Ted Pelton of Starcherone Books:
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?
Lots of economic & cultural reasons gave rise to the novel as a popular form some 300 years ago, and lots of cultural reasons get in the way of it being an easily consumable form of entertainment today, just having to do with amounts of leisure time, different forms of entertainment and entertainment technologies being available, etc. Tough to read while listening to an iPod – and even I just got one for Christmas. Lots of other kinds of entertainment are more passively enjoyed than in Samuel Richardson’s, even Henry James’s, or even James Balwin’s day, and these can fit multi-task life-functioning better, are less demanding.
But I wouldn't go so far as to say the "death of literature." As a rejoinder, look at the enormous & growing number of creative writing programs in the US today. One might be cynical and say that this is symptomatic of our current self-obsessed time -- everyone wants to be writers but no one is reading. I think there's validity to saying that. But I also think that people feel & comprehend the deep inadequacy of being limited to only ephemeral pastimes; they want to be readers and be turned on by books, recognizing the deep satisfaction, pleasure, and wisdom to be found there. It isn't as central a part of our society as it may used to have been, but then there's also a lot more people, and if we had a publishing and establishment that was literature-friendly instead of hell-bent on blockbusters, I think we'd see literature have a bigger profile. Small presses are trying to fill in this gap.
2. And what is literature, anyway? Should the traditional novel be considered the prime example of it?
Sure, but look also at what's happened to comic books, which have arguably become MORE sophisticated in the age of the Graphic Novel, so that we have Literary comics now as well as the more typical forms, novels, poetry, etc. Definitions are troublesome, because no sooner does one come up with one than someone else comes in and says, "Yeah, but what about 'x'?" But I would say, off the cuff, that literature is an open, expanding art form that contains writing of some sort and is intended to have more value than simply being useful as entertainment; that is, it has artistic ambitions. So while the novel might generally be considered Literature, I'd say many novels published today are not Literature (i.e., they have no artistic ambitions, but simply entertain in formulaic, predictable ways), while some categories of writing that formerly were not thought of as Literature -- like the alternative comic, for instance -- might today be seen as 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 haven't really thought about the big prizes, which probably do operate in the way Cowley suggests. Then again, a prize that's honorably given for the right aesthetic reasons can be a terrific cultural instrument for good. I think of the recent Nobel Literature Prizes, including the stunningly brave awarding of it to Elfriede Jelinek the year before last. Who in the United States read Jelinek before this? Indeed, to this day, she doesn't even have an American publisher -- her brilliant, savage books, severely critical of Western capitalism and male-domination, are distributed in the US by the British publisher Serpent's Tail.
Let me also give you another view of the prize issue. The press I direct, Starcherone Books, does an annual blind-judged contest, now going into its fifth year. We do our best to make certain the contest is run completely on the up-&-up, including publishing a strict set of ethical guidelines on our website. Over the past 4 years, we have 4 times discovered debut authors as winners, whose work was terrific, couldn't get published elsewhere, and makes us proud to be in this business. A contest was the vehicle by which this occurred. So I'd at least complicate Cowley's view of the role of prizes to suggest that they are actually a means by which authors who are less privileged can compete and get into print.
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?
Oh, most definitely. But that's what makes a press like Starcherone -- or FC2, or Chaismus, or Other Voices, or 3rd Bed, or Calamari, etc. -- so important and valuable. Major publishers today are more than ever divisions of entertainment conglomerates with business concerns involved in the editorial decisions: how predictable a market does this book give us, who's going to buy it, how do we target its appeal in a marketing blitz, etc. These are not concerns of Literature.
