Thursday, February 19, 2009

And a li'l something for the writers....

I wanted to post this link to Jofie Ferrari-Adler's article in Poets & Writers, a Q&A with four editors that may be of interest to some. I only got through the first page but will print out the rest to read on my way home from the office. (I know, I know, a handheld electronic device would be so handy right now!) The article is more geared toward a writer crowd than a publishing crowd, but there are some good behind-the-scenes tidbits in there. The editors involved are:

LEE BOUDREAUX was an editor at Random House for almost ten years before leaving to become the editorial director of Ecco in 2005. She has worked with Arthur Phillips, Dalia Sofer, and David Wroblewski.

ERIC CHINSKI worked at Oxford University Press and Houghton Mifflin before moving to Farrar, Straus and Giroux, where he is vice president and editor in chief. He has edited Chris Adrian, Rivka Galchen, and Alex Ross.

ALEXIS GARGAGLIANO worked at Simon & Schuster and Knopf before moving to Scribner, where she is an editor, in 2002. Her authors include Matt Bondurant, Adam Gollner, and Joanna Smith Rakoff. (The 2nd Scribner editor I've mentioned today, though the first is no longer there...)

RICHARD NASH worked as a performance artist and theater director before taking over Soft Skull Press, now an imprint of Counterpoint, in 2001. His authors include Lydia Millet, Matthew Sharpe, and Lynne Tillman.

Again, I've only read page one. Forgive me if it contains offensive language or mis-characterizations... though I somehow doubt it will.

In the bit I read, I particularly appreciated Boudreaux's description of what one must consider, as an editor, when sizing up a project:

The necessary quotient comes up when you ask yourself, "Is this something that really fires me up? What's going to happen when I give it to these two reps to read? Are they going to have the same reaction to some pretty significant extent and feel the need to convey their enthusiasm down the line?" Because I think word of mouth remains the best thing we can ever do for a book. So is there that necessary thing? Is there that urgency? Is it in some significant way different from any number of other novels that purport to talk about the same topic? It's almost like an electrical pulse traveling down a wire. It starts with the author, then the agent, then the editor, and then there are a lot of telephone poles it's got to go through from there. If it's lacking in any way, you know that the electricity is going to peter out. Sometimes you can almost see it happen. You can watch it happen between one sales rep and another sales rep. You're like, "Oh, that just petered out between those two telephone poles." And the book is only going to do so much.

This is a useful way to consider what is happening when a proposal is sitting in front of an editor in a trade house.

I also appreciate how Nash - whom I'm mentioning a lot lately - cuts through the more amorphous reactions the other editors have to fiction proposals to say what he likes to see in fiction:

For me it's also when a work of fiction has the force of society behind it on some level. Which is not necessarily to say that it has to be political—I do far less political fiction than people think—but I do want to feel that the writer has access to something larger than himself. To me, the energy you're talking about is something that possesses social force and a concatenation of relationships and responses to the world lived in a certain kind of way. I try to forbid myself from using the word authenticity because I don't actually know what the hell it is, but that's one way of talking about it.
I appreciate him differentiating what he's describing from just straight-up political literature - which has its place, I think. And he usefully articulates what makes Soft Skull fiction stand out.

So enjoy, readers and writers, poets and otherwise. And if I find something shockingly offensive in the later pages, I will quickly withdraw this post. Oh thank god for the malleable publishing that is blogger!

ADDENDUM: I read most of this incredibly long Q&A last night and wanted to add some thoughts here. The more I read, the more Pat Holt came to mind, specifically her smart post about "publishers leaving New York." In particular, this paragraph from Holt came to mind as I read 3 out of 4 of the editors' responses (Nash clearly being the odd-man-out):

By now, however, working in close proximity has made New York book publishers appear inbred and clannish. If you can’t get them on the phone, it’s because they’re calling/emailing/texting each other, lunching at publishing “in” spots, complaining about hotel rates at Frankfurt or BookExpo and working the room at author receptions as if a world outside publishing doesn’t exist.

