CBT: When I started this interview series it was already clear that publishing --
especially of literary fiction -- was in dire straits. At that time, one
explanation that was fashionable was 9/11 was the reason people weren't reading
as much literature (or as much anything) as they used to. Now we are living in a
time when the long-term repercussions of 9/11 are still with us. But using 9/11
as a primary explanation for what ails literary publishing simply doesn't work.
For one thing, we are now in the midst of a particularly serious recession, and
for another, it is clear the general decline in reading is a widespread -- and
possibly unstoppable -- phenomenon that has roots which go back decades.
What is your take on the current depressed state of literary publishing? Is it
a passing phase? Or is it an intractable problem -- in other words, it is the
new normal? And if the latter, what can be done to counteract it?
KK: I'm actually quite enthusiastic about the prospects for books, if not the publishing business as we know it. If you look at it from the outside, the way publishing works is quite unsustainable, from the way they sell books to the fact that they admittedly don't have a clue how to determine what books will become big sellers. That being said, lots of books are being written and lots of books are being published. And there are a lot of smart people out in litland thinking of ways to get books and readers together -- from continuing to publish novels to thinking beyond the book.
There are always a lot of scare stories about the loss of young readers -- omigod! they don't read when they're in high school, when they're in college, when they're new graduates -- but think about it. Those years that people seemingly don't read are the very same years when they are immersed first in educational reading (it's just awful that we've turned reading into a solely academic exercise; way back when I was a kid, we actually had time to read for pleasure while in the classroom) and then establishing themselves in first careers. Not to mention, there are a lot of wild oats being sown. The readers of those groups come back to books later.
Not everyone is a reader, not like I'm a reader. We forget that. I remind people that I know people who only "read" audiobooks. It's a time thing for some, it's a personal preference for others. Some people are slow readers, some people only read one author (I have a sibling who is this fussy...and her mother's a librarian!), some like only fiction published in hardcover (yep, I have a friend who won't read paperback), some only read biographies. Before we worry about the loss of readers, we need to take stock of what reading means.
I think if we go back through reading history, we'll see the same sad stories. Think about it. When did this nation, this world, reach widespread literacy? How many people had the luxury of sitting around reading all day? Had the money to spend on lighting (candles, for example) to illuminate pages of books after a long day of work. We have a romantic notion of reading. I like it personally because it suits me; I'm not sure it reflects reality.
Literary publishing -- if we define it as novels considered "literary" -- is a small genre in a big publishing field. Genre fiction is and has always been (in my opinion) a more widely read category. Even so, far too many books are published every year. It's impossible to keep up. It might not be a bad thing to let readers catch their breath and it might not be a bad thing for the business to publish in a way that minimizes returns while maximizing exposure of readers to books.
CBT: How much potential do you think the Internet has as a vehicle of publishing?
It's clear that there is a place for online criticism; the lit-blogosphere is
dominated by it. The blogger Dan Green has even coined a phrase for this form of
critical writing: the crit-blogosphere. But the crit-blogosphere's logical
partner -- the fic-blogosphere -- is marginalized. Not many people read short
stories or novels online.
Will the Internet really become the medium in which serious people both publish
and read fiction? Or is this a technological pipe-dream, and is it more a
question of using the Internet as an effective means to sell and distribute
KK: The Internet is *already* a medium in which serious people both publish and read fiction. I don't think the online environment lends itself to long-form reading, per se, but that doesn't mean it isn't being done. I'm sure it is, just not by me (which is not to say I haven't, nor is it to say that I don't read Very Long Stuff online).
We like to confine our vision of books to "books", those booky things. But when we expand our vision of books to "story", then we have a future. Books are new to us as a species. Story, however, has captivated us since the first campfire. What we want as humans -- I truly believe -- is great story, interesting story, story that takes us outside our ordinary worlds (be it silly story, fluffy story, gory story) for a time. How story gets to us is a matter of personal preference coupled with the format the artist chooses. The Internet, if we bookish people allow it, provides us a chance to expand our stories into different modes of telling.
CBT: It is arguable the Internet isn't effective as a medium for publishing long
works of fiction because very few people can stand looking at regular screens
for the necessary length of time. But e-ink provides a solution to this. It
eliminates eye strain.
