Saturday, January 31, 2009

Today I'm a Cockeyed Optimist

Writing in Publishers Weekly on January 5th, Peter Olson, the former CEO of Random House, painted a bleak picture for book publishing in 2009 and beyond, citing the economy (still referred to as a “deepening recession” in the media—who seem skittish about calling it “the early stages of the second Great Depression”), with closing bookstores and publishers cutting back on staff and content. The New York Times on January 28 had a headline on their front page echoing Olson’s article, pointing out that “Almost all of the New York publishing houses are laying off editors and pinching pennies,” trimming their lists and relying “on blockbuster best sellers,” while the only people in the industry making a profit are self-publishing companies [IUniverse being cited] who charge authors for things like cover design and printing costs.”

The realization that big corporate publishers and chain bookstores would fall on hard times shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. In fact, one can draw an analogy between large corporate publishers and chain stores with the large commercial banks that need bail outs. And in this nose diving economy and negative balance sheets, these houses of cards are collapsing and, unlike failing banks, there are no book bailouts.

How, then, to account for my optimism today? Actually it’s been going on since Barack Obama’s inauguration. Starting then I realized that by downgrading serious fiction, the conglomerate publishers have opened the door ever wider for a small press like ours. Never looking for best-sellers, but just having a passion for discovering 12 manuscripts that excite both Judy and me (from among the 6,000 submission we get every year), and then wanting to share these novels with others who also enjoy discovering quality fiction by gifted newcomers and relative unknowns who, as my musician friends say, “have the chops” for it, has become much easier. At about the same time, the response to my last blog posting, SAVING QUALITY FICTION, has increased our awareness of the tens of thousands of people served by some exceptional online bloggers and internet reviewers who share our aesthetics. What this means is that there is an alternative route to “getting-the-word-out” for quality fiction that need not rely exclusively on traditional newspaper and magazine coverage.

Then, today, there was an even bigger boost to optimism when, at the time of this posting, I discovered that Efrem Sigel’s The Disappearance (a novel about a couple whose lives are shaken when their 14 year old son disappears one day) -- which will not be delivered from our printer until February 2 -- has skyrocketed in ranking to #715 at by virtue of advance orders. This is a milestone that we’ve never experienced before. My publishing partner at Blackstone Audiobooks, Haila Williams, tells me this is an incredible number and that we should start reprinting immediately.

I believe I will remain a cockeyed optimist at least until my next blog posting in mid-February.

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