Robert Lasner of Ig Publishing:
1. Ever since Sept. 11, there has been a decline in book sales, particularly sales of literary fiction. And since that time, it's been common in publishing circles to explain Sept. 11 as the main "cause" of this phenomenon. Do you agree? Or have other, equally important factors been driving the decline in sales?
Sept. 11th has had nothing to do with the overall decline in sales of literary fiction. Things began to change long before then, mostly as the result of two phenomena: America's declining interest in reading fiction, particularly literary fiction, and the consolidation that has occurred in big publishing. The end result of these two developments is that, there are less review sources for literary fiction, which make it hard to get the word out about your books, and the careers of many midlist authors, who used to be the heart and soul of literary fiction, have been harmed. While many smaller, independent presses have come to the rescue of many of these midlist authors, it doesn't help the overall sales of literary fiction. These days, to sell fiction, you have to a genre hook, positioning your book as a mystery, for example.
If there was an event that has affected booksales in general it was the War. The invasion of has given serious political books a more prominent place in the marketplace.
2. The publishing industry 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 squeezed out?
Being the editor of an independent press that pays modest advances, this issue doesn't affect us all. In fact, at our press, we're very interested in making a place for the "art" side of the business.
3. 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?
We accept unsolicited manuscripts. It is worth it to us--for now--to keep accepting unsolicited submissions on the hope of finding that hidden gem, which we do occasionally.
4. 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?
Big presses and small presses operate in completely different universes. As a small press publisher, what the big presses do has no effect on me, as they are financially in a different stratosphere, and we do not compete on any level for the same authors. Where big presses do have a substantial effect is at the review and retail level, as it is very difficult for smaller press books to get review attention because so much of the ever shrinking review space is reserved for big press books. If a book review editor is holding a big press book in one hand, and an Ig book in the other, which book do you think he is going to choose to review? A former book review editor for a major newspaper once said that he only paid attention to books from Knopf, FSG and Simon and Schuster because that was where the quality books came from, and that small presses weren't worth his time. I think that reflects the attitude of the majority of book reviewer editors, though most wouldn't state is so bluntly. And to be fair, some places will, if you persist long enough, pay you some attention, but it takes years of persistence.
Also, big presses take out print advertisements, paying thousands of dollars which help keep the book review sections alive. Generally, small presses cannot afford advertisements and thus, will be given less of a voice.
As far as the retail angle, strange as it might sound, we have had better luck getting our books into Barnes and Noble and Borders than with many of the independent bookstores, despite the accepted publishing wisdom that independent bookstores support independent presses. Our first novel, my very own For Fucks Sake, sold high numbers through Borders, and BN has always been good to our political books, and has recently started giving us decent orders for our fiction. However, with some notable exceptions, we don't get great orders from independents.
5. 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?
There are good agents and bad agents, and I don't believe that I can make a blanket statement about their relative worth. Most bigger agents won't give small presses a chance, because we can't afford to pay what they are looking for.
7. Does America have too many publishers? Or too few?
Too many. There is simply not enough retail space for the number of books being published.
8. In your opinion, how will new technologies such as the e-book or audio books affect the "form" of the book?
So far, e-books have been a failure. I think people like the feel of a real book, and I don't know if electronic substitutes will ever suffice.
9. Putting aside the hype, does the Internet provide a real opportunity to publishers? If so, how?
One of the main reasons that publishers like Ig can exist is because of the internet. First of all, many of our books, particularly our political books, emerge from the progressive blogosphere, where the freshest and most interesting ideas are coming from. Instead of competing with big presses for authors, which we cannot do, and other small presses, the internet has given us the opportunity to identify authors and ideas that are often overlooked. The big presses tend to ignore the blogosphere because they don't see the $ in publishing an unknown author. However, for us, a growing small press, these new and upcoming thinkers are perfect.
The internet has also provided new retail space through Amazon.com and review spaces like the LitBlog Co-op.
10. And what role can traditional, venerable institutions such as libraries and English Departments play in reversing the decline in sales of literary fiction?
Library budgets, and as a consequence library sales, have been declining for years. English Departments can support fiction by introducing new authors to new generations of readers, but that is really hard to do, as most professors are not going to sacrifice the canon to introduce new authors.
11. What projects are you working on now that you are excited about?
This coming spring, we have three strong political titles coming out.
Framing the Debate: Famous Presidential Speeches and How Progressives Can Use Them to Change the Conversation (and Win Elections) by Jeffrey Feldman, is a fascinating book that analyzes fifteen key presidential speeches from George Washington to George W. Bush in order to pull the "frame" out of the speech, and show how contemporary progressives can apply that frame to change the tenor of the political debate.
Moving A Nation to Care: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and America's Returning Troops, by Ilona Meagher is a passionate and informative call to arms to educate and hopefully inspire people to get involved in the issue of PTSD, which affects over 25% of our troops returning from and , and will be a major issue in the coming years.
Steeplejacking: How The Christian Right is Hijacking Mainstream Religion talks about the war within religion between the radical right and liberal and mainstream churches, and how agents of the right covertly infiltrate mainstream churches in order to stir dissent, with the eventual goal of taking control--or "steeplejacking"--the church.
In the fall of 2007, we have two novels we are extremely excited about. Sandrine's Letters to Tomorrow is a first novel from author Dedra Johnson, a delicate and disturbing tale of a young African American girl growing up in poverty in the 1970s . Just a great novel which deals with issue of racism, broken families and religion.
Mortarville is a second novel from Grant Bailie, whose Cloud 8 we published in 2003, and is the story of a man who is born out of a test tube, is raised with his fellow test-tube babies by a shady government agency in an underground facility, and how he escapes to the outside world, and his life thereafter.
Bio: Robert Lasner is the author of cult best-seller, For Fuck's Sake, and the publisher of Brooklyn-based Ig Publishing, which publishes literary fiction, and poltical and cultural nonfiction with a progressive slant