How much potential do you think e-ink and e-book technologies have? Do you see
e-books catching on with the public? And do they provide a reasonable business
KK: I own a Kindle and iPhone (I also owned a Rocket eBook, way back when), and both are great for reading. For various reasons, I prefer long-form reading on my Kindle, though if the iPhone screen were just a little bigger... I have never been convinced that the world is clamoring for a dedicated e-reading device. We already carry too much stuff around with us on a daily basis. If I could pare down my accessories (laptop, phone, Kindle, real life stuff), I would jump for joy.
When I take my Kindle out, I get a lot of questions, a lot of interest. I'm most surprised by the level of awareness among ordinary people (people who aren't part of our relatively small online lit community). The flight attendant on my London plane said, "Oh, you have one of those, too. I'm thinking of getting one." A guy at the nail salon (my nail salon seems to get a lot of male customers) said, "I've heard about those." When I was shopping, I passed by a woman sitting in a courtyard, reading her Kindle. Had I not been late, I would have approached her. Consumers are very interested in e-readers. Right now, price is a deterrent, availability is a deterrent, and I think for a lot of heavy readers, it's going to take some hand-selling to convince them that this is a "real" book.
Personally, if there were a way to get e-readers into the hands of more college/high school kids, I think the market would explode. Not only would have a native audience going into adulthood, but their parents and parents' friends would get a chance to interact with the device. Further down the road, these devices must have color/high resolution to really be of benefit. Right now, they really only work for text-based items (books, newspapers). Add in other types of publications, and you have the makings of robust market!
CBT: In the past few years, articles and blog posts (for example, at LitKicks)
have appeared criticizing the pricing of books. Are books too expensive? Has
this been a factor in reducing the size of the book-buying audience over the
last twenty or so years?
KK: Wow, touchy subject. Let me put it this way: for the holidays, I purchased three copies of the same (hardcover) book. One for me, two for friends. This book, this format had a lot of value to me. But the automatic printing of "literary" fiction as hardcover, I think, really limits the potential for the book. Once you get into the $20 range for a new author, particularly, a lot of readers hesitate. It's a risk, and while twenty-plus dollars doesn't seem like that much money for some, for others, it's a good chunk of change (or two to three other books). I feel cheated when I shell out that kind of money -- not to mention time -- on a book that is "meh." So prices absolutely depress sales.
I know a lot of readers who, for financial or personal reasons, will skip the hardcover release and wait for the paperback (some for trade, some for mass market). If I were a publisher, I'd worry about this. So much can happen in that year between releases, not the least of which is negative word-of-mouth. You peel off readers right off the bat. Then readers forget -- sure some people keep detailed book shopping lists. They're the exception. And, of course, there are soooo many books, so little time. It makes no sense to me that publishers would willingly shave off so much potential audience.
I see the next question also relates to this, so one more thought: the value publishers place on their product is not necessarily the value readers/consumers place on this product. I read really fast, and spending hardcover prices would bankrupt me (not literally). I'm lucky that books don't compete with other necessities in my budget -- let's consider for a moment that the biggest consumers of fiction are women. You can safely assume that a good number of those women have families, kids, houses, pets. With those expenses, suddenly the seeming bargain of $25 dollars isn't such a good deal. These readers wait, borrow, or buy used.
I often think it would help if NY publishers spent a little ore time speaking to real, book-buying customers.
CBT: Staying with the same theme. Literary novels were once publishing in
hardcover and then, several months later (and a spot on the best-seller lists
willing), they were available as affordable pocket-sized paperbacks. However, in
the 1980s this practice ceased and literary paperbacks started being published
in North America as pricier trade paperbacks. Only genre fiction retained the
pocket-book form. In retrospect, was this a prudent decision by publishers of
literary fiction? Or should the literary pocket-book make a return?
KK: Bring back the literary mass market! For the reasons I cited above. Let's be honest: publishers don't go to trade or hardcover for prestige reasons -- though those do factor in to a certain degree; trade is seen as more "literary" than mass market -- these are business decisions, and business decisions often involve dollars and cents. So my question back at the publishers is this: have you ever done a serious study to quantify the sales you've lost due to the decision to release these books in more expensive formats? Not just due to price, but due to loss of consumer awareness. Think about it: if your marketing push comes at the expensive price point, how do you recapture those interested readers who stayed on the sidelines until the net price point down?
