Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Cultural Divide

Merriam-Webster’s dictionary has two distinct definitions of culture; the first being “acquaintance with and taste in fine arts; developing intellectual and moral facilities; enlightenment and excellence of taste acquired by intellectual and aesthetic training.” For my purposes, lets call this “Culture” with a capital “C.” The second has to do with “the customary beliefs, social forms of a racial or social group; the characteristics of features of everyday experiences.” Let me write about this “culture” using a lower case “c” for sake of argument in talking about this cultural divide

The International Divide:

After our first Frankfurt Book Fair nearly three decades ago, Judy and I looked at one another and asked “Does the world need another book?” This year there were 7,300 exhibitors from around the world, scattered throughout 10 three story exhibition halls, with 500,000 visitors reported. It was a good fair for us, with unexpected visits from German, Russian, Italian, French, Canadian, Turkish and UK editors who wanted to see some of the nearly two dozen novels we brought to the fair and they had heard about. It buoyed us, this cultural divide, reaffirming that there is keen interest in well written novels abroad, whereas editors at the major domestic publishers have, over the last three years or so, shown little or no interest in either reading or acquiring reprint rights for quality fiction.

The Domestic Divide:

Returning from Frankfurt we had dinner at the home of Warren and Barbara Phillips on October 23, who started Bridgeworks. The other guests were Bill Henderson of Pushcart Press and his wife, Genie, and the publishers of Oceanview Press—Bob and Pat Gussin—who started their imprint in 2006 and are now doing 12 thrillers a year. Four small publishers, talking books, and wondering about the shifting obligations and standards among mainstream reviewers and columnists, as they inexorably drifted away from “Culture” to “culture.” Bill thought that it had to do with the increasing cult of celebrity in America, aided and abetted by the print media, pandering to what they assumed the public was interested in reading about.

We were discussing The New York Times Book Review of October 11, where only three novels were reviewed. There was a front page (in all a two page) review of Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol, which was artfully eviscerated by Maureen Dowd. That was followed by a full page review of The Suicide Run by William Styron, a masterful writer who died three years ago, but remains a superstar even if this collection of five previously published stories about Marine Corps warriors were originally written years ago. The final novel, The Children’s Book, featured another full page review by another superstar novelist, A.S. Bryant, concluding that “the novel’s encyclopedic ambition slows even the most absorbing story line to a stutter.”

Yet, with all their financial pressures and shrinking space, The Times Book Review still remains somewhat open to smaller books and other issues do better, balance wise, between fiction and non-fiction. This is not at all the case in the Arts section of the weekday Times, where Jon Landman, the editor of the Culture Desk, is in charge. And so on October 28, I sent this email to Jon.

“As co-publisher, for the last 31 years, of one of the most respected literary presses in America, I wanted to share some observations about how differently your coverage of books varies from coverage of all the other forms of entertainment in the Arts section.

“In writing about or reviewing dance, theater, films, or music there is a fair amount of space devoted to off and off-off Broadway plays and small out-of-town theater, as well as showcasing new playwrights. Similarly, aside from big productions from major studios or films with star-power actors or directors, there are plenty of small independent films that are also showcased. The same is true of music and dance. And yet, the reporting about books does not follow that model at all, but is largely restricted to books written by celebrity authors or focused on sales figures reported by the large corporate publishers. In my last blog posting on September 29, Conventions, I raised these issues across the board—including the fact that the daily Times book review section will not, according to Katherine Bouton, consider first novels, as these authors ‘have not yet proven themselves.’ Among the comments I received from this posting was one from one of the best online critics I've encountered, Marc Schuster at Small Press Reviews:

"I enjoyed your recent blog post on book conventions, particularly the reference to ‘name brand’ authors. As you can imagine, I've long been of the opinion that the mainstream book market, such as it is, has a tendency to reduce authors to commodities and, in general, flatten the entire canon of popular literature into a dull smear of sameness. Which explains why, frequently, the only thing mainstream media outlets can discuss in relation to books is number of units sold (or something equally tangential to books themselves). As a result, we get stories about how Harry Potter and Twilight sold however many millions of copies in much the same way McDonald's boasts ‘Billions and billions served.’ In the final analysis, it's all hamburger.

