Tuesday, December 30, 2008
Monday, December 29, 2008
Note: This is the first part of a longer interview, which I shall post in weeks to come. An abridged version of it appeared at The Brooklyn Rail.
CBT: The philosophy behind the New Pamphleteer is that, where published text is concerned, shorter is better. Yet the current trend of the publishing industry seems to be an almost blind faith in the artistic and/or intellectual superiority of the Big (that is, Long) Book. Furthermore, this inclination in favour of the Big seems to be reinforced by the book reviewing apparatus, which also gives "major" works a conspicuous amount of attention.
Can pamphlet-length books really count of being judged on their content alone? Or has the fetishization of the Big Book become so entrenched that what one is fighting is not so much just a struggle for fair attention, but an ingrained prejudice?
AB: think we should take up first your premise of whether the book industry is biased toward the bigger or longer book. From a certain point of view of course it is, and for structural reasons that have to do with the emergence of large-scale corporate publishers. I’ve been twenty years a book editor at MacMillan, Simon and Schuster and Random House, and what I’ve seen arise is a true mass market for hard-cover non-fiction books. Naturally publishers and book-sellers alike make more money on a book they can charge 30 dollars for. But buyers are somewhat price conscious, and intellectual non-fiction cannot normally be published much above 26 – 27 dollars.
On the other hand, if you have a big fat biography of Teddy Roosevelt or John Adams, you find this price sensitivity is not such a great issue. So what I see is a continuing preference for books that can be published at a high price because the margins are better and the big publishers have, as you know, enormous bureaucracies and hierarchies filled with marketing, sales, publicity, financial, and legal departments. And they have to be paid for by profits from books, and book publishing is not famously a high margin business, which is why we don’t spend a lot of money on marketing and advertising.
At the same time, I would point out something I really began to notice in the early ‘90s, not long after I came into publishing, and that is what I would describe as the attempt – a struggle if you will – in which the pamphlet is struggling to return or re-emerge. I began to notice in the early’90s, really at the peak of the domestic culture war, books started to appear like Arthur Schlesinger’s Disuniting of America or Philip Howard’s Death of Common Sense. They were books about 160 – 180 pages, priced about 19, 20, 21 dollars, and they all became enormous best sellers.
Now it took me a while to realize that these books were essentially pamphlets. The reason you don’t recognize them as such is that they’re published in hardcover and priced pretty high as opposed to being published as trade paperbacks. The reason they’re not published as paperbacks is twofold. First, paperbacks have to be priced considerably lower, and so the margins are even smaller for the publisher. Also because paperback books don’t get reviewed. So if you have a polemical argument that you think is timely, as a publisher you really want it in hardcover.
Take Robert Kagan’s book about Europe and America. It grew out of an article, as many of these pamphlet-style books had done, and was published in hardcover almost instantly by Knopf and became a very big success. And here’s what I would describe as the attempt by large-scale corporate publishers to speed up their response time – to be more reactive. Because typically it takes, as you know, a couple of years for a book to be written and then another year for it to work its way through the production and marketing process.
So as the tempo of events has picked up, particularly, I would say, after the end of the Cold War in ‘89, publishers are really trying to act a little more like magazine editors. But they still have the constraints imposed by their lumbering bureaucracies and publishing processes, and so my conclusion – sorry about the length of my answer, but my conclusion is, there will always be a place in the market for the big book. This is what I term the “fat book” theory. There are some books that need to be published – that readers in fact want at length. As I sometimes say, there will always be readers who want to know how many pairs of spectacles Teddy Roosevelt had in his vest pocket when he charged up San Juan Hill. (The answer is twelve.) And that is the kind of interesting fact that, you know, you wouldn’t get that in a 150 page life of Teddy Roosevelt.
So there are always going to be people who want that. But particularly when it comes to current affairs and political controversy, people want faster interventions from the intellectual class, if you will. They want more of what I would describe as a French publishing culture, in which you have high-level intellectuals like Bernard Henri-Levy firing off a book on his summer vacation, and it’s in print a couple of months later. This is what’s necessary, because to continue my broader cultural analysis, after the end of the Cold War, clearly the West entered an ideological crisis. And then we have the outbreak of the age of terror. And so the world is changing rapidly, and the pace of change has accelerated, and people have a need for illumination and knowledge of the dark world outside their little Hobbit villages. And so they naturally turn to the intellectual and journalistic class. But they’re also demanding more substance in a shorter format, delivered faster, and book publishers are struggling to deliver this, but the industry is not suited to do it.
CBT: One of the great paradoxes of contemporary literature is that while the reading public generally has less time for reading, books that are critically lauded as major have become longer. It seems (again speaking generally) that they contain a lot of "stuff writing" -- i.e., passages that in earlier decades serious writers would have been inclined to cut. And the word count of contemporary major novels is sometimes noticeably very high.
Any comments? Has the contemporary novel become too long and self-indulgent? Or is length an irrelevant concern to the writer of vision?
