Thursday, July 03, 2008

Coming alive for literature

My apologies for not posting in nearly a month. Okay, it hasn't been *quite* that long, but it's been too long. With a new job and other personal stresses, I just haven't been able to post.

But let's move on. I wanted to link up to this Washington Post article by famed publisher Jonathan Karp, which is one of these inside-baseball publishing rants. (Hopefully you don't have to be registered to read it, though I am registered with the Post, for free, so it may be the case.) It's a good consideration of the current state of publishing, and worth a read. He's talking about all the cheap, disposable books out there - neither of those adjectives being literal. He means the celebrity bios and quickie politco books, these books that will be sitting dusty in used bookstores in about a year, marked down to a dollar. And it's not just the books that bother him, but "the underlying cynicism of the people acquiring, publishing and selling them."

But his later point really hit me. Working at a small non-profit press, I assumed we couldn't pay enough, but I hoped others were. Then I read this:
I talk to literary agents and fellow publishers, they acknowledge an unarticulated truth about our business: Fewer authors are devoting more than two years to their projects. The system demands more, faster. Conventional wisdom holds that popular novelists should deliver one or two books per year. Nonfiction authors often aren't paid enough to work full-time on a book for more than a year or two.
So no one's paying more, really, or if they are, it's only with the understanding that the author will be hyperproductive. This isn't good for the author or the reader, of course, but reading Karp's words I realized that of course it was true.

Now Karp takes the optimistic approach, envisioning a sea change in which online access helps knock the big boys in publishing down. Indie presses will have access to readers as readily as giant corporate publishers, and a lot of the old standbys, like reference, will move online, so they will be taken out of the equation. This hyper competition will raise the bar so only publishers that can deliver the very best quality literature will survive, which will push dollars back into "research and development" - which in this case, he's interpreting as money for authors to work.

Once again, though, ain't this just falling back on the ol' virtues of capitalism? Aren't we hoping a free market will lead to the best for everyone, and hasn't that failed miserably over and over, as seen in the latest mortgage crash? I don't trust the internet to be the great equalizer. And I don't trust this notion of quality literature, as if no one defines it, it's just something readers know. Karp announces with what seems to me great confidence: "The novelists who are truly novel will thrive; the rest will struggle." Spoken like one incredible editor, I suppose.

I'd rather see brand loyalty, but maybe that's my own pipe dream. I'd like to see people seek out publishers they trust, rather than getting online and saying to the market, "okay, what do you got? C'mon, publish exactly what I want and I'll throw you some pennies." (Here's where I admit my unfortunate dissatisfaction with McSweeney's Book Release Club. I mean what the f(#$ is this?!!? I hate it and don't want it in my home, so my brand enthusiasm is currently, for them, at a low.)

So yes, despite that parenthetical, I'd like to see more strategic, considerate consuming of books, not this may-the-best-man-win mentality. Because what's to stop the crap Karp complains about from being just the thing that rises to the top and drowns out the wonderful independents he praises? Why does he assume these most novel novelists will be given the credit they deserve, just because of the internet?

We need more change than that. I would have liked to see him mention independent bookstores and librarians as another level of gatekeepers, invaluable for how they steer reading. I trust these folks more than the internet machine, don't you?

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