Monday, November 30, 2009

The New York Times, Publishers Weekly, and Book Bloggers

Following my last blog, The Cultural Divide, where I faulted the weekly book coverage at The New York Times for lacking balance, I had some spirited email exchanges with Jon Landman, the editor of the Culture Desk, as well as with Katherine Bouton who assigns books for review and Motoko Rich who reports on the New York publishing world. They all talked about how they are very aware of trying to keep a balance between literary culture and popular culture, and between the dozen or so giant corporate publishers who dominate the market place and smaller independent presses that are largely ignored. As an example I pointed out that we’ve not had a review for one of our novels from them since the first one appeared in January, 1980, despite a plethora of awards and honors, listed in my July 13th blog, What Pisses Me Off. That was 7,000 reviews ago.

In our email exchanges my impression was that that they were pretty well satisfied with the job they are doing. Katherine Bouton mentioned, as an example of small press coverage, that they did a review of a Minotaur book recently, apparently not realizing that Minotaur is an imprint of one of the giants: Macmillan. Jon Landman wrote that they had given us coverage, citing an article about Judy and me and the Permanent Press which appeared 15 years ago, neglecting the fact that this was not a review for one of our books and that it appeared in the Metropolitan Section, which at that time was circulated only in New York City and Long Island. Motoko Rich suggested that she'd be glad to consider a news story, but couldn't guarantee she would do anything because there were so many suggestions she received. Having read her news stories, and finding many of them read like elaborations on press releases written by publicity directors at the major publishing houses, I greeted her offer with skepticism. Instead I told her that I posted a monthly blog where she might find things in it newsworthy, and mentioned that I'd be writing about a book blogger this month whose novel we would be publishing.

I can understand these responses on three levels: one being that it is hard to take criticism, and defensiveness frequently follows. The other being an attempt to "make nice" that lacked sincerity but might get someone off your back. And, finally, realizing that nobody likes being told by those outside the club how they should run their business. My initial response to outsiders taking me to task about our work would likely be similar. Still, it’s possible that starting a dialogue plants seeds that could, ultimately, take root.

On November 2, Susan Dominus wrote a column in the Times entitled “Lament on the Fading Culture of the Printed Word,” in which she talked about the changes in the literary world over the past couple of years—the loss of jobs, the inability of aspiring writers to find publishers, and what the future holds. “I went back and reread Joan Didion's essay “Goodbye to All That” the other day…a catalog of Manhattan’s enervating clich├ęs, and, implicitly, a rejection of the New York literary scene she inhabited… Ms. Didion tired of the same faces at the same parties, the gossip about book advances, the uneasy courtship of press and publicists, the endless cycle of aspiration and pretense. [It’s] been reverberating through my mind on a regular basis. I hear it every time I go to a party and run into a writer or editor I admire who has recently been laid off. 12 or 20 years ago if anyone with a flair for stringing sentences together lost a job, it was a given that he would land quickly on his feet at another publication or a small publishing house. But now, goodbye to all that.

“Newspapers, including this one, are shedding jobs, too, but it is the world of magazines and publishing houses that constitutes a culture specific to New York. Part of what is gone, perhaps appropriately, is the glittering, gluttonous self-indulgence — content that took itself too seriously, or associate market editors who did the same, a bad case of the press believing its own press. But what is lost, along with a lot of image packaging, is that expansive home for good writing. Philip Roth recently predicted in The Guardian of London, that in 25 years, the number of people reading novels would be akin to the numbers now reading Latin poetry; it will be a curiosity, certainly not a profit center. This is painful gospel for anyone who reads Philip Roth, or other great writers, the way other people read religious texts — to make sense of the world, to be humbled or inspired by the power of language.”

Were this article in the Arts and Culture section of the Times, it might have caused some reflection on how they covered books. But Susan Dominus’ columns appear in the Metropolitan Section, to be read only in New York City and environs.

