Friday, January 23, 2009

New Year, New Ideas

Here at SoTB, we try to balance the good with the bad, the exciting with the mundane, the intellectual (Christopher's "currently reading") with the trashy or at least common (Brian's). So today, I wanted to share a project that is fun and kind of exciting and if nothing else, optimistic. My apologies for being a bit late to this game - this project kicked off closer to the actual new year, on January 5th.

The project in question is freelance publicist Lauren Cerand's "The New Your Project." She explains in this post that kicked off the project and the blog that she decided to take on a project she normally would have had to turn down: doing publicity for a novel published last January by a publisher that has since gone out of business. The novel is Jonathan Baumbach's YOU or The Invention of Memory. (Sidenote: this "____, or ____," repetitive, old-fashioned title formula seems to be making a bit of a resurgence, which is interesting as one of the books I acquired and edited last spring uses just this formula, at least in the subtitle, and will be published this summer.) Merand loved the book and the author so much that she decided to take on this challenge by starting a project to spread word about this book.
Here’s how it works: email me (correspondence at laurencerand dot com) between now and February 14 to request a free copy of the book (limited to the first 365 requests) and I will send it to you in the mail. Free. You can read it. You can give it away. You can sell it to the Strand or Powell’s, depending on your coast. Whatever. The point is, this is a book that I believe in. I believe it belongs in the world. I believe it belongs with you.
Now that's a believer! I admire her passion, as do the commenters to this initial post. And I also admire her promotion of smaller literary endeavors that are supporting this book, in subsequent posts.

I'll follow this blog, sure, and I wonder if this is yet another example of what has to happen as we enter this supposed new age of publishing. But I should point out that Cerand states her credentials up front as she starts this project: "I’m fortunate to be highly selective about my projects, probably pickier than the college that gave me my degree. I book most of my projects 6-12 months in advance, sometimes more, sometimes less, and I only take on a handful a year." She is saying "trust me, I know what I'm doing," just as editors must do in-house. As we move to get authors to the finish line quicker, with self-publishing or cutbacks to editorial departments, we will lose one gatekeeper, even if we have others like Cerand down the line.

Galleycat referenced this issue recently, linking to Lev Grossman's article in Time magazine about how novels are getting published, how the landscape has changed, and how it will all lead to the novel turning "into something cheaper, wilder, trashier, more democratic and more deliriously fertile than ever." Grossman's lede is somewhat obvious: the story of the novel Still Alice by Lisa Genova, which was ignored by the publishing establishment, then self-published, then noticed by the publishing establishment, and then a bestseller. Fine. We always love to hear these stories, right? (iUniverse really loves when reporters tell these stories - they must see a bump in business.) So Grossman goes on to say why publishing is changing, and makes good points about the f'ed up system we have now:
Consider the advance system, whereby a publisher pays an author a nonreturnable up-front fee for a book. If the book doesn't "earn out," in the industry parlance, the publisher simply eats the cost. Another example: publishers sell books to bookstores on a consignment system, which means the stores can return unsold books to publishers for a full refund. Publishers suck up the shipping costs both ways, plus the expense of printing and then pulping the merchandise. "They print way more than they know they can sell, to kind of create a buzz, and then they end up taking half those books back," says Sara Nelson, editor in chief of PW. These systems were created to shift risk away from authors and bookstores and onto publishers. But risk is something the publishing industry is less and less able to bear.

Amen.

He then goes on to say that self-publishing is no longer the death knell is once was: "Self-publishing has gone from being the last resort of the desperate and talentless to something more like out-of-town tryouts for theater or the farm system in baseball." Fair point.

And then Grossman hits me where it hurts:
And there's actual demand for this stuff. In theory, publishers are gatekeepers: they filter literature so that only the best writing gets into print. But Genova and Barry and Suarez got filtered out, initially, which suggests that there are cultural sectors that conventional publishing isn't serving. We can read in the rise of self-publishing not only a technological revolution but also a quiet cultural one--an audience rising up to claim its right to act as a tastemaker too.
Hm. I appreciate the point, and I appreciate the historical perspective he goes on to offer. (Really, the article is definitely worth a read.) But first of all, I worry when we rely too much on "the market," and secondly, I don't know how everyone - writers, editors, publishers - will be able to survive in this New Publishing world he describes, "promiscuous and unconstrained by paper, money or institutional taste." I am ready to jump in, folks. Perhaps my recent reading of Walt Whitman's biography has made me more appreciative of all tastes, high and common. But how can we proceed in a way that doesn't favor those with resources, some of which from questionable (ie corporate) origins, behind them? I don't want a moneyless sytem that is only moneyless in that it doesn't generate money, as those who put in will be those who can afford it.

And this is where my brain blows up. Maybe more on another day...

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