Jennifer Barnes of Raw Dog Screaming 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?
It's my opinion that quality art of all forms has been under attack in this country for years and the arts have taken heavy casualties. Not only literature but music, film, theater and visual arts have been affected. The entertainment industry has suffered from one corporate merger after another. But the corporate model simply doesn't work for developing talent. For instance, musicians used to have several albums to build up a following, to hone their sound, but now if the first album doesn't hit big the record company tosses the band aside. Unfortunately it's all about quarterly profits but quality art can take years, even a lifetime to develop. Also, something that is really worth creating probably isn't going to appeal to the whole mass of Americans. Constantly dumbing art down and editing it for political-correctness is almost guaranteed to reduce it to bland, unmemorable pap.
However, all is not gloom and doom! I think the forced homogeny and mediocrity of corporate projects has fomented indie ventures of all types. More people are making their own movies, starting their own publishing companies, bands are releasing their own cds. In fact, it's why we began Raw Dog Screaming Press, no one was releasing the books we wanted to buy, or supporting the authors we wanted to read, so we decided to do it ourselves. Our model is to work with the same authors, build their careers, allow them to grow and experiment as artists. We take a longer-term view and continue to promote releases for years afterwards. Each new release should hopefully bring attention to the author's previous books. Instead of aiming for one big seller we hope to release several books and get steady sales over a longer period of time.
2. And what is literature, anyway? Should the traditional novel be considered the prime example of it?
People much smarter people than me have been debating the definition of literature since before I was born and I don't know that I have much to add to the debate. Instead I'd rather throw fuel onto the fire with books like Steve Beard's Meat Puppet Cabaret which calls into question the definition of 'novel' by constructing a tale out of various distinct narratives including video game play, dream text and reality TV show. Or Steve Aylett's, And Your Point Is?, a book of critical essays on the work of fictional author Jeff Lint's fiction. I hope our releases test the limits of traditional 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 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 that literary prizes are just another tool to get the word out about a book. The more buzz that can be created about any book in our mediatized culture the better. I certainly think awards have more merit than the 'bestseller' status accorded to a book simply because it sold a certain number of copies. I mean, what if every person who bought it felt cheated and thought the book was awful. I've read more than a few really terrible 'bestsellers' in my time! I don't think it's inherent that because a book hasn't won an award it isn't worth reading. But people who rely on awards to tell them what to read probably have lost the ability to think critically. In one of our upcoming releases, Dr. Identity, D. Harlan Wilson pokes fun at the establishment by awarding his own book The Stick Figure Prize for Language & Literature. The cover has a Noble Prize style emblem on it so it will be interesting to see what kind of attention that receives. But I have, on occasion, seriously considered trying to institute an award to recognize experimental or progressive literature because there are so many excellent works out there that have been essentially overlooked due to non-existent press coverage.
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?
As I mentioned earlier I definitely think the emphasis placed on profit is at cross-purposes to producing the best, or even generally good, literature. That's exactly why the small press is thriving right now. Although we are not able to offer authors huge advances, we do our best to treat each release with respect and remember that it is a work of art into which the author has poured many hours of energy.
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?
I absolutely think that the quality of the titles being released by major publishers is suffering. I'm sure the low quality contributes to people's lack of interest in reading. Even though mass market paperbacks were always fluff the bar continues to sink lower. It used to be that if you wanted a fast and fun read you could pick up one up but these days they seem so riddled with errors and simple plot inconsistencies that instead of being hard to put down they are a trial to get through.
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'm not sure the cause but I think there is very little correlation between the quality of an author's writing and the size of their following. I'd say a writer has virtually no chance of winning an audience based on writing alone. There is simply too much competition for the attention of the audience. It may not be fair or right but these days an author needs to be a bit of showman to win a following. Publishers don't sell books, authors sell books. When people meet the author, read an interview or see a post from them online that garners more interest than any print or banner ad can. I've read PR people from the major publishers saying the same thing; if the author doesn't get involved in promoting the book stands little chance of selling.
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 have not had any dealings with agents but they seem like unnecessary middlemen. I think it's unlikely that they, as a group, are a good judge of talent and how could they know better than the publisher what the publisher is looking for? There may be certain individuals who are good scouts for talent but it's clear from the books the majors are releasing that the process is breaking down somewhere.