On Friday, November 27, the entire front page of the Arts section was devoted to books; the headline article penned by Janet Maslin, a “Holiday Gift Guide,” was entitled “Unforgettable Books For Those You Remember.” She started out by saying “There’s a good reason why the three daily book critics for The New York Times don’t make 10-best lists at the end of the year. None of us has read everything [italics mine]. None of us has an objective overview of the year’s best and most important books, but this is what we do have: favorites…books we have not only admired in the abstract but have also enjoyed, recommended, and given to friends. Of the tens of thousands of books published each year, the daily Times reviews about 250. Each of us chose his or her share of those titles for review. Now Michiko Kakutani, Dwight Garner and I further narrow down those choices and each of us can tell you which books we’ll remember best.” She also adds, before getting to these 30 favorites, that “It’s been a bit of an off year, and the must-read milestones have been rare…And if it’s been a disappointing year for certain major novelists, it has also brought a couple of unexpected career-capping accomplishments from fiction writers in the mainstream [italics mine].”

Obviously they can’t “read everything,” but do these three doyens ever choose to read a novel from a small press—or are they limited to those released by the biggest players? Do they assume that only the biggest corporations publish writers worthy of coverage? Might they consider the conglomerates as major leaguers and the independents as farm teams?
The IBPA (Independent Book Publishers Association) has over 3,000 members. Are any of them considered “mainstream?” Or are only the dozen or so conglomerates considered mainstream? When one examines where these 30 favorite imprints come from, lo and behold, they are all produced by eight conglomerate publishing houses; there is not a single small, independent press among them.

Listed below are the eight corporate giants that these “favorites” of Janet Maslin, Michiko Kakutani and Dwight Garner came from:
Random House published 10 favorites from among these imprints: four from Knopf, and one each from Ballantine, Crown, Dial, Doubleday, Pantheon, and Vintage.
Hachette had five: four from Little Brown and one from their Twelve imprints.
Macmillan had five: three from their Farrar Straus & Giroux imprint and one each from St. Martin’s Press and Metropolitan Books imprints.
Penguin had five, three from Penguin and two from Viking.
Simon & Schuster had two, both from their Scribner imprint
Harper Collins had one from their Harper imprint.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt had one under their own imprint
Perseus had one, from their Basic Books imprint.

Does one need more substantiation of the charges that small publishers are at a major disadvantage and are playing on an uneven field? And what is true at the Times is also true at nearly all other mainstream newspapers and magazines.

I think it’s time for readers who desire broader coverage and want a larger window to choose from, before deciding what books to read, to consider three things:

1. Subscribe to Publishers Weekly, a trade journal, but one which will appeal to any serious reader for it offers over 7,000 short, thoughtful reviews of books yearly in all major categories—along with publishing news, trends, articles, profiles, and interviews with authors and others in the business. There is no other publication in America of greater importance in this industry or to those who love books. Nor is there any discriminatory coverage between conglomerate and small independent presses. This lively, informative publication is also very affordable; it costs less than the Sunday edition of The New York Times. Dan Brown, Ed Doctorow, or books about Obama or Sarah Palin get no more review space than will a first novel by an unknown author from a relatively unknown press. It’s what librarians and bookstores read before placing orders for books. 51 copies of Publishers Weekly can cost anywhere from $3.29 to $4.32/copy by subscription. The Sunday Times costs $5, which includes their Book Review section, which last Sunday reviewed five novels and ten books of non-fiction, while Publishers Weekly reviewed 83 books in all: 50 novels (28 straight fiction, 9 mysteries, 6 sci-fi reviews, 4 mass market reviews, and 4 comics (previously known as graphic novels), 31 non-fiction titles, and 19 children’s book (12 of them picture books): 100 reviews in all. You can order from Amazon.com (click on magazine subscriptions) or from PublishersWeekly.com which offers subscriptions to the magazine itself or their online edition alone. I would add that if it were not for the thoughtful book people at PW, we would never have survived for 31 years. And I am sure that many other independent presses would say the same thing. So this is a publication well worth reading, enjoying, and supporting.

