The 15-M publishing explosion

In its 12 months of existence, the protest movement has not only spawned its own literary phenomenon, but also boosted sales of essays and classics

An exhibition to mark the 15-M movement’s first anniversary at Madrid’s Ateneo arts and sciences foundation.
An exhibition to mark the 15-M movement’s first anniversary at Madrid’s Ateneo arts and sciences foundation. GORKA LEJARCEGI

“We were in a cultural dictatorship and now we are smack in the middle of a cultural revolution,” claims Guillem Martínez, a journalist as well as the author and coordinator of CT o la Cultura de la Transición (or, CT or the Culture of Transition). It’s the latest book spawned by the 15-M protest movement and joins around 20 others that have also jumped on the bandwagon, enough to warrant their own specific table in a major bookstore such as Laie in Barcelona.

It took the Spanish publishing industry little more than a month to respond to the 15-M phenomenon. By June 2011, Las voces del 15-M (or, The voices of 15-M) was the first book to go on the shelves “and one of the ones that got the most word-of-mouth recommendations,” says Martínez.

Just three months later, the protest movement against the political class and its mishandling of the economic crisis had reached comic book format, with titles such as Revolution Complex and Yes, we camp!

Then, the trend appeared to peter out somewhat.

“Things calmed down, and now I’m surprised that there is no first stocktaking being done for the first anniversary,” notes Lluís Morral, of Laie.

“There can’t be any stocktaking because there isn’t yet a movement, it is barely forming now, as shown by the more specific debates going on regarding issues such as deed in lieu of foreclosure,” explains Anna Monjo of Icaria, perhaps the publishing house that has invested the most in the topic. “Until now, we publishers have picked up on the reasons for indignation and on the demonstrations of people’s state of mind. Now we are hinting at possible alternatives; the movement is still a work in progress.”

Icaria released its first two titles almost in real time with the street protests. They were short, accessible texts that brought up concerns that were perhaps still latent then, but later came to the fore, as shown by titles such as Quiénes son los mercados y cómo nos gobiernan (or, Who are the markets and how are we ruled by them?) and Vivir en deudocracia (or, Living in a debtocracy).

The latest upcoming release in the collection is ¡Banca pública! (or, Public banking!), to be followed by two other titles.

A quick look at the new releases table at Laie provides a good idea of what these books are generally like. They are rarely over 100 pages, and often written by several authors, a practice that extends to the comic books.

“They’re short because we’re aiming for affordable prices [those in Icaria’s collection are around six euros] and because we’re after a short, clear, strong message, since most of the buyers are youngsters used to reading on a screen, or people who don’t read essays, much less on economic or political issues. We cannot offer long, super-elaborate texts — that would simply fail,” says Monjo.

Monjo underscores that at the protest campouts “you noticed a big lack of information; there were people asking basic questions. That’s where you notice how 15-M has incorporated individuals who were excluded into the political debate, either willingly or not. The crisis, the injustices and the mortgages have shaken up this political distance, and these people now need books to provide training and alternatives.”

Martínez notes that much of the 15-M literature is in the hands of well-established publishers rather than smaller firms on the fringe of the system. Major names such as Planeta (who published Stéphane Hessel’s arch-popular Time for Outrage!) and Santillana seem to be in control of the sector.

According to Monjo, this may be because of “the multiple ideological dimensions of 15-M, which means the alternative, more ideologically defined publishers are unsure whether 15-M shares their own rhetoric or not; the movement is neither anarchist nor communist nor anti-system per se, and that creates confusion.”

But one clear result of 15-M is the proliferation of books providing food for thought and alternative ideas. “In the last year we’ve seen a rise in the supply of this type of essay,” says Morral. There are titles such as Whose Crisis, Whose Future? by Susan George; Democracy: Crisis and Renewal by Paul Ginsborg and the works of Serge Latouche, a champion of “de-growth.” And last but not least, social unrest has spawned a revival of works by historical authors such as Rosa Luxemburg, Friedrich Engels and, naturally, Karl Marx, half a dozen of whose works have made a comeback.

“This is a type of essay that stopped getting published nearly 30 years ago, and the truth is we are missing reference points to analyze the current situation. There is a specific reader, perhaps the one with the greatest awareness among all the protestors, who realizes that he or she is lacking ideological training, and those classic, very well-written texts help them understand where we’re coming from,” says Monjo.

But these books do not make for huge sales. More recent global analyses perform a little better. According to Martínez, some of the readers move essentially online, “especially via Twitter, linking to free downloads or sometimes to pirated work.”

In CT o la Cultura de la Transición, 20 authors dissect modern Spanish society. And they cut deep: the book posits that in the name of stability and support for the fledgling democracy following Franco’s death, culture was deactivated to transform it from a battlefield into a garden. The articles then move on to analyze politics, economics, banking, the role of women and literature, among other topics. “For the first time, we are before a real paradigm shift,” says Martínez.

In any case, the 15-M literary vein does not seem about to run dry any time in the near future. “It will still be there for a simple reason: this whole thing has just begun. There’s the debate over the right to civil disobedience, the proposals for a new economy... for as long as there are issues to analyze — and reality shows us that there are on a daily basis — we will need books to explain them and suggest alternatives,” says Monjo.

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