Fred Ramey of Unbridled Books:
[note: this interview first appeared Dec. 10/06]
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?
Speaking here of fiction publishing only, there is little doubt that the events of September 11 changed the equations. At first, it appeared that serious work in literature would return to a more prominent place as Americans looked for meaning. And I think that, aside from their obvious literary value, the critical attention such works as Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America and Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead , among other books, received when we were finally getting back on our feet may owe something to a desire in the American reader to read that which explains who we are, a desire that has risen in the political air since 9/11. This is the same desire, I think, that has moved nonfiction titles about the Founders and about the Revolutionary War and World War II onto the best-seller lists.
But September 11 had another effect on literary publishing: It increased the corporate drive toward fiscal caution in the publishing of fiction. This led to an increased focus on the fiction that appears most nearly a sure thing and ultimately resulted in the sense now that at any given moment everyone is reading the same novel. (I think the one-city/one-book programs are furthering this.) Book sales overall have not dropped as dramatically as your question implies, but fewer books seem to reach the readers’ consciousness now and literary fiction has taken a hit in that process.
This may have begun with the caution 9/11 introduced, but that caution itself seems to me the real source. If everyone is reading the same book, newspapers see less need to review books, a handful of books in the big-box stores will cover the reading habits of their customers who don’t now frequent bookstores, the reality of fewer book-only retail outlets make it easier to keep the readers’ attention focused on a manageable inventory of an artificially finite number of titles, etc. The cause of the decline in literary book sales is complex (though it is not untraceable).
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 pushed out?
The art side of the business is being cornered perhaps, but it’s not because of the Deal. Certainly the two-book deal that Spiegel & Grau made for Sara Gruen’s next works would indicate that the Big-Deal thinking you refer to is still operational. But high-profile, high-dollar deals seem to me far less frequently reported these days. What is shadowing the art of literature seems, rather, to be a combination of the corporate need for a sure thing and the instant availability of sales numbers. Of course booksellers have always been able to access their own sales records and to know how an author’s previous book has sold. And they’ve always used that information to guide their buys. But now a chain fiction buyer can instantly tell how many copies of an author’s first book sold through hundreds of stores, and acquiring editors can get a pretty good look at the author’s sales record even if they weren’t the publisher for the earlier titles.
As a result of this, an author’s second novel might be under-stocked in the chains — that is, IF he or she is able to sell that second book to a publisher in the first place. This makes it far more difficult for authors to develop across long careers, to gain an expectant readership while developing their art, to expand their literary reach. I consider this use of numbers as though they were predictive a real threat to American literature. We all know that sales records of past books do not indicate what an author’s next will sell — unless that next book is not acquired or is under-stocked to make the prediction self-fulfilling.
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?
There is a chance, of course, that an unagented book could be good. But, first, there is a sea of independent presses to handle that and, second, this big-house policy has allowed to develop an editorial role for agents — which the large publishers apparently need.
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?
I think my preceding answers probably imply the answer to this one.
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?
Once we did battle with agents. We no longer do much of that. The changes we’ve been discussing here that have arisen from the caution of the larger houses and the focusing of readers upon a smaller number of titles at any given moment have changed that relationship for the kinds of books we handle. (As an aside here, we had to delay publication of one of our books in 2006 for two weeks because of how much print capacity the latest Harry Potter took up that month. This indicates the world agents now work in, too.)
Now, agents know that while the smaller houses may not be able to put much money down for advances, they will take good care of the authors and their books, give the books a chance, invest in them and the authors over a longer period of time. In this context, the remaining problem for independents seems to be the agents’ inability to resist the big-house offer once an independent publisher has succeeded with an author’s first or second or third book. That can at times be dangerous to the author’s career, but it isn’t always. I suppose it’s just part of the small-press reality.
7. Does America have too many publishers? Or too few?
The marketplace dictates that. If one new publisher survives over the long haul, I suppose there aren’t too many. A better question is whether collectively we publish too many books. Where are we now? 175,000 titles a year? If we publishers focused on what is good, would more people be able to find what they like and thereby read more books on their own rather than waiting for a single book to be anointed by this taste maker or that one?
8. In your opinion, how will new technologies such as the e-book or audio books affect the "form" of the book?
It is my opinion that, while new technologies will certainly — but only eventually — change the delivery of the text, the answers to the issues that face publishing are not technological. Again, I’m speaking here only as a publisher of quality fiction and speaking only about fiction. People need narrative.
For a long while yet, I imagine, the artifact of the book will be necessary to those people who read narrative rather than get it only through media — including audio books. And I don’t think that users of audiobooks are the same market as users of e-book devices (though I have no empirical evidence for that). It seems to me that the wrong term is in quotation marks in your question: it’s “book” that will eventually be antiquated. Those publishers who can convert their practices as the “book” itself converts will survive — we all assume this, but none of us knows what that conversion will be or how quickly it will happen. This is because the people who are developing the technologies are not the publishers. What other industry runs that way? What other industry yields R&D up to outsiders?
