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Bibliodiversity: The power of the local in the global by Susan Hawthorne 13 Nov 2012

This blog was first presented at the Small Press Network Independent Publishers Conference in Melbourne on 8 November 2012.

bibliodiversity horacek

This paper relies on a three-layered analogy:

1: between the health of an ecosystem and its biodiversity

2: between the health of an eco-social system and its cultural multiversity

3: between the health of the publishing industry and its bibliodiversity

Bibliodiversity is a term that has been in use for around ten to fifteen years. It was invented by a South American independent publisher. Not surprising in some ways because of the large scale destruction of biodiversity in South America as well as the challenges of a colonised publishing industry. That’s also the reason why it is a useful term for Australian independent publishers to understand. Why would this be so.

Let me begin by outlining how biodiversity works. Biodiversity is a complex self-sustaining system of an ecological niche in a particular locale. The entire complex of biodiversity includes every species on earth, as well as the relationships between species and their environments. It includes the integrity of species (ie the right species in the right place).

What we have seen in the increasing interference of people, corporations and governments in the destruction of biodiversity is a trend toward standardisation, homogenisation, taming of species, dislocation from its original niche, as well as privatisation of the ‘wild stock’. The latter is what happens when organisms are genetically modified.

By analogy, bibliodiversity is a complex of self-sustaining systems in a social niche within particular cultural contexts. The entire complex of bibliodiversity relies on those who produce culture (publishers), as well as the relationships between publishers and their social environments (including readers, booksellers, writers and the media). The integrity of what is produced (the book, digital book, app etc) is part of this complex.

What we have seen in the global publishing industry is a trend towards standardisation, homogenisation, taming of creativity, dislocation and exoticisation, as well as the privatisation of the writer. When the latter happens, s/he becomes a marketable global commodity, a product stripped of self.
bibliodiversity arabic 

• trend towards standardisation: this occurs with language and contributes to the loss of those languages which don’t have a print culture; standarisation affects what is accepted for publication (and I am not talking about quality here, but rather a toeing of the line in the production of populist topics).

• homogenisation: this affects which markets are targeted with which kinds of images (the sexualisation of girls and women, for example, or as a counter example, the reification of masculine pasttimes such as sport and drinking).

• taming of creativity: books which buck the trend in format, style, level of experimentation or are simply presented in poetic form (think about whether Virginia Woolf would have been so well published without a press of her own, The Hogarth Press; or whether James Joyce’s Ulysses would have been published without the help of Sylvia Beach, founder of Shakepeare and Co in Paris, bookseller turned publisher).

• dislocation and exoticization: Indigenous writers, lesbians, writers from Africa and other parts of the ‘developing’ world are particularly subjected to this form of appropriation. They are published and marketed as one-off success stories so the ordinary white males can get on with hogging the biggest place in publishing, reviewing, prize-winning etc.

• privatisation of the writer: young writers who make a big splash with a first book can be turned into marketing machines. While some resist, many fall for money, glamour and fame of becoming a product. Such writers rarely to go on and write anything but formulaic books (Dan Brown, for example).

I’m talking here about a publishing monoculture. It is mostly the world of multinational publishing and the global digital revolution in many instances is leading to a recolonisation of publishing culture and of books and their writers (of course, there are always small pockets inside big companies where one or two people do something different).

Dynamic balance is necessary in all three layers I mentioned at the beginning: between the health of an ecosystem and its biodiversity; between the health of an eco-social system and its cultural multiversity; between the health of the publishing industry and its bibliodiversity.

bibliodiversity india 

Resistance to homogenisation is the role of independent publishers. Monocultures of the Mind (Shiva 1993) are just as destructive as agricultural monocultures. Loss of diversity in publishing is one of the adverse effects of globalisation.

Independent publishers are like the fair trade coffee producers. We readily understand these days what fair trade means. But fair trade has its opposite: free trade and if the large digital retailers and publishers have their way, we are moving toward a single price structure which is a bit like the commodities trade in the share market. Just as organic farmers have had to distinguish themselves from supermarket processed product, independent publishers need to distinguish ourselves from processed publishing. Not only are pricing structures affected, but also delivery dates (for example the reduction between overseas release dates and the Australian release date assumes multinational resources.)

To that end, independent publishers need to be actively resisting the pull to the mainstream. Publishing work that is creative, ethical, promotes social justice, uses fair speech are just some of the elements of bibliodiversity.

