Why should you care about book publishing?

Dr. Matthew Bucemi teaches about book publishing at York University. (Photo credit: Matthew Bucemi)

Being stuck at home for the last three years of the pandemic gave people a chance to return to slower-paced past times, like baking bread and reading. I was one of the many people who rediscovered and rekindled their love of reading during this period. As I started reading and engaging more with authors and other readers on social media, I began picking up little bits and pieces about the book publishing industry. I quickly learned that, like many industries in the aftermath of 2020’s racial reckoning, the book publishing industry found itself in a moment of turmoil and change.

To help me make sense of what has been going on in the industry and the unique challenges facing Canadian publishers, I reached out to Dr. Matthew Bucemi, an assistant professor in the Writing Department at York University. Dr. Bucemi teaches a course about book publishing and has previously worked at several publishing houses. He received his PhD in English literature from Cornell University.

BZ: The book publishing industry has been making headlines recently with the workers strike at HarperCollins and the head of Penguin Random House US stepping down. It seems like the industry is in a moment of crisis. Can you give us a sense of what’s been happening?

MB: The industry has been in crisis in some way for a long time. Some crises, like “What do we do about ebooks?”, get resolved but in the last few years, the culture wars have become more intense. One of the big pain points in the field is editors taking a strong ethical stance against what a publisher wants to do and the publisher justifying it by saying, “Well, too bad. We’re publishing it anyway.” This idea that if you want to publish the books that you care about, you also have to publish this thing that you object to. Since coming to Canada, I’ve been introduced to the funding issues and the difficulties that Canada is facing in building a domestic book publishing industry because so many publishers are foreign-owned multinationals.

BZ: Up until the last few years, I’ve been very naïve to how big of a role the book publishing industry plays in determining what we read. Just how much power do book publishers have?

MB: At the most basic level, it’s 100% of the power. You will only read about a book because a publisher has put it out. Of course, self-publishing exists and there are some success stories that happen organically once in a blue moon, but it’s really hard to do it on your own. You need mastery in not just writing, but also cover design and publicity. You need the Rolodex of names and numbers to call to get your excerpt placed in the right place. That being said, the industry is changing, especially as it becomes younger, so it may be different in 10 or 20 years. But historically and right now, publishers really get to decide what you read.

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Why should you care about medieval art history?

Adam Cohen wearing white gloves looking at an old book from the Middle Ages.
Dr. Adam Cohen is an expert in medieval art history who studies handwritten manuscripts from the Middle Ages. (Photo credit: Adam Cohen)

These days, conversations around art seem to be dominated by questions about whether AI-generated art will render artists obsolete and who turned their art into a non-fungible token (NFT). In a world that is constantly pushing up against the limits of its ever-changing technologies, looking to our past can help give us clarity and meaning for our present and guidance for our future.

That’s why today we’re talking to Dr. Adam Cohen, an associate professor in the Department of Art History at the University of Toronto. Dr. Cohen is an expert in medieval art history who received his PhD in art history from Johns Hopkins University. His new book, Art and Architecture of the Middle Ages: Exploring a Connected World, was cowritten with Jill Caskey and Linda Safran and published earlier this year.

BZ: Thank you for taking the time to chat with me. Can you start by telling me how you became interested in medieval art history?

AC: It started during my undergraduate education at university when I took a required course called Art Humanities. It was so interesting and I loved it. My homework was going to the museum, which just seemed a lot of fun. I kept taking more and more courses and finally I took one about the art of the Middle Ages, and I said this is what I want to do and went off to grad school.

One of the things I really liked about art history was that it seemed like a fun way to study history, because to understand a work of art or a building or a monument, you need to know the history. You need to know something about the literature of the time, the religion, the philosophy, the economics and so on. We didn’t ask a lot about these questions when I was an undergraduate but today you would also want to know about the environment at the time or the gender and sexuality of the people involved. For example, we tend to think Rembrandt was a genius and his paintings are great. But why? Where did Rembrandt live? What was he looking at? What was he thinking about? Who was his audience? What was the religious context? What was the social context? There are so many questions we can ask.

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