8. Does America have too many publishers? Or too few?
New publishers are springing up every day but they go out of business just as fast. I know from experience that starting from scratch is extremely difficult. There's a lot to learn and very little support. It seems like each publisher has to blaze their own trail. Often the quality suffers and a lot of works are released without adequate editing. What the scene needs are more mid-sized publishers with a solid track record and a clear audience. We need less huge conglomerates and less tiny upstarts.
9. In your opinion, how will new technologies such as the e-book or audio books affect the "form" of the book?
These are just new formats that can be utilized to get a text out there. We try to release most of our titles as e-books because it's just one more way to reach the customer. We've also got an exciting audio book project coming up. Author Michael Arnzen is recording audio versions of some of his stories from 100 Jolts, a book of flash fiction that we released in 2004, which garnered a lot of critical acclaim attention from readers. It's titled Audiovile. However, he's not simply reading the stories but truly performing them and adding his own music and sound effects. The result is a lot more like a narrated 'song' than a dry reading. I'm also very interested in how podcasts can be used in conjunction with published books. Still, I don't think any of these things will replace actual books.
10. Putting aside the hype, does the Internet provide a real opportunity to publishers? If so, how?
RDSP would not exist without the internet. In fact, our company grew out of an online zine that we used to run, The Dream People (www.dreampeople.org). We have since turned it over to another editor but starting online gave us the chance to meet a lot of writers and get our feet wet without a major monetary investment. The internet allows us to locate the type of reader that is interested in our titles. We're able to get a lot of free publicity through blogs and web sites such as our own, our authors and sites like this one. It even helps with production since we can upload files to our printer's web site and even place orders. And there always seem to be new ways to promote books. For instance I've been testing out book 'teasers' for some of our upcoming releases. They're similar to trailers for movies. I've uploaded them to video sites like YouTube. For an example view the teaser for Ronald Damien Malfi's novel Via Dolorosa: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LBF5reOEBeA
11. And what role can traditional, venerable institutions
such as libraries and English Departments play in reversing the decline in sales of literary fiction?
Universities and libraries can be incubators for literary fiction. We've actually had pretty good luck getting our books taught in classes. Michael A. Arnzen's 100 Jolts: Shockingly Short Stories has been used several times as a text. There are discussion questions and writing prompts available to go with the book. Harold Jaffe's 15 Serial Killers has also been featured in a paper submitted to the ALA as well as being taught in college classrooms.
Many of our authors are professors which allows them to write without worrying where their next meal will come from. Although it's not the ideal situation for a writer, being a professor offers more flexibility for writing than many jobs. Most schools are supportive of the releases and often fund trips to conferences for promotion of the books. Libraries are also a great support. We are able to do hardcover releases for many of our books because libraries are willing to pay the higher price. Being able to put out hardcovers is important since review venues take the title more seriously if it's released as a hardcover. Actively promoting small press titles to the University community is a good way to establish a steady base of sales. It's not a huge market but it's consistent. That's why we are planning on attending both the AWP(Associated Writing Programs) and the ALA (American Library Association) conferences this year.
12. What projects are you working on now that you are excited about?
Well, we've just released an expanded edition of John Edward Lawson's novel Last Burn in Hell: Director's Cut. The story contains themes about the media so this edition mimics a DVD and contains an alternate ending, stills from the 'movie', deleted scenes, a soundtrack listing and other bonus material. So far people have really responded to the concept so we may do more editions like that. We're also releasing the first novel by D. Harlan Wilson, who previously has only done short stories. It's titled Dr. Identity or Farewell to Plaquedemia and will be the first book in the Scikungfi trilogy. It's a crazy ultra-violent sci-fi adventure packed with kung-fu action and riddled with ironic commentary on our culture in general and the academic system in particular. I am also looking forward to seeing where the bizarro movement goes in the coming year. It sprung out of some blog conversations with like-minded authors and publishers last year and spawned a collection, The Bizarro Starter Kit. But I think the authors have only begun to test the limits of where such a movement could go.
Bio: Jennifer Barnes is co-founder and managing editor of Raw Dog Screaming Press. She graduated from the University of Maryland with an English degree and a concentration in Poetry and Creative Writing. She has had numerous poems and articles published both in print and online. Most recently her poetry appeared in The Greatest Chapbook Ever, A Little Poetry, Ascent, and sidereality. She is also a graphic designer with over five years of web and print design experience.