Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Rolf Maurer -- publisher, New Star Books

Rolf Maurer of New Star 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 narcotic subcultures such as video games? Sept. 11? Or is talk of the "death of literature" simple exaggeration?

The people who tell us that literature is in trouble are probably the same people telling us that there are too many books. These are the same people who, whatever era they happen to live in, long for the "death of literature".

I've noticed a funny thing. For the last five-plus years now, we've been hearing about how the trade book industry is in the doldrums, negligible growth, mediocre-to-poor profitability, "death of literature", people have stopped reading, blah blah blah. Then I have lunch with my printer. To hear him talk, things have never been better: new bindery lines, new plants, best year ever, etc. Where are all these books going? Probably where they've always gone, except not through traditional trade channels, which is what the doom-and-gloomsters are going by. What's in trouble is the traditional book trade way of doing things. As near as I can tell, people are eating up books as much as they ever have.

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

The definition seems to be: anything that you read in a book or a fat magazine, that is meant to entertain/pass the time, scare, annoy, puzzle, thrill, or have practically any not-strictly-for-educational-purposes application, and which will probably end up being read by only by a tiny fraction of the population. The novel has been the prime example of it, absolutely: the novel form was invented to meet the needs of mass commercial literature. Contrary to what the blow-hards tell us, it does not correspond to any essential human quality, and narrative is not a naturally occurring substance.

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"?

For the most part bowling trophies for writing have always been marketing moves, made by people who are troubled that literature isn't compulsory in society and needs to be promoted, like milk, or sexual abstinence. It's nice to win one, but it doesn't mean every citizen is suddenly going to rush out and buy the book --- the obligatory congratulatory ads, &c., easily overwhelms the profit margin from the sales burst --- and looking at any old lists of prize winners and runners-up can be embarrassing. The cheque the writer gets is the best part. If we really cared this much about writers and what they do, surely there would be better ways of helping them pay their bills than the literary prize lottery.

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?

Nothing's changed there. Publishing has always been run as a business, and this has been especially true since some time after the beginning of the 20th century, when the real costs of publishing declined to a point where gentleman-millionaires could run a small literary press out of their trust allowance. A money-losing business often, but a business.

People make the mistake of thinking that, because publishing in general is unprofitable, the people who are running the companies must be monkeys. It's likely that as print became cheaper and the cost of publishing came down, that is to say entry barriers to the publishing business were lowered, at the same time that considerable social prestige continued to be attached to books, meant a crowded and highly competitive industry. That's the reason publishing profits have declined.

The changes we're seeing in book publishing today are part of the same phenomenon we first saw in the 1960s, when companies that normally made fighter-jet guidance systems starting buying venerable publishing houses. Big business isn't monolithic. Until the present era the book trade was dominated by manufacturers: people whose business it was to make book-shaped widgets. And their interest in finance was more or less limited to the question of how much of it they needed to get their hands on paper, ink, presses, and talent.

Along came the finance sector: the only things these guys ever make is money. Baby formula, land mines: it's all the same to them. They were attracted to book publishing because of the *low* profit margins: they made the sector vulnerable. Whatever meagre profits the industry generated, it would flow to the banks, in the form of interest. And so we saw the consolidation of the big end of publishing in the 1970s and 1980s --- without there being any decrease in the number of new publishers --- and the rise of the bookstore chains, and the Ingram stranglehold.

And still, there's no letup in the number of new presses, and new writers, and new forms of literature.

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?

The best writers often, but not reliably or predictably, end up --- or pass mid-career --- with the biggest publishers, but they almost never come from there.

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 distribution/retail marketing squeeze is part of the manufacturing--finance shift within the book industry that I was talking about just now. I presume that for the big boys, the centralization of book production, distribution and retail is bringing about some sort of "efficiencies", which probably means nothing more than the ability to externalize costs and squeeze out a little more profit. For the rest of us --- smaller publishers, smaller booksellers --- everything is mysteriously *less* efficient, particularly when you measure it in terms of $$. That's because the system isn't organized around the needs of publishers, writers, booksellers: it's organized around the needs of the finance sector. And it sure ain't working for the Happy Few who wander into bookstores --- to get back to something else I was just going on about, the book trade's statistical droop. Bookselling, the way it's set up at the moment, isn't doing a very good job of letting readers know what's really being written and published these days. It's making literature seem duller and dumber than it is.

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?

Once you look at publishing primarily as a way of extracting the maximum amount of profit out of a capital investment, agents are as inevitable and necessary as lawyers, accountants, MBAs, and writers.

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

To state your question another way: Is it a good thing that almost any smallish group in society can fire up a publishing company, or is this a bad thing?

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

Depends on what you mean by "book". It's possible that another form will supersede the codex, the way that the codex superseded scrolls and tablets. I'm not convinced that a few ounces of plastic wrapped around a board coated with micro-thin, biodegradable circuitry, running a software program written by some American video gamer who thinks 7-Up is a vegetable because it comes in green cans, is a good bet to render the book form obsolete, no matter how good the screen displays ever get. Nevertheless, those folks will keep on trying to get rid of books.

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

Like everybody else, we're all trying to figure this thing out --- what it means to us as humans, as publishers, as readers. So far it's had less direct impact on what I do as a publisher than I was lead to believe. We still do the same thing here, albeit we do a lot of things, all in-between-the-writing-and-the-reading, differently and sometimes more cumbersomely.

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

I don't accept that there's a decline in sales of literary fiction. Maybe the problem is with the definition of "literary fiction". Could it be that the readers' definition of this is different from that of the libraries and English Departments? They are after all institutions, and as such it's their job to lag behind on these things. Publishers aren't always much quicker on the uptake.

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

A few things. Our book on Wreck Beach is about to come out; I'm excited about that, not just because it's got some nudity and is therefore likely to sell, but because I get to put a little bit of the world that I care about out there. Also, an amazing book of concrete poems by Donato Mancini, a mad scientist. And a big book, a mega-project by our standards, that's coming out next year, about Frank Zappa's music.

bio: Failed journalist Rolf Maurer is now a ridiculous publisher. He has worked at New Star Books since 1981, and been the proprietor since 1990.

1 comment:

  1. Well, Finn, I surely would like to see this abundance of books result in more book design and layout work for a freelance book designer and page compositor like myself. Last year, I was surprised at how very busy I was. It lasted through about may of this year and now I'm in a drought.

    Do you hear from any design and production types? Any idea what's going on in this realm?

    I'd like to invite you to have a look at my blog—I'm told it's not a bad read. Perhaps we could exchange links.

    Stephen Tiano
    Book Designer, Page Compositor & Layout Artist