Monday, March 28, 2016

WE INTERRUPT THIS PROGRAM...

After sending out Tori Alexander’s blog on March 28th, I had promised to post a two part blog written by Danner Darcleight, whose powerful prison memoir, Concrete Carnival, will be published by us in September. But there were a series of events that occurred last week, which led to thoughts that I wanted to share with you first.   In a nutshell, this blog concerns survival and success as a publisher of literary fiction, the assumptions we made when starting out, and the reality of what I’ve learned, when it comes to the matter of “which reviews are most important” when it comes to selling books; and the difference between reviews in magazines and newspapers (read by the public) versus reviews published and read by only a small group of publishing “insiders.” And who are these “insiders”? Librarians, publishers abroad, filmmakers and the four pre-publication journals that serve them: Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and Library Journal, as well as a couple of very successful and widely circulated bloggers, as exemplified by Sheila Deeth (Sheila’s Reviews).

When we started publishing there were lots of newspapers reviewing books. Over the past 37 years, few are left. The New York Times was atop the list back then, both for their Sunday Book Review and their daily weekday reviews (one major review a day from Monday through Friday). Today they are the only major newspaper left who devote time and attention to publishing book reviews.

When I was in my mid-twenties and about to get my M.D. degree from the N.Y.U College of Medicine, I worked at the New York Times as a night intern. Before that, ever since I entered the High School of Music and Art in Manhattan as a 13 year old art student, I was an avid reader of the Times. Later on, when Judy, my wife and I, first started publishing in 1979, we had a major review for Richard Lortz’s novel The Valdepenas, written by the legendary Anatole Broyard, which appeared in the daily Times on Thursday, January 31, 1980. This was a grand beginning, which made me assume that  one needed to have books reviewed  in the weekday  editions of the Times in order to succeed as a publisher. As it turned out, this was also the last full review we ever had, though there have been over 9,000 other books reviewed there in the last 36 years.

Given the fact that we have no grants, no funding other than ourselves and book sales, the question remains how did we ever manage to survive? One answer is to say that this is mysterious and unexplainable: “kismet”—a gift from the universe—and that surely is true. But looking at things analytically one can better understand the building blocks that have fallen into place that have allowed us to continue.

One can talk all they want about how difficult it is to get a review in the New York Times where there is fierce competition for review space. But getting reviews in the pre-pub journals is not a walk in the park either. Last year we were fortunate enough to get two novels reviewed in the Sunday Times Book Review on their Shortlist page—which was much appreciated. But sales of these novels—Margaret Vandenberg’s The Home Front and Tom LeClair’s Lincoln’s Billy—were hardly affected after these reviews appeared. At the same time, we’ve had great success in getting coverage by the pre-publication reviewers, each of our 16 yearly releases being reviewed by at least one of these review sources, and most by several.

This past week we’ve had exceptional reviews for four of our forthcoming 2016 novels, with two reviews in Kirkus: one for Ray Merritt’s Clamour of Crows, and another for Ira Gold’s Debasements of Brooklyn. Publishers Weekly featured a rave review for Charles Davis’ Hitler, Mussolini, and Me, while Booklist gave Chris Knopf’s Back Lash a starred review. These are the reviews that not only increase sales for these titles, promote translation sales (220 right sales abroad since we began), and intrigue filmmakers. All of these enable us to go forward.

There are also other sources of revenue that help our bottom line. Blackstone Audio, a company based in Ashland, Oregon, that publishes unabridged audio books, and Haila Williams, their acquisitions editor based in New York, have acquired at least half of our titles for more than a decade. Three of our novels have been turned into movies and many others are in option. The fact that many of our titles—be they literary mysteries or literary novels—have been finalists or winners of major book awards has also aided book sales—including all the major mystery awards (Hammett Prize, Nero Award, Edgar Award, International Thriller Writers Award, and the Anthony Award). On the literary fiction side we’ve published several finalists or winners for the National Book Award, the Chautauqua Prize, the Lambda Awards,  and both the PEN/Hemingway Award and PEN /Winship Award.  Other authors have received cash prizes from both ForeWord Magazine’s Best

Book of the Year Award and the Dactyl Foundation Literary Fiction Award that were turned over directly to the authors. This does not include local State-wide honors for both mysteries and novelists we’ve published.


