July 6, 2011KR BlogKR

What can fiction learn from poetry? Notes on publishing (2)

Today’s headlines, full of outrage over the behavior of tabloids owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, provide an interesting background to continue this reflection on the state of fiction publishing–or, to continue last week’s metaphor, on the state of the union between the artist and the corporation?

I wanted to consider fiction publishing vs. poetry publishing because it has often seemed to me that there’s a depth of community in contemporary poetry that doesn’t quite exist for literary fiction. The fact that big money and “big” success (movie deals! translation into 18 languages!) exist more in fiction means that there’s a more forceful hierarchy, a wide gap between the haves and have-nots, and various incarnations of tension among the ranks (the “mainstream” vs. the “experimental,” “literary” vs. “genre,” etc.). There’s support and celebration, but there’s also plenty of competition, individuals striving to get their share of the success (the frustrating dynamic I was thinking about last week, in the advice for emerging fiction writers: “aim high, fall where you can”). This competition demands that writers learn to label–or, worse, “brand”–themselves, necessarily an act that focuses on the individual, that divides rather than uniting.

I don’t mean to make poetry publishing sound utopic, but I do admire its more developed sense of community: when poetry is primarily read “only” by other poets and writers, the community must answer to and support itself. (The downside of that is, of course, that at this moment in contemporary US literature, poetry is not read widely by the culture at large–a loss for our times.) Without getting too grand, let’s propose that a central aim of publishing (as in: making public) literature is engaging with a community. To take this one step further, we could say that the aim is to engage with that community in a way that not only doesn’t privilege or recreate the values of the marketplace, but subverts them, offers alternatives in their place. (Or, in the words of an author I worked with once, as we apologetically mumbled the size of the advance we could offer: “I don’t care about the money, I’m just looking for a literary relationship!”)

Plenty of alarm bells have been sounded about the death of publishing, and I’d rather not sound any more, but perhaps just note again that the corporation has become the dominant institution in publishing and book-selling, and that we’re in both a recession and a rapidly changing publishing landscape, when the forms of books and the means by which they’re sold keep altering, threatening sales and demanding swift adaptation. Like Ethan Nosowsky of Graywolf, quoted last week, I’m sure that the big houses will continue to publish some great books–but also like him, I worry that in a difficult market these houses will be increasingly conservative, and that they have such a significant advantage over independent houses in terms of publicity and marketing budgets and resulting review attention that the great books published by smaller houses may too often be overlooked. So: how do we close this gap between the haves and have-nots?

One way to approach this question is to look at a few of the alternative fiction publishing models that already exist. I think immediately of FC2, one of my favorite independent houses (so many books to recommend!–but check out, for instance, the recently released debut of Joseph Cardinale, The Size of the Universe). Fiction Collective Two is “an author-run, not-for-profit publisher of artistically adventurous, non-traditional fiction”–or, as its mission statement, says, it is

among the few alternative presses in America devoted to publishing fiction considered by America’s largest publishers too challenging, innovative, or heterodox for the commercial milieu.

… FC2’s mission has been and remains to publish books of high quality and exceptional ambition whose styles, subject matter, or forms push the limits of American publishing and reshape our literary culture.

This is itself an exceptional ambition, but one that, by my vote, FC2 continues to fulfill. It has been around, with slight variations to its form, since 1974, and is highly respected and its books widely reviewed. The press runs as an artists’ collective, of about 100 writers at present, with no government grants (its website states that its funding “barely allow[s] it to break even each year”) and all final decisions made by its board, who are all writers. Thus concerns about sales figures or funding for individual projects do not have an opportunity to enter the acquisitions process; this fact alone is extraordinary.

There has been much talk recently of Richard Nash‘s new Cursor venture, and its brand-new imprint Red Lemonade. Nash is best-known as the publisher of acclaimed indy press Soft Skull–in his words:

… [W]hen I left Soft Skull, folks asked: “Are you going to start a new Soft Skull?”

