21 September 2012

Following is from Sue Halpern, editor of NYRB’s new ebook series.  I am actually breathing a sigh of relief.  The anxiety of being one these writers “whose first books had been critical successes [but] were unable to find publishers for their second” hovers; but it’s going to be okay.  NYRB is publishing these writers, whose books are “loved” by editors who can’t publish them.

A few years ago, around the time I was writing a piece for The New York Review of Booksabout digital reading devices, I ran into a novelist who mentioned that many of his friends whose first books had been critical successes were unable to find publishers for their second. The economics of traditional publishing, he pointed out, did not favor non-commercial books, and when you added in the threat that digital technology posed to bookstores, the end result would be an ever-shrinking market for serious literary books.


The Water Theatre
by Lindsay Clarke

As a writer myself—my sixth book will be published next spring—I was sensitive to the novelist’s lament. I love books—not just their words, but their feel and smell and look; cracking the spine of a paperback is one of life’s great guilty pleasures. But to my surprise, I was finding in my hands-on research for The New York Review that a good story transcends its medium:  I could get just as lost in an e-book as I could in a book bound between hard covers.  By using the less-expensive e-book platform to introduce readers to writers they would not otherwise encounter, the digital “revolution,” as it was being called, could be harnessed to promote literary culture rather than undermine it.

What better place to launch this venture than New York Review Books, which was already leading discerning readers to great and often forgotten classics of literature?  But unlike the NYRB Classics series, these books would be by contemporary authors, writers of depth and insight whose work was being bypassed by traditional American publishing because the economics did not favor them.  If any audience would be receptive, I reasoned, it would be the adventurous NYRB crowd.

Sometime later I was sitting in the office of an editor at one of the Big Six publishing houses, a man of exquisite literary taste who had been in the business a long time, explaining the premise of this new venture, which we had named NYRB Lit. I was nervous—did he think it was nutty or misdirected or a waste of time? He turned away for a moment and reached for a pile of papers on his desk. “I love this book,” he said handing it to me, “but we are not going to be able to publish it here.”  That word, “love,” is what animates how I want each book to come to me. I am looking for books that someone—an editor, an agent, a writer, a reader—is passionate about, a book that he or she believes must be read.

The Water Theatre, the book that was given to me that day, is now the inaugural book in the NYRB Lit series. Written by Lindsay Clarke…

This is kind of the best news I’ve heard in a while.

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17 September 2012

Thanks to Lisa at Like Fire for alerting us to NYRB’s new e-book series, NYRB Lit — “devoted to publishing contemporary books of literary merit from around the world.”  Launching this fall, which means, presumably, now!

I’m way behind when it comes to e-reading; when I speak of “turning the corner,” I mean my relationship to e-reading, not e-reading itself.  (I tried the Kindle a couple of years ago and just couldn’t do it — no pages, all that scrolling, ick.) But then again: NYRB launching an e-reading series feels momentous; with their beautiful Classics Series (bringing worthy classic titles back into print), and tabloid-format bimonthly mag (long-form reviews and articles), NYRB has felt to me like the last man standing.

And yet, their new series feels…  natural.  As if they waited until it felt right, no need to rush, and then went for it.  Of course it just makes sense, when your mission is to bring the best (non-blockbuster) literary work into the world, and you want to publish new work, economically risky work, that you’d take advantage of low-cost production and distribution.  I’m excited.

As always, it looks as if many of the titles will be works in translation; and the “covers,” i.e. the digital thumbnails, are lovely.

I’ve been thinking about an ipad; if the rumors about an ipad mini are true, then the corner may very well be turned this fall — for me, and for NYRB.

14 August 2012

At The Millions today, my Q&A with James Salter, on the occasion of the release of A Sport and Pastime and Solo Faces in e-book format, by Open Road Media.  I re-read Solo Faces last month and admired it even more: that signature omniscient narration is not only unusual, but simply gorgeous in its confidence, its simplicity.

