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Bibliodiversity, by Susan Hawthorne.

September 20, 2014

Bibliodiversity: A Manifesto for Independent Publishing, by Susan Hawthorne.  Melbourne, Australia: Spinifex Press, 2014.


A manifesto proclaiming the importance of small presses and the diversity of their books in resisting the homogeneous publishing industry.

Susan Hawthorne is the Director of the Australian feminist press, Spinifex, a press committed to publishing the variety of books, authors, and kinds of writing that she advocates in this book. Before founding Spinifex, she held a variety of positions related to publishing. Bibliodiversity brings together what she has observed and understood about our globalizing publishing world. In it, she assembles both familiar and new ideas into a coherent framework.

Biodiversity is frequently discussed today as we see more and more biological species facing extinction. Hawthorne expands the concept to the publishing world using a term first coined in Chile in the 1990s, bibliodiversity. Just as biodiversity means a healthy and diverse biological condition, bibliodiversity indicates a world community where storytelling, writing and publishing all contribute to a vital and diverse social ecology.  With globalization, big international corporations, intent only on profit, are destroying that diversity. They homogenize what we hear and read, creating “monocultures of the mind.” Small independent publishers are needed to insure that the diverse voices from the margins of our societies are available.

In her advocacy of independent publishing, Hawthorne points out the need for books and stories that are written out of people’s lived experiences, not simply by alleged experts with grand theories. Too often that local understanding has been dismissed rather than valued. Healthy bibliodiversity requires that multiple sources of knowledge be honored. In particular, voices silenced by racism and sexism need to be published and heard.

According to Hawthorne, the recent rise in digitalization brings new opportunities and new challenges for books and publishers. On one hand, new technology allows megapublishers to flood the world with their products. On the other hand, digitalization can be crucial to expanding the reach of small, private presses. Digitalization has made it possible to read a wide variety of authors from all over the world. I personally have benefited from this technology. The internet and epublishing have helped me find the best of the voices from the margins to read and given me a way to tell others about them. Many of these are local stories that megapublishers often ignore.

Hawthorne also describes how the small women’s publishers and bookstores of the 1970s and 1980s were a critical part of the feminist movement in those years. I know that story firsthand. I was in Lawrence, Kansas, at the time working on my Ph.D. We had a women’s bookstore, Spinsters, run by a group of lesbian separatists. Their books prodded me to question much that I had previously assumed to be valid and to consider ideas far more radical than I was learning at the university. Reading authors like Mary Daly and Audre Lorde, I felt that I was in conversation with them. Those books put me on the front lines where we were all explorers and creators far from the world of mainstream feminism. As well as exposing me to feminism, the books I found at Spinsters made clear that women were racially and culturally diverse, a truly radical idea at the time. When the first study of women in American slavery was published, I found it at Spinsters, not at the university. If we care about social change, we need books and publishers willing to share our stories as feminist publishers and booksellers did then.

Much of what Hawthorne writes in her manifesto is for and about the publishing world but her book is a strong statement to all of us about the need to insure that our own reading and thinking includes bibliodiversity. When I retired, I deliberately expanded my reading beyond the boundaries of my country. Many of the books I have read have been from small presses. I have learned much about women whose books I have read. More deeply, I feel like I have expanded my own life by being able to enter their lives in a partial, imaginary way. Encountering diverse authors and their characters has helped me in understanding why they make choices that would never be my own. Maybe literature, and the other arts, has a unique ability to help us bridge our differences that information alone cannot. If we are ever to live together in relative peace, we need bibliodiversity to get to know each other as friends rather than stereotypical enemies.

Hawthorne’s bibliography at the end of the book provides an enticing mix of relevant books; some of my long-time favorites alongside some new titles to check out.

I recommend Bibliodiversity to people involved in publishing and selling books, of course, but also to those who appreciate books and the whole process of storytelling.

Thanks to Spinifex for sending me a review copy of this book and to Hawthorne for noting in it that my blog “bristles” with diversity.



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