Thursday, February 08, 2007

Gavin Grant -- publisher (Small Beer)

Gavin Grant of Small Beer 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?

Don't agree with the premise so I'll go with the exaggeration. We're all going to have TV and the net wired into our brains as in innumerable science fiction novels (and M.T. Anderson's excellent Feed) so why would anyone need to read? Putting that aside, until the cable company comes to (ahem) jack me in there are so many advocates for reading, for books, books in translation, magazines in print and online, that I am somewhat sanguine about at least the near future. Some of the publishers I respect will fail (maybe including us!), some of the authors I love will stop writing or selling books. But new publishers will appear, new authors, new ways for the authors I love, to get their work out.

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

Literature is the printed version of the ever-popular narrative dream state induced by such primary sources as storytellers, poets, Hyde Park orators, (some) TV, film, and video game writers, the Interblognet, the couple fighting quietly behind you on the bus, and so forth.

The novel is a 300-year-old historical bubble that recently achieved primacy and is now suffering the popularity of the short story collection. (Or was it TV?)

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"?

Don't agree with your first sentence. No one is publishing books thinking, "This author better win a National Book Award or Impac Prize soon or I'm dropping them." Prizes can work as a short hand way to find a good book, but readers are smart and they won't buy something _just_ because of the sticker. They will buy if the book with that sticker was good last year. They'll buy if the cover is good. If the first two pages grab them. If page 53 has the word yellow in it or whatever criteria they use. I trust readers in general to cut through the crap and find good books because the readers I know are always talking about books (often ones I've never heard of).

Also: books are not a one-time choice. Today's reading choice of Ian McEwan doesn't forever exclude Ursula K. Le Guin, or vice versa.

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 really big deals for new authors dropped off after the 1990s. Sales figures are harder and harder to get around -- the ubiquitous peek Bookscan is part of the consideration of any ms now.

Publishers can afford to take some chances, but it's harder with the accountants looking over your shoulder. If a book costs ~$25,000 to do decently then it had better sell more than 1,000 copies. Finding a way to make it sell more: challenge!

Art and commerce are intertwined and nowhere does it say that art is something anyone should be paid for. The writer should ask themselves what they want to do: amuse a reader? Puzzle them? Confuse? Inspire? Having answered that question they can then consider who will be willing to pay them what amount for the job of sending that work out into the world.

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 don't take unsolicited work as we would be buried under manuscripts from writers who had not researched our press. We don't have the time for that kind of sorting. We are open to queries -- which produces a self-selected pool of work that we are happy to look at.

Unless a brilliant writer is living in complete isolation and is not submitting their work, then their work will find its way to a publisher. Editors, writers, agents, and so on are always going to conventions, bars, conferences, and talking with each other. If someone persuades them there's a fantastic new literary voice out there, there's a good chance the editor/agent/publisher will seek them out. Publishing is in the business of finding new work -- we can't get away with selling the same widgets every year -- so there's an advantage to keeping an eye out for good new work.

6. 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?

Agents seem necessary so that editors and writers can maintain happy working relationships. We're a tiny indie press so some agents ignore us, some are happy to deal with us.

7. Does America have too many publishers? Or too few?

Is there too much air? Too little?

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

I like the idea of dropping downloaded books into a book-shaped gadget with epaper where you can choose your fave font and so on. There could be standard layouts and then typographers could have a new career of designing books for individuals (as well as, not instead of, for publishers -- we'll still need books designed).

I expect nonfiction books especially to change forms with links and popups and so on. And that too would be set reader's preferences. Want your reader to scrape the text you just downloaded and link it to Wikipedia or look for links. Go for it. In the near future there's always going to be a need for the book as we know it, but if and when someone introduces epaper, the world: your oyster.

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

In the past couple of years it's provided about 5% of our sales -- this is better than it sounds as a lot of the sales are of low-price things like zines and chapbooks. Having them always available for midnight searches by fiction-hungry readers is probably invaluable. The instant action and reaction of the web is fun, so that when there's a good or bad review or an event and it's suddenly all over Blogistan. Sure, people's attention is more fractured; so is mine! -- but I still read.

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 hope that libraries continue to buy books and that English depts. keep paying for books (ebooks might be even better for the latter as there wouldn't be any returns!). I am a huge fan of libraries and still use our local library -- I can't buy (or shelve!) all the books I read in one year. The AWP conference and the CLMP magazine fairs are a great way for students to see publishing in the wider world. The English departments can sponsor readings and help keep writers in beer and bon bons.

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

Apart from my monkey face sketch book which I'm carrying around with me, we're publishing Generation Loss by Elizabeth Hand which has a nicely unsympathetic character who gets caught up in some unpleasant art- and photography-related events in Maine. John Crowley's Endless Things is the fourth of his Aegypt novels -- it is amazingly exciting to be involved in publishing that. We're publishing Laurie J. Marks's Water Logic in June -- it's an out-and-out fantasy novel that's subversive and political: completely addictive and satisfyingly smart. Last, we're publishing an anthology for the Interstitial Arts Foundation, Interfictions -- this is the first project we've done with someone else this way. We're also working with Del Rey on a book from the first ten years of our zine, Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet. The title is a bit in flux but will be something like The Best Fiction in the World (So Far). Or maybe The Best of LCRW. We'll see.

Bio: Gavin J. Grant runs Small Beer Press. With his wife, Kelly Link, he publishes a zine, Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, and co-edits the fantasy section of St. Martin's Press's The Year's Best Fantasy & Horror. With Ellen Datlow he co-hosts a monthly reading series at KGB Bar. All by himself he has written for the LA Times, BookPage, Strange Horizons, Herbivore, Monkey Bicycle, &c. He is typing this in Brisbane but generally can be found in Northampton, MA.

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