Monday, January 29, 2007

John Daniel -- author, publisher (Daniel and Daniel)

John Daniel of Daniel and Daniel:

1. Literature is in trouble -- that is, more trouble than usual. Why do you think this is? The increasing prevalence of TV? The distractions of increasingly narcotic subcultures such as video games? Sept. 11? Or is talk of the "death of literature" simple exaggeration?

I think there will always be literature, although it may be presented in different ways. What started as tall tales told around a campfire evolved into the book, and now the book is losing out to new technology that makes my head spin and for the most part turns my stomach. But there will always be campfires, and there will always be books, and there will always be literature, because the art of spinning tales is basic to human nature and human culture.

2. And what is literature, anyway? Should the traditional novel be considered the prime example of it?

For now, traditional novels and finely crafted short stories are the best we've got. Memoirs are literature too, and creative essays, and the list goes on. And the genres get blurred. But give me a good novel, and I can say for sure: that's literature.

3. Prizes and awards are playing an increasing role in determining an author's career-trajectory. In short, winning a major literary prize can win a writer a large audience overnight (not to mention, considerable fame and financial remuneration). But, as British critic Jason Cowley has observed, what is lost is the ability for readers to think in a critically complex fashion.

Are literary prizes dangerous in this regard? Do they convey to the public the message that "this book is worth reading and all these others aren't"?

I disapprove of the prize system. I do watch the Oscars once a year, but I pay no attention to other prizes. I write genre mysteries, an I'm offended by the emphasis on prizes and awards in that game. Okay, okay, the Booker Prize is usually right on. And I do approve of grants and fellowships (I wouldn't say no to a MacArthur myself) But I disapprove of any system that puts an unworthy emphasis on prizes, and I especially dislike any implication that writing is a competitive sport.

4. Literary publishing has always been a marriage of art and commerce. But in recent years, the Cult of the Deal has become more influential, with agents demanding larger advances and marketing people paying especially close attention to sales figures. Is the "art" side of the business being pushed out?

Perhaps that's so in the big-time, major-league New York Literary Establishment, but I don't think independent presses have lost sight of why we're here. Besides, the "art of the deal" exists at our level, mainly to allow publishers and authors and bookstores to find innovative ways to survive.

5. Many major publishers now refuse to accept "unsolicited" work; that is, they will not even consider work unless it is agented. Is this a sound policy from point of view of finding the best new literary voices? Isn't there a chance good writing will be squeezed out?

Certainly at the level of publishing where big money is spent and earned. Very good writers will go unnoticed in New York if they're not agented, and agents are reluctant to look at unpublished authors. So there has to be another way into the tabernacle. through writing conferences? graduate schools? the one I think most highly of is getting published by independent publishers who don't work with agents (or vice versa: since there's little money to be made in small-press circles, agents don't bother to fish in that pond.).

6. Alternatively, for small presses that do accept unsolicited work, is the problem that the majors are squeezing the small houses at the distribution/retail marketing end? In other words, even when good writers get published by small houses, do they have a fair chance of winning an audience? Or are the major houses introducing an overly corporate, overly aggressive mentality to the book trade?

We smaller publishers have a hard time getting our fair share of review attention. And with the loss of independent bookstores, we have very few outlets to sell our wares.

7. Returning to the question of agents -- are they too powerful? If so, in what ways? Or are they a largely beneficial and necessary element of contemporary publishing?

They're not my concern.

8. Does America have too many publishers? Or too few?

I don't think the question's relevant. Those that survive have a right and contribute something; those that don't, well they don't.

9. In your opinion, how will new technologies such as the e-book or audio books affect the "form" of the book?

In the long run, books will change. In the short run, for small publishers, I'm happy to say there's still an audience of people who like to read real books by sitting in an armchair.

10. Putting aside the hype, does the Internet provide a real opportunity to publishers? If so, how?

It's a good tool, of course, particularly for editing and marketing. It's also a distraction, and I suppose it, like television, competes with book publishing for readers' attention.

11. And what role can traditional, venerable institutions such as libraries and English Departments play in reversing the decline in sales of literary fiction?

Libraries are a good market, so long as society continues to support them financially. But of course they're in the business of sharing books among many readers, which means fewer sales. But they do a lot for literature. English departments? Well, I don't believe English departments generate as much literature as they're given credit for; scholarship, yes, but real literature begins in real life. However, hear! hear! for english teachers who adopt literature for their classes.

12. What projects are you working on now that you are excited about?

For the past several years we've been publishing literary mysteries in cooperation with another small press, Perseverance Press. Our mission is to keep good writers published after their New York houses have dropped them. We are happy to sell five thousand copies, which no longer satisfies most larger publishers.

Bio: John M. Daniel is founding editor of Daniel & Daniel Publishers Inc., which has published literature consistently since 1985. He also offers free-lance literary services, including editing, ghostwriting, and mentorship. He is the author of 8 published books, including three mystery novels. He has worked as a bookseller, editor, teacher, writer, and publisher.

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