Yes indeed. The other editors here had a mentality of being the keepers of culture for the nation if not the world, but at times they also revealed the privilege that got them into this position. Says Boudreaux about her "benediction" when she became an editor at Random House, in a rather shocking answer for those of us in publishing outside of NYC:

You know, Ann Godoff was doing the benediction and it was kind of like, "You are now an editor. On your tombstone they can say you were an editor." I had this little glimmering moment of, "Yeah! I came here, I didn't even know what publishing was, barely, and now..." Thank God for the Radcliffe Publishing Course. I wouldn't have had any idea of how anybody moves to New York or gets a job had I not ended up doing that. I had been working at Longstreet Press in Atlanta, where we published Jeff Foxworthy's You Might Be a Redneck If... That's actually my proudest moment—what was I doing forgetting that? But seriously, I did that course because I didn't know anything about anything and I thought I'd go back to Longstreet and work there. But then I thought, "Well, gosh, maybe I'll try New York for one year. I'm sure I'll end up back down in Atlanta before long, hoping that somebody at Algonquin would die so that somebody from the South could get a job at a slightly bigger publisher whose books you actually occasionally heard about." You know, I think actually getting promoted to editor was sort of like, "Wow, here I am. This is really a job that I'm really going to get to do." I still sort of feel amazed at that.

Oh goodness. This is a problem. First and foremost, the Radcliffe course is a prep school. You start with the non-refundable $50 application fee, then move to the $1,000 non-refundable deposit if you get in, and then you have tuition for this 6 week course: $4,400. Oh, and room and board? $2,590. Six weeks. As someone who came into publishing not all that long ago with a starting salary in the low $20k's, this is shocking and offensive. This is elitism. This is some kind of financial hurdle put up at the start of the NY publishing community - jump it, and they may let you into the select circle that will then decide what we read and how we read it.

Richard Nash provides a very necessary foil to this inside-corporate-nyc-publishing mentality in this Q&A. He explains how the new model of publishing will be reaching niche audiences who more deeply or significantly appreciate the work. So publishers save money on the whole returns problem and get to the readers more directly, online or in other ways, and then the author can have more face-time with the readers and everyone is more satisfied. But this won't work when you drop $500k on an advance and then have to print as many copies and force them into chain stores and force them into mainstream media outlets. I'll end with this long quote from Nash that makes me, actually, much more excited than I have been about how publishing is changing and how the book might survive, using a mix of electronic venues and traditional printing. It put me in mind of other pro-active indies who know their readers like Chelsea Green, whose publisher Margo Baldwin recently predicted that independent bookstores would have to become "community activist centers with a mission in order to keep their customers." Exciting times! From Nash:

For a long time, racism, classism, and sexism prevented a whole array of talent from having access to a level of educational privilege that would allow them to write full-length books. That hasn't been completely solved, but it's been radically improved since the 1950s. Far more persons of color, women, and people below the upper class have access now. An entire agent community has arisen to represent them. But finding the audience is the big problem. I guess I'm imposing my own question on the question you asked—"Is it too hard to get published?"—and I think we all may have heard a slightly different version of that question. The version of it that I heard was, "Are there too many books?" I personally don't feel that way. And I get a lot of submissions at Soft Skull. I get about 150 a week. And it's hell having so much supply. But we didn't exist before 1993, and you guys all existed before that, so you are feeding off a different supply and we're enabling this new supply. I love the fact that Two Dollar Radio exists, and all the other new indie presses that have erupted. I think that's healthy. I don't think a solution to the problems we face as an industry is to say we're going to reduce consumer choice by publishing fewer books. Now, at the level of the individual publisher, I totally understand it as a rational decision that a given executive committee would make at a large company. My comment that there are not too many books published has to do with culture rather than a given economic enterprise. I think we could publish more books. You just have to recognize that they may be read by five hundred people. And that's perfectly legitimate. Blogs can be read by fifty people. You just have to think, "What's the economically and environmentally rational thing to do with this thing that has an audience—but that audience is just 150 or 250 people?" It may not be to print the book. It may be to publish it through a labor-of-love operation that is completely committed to a given set of aesthetic principles and will print it in a way that is environmentally sensitive—chapbook publishing, let's say. The poetry model could have a lot to say to fiction and nonfiction publishing.

1 comment:

Christopher said...

As responsible journalists here at Survival of the Book, we would be remiss if we didn't admit up front that contributor Christopher attended the Radcliffe Publishing Course 10 years ago. He is still waiting for Ann Godoff to pronounce him "an editor."