“Around that time, there was the 2008 financial crisis. A lot of people in New York publishing were let go, and my contract with Macmillan seemed to be in jeopardy.”
Prior to running the publishing label Zero Books, an imprint of John Hunt Publishing, Douglas Lain wrote science fiction. Following the 2008 economic crisis and concerns about the economic feasibility of the publishing industry, Mr. Lain immersed himself in Zero Books, which publishes political commentary on the Left. Promising to “to reinvent the left,” Zero Books publishes academic and general takes on contemporary issues from a liberal perspective. Mr. Lain joins Merion West‘s Erich Prince to discuss the challenges of running a publishing label, declining rates of readership among Americans, and the role of Zero Books in the broader political movement on the Left.
Mr. Lain, thank you for speaking with us today. I think it might be helpful to start by talking about your personal journey and what led you to running Zero Books.
The first thing to understand about me is that I am primarily a science fiction writer, which is not obvious to people because my science fiction career—while not a complete failure—has not been as successful at reaching people as my political work. I have written short stories and had my first collection published in 2006. I had a novel contracted with [Macmillan Publishers Ltd] that came out much later than I would have hoped in 2013. It was in between the short story collection and the first novel that I started podcasting. Around that time, there was the 2008 financial crisis. A lot of people in New York publishing were let go, and my contract with Macmillan seemed to be in jeopardy. At first, I was reaching out to other writers to see if this crisis was going to be the end of publishing and the ability to have a career as a writer.
That didn’t last very long because I became more interested in the roots of the economic crisis and its larger social consequences than I was in my own personal dilemma as a “wannabe Great American Novelist.” That is what put me on the trajectory to be the publisher and publicist of Zero Books. Around 2009, I started podcasting and interviewing Marxist economists, philosophers, artists, and New Age gurus at the time—just whomever I could get on my podcast in the early days. As it went along, it became more serious and philosophical, returning to my academic routes. I tried to understand the state of the world around the time of the economic crisis.
When it comes to Zero Books, your mission statement explains that you want to reinvigorate the Left. How do you mix that ideology with the real dollar-and-cents side of publishing?
The aim of Zero Books in dollar-and-cents terms is to dominate the market for far-Left theoretical works in an as accessible and popular way as possible. We are not an academic press, and we do not price our books at that level. We are hoping to catch on with the market that calls itself “the Left.”
How accessible are your books to a non-academic reader?
I would say about half of them are. We still have books that are published that are not as accessible, and reading them might require a college degree and some outside interests; you must have spent some time wrestling with the concepts before you pick up these books. In a way, I feel like we are the poor man’s Verso Books. Verso publishes books that are accessible to everyone, but also some that require a bit more rigorous engagement. We do the same.
I’m looking at a graph from the National Endowment of the Arts, which suggests that “literary reading is on the decline.” According to these results, the percentage of Americans reading literary works, including “novels, short stories, poems or plays in print or online—in the past year” has fallen from 56.9% in 1982 to 43.1% in 2015. Is this general decline in reading something you are grappling with as a publisher?
I don’t feel like I have to worry about the people who are already not reading many books. They are not my target audience. We really have two ways to market and make money off of the Zero Books brand. One, which is our major platform, are the books that we publish, and that’s where we get a majority of our funding. Also, we are producing more and more online content, such as podcasts and YouTube videos. We also have a Patreon set up to support that effort. Certainly, it is often the case that when we put up a YouTube video, the numbers I get back from it will outperform a lot of the books we publish. I can get 40,000-100,000 views on a video, and if we sold a book at that level it would be a major hit. But that’s not how it works with online content.
So, we are working on using our online content to promote the books and bring both sides of the company together to be a major brand in the “Left space.” It is very contradictory in a way because I consider myself a Marxist, and to have to operate as a brand, is a little off-putting.
That is what I was alluding to a bit: that there might be a tension between some of your ideals and the economic realities of running a publishing label.
