Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Saving Quality Fiction

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 shepard@thepermanentpress.com.

8 comments:

  1. Hi Marty,

    Your frustration is evident and shared by many, I think. Making galleys available to anyone interested enough to spend $8 seems like a good move...could Permanent then also provide an online venue for reviews by those interested readers? And perhaps establish a gentleman's agreement that in return for a galley at cost (no small consideration), a review would be appreciated? It seems that one must close the yawning gap between getting books into hands (which is easy) and actually getting a review out of it (which is hard). And I do think that effective word-of-mouth these days must embrace the Internet.

    I would also say that authors can have a strong hand in effecting their own notice. Social networking sites for readers like Goodreads and LibraryThing are great venues for establishing a presence and cultivating readers -- and it's way fun to watch your book slowly make its way into a nationwide readership. In such a setting the bonds between writer and reader, writer and reviewer become informal and personal, and therefore more fruitful.

    My thoughts. Thanks for airing this knotty problem, and proposing a small solution to it.

    Peggy

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  2. Marty, you address such an important subject here: the survival of good contemporary literature, especially literary fiction (and independent publishers and bookstores who support literary fiction).

    I agree that the internet is the place where so much can happen, as paper forms vanish. Authors themselves, as Peggy notes, are crucial to the creation of an online, interestingly intimate presence. (Who could have known how oddly intimate an online connection could become?) There's a whole intricate network of bloggers and book reviewing sites, where the "I'll scratch your back, you mine" appears to work pretty well. Book trailers for books can also be immensely valuable (check out Meg Waite Clayton's trailer on her website megwaiteclayton.com), especially since we're increasingly becoming such a visual culture. Book giveaways too! and chances to talk with the author.

    About the idea of galleys being sent out to known and respected readers (in addition to booksellers) -- yes! I think this is a great idea, already in place to a certain extent. I am not sure, to follow up on Peggy's idea, you can sell them at cost only to those from whom you expect a review, though. A reader has to read a book first to know whether s/he can praise it. But the idea of scattershot -- and just getting the book out there, to all corners of the intelligent reading world (and fans of PP) -- yes!

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  3. There are some social networking sites (e.g. gather.com) where book publishers have a presence and offer proofs free to a certain number of interested readers in return for reviews.

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  4. Dear Marty,
    Not that you and Judy haven't done wonders for so many of us, but now this good idea. If each of your authors reviewed one or two books a year, it would help accomplish the purpose and, considering the limitations on time and energy, one or two reviews should be manageable. If I could help, I certainly would as a way of giving back to the Permanent Press community.

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  5. I am not in the publishing business, just a reader/amateur reviewer, so I can only comment from that perspective. I would strongly suggest bringing up this topic in the forums of LibraryThing (registration is free). When I receive a review copy and the book is good, I am more than happy to post it everywhere I can (as I just did for Efrem Sigel's fantastic novel, The Disappearance). Does the impact of my reviews actually justify the cost of sending me a review copy? To be honest, it's hard to tell. I try to "earn" my review copies by posting positive reviews all over the place. However, for amateur reviewers, there is a big difference between receiving a review copy and PAYING for a review copy, and I think you could use the LT forums to feel out how many people would actually pay for review copies when so many are available for free. Just my two cents.

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  6. I spend a lot of time on LibraryThing and am convinced that it is a good venue with lots of serious readers. Many of them are "issue-oriented" people, and that doesn't work for some books. But for others it could be a boon.

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  7. This is why we have started to work a lot more with electronic proposals. Instead of sending out galleys to everyone who might or might not be interested in a title, we pick up the main argument, present the book, and ask if the person would like to receive a reading copy. This ensures that the reviewer has a minimum of interest in the title send to him/her, which, in turn, also enhances the chance that they will actually read, review and recirculate it. Besides, it reduces cost & frustration, as do pdfs. It really works for us!

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  8. The comment by Wisteria that it's just not worth trashing a bad book; it's better just to talk and write about the good ones, got me thinking about an experience I had as a book reviewer for a popular Long Island publication. My editor told me to tell it like I see it, or rather read it. They assigned me to review a book by an apparently successful novelist, NYT best seller list, etc. It was such trash that I resented her success and felt it was my duty to expose her for putting out such crap. Though I know that Wisteria is probably right, there are times when you just shouldn't tolerate junk and you should warn people about it. I have the added excuse that the book was assigned to me, I didn't choose it. Jim Marquardt

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