“His comments were underscored in Motoko Rich's column on October 8, entitled Booksales Are Down Despite Push, which was all about sales and returns of celebrity authors and their books, from Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol, to Ted Kennedy’s True Compass, and how book sales were down about 4 percent compared with the same weeks last year, suggesting that neither of these titles nor any of the other big fall books from heavyweights like Mitch Albion, Pat Conroy, E.L. Doctorow and Audrey Niffenegger were helping booksellers to overcome the sludgy economy. Motoko then went on to quote comments about sales figures from Ellen Archer of Hyperion, Suzanne Herz at Knopf Doubleday, buyers at Borders, Powells, and others with the focus, as always, on sales. Frankly, I think most of her articles on the book business belong in the business section, not the culture section of the Times. But, as Marc Schuster says, hamburger is hamburger. ‘How many thousands have we sold today?’

“Even when it comes to constantly decreasing sales figures among the dozen or so conglomerate publishers, there seems to be no awareness that there are things going on culturally among smaller presses—a fact I mentioned in an email to Motoko that was never answered—since our sales last year were 23% higher than those in 2007, and this year we are running 45% higher sales with two months still to go. I realize our sales are in the hundreds of thousands, whereas Random House's are in the multi-millions, but when you restrict yourself to a dozen artfully written novels of ‘Cultural’ interest, I do know there is significance here.”

I asked Jon if he’d care to comment before this blog was released. I was told by his assistant, Andrea Stevens, that he’s just back from traveling, and may not be able to respond in time. In which he can always post a comment or get back to me by email. which I’d surely feature in next month’s blog. Or, like emails I’ve sent to others at the Culture desk of the Times, he might not get back to me at all.

Sometimes I feel like I'm morphing into the Michael Moore of the book publishing world when it comes to raising issues of the sort I've been blogging about. The Michael Moore identification comes about because when I'd query Katherine Bouton to make sure she meant it (about not covering first novels) there was no response. And when I emailed Motoko after her October 8 column I accidentally hit the send button before I included the text (similar to what I just sent to Jon Landman). She immediately wrote back letting me know there was no copy to respond to. But after apologizing and sending her the text, I was ignored. Isn't it funny? When you say nothing you get an answer, but when you say something serious you are ignored. It's doubly odd since our executive editor, Rania Haditirto, pointed out that in Motoko's column she quoted "Mitchell Kaplan, owner of Books & Books, a chain of independent stores in South Florida and the Cayman Islands, who said the biggest successes were often books from unknown authors that built slowly by word of mouth." Ironic, since these are exactly the same books that are largely ignored in the Arts section. Well, Michael Moore has made many telling points in his films when he’s asked questions of officials at Guantanamo, or Health Care providers, of bank executives and is ignored. And, as Michael said at the end of his latest film, Capitalism, I'm not going away and am determined to keep raising questions of this sort.

Thus, it is a great comfort to know that the December issue of The Independent (the publication of the IBPA—the Independent Book Publishers Association)—will feature a column edited by Judy Applebaum that combines aspects of my last two blogs which should serve to enlarge this dialogue, for The Independent will be mailed to 3,500 IBPA members across the country (plus a few overseas) and also to wholesalers, retailers, librarians, media people and others interested in the book business. This will certainly expand the discussion of these issues.

A Last Minute Validation:

For those skeptics who doubt the claims I’ve made about the success to be had by doing fiction in the service of “Culture” as opposed to “culture,” I pass on this email, just received as I post this blog, from Suzie Tourscher at the Merchandising Department of Baker and Taylor, concerning the first three quarters of 2009:

“Hi Marty. I wanted to pass on your 2009 third quarter sales report as I realized that I hadn’t given you one of these reports in a while. So far you are up by 71% for the year, which is unheard of in this economy. You are experiencing the biggest growth in the Public Library market and Retail Internet markets; your sales are up by 82% and 36% respectively in those areas.” Also passed on was the fact that our returns rate over the past three years has been in the mid-teens…an exceptionally low rate among book publishers.

Coming Up Next Time:

I hoped to tell the story of how, after sending out countless copies of books to bloggers, we acquired a gem of a novel, The Singular Exploits of Wonder Mom and Party Girl written by a blogger, the aforementioned Marc Schuster. But rather than take up more of your time with this, let me start next month’s blog with this exceptional tale.