny issue: maps. This goes beyond the drawing of borders. On one occasion, the Chinese printers actually reduced the size of the lettering so that ‘TAIWAN’ would read much smaller than ‘BEIJING’ – because to have them the same size would imply that the exiled nationalist government of Taiwan is of equal status to the communist leadership in Beijing. These are the more unusual anecdotes. Juliet Mabey of Oneworld Publications, telling the Society of Young Publishers annual conference about commissioning translations in more languages than your editors speak, recounted feedback from a Chinese reader, who brought to Oneworld’s attention after a title had gone to press that the chapter on governance had simply been removed altogether.
With printing costs in Europe beginning to fall again and a persistence of this sort of issue (this isn’t even the first time this year that the International NYT has had an article blanked out), perhaps publishers will decide it’s no longer worth the savings. But this isn’t about tyrannical regimes stifling Western or domestic media – it’s about the political approach with which creative industries respond. In the Thai case, at least, there was no indication that the Thai government had put any pressure on the printers, or even knew about the article – it appears to have been an act of self-censorship on the part of the print house.
The same culture of fear was discussed in the closing panel of the SYP conference. Anne Beech, MD of progressive independent Pluto Books, spoke of two issues. Firstly, as a small press, Pluto can’t afford to be sued for libel by the world’s corrupt super-rich – it was left at the mercy of a Saudi sheikh who sued it into retracting a book, implicating him, on Taliban funding and networks. However principled an indie publisher may be, it must be very (perhaps overly) careful about sources, libel and message. Secondly, Beech expressed the ethical dilemma publishers face about the duty to disseminate truth, when it directly threatens the duty to protect the author. She gave the example of one author, a dissident Pakistani journalist, who was murdered by the ISI just days after Pluto published his critique of the military. After agonising over questions of exploitation and the safety of the author’s family, Pluto went ahead with the title. Publishing on such nations requires striking, and constantly recalibrating, a very fine balance.
Most people browsing in Waterstones or reading in the bath don’t think about challenges of this nature. I certainly gave it little thought before entering the industry. But now that my attention has been caught, I see it everywhere. Politics pervades publishing not only against its will, as in the above examples, but also in fundamental marketing, editorial and commissioning decisions. This brings me to the third part of my title: philosophy. What happens when the question isn’t of whether or not to push forward with a problematic or even dangerous publication, but of the whole approach to a book that is going, or has already gone, to press?
I’ll give two examples, both of which could take up an entire post by themselves, and both of which happen to be from the Continent, where cultural debates and news often receive more coverage than in the UK. Firstly, Tintin. He’s surely the most beloved Belgian export after waffles, boasting his own shop in Covent Garden, instantly recognisable with his quiff and enchanting children worldwide – but also a bit racist. To cut a long story short, the Congolese characters, bearing strong resemblance to monkeys, are simple-minded, backward and lazy, and incapable of speaking French ‘properly’; some say this depiction should be read in the context of its era, while others point to Tintin creator Hergé’s dubious associations with ultra-right circles.
A furore erupted in December 2014 over Tintin au Congo (Tintin in the Congo, 1931), when activists with ties to black community organisations stormed bookshops and slapped ‘parental guidance’ stickers onto the front cover, a hazard warning of racism. This reignited an old, global debate about the title: Hergé’s Scandinavian publishers refused in the ’70s to release it until changes had been made; in Britain, where it couldn’t find a publisher until the ’90s, the Commission for Racial Equality declared the volume racist in 2007. How should we deal with exposing our children to literature containing values we don’t share? Should we move it to an adult section, as Waterstones and Borders did after the CRE’s conclusion? Should we remove it from young children’s reach by selling it solely online, as WHSmith did? Should we place content warnings on books with outdated views, as the campaigners wished? Should we preface it with an explanatory note emphasising that its world view is not our own, as UK publishers Egmont eventually did? Should we do nothing at all, and respect the sovereignty of the text? The soul-searching that all of this reveals at the heart of the book industry is fascinating.
For our final example, let’s return to this winter. If you thought Tintin was offensive, it gets worse: Mein Kampf. Hitler’s autobiography-manifesto goes out of copyright at the start of January 2016. Publishers, historians and others, across Europe, have been fiercely debating what, if anything, to do about it. This is because different approaches to publishing can say different things about the publication in question. In Germany, it will be republished, but encased in a gargantuan critical apparatus – in other words, it will be presented as a text of solely academic value. In France, a new translation is planned, but many feel that offering a new print edition conveys the undesirable notion that Mein Kampf has commercial, monetary value. The Germans would reply that many pirated editions already exist online, and refusing to publish simply denies the opportunity for caveats and commentary. But the German authorities have said that they will “limit access” to the text – what on earth does that mean, both practically and for freedom of press?
I don’t pretend to have the answers to any of these questions. One thing, though, is clear. Writing kills; royalty payment endangers lives; printing threatens sovereignty and power; bookselling perpetuates societal values; jacketing determines children’s innocence or maturity; publishing matters. That’s the message this week, and I thought it was an interesting topic. Hopefully the case studies above have helped to illustrate how and why. If all of these (with the exception of Tintin) have come to my attention in the last month alone, we can only begin to imagine how often publishing is tangled in politics.