The term fair speech (McLellan 2010) is a counter to the term free speech and operates in the same way as the pair fair trade / free trade. Fair speech is speech that maximises justice rather than repeating the power imbalances (as free speech and free trade do). Fair speech would include work that is not based on racism, sexism and other social injustices. It also distinguishes between critique and hatred (for example, I can critique Julia Gillard without being sexist (accused of sexism) but if my critique is simply a rush of formulaic lines then that would be free speech – possibly hate speech – but not fair speech). Fair speech would exclude the possibility of publishing pornography since the ‘speech’ of porn makers villifies, degrades and exploits women in precisely the same way that racist speech degrades, villifies and exploits those who do not fit into the majority ethnicity.

bibliodiversity portuguese 

Fair publishing then, would be a useful goal for independent publishers interested in the concept of bibliodiversity. The health of a biodiverse system can be measured by just how vital are the species inhabiting the locale. The health of independent publishing is also a measure of the health of a publishing industry and the culture it inhabits.

At root is the recognition that marginal knowledges contribute more to the epistemological universe than is generally recognised. These ‘marginal’ knowledges enrich our social and cultural forms. They also feed back into the home communities making it possible for the next generation to embark on their own cultural journey. Marginal knowledges include women’s knowledges, the knowledges of poor people, of all people marginalised inside their dominant home cultures. In the globalised world, this represents the vast store of knowledges in the world, including languages under threat and the cultures of indigenous peoples across the world and the knowledges of women. (They are like the wild species of the biodiverse world and all gravely under threart.)

bibliodiversity french 

I’d like to draw this talk to a close by quickly looking at some of the key principles of bibliodiversity (PP Slide show)


All cultural artefacts in an eco-social system are interconnected through networks of relationship. In order for cultures to thrive, networks must exist. For example, a poem can result in other works of art such as a musical composition, a painting, a dance or an opera. Art works cross-pollinate. Traditional knowledges pollinate contemporary artworks while contemporary work feeds back into cultural knowledge.

Nested systems

Culture is comprised of systems nested within other systems. While each system is complete in itself, it is also part of a larger system. Changes in one part of the system can affect other nested systems as well has having an affect on the larger system. Publishing houses are nested within the larger system of writing, storytelling and literature which in turn is nested inside the specific culture and again inside the global system of story telling (which includes poetry, film, journalism, live performance etc).


Members of an eco-social system – a culture – depend on the continuous exchange of energy through ideas and story telling. Cycles intersect within and between local, regional and global systems. A story about relationship exists on local and global levels.

bibliodiversity spanish 


Every culture – however small or large – needs a continual flow of ideational energy to thrive. The flow of energy from the natural world to the human world creates and sustains initial ideational and psychological forces resulting in language. For example, adults (mostly mothers) sing to their children, tell stories and indulge in nonsense talk. Children learn to speak and tell their own stories.


All culture – from the child’s story to the global cultural industries – changes with the passage of time (or place). Stories build by accretion and variation and new interpretation as well as new media for representation. For example, orature to literature to the printed book to the digital book and around to orature again.

Dynamic balance

Eco-social communities become dynamic feedback loops, so that while there is continuous fluctuation, a bibliodiverse and multiverse community maintains a reasonably steady state. Dynamic balance is the basis of cultural resilience. For example, when large publishers cease to publish poetry, a host of small DIY and independent outlets open up until the large publisher thinks this must be profitable and so for a while, once again they publish poetry.

The global world is the hypervisible world, but behind that lies the dark matter, the ideas that give weight to intellectual endeavour. Remember the invisible, listen to the unheard speech, commit to fair speech.

Fair Trade, Fair Speech, Fair Publishing

bibliodiversity south africa 

Further reading


International Alliance of Independent Publishers:

Hawthorne, Susan. 2002. Wild Politics: Feminism, Globalisation and Bio/diversity. Melbourne: Spinifex Press: pp. 86-109.

McLellan, Betty. 2010. Unspeakable: A Feminist Ethic of Speech. Townsville: OtherWise Publications

Meadows, Donella H. 2008. Thinking in Systems: A Primer. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing. pp 188-191. This list has been adapted from: <>

Shiva, Vandana. 1993. Monocultures of the Mind: Perspectives on Biodiversity and Biotechnology. Penang: Third World Network.

bibliodiversity english 

Associated Author: Susan Hawthorne
Associated Book: Wild Politics

A terrific piece Susan. Absolutely spot on about the poetry/music connection. I'm actually about to start on a project incorporating those things very soon.
Posted by Pat Mitchell | 13 Nov 2012

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