It seems to me that reading quality fiction is going the way of opera, a vice engaged in by an ever shrinking American audience. Opera couldn't compete with musicals, attendance-wise, where listeners could hear the lyrics in their own language. And creative novels have been getting the short end of the stick ever since publishers realized that a dumbing-down educational system meant that there was more profitability in creating fiction for the widest possible audience, that has even led to the resurgence of what is now categorized as the "graphic novel," which in my adolescence was called a comic book.
There are other pressures on good books. In the course of a 16 hour waking day, how much time is left to read after work, meals, films, television, and web surfing? Not to mention a crappy economy, which in the book business manifests itself with chain bookstores like Borders being on the verge of bankruptcy, Barnes & Noble trying to avoid a similar fate, and several large publishing houses not taking on any new submissions. Worse yet is the shrinking review space available in the print media, with many newspapers folding and nearly all of them downsizing book coverage.
This was brought home to me today as we prepared to send out galley copies of two forthcoming novels, Daniel Klein's The History of Now and Ivan Goldman's The Barfighter (both well reviewed in pre-publication journals like Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and Kirkus) to 60 newspaper and magazine reviewers, a monthly ritual for the past 30 years. It suddenly hit me that that the majority of these papers were rarely, or no longer, covering these submissions as in the 'good old days.' Can a tree that falls in a forest be heard any more than a book that has limited coverage succeed in finding readers? I think not.
What to do about this situation? Might Barack Obama's idea of saving a failing economy also apply to rescuing the "novel" novel? To paraphrase Obama, you can't fix the problem from the top down, but from the bottom up. Can a network of word-of-mouth readers be formed from the bottom, instead of exclusively relying on those vanishing reviewers at the top?
Here's the concept: the best people for talking about and sharing opinions on books are good writers, and over the decades we've published over 250 0f them. Along with that are book clubbers and friends who read a lot. Instead of sending out galley copies exclusively to reviewers, who usually don't read them, we plan to offer these well produced trade paperback precursors of forthcoming hardcovers to one and all at our cost for for producing and shipping (roughly $8/copy).
I welcome your thoughts, comments, and/or interest in participating in this program, as well as any other ideas you have on how to best go about creating an alternative on-the-ground network of discerning readers. My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.