AB: I like the phrase "stuff writing." It captures well the digressive tendencies bordering on self-indulgence of certain major writers -- Roth, DeLillo, Wallace, and Tom Wolfe to name a few whose books (and editors) have been criticized along these lines. However, in my view the readers of such books don't mind and may in fact prefer their novels large and all-embracing. People who do read seriously like to be fully absorbed by a book. The novel was originally meant to be a reflection of human society and a broad repository of knowledge -- look at Middlemarch, or Moby Dick, or Gravity's Rainbow. I think the taste for such books, as well as for lengthy historical novels, may be part of a healthy reaction against the constrained, minimalist, and overly 'personal' fiction of recent decades.
CBT: It's not uncommon for contemporary successful novelists to have little experience of regular, non-literary work. Is this a problem for the culture?
American writers used to come from all strata of society, from the patriciate to the working class. Now writing has become a white collar occupation, and most writers come from the affluent middle. Moreover, just as regional cultures have been dissolved in the acid of mass culture, today's writers are no longer autodidacts but products of the modern university system. After graduating from Ivy League colleges where they receive virtually the same education and acquire the same social views, they pass through professional degree-granting programs and are fed into a network of well-funded academic and nonprofit institutions that serve to further insulate them from the realities of American life. That I think explains the insular, self-referential feel of so much modern fiction, and why such writers must do "research" when they turn to topics other than themselves. On top of all this there is a natural tendency for writers to marry one another (like Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman) which tends in turn toward caste formation and dynasticism, as it has most visibly in Hollywood. Under the circumstances a general economic collapse might be the best thing that could possibly happen to American literature.
CBT: In your opinion, will the current economic crisis have a more deleterious effect on books sales than past recessions? If so, is there anything publishers can do to weather the storm?
AB: This is a grim topic for someone like me who works in the New York publishing industry. Publishers are indeed being hit hard by the collapse of consumer spending and a general contraction has begun with significant layoffs and restructuring at a number of companies. But as in other sectors, this has been coming for a long time and there is no reason publishers should be insulated from broader economic forces. Plus to a large extent they brought it on themselves, insofar as books have been priced very high and are essentially now luxury goods. This is a natural result of rising costs, combined with conglomeration and the transformation of publishing into a mass market phenomenon--all well-documented trends. Some recent commentators have predicted that books will henceforth be read by an elite coterie of esthetes and that publishing itself should go back to its pre-corporate days as a vocation for the rich. I doubt that will happen but there could be a major wave of technology-driven differentiation wherein big houses will concentrate on the mass market, competing fiercely for sure things -- i.e. bestselling authors and writers with media platforms -- while smaller houses pick up the slack, publishing the literary novels and mid-list nonfiction that are no longer cost-effective from the corporate point of view. The New Pamphleteer is part of this trend toward new-media based micropublishing, which is already well underway.
Bio: Adam Bellow is, with his partner David Bernstein, publisher of the New Pamphleteer. He is also an editor with many years experience at houses such as MacMillan, Simon and Schuster, Random House and HarperCollins. Finally, he is an author in his own right, and has written several articles as well as the book In Praise of Nepotism. He is working on a new book.
Thursday, December 18, 2008
Monday, December 08, 2008
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?
Literature is not in trouble. Film adaptations help literature, blogs spread the word of good books (both private and ones like The Guardian Unlimited,) video clips on YOU TUBE are used to promote novels, writers are seen as cool people.
The one area that is intensely dangerous is the discounting of books in the UK by the chains – the 3/2. There are only so many books a person wishes to read, so if they have bought 3, they will not buy again for another month. But I am hoping that very soon, internet buying direct from publishers web sites will replace the power of amazon, and the availability of books in shops. Ie – if you read good publishers web sites, and buy directly from them, you should never have to hunt for a book in a large chain fruitlessly again. But the chains run the danger of only being visited by people looking for a bargain, and I am afraid the blame for this lies at their doors.
2. And what is literature, anyway? Should the novel be considered the prime example of it?
Literature is anything which challenges the status quo – so Riverbend’s blogs, Baghdad Burning, published by us in two volumes, are an excellent example of good 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 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 book buyers are capable of making choices – they do not buy every prize winner. But certainly, books they would not have noticed come to their attention, and this is a good thing. Prizes are important.
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?
The art side of the business has to co exist with the business side. Neither should be ignored, and the books published to make money will be different from the ones published because an editor or publisher loved them. It is just that some books loved by an editor will not see light of day since sales just cannot be envisaged, and the publisher does not wish to lose money and disappoint the author.
Some advances are silly – they are so large. But this just does not apply to the literary independent.
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?
We have only taken one novel from the slush pile – a very good Irish writer living in Canada called Gerard Beirne. His novel, THE ESKIMO IN THE NET, sold a respectable 2000 copies. If it had got onto a good prize long list, it would have done better. So, we look at our slush pile properly, but it rarely produces the goods.
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?