Big houses want to run their book divisions like movies are distributed -- get them out to venues, give people a short time to "consume" them, then clear the venues for the new products. Again, this is where small presses are more in line with how literature actually works: we keep books available longer than that 3-6 month window. I'm always quoting Emerson that "one shouldn't read a book until it's at least a year old." I find that I read that way -- the books I'm reading at any one time have generally been out 1-3 years, and are still new; I wait until several people have told me to read a book, etc. That's antithetical to how the book business is set up – the celebrity deal culture. But it coincides with how small presses work, keeping their books in print indefinitely; and now, with internet venues (as well as the indy bookstores that have stayed afloat) allowing for "long tail" retailing -- extending customer choices by having many more products available, instead of making everybody consume this month's Harry Potter or Johnny Depp product -- the mainstream publishers are in trouble. Their way of doing business doesn't make sense (either economically or for readers) and needing as they do huge profits in order to stay healthy in the weird way corporate economics works these day, they are covering up their panic in glitzy press releases. That's my read, anyway.
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?
Of course it isn't a sound policy for finding the best new literary voices, but commercial publishing isn't about that. And it certainly isn't interested in good writing. Commercial publishing is about finding the best new literary PRODUCTS -- works that fit in already understood niches, are marketable in predictable, pre-established patterns, etc.
Accepting agented-only manuscripts is part of streamlining the corporate process -- outsourcing the work of finding talent. And agents present at least 2 problems, it seems to me, as arbiters of Literature: 1) they will always (except in very rare circumstances) favor books that are more commercial in orientation; 2) agents largely draw from a rather pre-selected pool, which I think is pretty much class-based: those who go to the top schools, who meet at the top clubs & prep schools, who already know the top dealmakers, etc. Literature has always been the rich person's game, but I think it's likely worse than it's ever been, in the state of affairs you describe. No wonder we have such boring, pedestrian mainstream literature these days.
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?
The deck is stacked against small presses in major ways. Follow this scenario: A major publisher has a new book. It sends out its galleys 4-6 months ahead to the major reviewers, complete with descriptions of the national publicity campaigns planned. The major review venues (Publisher's Weekly, NYT Book Review, etc.) then write the reviews of the major publishers' books, coinciding with the week the books come out in retail chains around the country.
It's a beautiful, multi-million dollar industrial ballet, with advertising, reviewing and distribution synched up all across our nation of 300 million people, via the major newspapers and book chains positioned all across the country to serve those people. Of course the small presses can't compete with that. The mainstream reviews don't review our books, because they know we're not corporate players (again, the decision to review or not review has little or nothing to do with the quality of the book); the distribution systems that ship tens of thousands of books only to see most of them returned unsold and get remaindered and pulped, within the year -- these are well-beyond the finances of small presses to compete with.
But what I've come to realize is that small presses don't have to operate in direct competition with this model. We make our books' marketing period not the three months after it comes out, but the lifetime of the book -- that is, always keeping our books in print, available, and continuously marketed. And by not competing with this corporate model, we not only help even the playing field, spreading the news by longer-extended, word-of-mouth means, author tours, ads for backlist titles, localized approaches, etc., but we also adopt a practice that's more in keeping with the way literature actually works. As a small press fiction publisher, I look at how poetry has been sold for years, with virtually no visibility in the cultural mainstream, yet selling steadily, as it were, through underground channels.
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?
I have had little direct involvement with agents. I think I operate in a different world. Generally, I think agents can help distort what literature really is. I have from time to time met agents who seem like nice people, with their hearts in the right place. But by fundamentally judging writing by the expectations of its sales potential, which it seems to me they MUST do, by the very nature of their jobs, I think they help pre-select a largely predictable, culturally received type of literature.
8. Does America have too many publishers? Or too few?
Too many publishers! Well, the mainstream book world certainly thinks so, and the corporate review establishment basically tows this line. It's always, inherently, "Are there too many small press publishers?"
Starcherone Books publishes really great books. We do an annual contest that finds terrific debut authors (not that we limit it to that, it's just how it's gone) every year. So, no, there aren't too many publishers -- there are as many publishers as there need to be, because no one is going to go through the hard work of selling in a marketplace where the odds are stacked against you, unless there's a real need. And rarely does a week go by that I don't hear about a new press starting. Maybe there really are too few... Maybe a better way to think about it might be this -- when some kids start a rock band, they don’t think so much about "are there too many rock bands," they think "I want to be in a rock band, I have some friends who'll come see us," etc. So, too, presses. Why should there be a category of "too many"?