If you missed my profile of JS in Tin House last winter, you might enjoy this Q&A, the intro to which rehashes a little of how I first came in contact with Salter, back in 2010.  It’s been a great privilege to interact with him.  At 87, he’s having an inspiringly productive year, filled with the recognition and acclaim he deserves.

21 April 2012

A lot’s been happening in the publishing world, it seems — with the DOJ going after Apple and the corporate conglomerates over e-book price points and whatnot.  It occurs to me that I am really in denial — and out of touch — when I start to feel frustrated that no one ever speaks to how e-book pricing affects authors.  The author’s voice or stake in this is, apparently, so WAY off the radar.  The cost of a book once seemed to mean something for whether an author got paid; now it’s more a matter of whether corporate publishers can stay in business, keep from laying off half their employees, etc.

Case in point: this week’s “On the Media” program at NPR is called, “Publishing: Adapt or Die.”  I was pretty blue after listening to it.  It actually poked holes in my sense of purpose re: finishing my second novel. It wasn’t because of the money issue, but more the readership issue, the declaration that “no one reads literary fiction” anymore.

I started this blog in 2009, a year before my (first) book came out.  A lot happens in three years; publishing years are like dog years these days.  I was reminded of how much has changed when I co-moderated a panel at Columbia last week on “Current Landscapes in Publishing.”  One of the questions I asked was whether the panelists felt optimistic or troubled by what’s happening in their corner of the publishing world, and every one of them was optimistic, excited, energized, etc.  Five out of the six were writers themselves in addition to being editors; the publications/organizations with which they were involved ranged from mainstream/corporate to super-indie/startup, and a few in between.  None of them seemed concerned about the fact that they might never see monetary compensation for their own work.  They were all happy that content was booming, that literary culture (online) was thriving, that it’s “a reader’s market” now.

Two of the publications represented — The New Yorker and Electric Literature — do in fact compensate writers significantly for their work.  I wonder how sustainable each model is into the future. (The co-creators of EL do not get paid, which is the standard for editors of most new and online literary publications.)

I’m slow to this adjustment (but that’s not surprising, I’m generally slow about most things).  Hopefully I’ll get there.  Or maybe not.  Does anyone else think we should be mad — more mad, a little mad — that it is becoming increasingly difficult to make a living as a writer?  To me, there is actually a significant difference between no compensation and modest compensation: it’s the difference between having to devote full-time to non-writing work versus part-time.  It’s the difference between getting a book written and not getting a book written.  I’m not talking about six-figure advances, I’m talking about any advances at all.  I’m talking about piecing together bits of income to live a simple, low-overhead life.

Ugh.  I’m devolving here.  Ok, let me turn this around and give a shout-out to all those literary publications and institutions who are scraping up money for writers.  Thank you thank you thank you.

*

p.s. Of course my blind spot here in this rant is that the consumer has to be willing to pay for the content. One of our panelists was wise to say so.  I’ve been trying to be more mindful/faithful about myself as a literary consumer, about subscriptions, about paying for what I possibly can.  At the risk of sounding corny, every little bit counts!

2 January 2012

In contrast to a barrage of “man of the year” talk surrounding the late Steve Jobs, Sue Halpern offers a counter-view at the New York Review of Books — of a “repellent man” who gave the world not “something of enduring beauty” but rather “products.”  Unlike Jobs’s biographer Walter Isaacson, who put Jobs forth as a “genius” (with attending personality issues), and Jobs who considered himself  a great artist-figure, Halpern suggests that Jobs was mainly in the business of “manufacturing desire for this year’s model in the hope that people will discard last year’s” — no more, no less.