9. Putting aside the hype, does the Internet provide a real opportunity to publishers? If so, how?
The practical uses it offers in the editing and production of books aside, in the current reality, the Internet is a tremendous tool for publishers to reach those readers who want something besides the designated book of the season. This will become even more the case so long as review inches are shrinking in the print media (which I fear will be right to their complete disappearance). And as the influence of the literary bloggers grows — as I think it will once they convince those readers who are not bloggers that the blogs are the source of information about What to Read — that is, once readers recognize that bloggers have an authority that the reader reviews on Amazon do not — then the Internet will be an even more powerful tool for publishers. Of course at the same time as all of this is occurring, the Internet is becoming a more valuable tool for readers and authors. Whether this will ultimately result in its replacing publishers is something we all wish we knew.
10. And what role can traditional, venerable institutions such as libraries and English Departments play in reversing the decline in sales of literary fiction?
I think this is asking the same institutions that are threatened by the forces of change to resist these developments in the same way that publishers are resisting them. And I don’t think that will work. Libraries are already something other than wholly “book” oriented. They’ve already redefined themselves. And if American literature must move onto the Internet to survive, literature programs at the university level won’t have much to do with the continued existence of publishing. (Whether a book sells or not has never been a concern of the Academy.) Certainly it would be fascinating for English Departments to turn their attention from underscoring the literary canon to fostering an ongoing national literature. I suppose it could happen. But it would endanger the canon, and it would be a burdensome addition to the curriculum in Departments that have suffered decreasing numbers of majors for decades.
11. What projects are you working on now that you are excited about?
Each season we have titles that invigorate us, and the 2007 Spring season is no different. We promise our readers a good reading experience and I think Andrea Portes’s courageous debut, Hick, and Timothy Schaffert’s charmingly human Devils in the Sugar Shop both will do that. M. Allen Cunningham also returns with the lyrical Lost Son, a gorgeous novel on the life of Rilke. And Elise Blackwell’s eloquent The Unnatural History of Cypress Parish is an evocative story about the 1927 flooding of New Orleans that rewards the reader line by line. We’re also proud of the books in our current season: beautifully wrought novels by William J. Cobb (Goodnight, Texas), Carolyn Turgeon (Rain Village), and Lise Haines (small acts of sex and electricity), Marc Estrin’s provocative and outrageous Golem Song, and the delicate second memoir of Mireille Marokvia — Sins of the Innocent.
But what I’m immersed in now is Marc’s next project, an annotated edition of a dishonest novel by William Hundwasser. It’s called The Annotated Nose and, I think, exists in the narrative tradition of Nabokov. My task as editor is to make the physical artifacts of the original novel, the annotations by “its subject, Alexei Pigov”, and Estrin’s editorial notes all chime together in what is a singular, playful, and again outrageous reading experience. This will be the fourth Estrin book to be published, with three more in the works. He’s an absolutely brilliant author I hold onto and hope I don’t get tossed off in the ride.
12. Unbridled Books is a literary publishing house that places a lot of emphasis on audio versions of books. Given the recent release of electronic book platforms such as the Sony Reader, how do you think audio books will combine with a technology such as this? In other words, do you foresee the audio book and electronic book as merging?
Thanks for noticing. We’re currently producing a series of interviews by Kay Callison under the collective name of Unbridled Aloud. We think that Kay — the formidable force behind the American Audio Prose Library — is one of the most perceptive readers and insightful literary interviewers at work today. And her interviews with our authors have revealed aspects of the works that I was unaware of even when I was the editor. All of these productions are available for free both as podcasts and as audio cds. In addition, we have a complete version of Estrin’s Golem Song read by the author, which we serialized on our website, and we’re hoping to produce more author-read, unabridged recordings of our books.
But your question gets back to the value of the Internet to publishers in the current reality. Literary titles have never been widely available as audiobooks — this may be because of an actual separation between of the audiobook market from the traditional reading market, but it may, instead, be the cause of that separation. I don’t know. But now that we can use our website to deliver audio versions of quality fiction, especially in the downloadable form of the podcast, we have an opportunity to see whether readers of literary fiction commute to work.
But I want to get back to the assertion that addressing the issues publishers now face is not identical with the need to focus on technology. The issues seem to me, instead, to be behavioral. The leisurely pace of reading (whether on a paper page or on some imaginable, eye-friendly screen) is an essential part of the experience of written narrative. Heard narrative is not paced by the reader. I know that sounds quaintly McLuhanesque, but it remains true. Audio versions of narrative are received. Written versions are taken. So, whatever happens in the delivery of literature, it’s hard to imagine the ipod replacing the book. Something else will, I suppose, but, no, I don’t think that the audiobook market and the e-book market will merge.
Bio: Fred Ramey is Co-Publisher with Greg Michalson of Unbridled Books, a decentralized publisher of quality fiction and narrative nonfiction. Known for debuting literary talent, Unbridled’s books make frequent appearances on the Book Sense lists and in the Discover program at Barnes & Noble. Ramey and Michalson have been publishing together since 1992 when they opened the fiction line at MacMurray & Beck. Among many other award-winning writers, they have handled the debut novels of Susan Vreeland, William Gay, Steve Yarbrough, Patricia Henley, Nancy Zafris, Rick Collignon, and Frederick Reuss. Take a look at www.unbridledbooks.com .