There is no reason for a good small house to be squeezed out by the large publishers. With head offices at the chains taking the buying decisions, the role of the rep in the large houses has diminished. Penguin now has 10 reps, HarperCollins UK, about 12. We have 6 plus myself, which makes 7. There is hardly any difference between how our books are presented to the trade and how the lead titles from the main houses are. The only difference is that we are more often breaking new authors, since we cannot afford large advances. Ie, when we have made the name of a new author, we often lose them to a large house. BUT – the authors often come back to us, since we work harder for our authors (we have fewer front list books a year) and we achieve better sales for them, better publicity, and we tour them at the major literary festivals. We also enter them for prizes – and, please note, each house is limited to 2 or 3 entries per prize (Booker, Orange). So, any author at a large house is LESS likely to be entered than if they are published by a small house.
In the area of rights, big and small houses work closely together. The big houses acknowledge our skill at finding new talent and they often want to buy the mass market paperback rights from us. This whole system benefits everyone.
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’d love to see an agent negotiate with Waterstone’s or Borders over discounts and 3/2 promotions. That’s the area agents have no idea of. They choose to ignore it, try to raise advances and change terms, and all that happens is that the author gets let down by too high expectations coming from their agent.
8. Does Britain have too many publishers? Or too few?
Probably too many. New houses start all the time. I wish them well, but it’s a tough business.
9. In your opinion, how will new technologies such as the e-book or audio books affect the "form" of the book?
Not as much as people think. The 3D book is transportable, user friendly and lasts over time.
10. Putting aside the hype, does the Internet provide a real opportunity to publishers? If so, how?
As said before, it’s a wonderful promotional device and hopefully soon a lot of book sales will be direct from publisher’s web sites.
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 teachers will always be hugely influential on young minds. Young people hardly use public libraries as they have personal computers. So entertainment is already at the flick of a button. But parents can be influential. I bring back 4 books a month from my local library for my two teenage daughters who are as lazy as they come. But, shock horror, they run to the pile and read these books very fast. One day they will manage to walk two blocks to the library themselves…probably when they are at university and I am not there.
12. What projects are you working on now that you are excited about?
Chocolate and Zucchini by Clotilde Dusoulier May 2007
Builds on the success of recent books from blogs, including Julia and Julie by Julie Powell which won the Lulu blog award in 2006, and of course, Baghdad Burning
Probably the first cook book with international appeal for the new generation which uses the net as their networking base. High profile launch at the Institut Français with food.
“Not some wronger-than-wrong fusion cooking site, but a blog (in English) built around the twin culinary passions of its 27 year old Parisian writer, Clotilde Dusoulier: fresh, healthy eating and, as well, the magical dark stuff. It is real escapist, drool-on-your-keyboard stuff as Dusoulier drifts around Paris on a waft of sugar-scented air, stumbling across delicious delicacies.’ The Guardian
‘You can just see Audrey Tatou playing her in the movie as she traipses all over Paris, finding the bakery supply store that her mother shopped at, eating out, cooking and writing down recipes and shopping tips along with insights into French life.” Los Angeles Times
Enlightenment by Maureen Freely. March 2007
An investigative journalist returns to Istanbul, the scene of her early love affair with Sinan. She has to overcome her qualms when she is asked by his ‘honeypot’ wife to help her regain her son, taken away by the American authorities when Sinan is arrested on entry into the States.
A thriller involving a retired intelligence operative, a mysterious ‘trunk’ murder, and a group of young people involved in subterfuge, but now tackling a real crisis, Maureen Freely’s novel shows how in Turkey nobody is who they are and everyone is suspect.
Maureen Freely writes widely for several newspapers, and is a respected authority on the current situation in Turkey. She is a controversial writer who is not afraid to criticise the Turkey she loves.
Touba and the Meaning of Light by Shahrnush Parsipur
An epic and challenging novel about one woman’s lifetime covering eight decades of Iranian history
Winner of a PEN WRITERS IN TRANSLATION AWARD 2007.
Banned books are a major draw, and one of the broadsheets is running a promotion so reviews guaranteed. Tour highlighting other banned and prosecuted authors on our list, Elif Shafak, Hong Ying and Hubert Selby Jr.
‘Parsipur…endured jail and torture to preserve her sense of dignity and integrity, and as a writer and innovator… Her protagonists are women whose rebellions are not merely political but existential.’ Azar Nafisi, author of Reading Lolita in Tehran
‘Initially published in Iran in 1989, this ground-breaking novel – which juxtaposes reality and mysticism, becoming especially fantastical toward the book’s conclusion – was quickly banned by the Islamic Republic.’ Publisher’s Weekly (starred review)A new novel by an author who left us and has come back (still confidential but highly commercial)
Statement: Firstly, Marion Boyars was my mother who died in 1999 so she will not be answering any questions. The eminent back list, with the novels of Hubert Selby Jr, the UK rights for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey, the works on John Cage, Heinrich Boll and Georges Bataille, these are all her work. Our recent publication of novels by Hong Ying, Elif Shafak, and the Iraqi blogs by Riverbend, Baghdad Burning – all of which have attained world wide fame, are my work. So, it’s a kind of combination of both of us.