Steve Jobs cried a lot. This is one of the salient facts about his subject that Isaacson reveals, and it is salient not because it shows Jobs’s emotional depth, but because it is an example of his stunted character. Steve Jobs cried when he didn’t get his own way. He was a bully, a dissembler, a cheapskate, a deadbeat dad, a manipulator, and sometimes he was very nice. Isaacson does not shy away from any of this, and the trouble is that Jobs comes across as such a repellent man […] derisive of almost everyone, ruthless to people who thought they were his friends, indifferent to his daughters, that the book is often hard to read. Friends and former friends speculate that his bad behavior was a consequence of being put up for adoption at birth. A former girlfriend, who went on to work in the mental health field, thought he had Narcissistic Personality Disorder. John Sculley, who orchestrated Jobs’s expulsion from Apple, wondered if he was bipolar. Jobs himself dismissed his excesses with a single word: artist. Artists, he seemed to believe, got a pass on bad behavior. Isaacson seems to think so, too, proving that it is possible to write a hagiography even while exposing the worst in a person.

The designation of someone as an artist, like the designation of someone as a genius, is elastic, and anyone can claim it for himself or herself and for each other. There is no doubt that the products Steve Jobs brilliantly conceived of and oversaw at Apple were elegant and beautiful, but they were, in the end, products. Artists, typically, aim to put something of enduring beauty into the world; consumer electronics companies aim to sell a lot of gadgets, manufacturing desire for this year’s model in the hope that people will discard last year’s.

The day before Jobs died, Apple launched the fifth iteration of the iPhone, the 4S, and four million were sold in the first few days. Next year will bring the iPhone 5, and a new MacBook, and more iPods and iMacs. What this means is that somewhere in the third world, poor people are picking through heaps of electronic waste in an effort to recover bits of gold and other metals and maybe make a dollar or two. Piled high and toxic, it is leaking poisons and carcinogens like lead, cadmium, and mercury that leach into their skin, the ground, the air, the water. Such may be the longest-lasting legacy of Steve Jobs’s art.

Ouch.

This question of the bad behavior of artists is one I am always interested in.  While I’m not sure I’d necessarily take such a hard line as Halpern’s, there is something — here at the start of the new year — sort of cleansing about her voice in the sea of Jobs-mania.

29 October 2011

It’s no surprise that I would be delighted to read Charles Simic at NYRB on the virtues of keeping a notebook, of writing things down longhand.  I still write in a Moleskine journal, and I use spiral notebooks and Bic pilot pens for writing fiction and essays.  I write emails more than texts, which I know is rather outdated, and I still can’t quite get comfortable posting at Facebook (and don’t tweet), because I find that degree of brevity and frequency really stressful.

But I wonder about iPhones/iPads.  I’ve been tempted for a while but haven’t seriously considered it yet (price point is of course an issue).  I like the idea of an “all-in-one” device, but what’s still missing from the “all” is, well, words.  If words are your main medium (generating them, that is), not images or sound or information chunks, then the i-devices still aren’t quite for you.  Yesterday, I left my phone somewhere, and for a short while I didn’t know where.  I thought, O shit, I’m going to have a get a new phone.  Will it be an i-phone? I wondered.  There is a feeling that a year from now, it won’t even be a question or a choice but a foregone conclusion — you’ll need an iphone like you need, say, a refrigerator.

I did find my phone, so it’s all okay for now.  But a year from now… well, let’s just say that I do hope Charles Simic is still writing for NYRB.

 

 

8 October 2011

This is one of those long-form pieces accessible online that I think is worth your while.  At Triquarterly, poet Michael Anania describes the sometimes-absurd ways in which academic institutions attempt to assess the “value” of a potential faculty member’s publications, based on who is publishing their work and how:

At one absurdly comic point, an administrator at my own university drew up a long list of literary magazines and presses which he sent out to people he thought of as experts in the field.  He asked that they review the list and assign numerical values to each of the magazines and presses based on literary merit and stature.  His plan was to multiply the number of poems, stories, lines or words—I was never quite sure which—by the “quality rating number,” then add the results and get a number that would represent the writer’s  achievement.  The plan was never put into effect because the chosen experts, those, at least, who didn’t simply laugh and throw his letter and list in the trash, sent their letters and lists to me, either as a not-so-gentle jab at my department or with the presumably flattering suggestion that I would be the person most qualified to assign the ratings.

