Jennifer Banash, writer, co-publisher (with Willy Blackmore) of Impetus Press:
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 narcotic subcultures such as video games? Sept. 11? Or is talk of the "death of literature" simple exaggeration?
I certainly don’t think the “death of literature” stems from TV or video games. As a publisher who is primarily interested in serious works of fiction with a decidedly pop sensibility, I’d be a fool to think that people aren’t reading simply because TV or video games exist—and I’m not going to even touch the 9/11 portion of the question . . . To me, anyway, this argument about media culture seems as reductive and pointless as arguing that Marilyn Manson’s music was responsible for the deaths at Columbine. People don’t read for a variety of reasons—but the important thing to remember is that many people still do read novels—and those are the people we try to reach. If literature is in trouble, its simply because the large conglomerates and machines that are in charge of running practically every aspect of commercial publishing have the power to dictate what gets read and why. I find that inherently dangerous—the notion that literature is being sold to the general public, largely by pandering. There’s this insane notion that everything must be dumbed down now for it to succeed, and that’s just bullshit.
2. And what is literature, anyway? Should the traditional novel be considered the prime example of it?
What is literature? I think that depends on who you ask! I don’t do well with questions that are completely subjective—what I think literature is may be totally different from the guy living down the block from me, and so on. I wouldn’t feel comfortable putting literature in a box like that, and, frankly, neither should you.
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 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 think the entire idea of slapping a sticker on a book that reads “Booker Prize” or whatever, is marketing, plain and simple. Personally, I usually shy away from any book that’s won a prize, because I feel in some psychotic way that I’m being forced to read it, as in “It won a Pulitzer! It’s got to be good!” The prizes are nothing more than a way for publishers to make more money—which is always the first priority, sadly—and for authors to feed their usually already enormous egos. That being said, I wouldn’t exactly turn the Pulitzer down if it was offered to me . . . or one of my authors J The problem is that books by independent presses rarely win those sorts of big-name prizes—and often the books indie presses put out are among the most deserving. Its all politics, at the end of the day.
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?
Art is definitely being pushed out—its one of the reason I started Impetus Press. I wanted to make a space for writers where “the bottom line” wasn’t the motivating force behind the venture. We take on books we love, and authors we care about. We help nurture their careers and their writing, and if a book isn’t commercially viable, we’ll still take it on if we believe in it. Very few publishing houses will do this anymore, and its really sad. When art is created simply to be bought and sold, artistic merit often goes right out the window.
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?
Sure, voices will be lost that way, and it’s a shame. But I’m not sure what the alternative would be. The slush pile has moved to the agent’s desk instead of the publishers, and many agents are just overwhelmed with submissions. However, that doesn’t mean I agree with the whole agenting process in general. It’s often a catch-22. I know from my own personal experience as an author, that getting an agent was like finding the Holy Grail—no one would deal with me at all until I had one. I’m sure there are many good agents out there, but that was not my experience. Having an agent didn’t give me better access to editors and the publishing world in general because everything was done through my agent—cutting me out of the process entirely. The MS only went to the editors she chose, and I had little say in the matter. Since we couldn’t agree on how the book should’ve been marketed and sold—and to whom—the book was never placed. I don’t have an agent now, and it’s a big relief.
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?
I’d say that good books always have a chance—no matter who publishes them. What kills small presses though, is that we don’t have the dollars for marketing—we can’t compete with the big guys in that respect. They’re taking out huge full-page ads in the New York Times Review of Books, and we’re taking out small ads online, and in smaller regional newspapers. But if a book is well written, I do firmly believe the word will get out. Our latest title FIRES, by Nick Antosca, is doing very well right now, and its largely through web-buzz.
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?
Are agents too powerful? Well, I think it depends on the agent! Again, the problem I have with agents is that the entire process forces the writer to take a back seat and be largely powerless—and that can be dangerous indeed. Mainstream publishing is, in general, too powerful—I don’t think you can simply point the finger at agents and hold them responsible for the whole mess.
8. Does America have too many publishers? Or too few?
Too few. Actually, too few that are staying in business long enough to really make a difference in the publishing landscape. This is a brutal business for indie presses, and most of us are hanging on by our fingernails. Change will not come from the majors, if it happens, the state of publishing will be augmented by the indies, the little guys, who slowly and quietly take over.
9. In your opinion, how will new technologies such as the e-book or audio books affect the "form" of the book?
Audio books are useful if you’re on a road trip, but it completely changes the experience of “reading.” I love the book as a tactile object—its very important to me as a publisher—the way books look, feel, and even smell. I can’t imagine I’d want to ever give up the experience of holding a book in my hand and turning the pages. E-Books terrify me for that reason—plus, they’re really hard on your eyes! Who wants to stare at a screen all day long reading a book? Not me.
10. Putting aside the hype, does the Internet provide a real opportunity to publishers? If so, how?
The Internet provides publishers with the opportunity to create a “buzz” around a particular book or author, and that is very, very useful. Communities such as Bookslut.com, or Galleycat.com really help sell books, because so many people read these sites each day. Any good publisher takes advantage of the various literary blogs—its just common sense to do so. Like it or not, we live online these days!
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 and English Department are good resources for publishers, but the actuality is that they don’t purchase nearly enough books to really make a difference. They help, sure, but the sales from these avenues are not going to save publishing single-handedly.
12. What projects are you working on right now that you're excited about?
Right now we’re working on a novel by Christian TeBordo entitled WE GO LIQUID, about a young boy who starts receiving SPAM emails from his dead mother, and a collection of short stories entitled RYAN SEACREST IS FAMOUS, by Dave Housely.
Bio: Jennifer Banash was born and raised in New York City. She graduated with a B.A. in Fine Art from Arizona State University and has worked as a copywriter, editor, waitress, television news writer, party promoter, and exotic dancer. She lives, works and writes in Iowa City, Iowa, and is a doctoral candidate in English at the University of Iowa. In August 2005, she co-founded Impetus Press with her partner, Willy Blackmore. Her first novel, Hollywoodland: An American Fairy Tale, is published by Impetus Press.