9. In your opinion, how will new technologies such as the e-book or audio books affect the "form" of the book?
I really don't know. This has been argued about for a while -- but the changeover to electronic books has seemed very slow in actually happening, perhaps because people really like books, their tangible feel, etc. It's happened much more slowly, for instance, than technology has affected how we listen to music, for instance.
One thing that is definitely happening, and happening for the better, concerns the literary magazine world. It used to be that people would get published in these, but you'd rarely see them; they were very localized, and obscure in other parts of the country. But now, web magazines are all over the place and there's much more of a sampling of everybody's works out there -- at least among avant-garde/experimental/innovative writers.
10. Putting aside the hype, does the Internet provide a real opportunity to publishers? If so, how?
As I started to say above, now you have the opportunity to see just about anyone's writing you're interested in (short of the very established writers, whose work is everywhere already anyway), immediately, for free. Book publishers, I think, are less affected, because internet reading isn't really given to book length works. Or at least it doesn't seem yet to be. But the literary magazine has been transformed forever. Now people have magazine blogs, as well as new mags forming all the time, and linking to one another. It's actually quite exciting, if you give up the idea of making a living at it!
My friend Geoffrey Gatza has a press called BlazeVox that may also be a sign of things to come. He's done a terrific amount of work in sponsoring new literature through the internet, with virtually no money expenditure. He "publishes" books as pdf's, then if you want to get the book in tangible form, you order it online and it's assembled per order -- pure print-on-demand, through amazon.com's BookSurge, and the book quality is superb! He has the authors doing their own proofreading, and by farming out such tasks he's able to publish dozens of books. My novella, Bhang, is available through BlazeVox Books. The titles include books by some of my favorite alternative authors, Kent Johnson, Daniel Nester, Kazim Ali, etc. This is one guy, with no cash expenditure, working out of his home office, who has published about 3 dozen books! The authors themselves are then responsible for marketing, etc., besides website and email marketing.
Starcherone Books is more traditional -- we do print-runs and publish a more manageable 4 titles a year. But we started with nothing in 2000 except the name, taken from "start your own." It would have been impossible to do what we have done without the net -- we advertise there, do a lot of direct sales, communicate with our authors, other publishers, printers, etc., and otherwise make up the ground between us and the big publishers.
11. And what role can traditional, venerable institutions such as libraries and English Departments play in reversing the decline in sales of literary fiction?
English departments can spend more time studying the economics of the book industry, as this very much affects what Literature indeed is, as I've been arguing. But the more radical kinds of theoretical discourses, that should theoretically lead English departments toward buying and supporting indy lit, assigning it to classes, etc., runs up against the continued corporatization of the universities. Universities themselves get into the book business, agree to have Barnes & Nobles on campus, or outsource the campus bookstore to an online dealer -- all of which works against anything that isn't routine. Big booksellers profit big publishers, and on it goes.
Libraries generally do their parts when they have funding and they're informed about the small presses. But small press literature is somewhat akin to organic grocers -- it takes an effort and thus requires education of its customers. Lots of cities have "If everyone read the same book" programs -- when libraries and other community organizations get involved with these kinds of events, it can really raise the profile of literature. But people also have to want to do this. Maybe we are seeing Literature become a more selective pastime. I don't think this means that it will die out -- but the people who believe in it have to work to keep it a healthy part of our culture.
12. What projects are you working on now that you are excited about?
We're always working, bringing out new books. We have new books by Harold Jaffe and soon another from Raymond Federman -- authors with world-wide reputations (particularly Federman) who can't get mainstream publishers in the US because they are viewed as too "difficult," or simply now not young and glib enough for the pre-conceived American marketplace.
We've also discovered some great new writers -- Nina Shope, Aimee Parkison, Sara Greenslit, and just coming out, Joshua Harmon. People interested in finding out about our authors at http://www.starcherone.com/ .
And of course I also write. I've got three books, the most recent a novel, Malcolm & Jack, about the American underground in the 1940s. See more about me at http://www.tedpelton.com/ .