Anania focuses on the perspective of academic hiring committees, and on scholarly and poetry publishing, but I think his discussion here pertains to an “at-large” view on a writer’s “value” and “success” as well:

Fiction that makes its way into quality paperbacks or Penguin paperbacks can retain its commercially conferred value, while fiction that moves into mass-market paperback tends to lose value.  In this strange form of what might otherwise be called thought, some commerce is good but too much commerce is bad or at least less good. Lingering here is the notion that the more commercial something looks, the more valuable it is, unless that look is wholly commercial and thus lowbrow, all of which is more than a bit distressing since universities are supposedly places where ideas of value are hashed out independent of corporate influence […]

In regards to the publication of scholarly monographs, i.e. the economic evolution in this area of publishing:

The question is: are these drab, expensive monographs less good than their fancied-up predecessors?  And now that scholarly, as well as literary, publishing is moving to electronic, rather than paper, media, will it be less valuable?  Less tenurable? […]

(The word “tenurable” here is, I think, rather brilliant and somewhat chilling.)

Anania also celebrates the excellence of small indie presses and debunks the notion that small and nimble means of lesser merit or value.

The increase in the numbers and variety of poets writing and publishing has been met by an increase in the number of small poetry presses.  This essentially positive literary development creates new areas for the kinds of misunderstanding that are generated in tenure and promotions committees.  Is a press with a name that is unfamiliar to committee members or located far away from Manhattan respectable?  That is to say, does it represent a judgment a committee can rely on?  Does it represent any editorial judgment at all? […]

Here are some of the tangles you get into if you confuse commercial publishing with literary value.  For years Marvin Bell had Atheneum as his publisher.  He changed to Copper Canyon, a non-profit small press.  Did his value as a poet decrease?  Charles Wright went from Wesleyan, where he published for twenty years, to Farrar Straus, so presumably he became a better, more consequential poet […] Lucille Clifton went from Random House to BOA.  A similar decline?  Gwendolyn Brooks left her New York publishers for Broadside in Detroit, though with that change her career seems to have soared […] (Anania goes on in this vein to cite many other poets whose publishing trajectories have shifted with the times, nimbly, and for the ultimate good/value of the poet’s career.)

In regards to the flux-y moment we are in, where we can’t quite decide if print is still at the peak of the prestige pyramid, Anania writes:

To choose one combination of technical adaptations over another as having a lock on literary value is simply silly.

And finally — here, here:

One last thing—and it’s the darkest recess of the “publisher” question.  There is, if only implicitly, an invasion of academic and aesthetic freedom involved here.  Large, commercial publishers and glossy magazines do not necessarily represent higher judgments of literary merit.  In the short term, they might offer access to larger audiences.  What they do represent—you could argue “enforce”—is a fairly limited set of social and aesthetic choices.  Saying that you should publish in the New Yorker is not merely a wish for greater success for you but an insistence that you become a different kind of poet, that you change your subject matter, your poetics, and your voice in order to find a shiny place among the hotel and jewelry ads.  Saying that you should publish with Knopf has the same effect.  I would be happy if on your own terms you were swooped up by either or both, but not if you tried to remodel yourself and your work to suit what you imagine they want.

I myself get excited about more indie presses popping up; smart and creative folks reclaiming literary publishing as a vocation, a passion, a deep commitment to the life of each book that is acquired and launched into a reading world that truly needs these books.  Every business must survive, yes; and I hope all the new small presses sit down and study the economics of the thing and consider how everyone can make a decent living in the long run, how each project has the potential for profit and growth.  I also hope that perceptions and judgments about literary value and success evolve in stride.