Does it [still] spark joy? On Mallory, #ComicsDNA and book publishing.

If you’re in the publishing industry, you’ve probably already read or at least heard about the New Yorker “expose” of Dan Mallory (aka, AJ Finn), an unsurprising story for any person of color who’s been in the industry for more than a minute. Who else gets away with shit like that in publishing?

Far more interesting and worth reading is Ruoxi Chen’s insightful take on the situation for Electric Literature:

“Mallory is a reminder that the past isn’t even the past. It’s a living ghost that will throw everything you’ve fought for in your face. The story, as absurd and entertaining as it was, was also sobering, because it felt like an embodiment of everything we hoped our industry has moved beyond. Mallory didn’t just perpetrate a con on publishing—he proved that the prevailing culture of publishing is the con.”

Mallory’s situation is ultimately just a boring symptom of a deeper ill in the publishing industry, though, something I’ve grappled with throughout my entire career but has become more glaring to me in recent years.

Alex Segura started a fun Twitter conversation that sparked the #comicsDNA hashtag, asking people to share their first comic book and others that were important to them. Scrolling through the responses was a fun trip down memory lane, and while I can’t remember my actual first comic book—spinner racks were everywhere back then, and I was a voracious reader of everything, including newspapers—I shared four that stood out the most in the moment: Calvin & Hobbes, The Far Side, Moon Knight, and The New Mutants.

Moon Knight and The New Mutants remain notable not because they’re among my all-time favorites (unlike the other two), but because they were early introductions to the business side of publishing—Moon Knight being one of the first periodicals to go direct market only, skipping newsstands entirely, while The New Mutants was one of Marvel’s first original graphic novels, not just a collection of previously published issues.

Thinking about my early days with comics, I realized they were the gateway to my interest in publishing, my first real awareness of people and a process behind the scenes that connected me to the stories and characters I enjoyed so much. I read “regular” books just as voraciously as comics, but Marvel and DC were meaningful brands while book publishers weren’t. I had no idea (and didn’t particularly care) who published Encyclopedia Brown or Stephen King until my first job in a bookstore (at 19 years old), and even then they were just vague corporate logos with no personal relevance.

While my eventual entry into publishing came through the less glamorous B2B media side of the industry 25 years ago, I always believed that my ultimate destination was “regular” book publishing, preferably one of those vague corporate logos I’d slowly learned more about over the years as many of them consolidated into the current Big 5. I’ve nibbled around the edges of the book world since then—a few years at non-profits working with the literary side of the business; a few years writing about comics as a side gig around the same time several “traditional” publishers started jumping in; a couple of years running Digital Book World in the midst of the ebook revolution; and several years at the intersection of publishers and libraries.

Does it [still] spark joy?

Knowing how the sausage is made can definitely turn you off of eating sausage, but when it comes to publishing, I’ve found that it’s generally not the process—despite how resistant to change it can be at times—it’s the people.

Not the Mallorys of the industry, either.

It’s the people who welcome the Mallorys with open arms, downplaying their faults, giving them the benefit of multiple doubts because, as Chen notes in response to those wondering how he got away with it: “He fit the part.”

It’s the people who use comps to justify myriad copycats while responding to calls for more diverse books with, “There’s no market for that.”

It’s the people who respond to calls for more diverse staffs with, “There’s no room for tokenism at [our press].”

It’s the people who think diversity means segregated imprints, panel discussions and metadata.

While none of the underlying issues are unique to book publishing—and there are arguably more good people trying to do the right things—it’s personally frustrating because it’s an industry I still fundamentally believe is culturally important, capable of doing real good in the world instead of profiting from doing bad.

I still believe that publishing is a community service, the problem is how many publishers myopically determine the communities they want to serve. The killer isn’t just in the house; they own it, and they’re pickier about who rents their Airbnb than who cleans it.

I’m not quite ready to ask myself if publishing still sparks joy because I’m not sure I’m ready to acknowledge the answer, but I’m getting older, weary of still being “the only one” in most rooms of note, and extremely tired of the bullshit excuses and dissembling.

Photo by Miki Fath on Unsplash

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