I think Marxists may be some of the best businessmen, especially economic Marxists, who have a deeper understanding of the Marxist critique of political economy than I do. If you could really grasp how property relations work in a capitalist economy—and how that relates to intellectual property—you could use that information to guide you to success. I heard rumors that some of the top CEOs have spent time reading Marxist literature! What I am most concerned about regarding this is not the appearance of hypocrisy, but the way in which the market limits thought—how branding can push you to be one-sided and change the way you look at the things you investigate, think, and write.
When you are creating an intellectual property, you either have to fit into the market as you find it or create a new demand. So, my aim is to create a new demand, but it’s just not that simple. You still have to play with the preconceptions already out there.
For example, if you are tackling the problem of racial discrimination in the United States and the disproportional rate of incarceration for African Americans, the audience on the Left wants to hear a story about racism. That story is not adequate as a full explanation for the aforementioned problems.The other side of the issue, as it is understood in the market, is the story of, say, high crime rates in black communities. The more you talk about that side of the story, which is the other way it is framed, the more you are going to leave your audience behind and move to the Right and discover a new audience of right-wingers.
Of course, I do not want to do either thing. I don’t want to stay within the domain of the incomplete explanation that we had, and I don’t want to play to right-wing biases either. So, the trick is to figure out a way to talk about these issues. I think you need to talk about these issues through class dynamics and things as boring as the labor theory of value to understand how both things can be true at the same time. The need for readers to be interested in radical change can still be evident.
Where can one purchase books you publish?
You can get them through Amazon, or even your local library at times. Different books are distributed at different levels. Sometimes you have to ask a book seller to order it. We are more well-distributed in the U.K. than in the United States. Our U.S. audience is getting most of its books online, while in the U.K. we have more shelf space. This is because it was a U.K. imprint originally. You can also find our books in places like the Strand Bookstore in New York City.
Are a lot of your authors academics and activists, or is there more variety to who is writing books published by Zero Books?
Yes, most of them are academics, but not all. We have a book coming out soon about the Intellectual Dark Web by Michael Brooks. He’s a host of The Majority Report and he has his own podcast called The Michael Brooks Show. We are trying to cash in a bit more on this topic [of the Intellectual Dark Web].
So you obviously want to follow major trends, such as the Intellectual Dark Web, in the books you publish?
Well, the Intellectual Dark Web is different than other trends. I think that movement has been relatively well-neutered at this point. In the early days of the rise of Jordan Peterson, I was very interested and concerned with the traction he was getting. I think he was a good foil for sincere Leftists, especially early on. These days, I think he is as caught up in the mechanisms of power as anyone, and is headed for a very conventional career as a right-wing talking head. As such, he’s not going to be a major player in any politics. He might even get elected at some point, but he is as well fit into the system as is possible.
So, you think he is more of a Sean Hannity than a Russell Kirk?
Well, I don’t think he is going to be a Sean Hannity, but he has found his niche. He’s not going to be a disruptor
Lastly, what is your vision for Zero Books going forward? You are still a relatively new publisher. Where do you go from here?
Well, that is interesting, because I can’t answer that question without looking back at where I’ve been and sort of shrugging. We were talking about how I landed in this position, and what brought me here was the economic crisis of 2008. I had been on the Left in my thinking, and I have been on the Left my entire adult life. So, when 2008 happened and I turned my attention [toward the economic crisis], I wasn’t alone. The Left was very concerned and wanted to take advantage of an opportunity around the economic crisis. There was a lot of debate about the cause, and the Occupy Wall Street movement came out of that as well. I have never stopped thinking about that moment— and what I learned studying that crisis was that capitalism as a system will end up in crisis. There are things built into the logic of capitalist development that naturally lead it to periodic crisis. That stuck with me.
So, one of the things I am working on is trying to hold onto that understanding in this present moment where we are all operating on the level I call political determinism: we all basically act as though what is most significant are the ideas in peoples’ heads and the people who happen to take power.
One of the things I will continue to do is bring this understanding of capitalism as an economic, political, and social system along with me, rather than falling into a more partial and fragmented form of politics, which I think we’ve done overall on the Left in the last few years. Trump has done that to us.
Thank you for joining us, Mr. Lain.
Thanks for having me.