CBT: Agents now have enormous power, effectively controlling which writers get
access to acquisition editors at major houses. Furthermore, agents find
themselves under enormous pressure, acting as the line of first readers who have
to sift through avalanches of submissions. Is this tenable over the long run? Is
it good for art? Or should large houses be accepting both agented and
KK: There are always ways past the gatekeepers: conference meetings, chance run-ins. If you pay attention, you can get past the agent gauntlet. Of course, agents -- and I'm convinced that it's sometimes harder to get an agent than to be published -- do a lot more than match authors and editors. These editorial relationships are like gold, of course, so let's start there. A good agent will know the right editors for your work. Sure, you can hit the slush pile and hope the right person for your story picks it up; a good agent knows the editorial map. They know who likes snarky voices, who loves dark, angsty stuff, who is looking for new authors.
Your agent also helps negotiate the best possible deal for you. I've been working with royalty-type accounting (Participations, actually, which makes standard royalties look like child's play!) for most of my professional career. I know these contracts, these clauses, these calculations like I know my cat. I know what I want in a deal, what I can give. Most importantly, I know I am the worst possible advocate on my behalf. I am a marshmallow. I am a wimp. I want an agent out there fighting on my behalf. It's worth every cent of that commission, in my opinion.
That's the author perspective. From the publisher perspective, I'll go for diplomacy. Not everyone who can write a book, should write a book. And most authors really don't have a good perspective on their talent, their story. While there are gems out there, it takes a lot of time and effort to find them. I'm not sure I'd like to be the author read after a particularly bad example from the slush pile. And given the amount of work placed on the shoulders of acquisition editors, you can molder in that slush pile for a long time. It never seems to get smaller.
CBT: Literary prizes have also grown in power. They have arguably replaced the
glowing review as a marketing tool. But are they as effective as criticism in
building a contemporary canon? After all, critics can express nuance, prizes
can't. Do book prizes give the message: this books is worth reading and all
these others aren't?
KK: Have they really grown in power? I'm not sure there is as much general consumer/reader awareness as the press coverage/litblog coverage suggests. Certainly some prizes have a cachet, but overall and generally? Not quite convinced. If you don't know anything about the award, can it really influence you? What amazes me is that the only real imprimatur of excellence is Oprah Winfrey. How is that one talk show host carries more weight with the reading public than all the critics and prizes in the world?
The answer to that is quite simple: people trust Oprah. They've developed a relationship with her. They believe she will steer them right. Most critics don't have that kind of relationship with readers -- why should I trust Jane Doe writing for the New York Times Book Review? Does she have an agenda? Does she know the editors? Do the editors know she'll write the review they can't, for political reasons perhaps?
Literary criticism is a different animal than a review, though they do sometimes seem interchangeable. You need, in my opinion, to be familiar with a work to appreciate critical analysis of it. A review should help you decide whether or not to pick up that book.
CBT: Thinking of your own site, what sorts of changes do you foresee in it? Are
blogs destined to become the new magazines? Will you start using a format (and
possibly working with partners) in a magazine-type way? Or is blogging as it's
currently defined how you want to keep posting work on the Net?
KK: I am, I think, a natural blogger. I work well in a long essay format (though I have been known to be pithy when forced!). I am not in a position to market myself far and wide as a freelancer, nor am I as interested as I should be in writing what someone else wants me to write.
That being said, I'm always thinking ahead. I've changed the blog, the voice, the focus over time. I'd bore myself and my readers if I didn't. I am a bit in love with new ways to publish online. I see blogging tools as personal content managements systems, some being capable of doing so much more than publish entries in date order. I'm always exploring new ways to expand this, but that time thing seems to be a limiter. As this current project winds down, I plan to devote more time to new ideas. The magazine thing is a format I keep in mind, though, obviously, one designed for the web world, not print world.
Bio: Kassia is a founding partner of Medialoper, where she applies her natural love and skepticism to the ever-changing world of entertainment media. The daughter of a librarian, she finds dissecting and discussing books is like breathing — her insightful reviews appear at Paperback Reader. She was a member of the now-defunct LitBlog Co-op and is a columnist for Romancing the Blog. She’s also published in a variety of other venues, and has, shockingly, received awards and accolades for her work. But she rarely mentions this as it seems like bragging.