Accumulating all these accolades for so many authors has given us great satisfaction, but that is not necessarily reflected in profitability. Profitability is more assured if a writer is published by one of the five major conglomerates (actually, with mergers, I believe they are now down to “four”) who, with their huge advertising budgets and joint ownership with other mass media feed on celebrity and account for 85% of books sales in the U.S.A. A memoir for a star like Amy Schumer, or the formulaic James Patterson, who ”writes” over a dozen books a year (mostly written by well-paid writers) and who was honored at the last National Book Awards ceremony because of his contributions to literature are not books we have any interest in.  (If I sound like Bernie Sanders here, blogging about the way things are, I’d be flattered. But Bernie is on to more serious stuff, trying to change the way things are run and how traditional politics screws a hoodwinked public while enhancing the rich, when all that I’m talking about are books as part of the entertainment industry, which I have no interest in reforming at all).

What I’m talking about is simply “gratefulness;” grateful that we have been able to endure, to sort out from among the 5,000 queries and submissions we receive each year those few books we can present to readers who hunger for quality fiction primarily as opposed to “pulpy fiction,” and that we’ve  been able to do this successfully despite being relatively invisible to the larger public, whose awareness depends on what major media outlets and columnists consider “important news” when it comes to books is a continuing unfolding of  kismet, whether deserved of not.

If one’s passion is fiction (the step-child of publishing, where non-fiction overwhelmingly predominates), and a desire to find and promote artful writers (as opposed to seeking “Best Sellers,”) what we are doing now is as good as it gets.

I love working on behalf of our writers and it is thrilling when one of their books takes off.  And I love my two co-publishers: my wife Judy and Chris Knopf, without whom nothing is possible.

Now comes the “Academy Award Speech,” where every recipient goes on to thank all those who helped them:  I love being surrounded by those exceptional people who work with us here in Sag Harbor: Felix Gonzalez, our warehouse manager; Cathy Suter and Brian Skulnik who share office space alongside me and stay up-to-date with every aspect and detail of keeping things on track and anticipating what we have to do next to keep things moving along, andfeel the same way about those  off campus: Lon Kirschner who reads every manuscript from beginning to end and comes up with astounding book covers, Barbara Anderson who is a copyeditor without peer, Susan Ahlquist who is a remarkable typesetter and the book designer of both our books and those ads we periodically place in Publishers Weekly and Mystery Scene Magazine, and Jeff Aghassi, our film agent out in Los Angeles. I also want to thank some outstanding overseas agents who have been with us for years, are in touch with us regularly, who sell our books abroad, and who we invite to dinner every year at the Frankfurt Book Fair: Jill Hughes who covers Eastern Europe, Franka Zastrow at the Schl├╝ck agency in Germany, Lora Fountain in France, Jane Judd in England, Jackie Huang at the Nurnberg Agency in China, Rita Vivian in Italy, and Atsushi Hori at The English Agency in Japan

As Porky Pig used to say when signing off on cartoons that were once shown in movie theaters, “The..the..the..the..the..... that’s all folks!  And that’s about it.

COMING OVER THE NEXT TWO WEEKS:  the promised blogs from Danner Darcleight.

As always, I welcome your comments.



Marty

Monday, March 21, 2016

WHY I STARTED DACTYL REVIEW AND THE DACTYL FOUNDATION LITERARY FICTION AWARD


As publishers it has been a delight to have published three of Victoria N. Alexander’s novels over a period of two decades:  Smoking Hopes (1996), Naked Singularity (2003), and Locus Amoenus (2015).  Her range, inventiveness, and themes varied greatly and all three books represented different stages in her own life. And with this briefest of introductions, I turn over this blog to Tori who offers a spot-on critique of the way literary fiction is treated in general and what she is doing to improve things.

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“I had been director of the Dactyl Foundation in NYC for some dozen years, organizing art-science collaborations and hosting poetry readings, before it occurred to me that we were doing nothing to support literary fiction. As a literary fiction (LF) novelist myself, I was well aware that these unlikely-to-be-bestsellers could use some support.  But it was not immediately clear to me what I could do to help.  Hosting readings did not work.  Poets tend to turn out for each other and buy each other’s work; they dedicate poems to each other and even write about each other’s poems, but not LF novelists; they are as independent as cats. They keep to themselves, don’t do reviews, fear influence, and reserve their admiration for dead authors.

I was such a writer, I realized. What could I do to get mavericks, like myself, to form a community?

“From personal experience, I understood that what LF writers need most (in order to get more readers) are sympathetic reviewers and an extended shelf life. Literary fiction needs reviewers who won’t judge the work by the standards of other genres. It needs other literary fiction writers. LF takes time to find its audience. Books aren’t given much time in front of judges and audiences. Those that don’t make it in six months are thereafter ignored.  No one in publishing denies this, and yet there are no awards for the best five-year-old novel, no reviewers interested in what came out last year.

“Literary fiction is not produce; it won’t spoil. It is not trendy, but of an enduring quality. I like the fact that the Permanent Press keeps my titles available in the back-list catalog.  When I signed on with my first novel, in 1996, I took comfort knowing I would not be remaindered, pulped or go out-of-print. What Marty and Judy Shepard do as publishers, I wanted to do as a foundation director, not just offer an initial opportunity for good books but also help keep them in front of audiences.

