21 September 2012
Following is from Sue Halpern, editor of NYRB’s new ebook series. I am actually breathing a sigh of relief. The anxiety of being one these writers “whose first books had been critical successes [but] were unable to find publishers for their second” hovers; but it’s going to be okay. NYRB is publishing these writers, whose books are “loved” by editors who can’t publish them.
A few years ago, around the time I was writing a piece for The New York Review of Booksabout digital reading devices, I ran into a novelist who mentioned that many of his friends whose first books had been critical successes were unable to find publishers for their second. The economics of traditional publishing, he pointed out, did not favor non-commercial books, and when you added in the threat that digital technology posed to bookstores, the end result would be an ever-shrinking market for serious literary books.
The Water Theatre
by Lindsay Clarke
As a writer myself—my sixth book will be published next spring—I was sensitive to the novelist’s lament. I love books—not just their words, but their feel and smell and look; cracking the spine of a paperback is one of life’s great guilty pleasures. But to my surprise, I was finding in my hands-on research for The New York Review that a good story transcends its medium: I could get just as lost in an e-book as I could in a book bound between hard covers. By using the less-expensive e-book platform to introduce readers to writers they would not otherwise encounter, the digital “revolution,” as it was being called, could be harnessed to promote literary culture rather than undermine it.
What better place to launch this venture than New York Review Books, which was already leading discerning readers to great and often forgotten classics of literature? But unlike the NYRB Classics series, these books would be by contemporary authors, writers of depth and insight whose work was being bypassed by traditional American publishing because the economics did not favor them. If any audience would be receptive, I reasoned, it would be the adventurous NYRB crowd.
Sometime later I was sitting in the office of an editor at one of the Big Six publishing houses, a man of exquisite literary taste who had been in the business a long time, explaining the premise of this new venture, which we had named NYRB Lit. I was nervous—did he think it was nutty or misdirected or a waste of time? He turned away for a moment and reached for a pile of papers on his desk. “I love this book,” he said handing it to me, “but we are not going to be able to publish it here.” That word, “love,” is what animates how I want each book to come to me. I am looking for books that someone—an editor, an agent, a writer, a reader—is passionate about, a book that he or she believes must be read.
The Water Theatre, the book that was given to me that day, is now the inaugural book in the NYRB Lit series. Written by Lindsay Clarke…
This is kind of the best news I’ve heard in a while.
21 April 2012
A lot’s been happening in the publishing world, it seems — with the DOJ going after Apple and the corporate conglomerates over e-book price points and whatnot. It occurs to me that I am really in denial — and out of touch — when I start to feel frustrated that no one ever speaks to how e-book pricing affects authors. The author’s voice or stake in this is, apparently, so WAY off the radar. The cost of a book once seemed to mean something for whether an author got paid; now it’s more a matter of whether corporate publishers can stay in business, keep from laying off half their employees, etc.
Case in point: this week’s “On the Media” program at NPR is called, “Publishing: Adapt or Die.” I was pretty blue after listening to it. It actually poked holes in my sense of purpose re: finishing my second novel. It wasn’t because of the money issue, but more the readership issue, the declaration that “no one reads literary fiction” anymore.
I started this blog in 2009, a year before my (first) book came out. A lot happens in three years; publishing years are like dog years these days. I was reminded of how much has changed when I co-moderated a panel at Columbia last week on “Current Landscapes in Publishing.” One of the questions I asked was whether the panelists felt optimistic or troubled by what’s happening in their corner of the publishing world, and every one of them was optimistic, excited, energized, etc. Five out of the six were writers themselves in addition to being editors; the publications/organizations with which they were involved ranged from mainstream/corporate to super-indie/startup, and a few in between. None of them seemed concerned about the fact that they might never see monetary compensation for their own work. They were all happy that content was booming, that literary culture (online) was thriving, that it’s “a reader’s market” now.
Two of the publications represented — The New Yorker and Electric Literature — do in fact compensate writers significantly for their work. I wonder how sustainable each model is into the future. (The co-creators of EL do not get paid, which is the standard for editors of most new and online literary publications.)
I’m slow to this adjustment (but that’s not surprising, I’m generally slow about most things). Hopefully I’ll get there. Or maybe not. Does anyone else think we should be mad — more mad, a little mad — that it is becoming increasingly difficult to make a living as a writer? To me, there is actually a significant difference between no compensation and modest compensation: it’s the difference between having to devote full-time to non-writing work versus part-time. It’s the difference between getting a book written and not getting a book written. I’m not talking about six-figure advances, I’m talking about any advances at all. I’m talking about piecing together bits of income to live a simple, low-overhead life.
Ugh. I’m devolving here. Ok, let me turn this around and give a shout-out to all those literary publications and institutions who are scraping up money for writers. Thank you thank you thank you.
p.s. Of course my blind spot here in this rant is that the consumer has to be willing to pay for the content. One of our panelists was wise to say so. I’ve been trying to be more mindful/faithful about myself as a literary consumer, about subscriptions, about paying for what I possibly can. At the risk of sounding corny, every little bit counts!