Friday, February 06, 2009

The Meek Inheriting the Market

Maybe it's not fair to refer to bold, creative independent publishers as meek, and some religious types like Christopher - ahem - may take offense to my use of "market" when paraphrasing, ya know, the Bible. But moving on....

Tom Christensen, who usually blogs here, posted a great article on "five lessons corporate publishers can learn from independents" over at Foreword Magazine's site. I suppose if I had my druthers, he would reframe this article less as helping corporate publishers and more as saluting independent ones, but the idea still works. The article comes as a response to Steve Rubel's declaration that, "By January 2014... in the US almost all forms of tangible media will either be in sharp decline or completely extinct."

The lessons are all good ones to keep in mind, and within them, Christensen reminds us why so many indie presses are so important. He mentions the presses he's considering for a translation prize, which are worth mentioning here: "City Lights, Dalkey Archive, Green Integer, Kaya, Melville House, Milkweed, New Directions, North Atlantic, Omnidawn, Wesleyan, Whereabouts, and Yale. They are all independents and university presses -- not a single corporate publisher is represented!" (Take some time to click through these - many are favorites, like City Lights, Melville, and Milkweed, but it was fun to meet some new ones, too!)

Christensen's points are a bit vague, however, even sounding like a term paper. He states at one point, "The internet offers many opportunities for social networking that publishers would be wise to take advantage of. " In another example, it's not clear where he falls on digital publishing. He mentions that publishers should not cut costs on printing books, but I assume he does not believe they should avoid investments in digitizing their lists.

But once again, we see that perhaps the era of Big Publishing is over, and smaller, more malleable, niche-oriented publishers will surpass the catch-all corporate publishers that have dictated our reading for so long. Perhaps, then, we can read this article about Random House founder Bennett Cerf as history, as the way it once was. If it's history, then I shouldn't feel guilty for enjoying this tidbit of information: "[Head publisher of Boni & Liveright] made Cerf an unusual offer: If Cerf loaned him $25,000 and took author Theodore Dreiser to a ballgame that day, he could come in as vice president." Who knew Dreiser could be bought so easy!

Another product of Big Publishing was Big A-hole Norman Mailer, who had immense talent and ego to go with it. I wrote about my brief shared experiences with Mailer - meeting him at a party, then seeing him shortly before his death - here. But then this article by Mailer buddy Lawrence Schiller from the new book section of Tina Brown's latest production, the Daily Beast, made me feel a bit nicer about the guy - or at least appreciative of his love of books/authors and his love of Provincetown, a favorite place of mine. The article talks about the creation of the Norman Mailer Writers Colony, which looks absolutely incredible.

So let's take advantage of the money created by Big Publishing even as publishing moves out of Manhattan's best restaurants and spreads itself over a network of well-run, passionate independent presses who credit, in part, independent booksellers for getting word out about their new books. We can still have bestsellers, but perhaps we'll have more midlist books too that get the care and attention they deserve.

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