“I realized, too, that it would be necessary to share the responsibility of judging books in order to form a community would be self-sustaining. So in 2010, Dactyl Foundation launched Dactyl Review, dedicated solely to literary fiction, created for and by literary fiction writers. We publish reviews of only the best novels and short story collections, as judged by other literary fiction writers. Authors support the kind of work they admire by writing reviews and this also helps the reviewers build readerships for their own work. The reviewer’s signature is linked and followed by the title of his/her book that is most similar to the book being reviewed.

Dactyl Review also offers the $1,000 annual Dactyl Foundation Literary Fiction Award, which differs from most awards in a number of ways. One, the award is not limited to new books. Any literary fiction book by a living author published in any year is eligible for the award. We know that good books are often overlooked the year they come out. Two, we do not accept nominations from authors or publishers for their own books.  Dactyl only accepts nominations from other published literary fiction authors. A book is nominated when another writer reviews it on Dactyl Review (then the author or publisher has to accept the nomination before the book is officially in the running). Three, we do not require the nominated author or the publisher to send in copies. Dactyl Foundation purchases a copy of every book entered. Four, eligible works must be published, but we accept self-published as well as traditionally published. Five, there is no entry fee. Six, nominations can be made at any time. This year, the Dactyl Foundation award winner is Lindsay Hall for Sea of Hooks, which also won the Pen USA Fiction Award. Our open requirements help insure that we get the best entries not just money-backed entries and not just entries that conform to a list of bureaucratic constraints.

“One might think that leaving the judging up to self-designated LF authors and accepting self-published entries would invite a flood of low quality, not very literary, fiction.  This is not what has happened.  We’ve attracted quality reviewers. That’s because reviewing is hard work. We ask our reviewers to support all opinions about the quality of the writing with excerpts. (How often have you read a review of your own book that says things—good and bad—that are not at all true? as if the reviewer had only skimmed your book.) The review has to be very specific, and this seems to scare off lazy reviewers. It also prevents bullshit.  A reviewer cannot claim a writer has a “lyrical style” without backing that claim up with a brief example. Occasionally, we do get writers and publicists, who haven’t bothered to look at our “about us” page, asking us to review their books. I let them know that’s not what we do, and I invite them to review someone else’s book instead.  Predictably, the prima donna author will reply by saying, I don’t do reviews. I don’t have the time. And we are happy to let them leave us alone. 

“Several Permanent Press authors have participated, including Charles Holdefer, Ivan G Goldman, Marc Schuster, Bill Albert (as a reviewee), and Charles Davis. In 2013 Permanent Press author David Schmahmann won the award for his The Double Life of Alfred Buber, reviewed by Holdefer.

“All this may beg the question, What is literary fiction? Definitions vary, but only slightly. Typically, LF is defined as writing that is stylized or poetic, not always literal, connoting more than it denotes. It often treats a social or humanistic theme from an unusual perspective and is often in conversation with literature of the past. It tends to question stereotypes more than confirm them and avoids sentimentality.  Literary Fiction is the non-genre genre, but it can partake in the conventions of a traditional genre, like mystery or romance, doing so with a wry twist, sometimes with a view to subverting or expanding conventions.

“The Dactyl Review offers a little bit of what every literary fiction writer needs. We do need each other because the commercially-driven publishing industry is geared toward economic efficiency, spending the least amount of time on products that most people will buy. LF is for the uncommon reader. I invite my fellow Permanent Press authors to create some good review karma for yourself by reviewing a writer you admire, new or old, known or unknown. Once you have reviewed a couple of books, you can also offer your book to the community for review.  Next time you ask fellow writers to blurb your book, let them know they can turn it into a review and post it on DR. A Dactyl Review which gets to go into the ‘editorial review’ section on Amazon. We are here to help literary fiction writers help each other.”


To reach Tori you can call her at 845-667-9114, email her at alexander@dactyl.org, or read more about her organization at dactylreview.org. And, needless to say, I welcome your comments here on The Cockeyed Pessimist

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COMING UP NEXT WEEK AND THE WEEK AFTER is a two-part blog from Danner Darcleight entitled An Uncommon Bond. Danner's prison memoir, Concrete Carnival, will be published by us in September (along with Marsilio in Italy and Blackstone Audio in the USA) and will likely be talked about domestically and throughout the world as he is a supremely gifted writer. Darcleight is 39 years old and has already served 17 years of a 25-to-life sentence. In this two-part blog series he discusses his five year relationship with Lily, the woman he married while in prison.