“No,” says I. “The world already has Soft Skull, it doesn’t need a second. In fact,” I continued, “the world doesn’t need another indy press. It needs another 50,000 indie presses.”

Which led to Cursor a “new, ‘social’ approach to publishing,” which Nash described, in an article in Publishers Weekly, thus:

The business will focus on developing the value of the reading and writing ecosystem, including the growth of markets for established authors, as well as engaging readers and supporting emerging writers. Each community will have a publishing imprint, which will make money from authors’ books, sold as digital downloads, conventional print and limited artisanal editions–and will offer authors all the benefits of a digital platform… But the greatest opportunity is in the community itself. Each will have tiers of membership, including paid memberships that will offer exclusive access to tools and services, such as rich text editors for members to upload their own writing, peer-to-peer writing groups, recommendation engines, access to established authors online and in person, and editorial or marketing assistance. Members can get both peer-based feedback and professional feedback. …

The Cursor business model seeks to unite all the various existing revenues in the writing-reading ecosystem, from offering services to aspiring writers far more cheaply than most vendors to finding more ways to get more money to authors faster. It also will create highly sensitive feedback loops that will tell each community’s staff what tools and features users want, what books users think the imprint should be publishing, how the imprint could publish better.

Cursor is not designed to “save publishing,” but simply to offer the kind of services that readers and writers, established and emerging, want and the Internet enables. I believe especially strongly that the model must be viable in a world where the effective price of digital content falls to zero, and paper becomes like vinyl records or fine art prints. …

If recent experience is any guide, there is little reason for me to think that people, given so many other options for their leisure time, especially in the wired world, will continue to give up hours and dollars for the sake of our industry, any more than they will for big cars or daily newspapers. We are going to have to find new ways to earn those hours and dollars, and at the prices our readers–and writers–set.

It’s early to say how Cursor and its imprints will play out, but it’s a venture absolutely to keep an eye on (or join up with!). Cursor is not, it’s important to note, a non-profit model, but on the contrary, as Nash describes, a model looking to sustain literature commercially in new, and noncorporate, ways.

Another way to answer the question I’ve posed–how do we foster community in fiction?–is a call to action, to review venues and to the literary community at large: to support independent houses, and give them the same degree of attention as one gives the bigger names. This isn’t original, but is worth repeating. Look to some of the new-ish online ventures that focus largely on independently published work, and that tend to give equal attention to fiction and poetry (unlike, for instance, the New York Times, which in general treats poetry as an esoteric interest)–places such as the review magazine the Quarterly Conversation, or the online community at HTML Giant. (And, I should add, the newly expanded review venture here at the KRO!)

Here in my own neighborhood there also such ventures as the new bookstore/gallery/performance space the Flying Object–an exciting & non-market-driven endeavor, arriving just as many other independent bookstores are considering charging for author events. The Flying Object aims to support and celebrate literature and art, its readings having not the serious atmosphere of Important Writers reading Great Literature (although that happens there regularly), but offering instead intimacy, playfulness, and camaraderie. This is one such place well known to me, though I’ll go out on a limb and suggest that there are great non-academic literary community spaces around the country, offering readings, workshops, work space, and places for readers and writers to encounter one another.

On a related note, others have mentioned to me that they wish fiction readings could be a little more like poetry readings–less need for plot summary, and “what you need to know so far,” less of the atmosphere of the “book tour,” and more celebration of prose, sentence by sentence. I wonder too if the phenomenon of prose chapbooks (see Dzanc Books, New Michigan Press, New Herring Press, and others) will be an invigorating step, getting fiction to be more comfortable seeing itself as both fine art and ephemera (and continuing to celebrate design in the age of digitized text).

I haven’t answered any of my own questions, I think, so let’s just say: please chime in! And because I can’t help it maybe I’ll just point to a few of the other independent fiction-publishing houses that I’ll be looking forward to reading this summer, and ten years from now: New Directions, Dalkey Archive, Sarabande, Small Beer, Dzanc, Starcherone, and more…