2. Write to the New York Times, and give your feedback to Jon Landman (joland@nytimes.com) and Katherine Bouton (bouton@nytimes.com) and let them know what you think you might want to see there. Jon did say in one of his emails that he was open to suggestions. One proposal I would make to him and Katherine Bouton would be to have a fourth reviewer added to the gang of three, a reviewer who has covered small presses and has the background to introduce a new and broader perspective. And my candidate would be Marc Schuster. His site is http://smallpressreviews.wordpress.com/

Marc is a 36 year old who earned his PhD in English from Temple University. His dissertation was on 20th Century American fiction. Since fall, 2005, he’s been on the faculty of Montgomery County Community College in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania, just outside Philadelphia, where he teaches College Composition, American Literature and Creative Writing. He’s reviewed about 100 books on his site since November, 2007. It’s a lot of work, reading and reviewing nearly a book a week while teaching full-time, writing his own stories, helping out at Philadelphia Stories, volunteering at Writers Conferences at his school and Rosemont College (also outside Philadelphia) where he recently interviewed Maxine Hong Kingston. Small Press Reviews is obviously a project motivated by passion, not income. Propelled by curiosity, I asked him how and why he started his book blog.

“I had a number of friends whose writing I respected and who were published by small presses—as well as admiring books from small presses that I bought at bookstores. All had trouble finding anyone to review their work. And so I decided to do something about it. For a long time now I’ve thought that the most interesting writing is coming from small presses, as they are not as concerned about the bottom line as they are about literary aesthetics. They accept books based on loving them. At a big press it’s because they think it can make money.” What started small, with Marc’s buying books to review, has caught on so well that he’s getting over 400 hits a month and is, at times, overwhelmed by the number of submissions he receives from small publishers.

3. Read good Blogs, for that’s where the action is. I’ve mentioned many of them before and will do a future listing on my next posting. The increased coverage one can get from these bloggers more than compensates for the decreasing space available from newspaper and magazine book reviews. In some ways I think newspaper reviews are in danger of becoming a dinosaur given the way they limit themselves to books written about celebrities or by celebrity authors, while avoiding the excitement and discovery of talented newcomers. As Rania Haditirto, our only full time employee who does so many things so well for us, puts it “GoodReads, LibraryThing, and independent bloggers have revolutionized the way in which books are talked about. Most people buy books because a friend talks passionately about something they’ve read, and these sites provide new friends who recommend books to one another. It’s like an on-line ongoing Book Club.”

Reading a good blog is how I met Marc Schuster. Charles Holdefer, a novelist we published, was a guest speaker at a Writers Conference at Rosemont in 2008. Charles had recently written "The Contractor." Marc had read and loved his novel, reviewed it, and was squiring him about. Afterwards he bought a couple of other Permanent Press books and enjoyed and wrote about them as well. I was always much impressed with his reviews; he had a knack for finding threads that escaped me and Judy, my wife and co-publisher, but were artfully observed. Since one of the joys of publishing is making contact with people who share your aesthetics and write beautifully—and since I noticed that on his website he listed a novel he wrote, "The Singular Exploits of Wonder Mom and Party Girl"—I wrote to him saying that since he’d read so many of our books, I thought it only fair that I read his. It arrived shortly afterwards, was published as a paperback by PS Books—a regional publisher and a division of Philadelphia Stories. Judy and I were impressed. It was both funny and dark, a tale for our times with unforgettable characters, narrated by a young super-Mom who, after her husband leaves her for a younger version, is introduced to cocaine and slides into addiction while her mothering goes haywire. What was also interesting is that it hadn’t been reviewed anywhere. We also thought it needed editing and I wrote back saying that if this book were available and if he wanted to do rewrites and some reorganization, we’d be interested in publishing it. “I’ll think about it,” he said, and two weeks later returned a masterfully reworked manuscript. While we’ve signed it up for mid 2011, we’ve already ordered bound galleys, a year and a half before publication date, as we want editors, agents, scouts, and film producers to see it well in advance of publication.

So hail to the book bloggers who have played a significant role in spreading the word about the novels we’ve published this year, which has resulted in a 66% increase in book sales over those in 2008…with still over a month to go. And to Publishers Weekly, who have always treated us so well.

Marty

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