Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Publishing: An Industry?

There’s a funny cover (titled “Shelf Life”) on the cover of The New Yorker of this week. It shows a young woman working on a manuscript, then follows the progress of her book into production, publication, remaindering and then being burned in an oil drum by a street person trying to keep warm. I say funny, but nothing is ever funny unless it has a grain of seriousness. Here it comes: It’s time to talk about the publishing industry.

“Industry” is the right word, and I hope it isn’t necessary to point out that all the major trade-book houses are owned by conglomerates. These are for-profit businesses. The goal of fostering and supporting America’s literature comes in as a far second to the dollars-and-cents motive. Most of the acquisition editors at the major houses come up through the sales division. They have no special training that would enable them to understand what makes a classic. (And almost all editors now are acquisition editors; they are unable to work with an author to improve a manuscript.) Current publishing savvy has to do with what is likely to sell; and it doesn’t have to sell generation after generation, just long enough to log in a hefty profit. Over the past decades we’ve seen editor after editor eased out of a job because she or he showed a greater concern for quality than for sales. I’ll mention Ted Solotaroff and Amanda Vaill, and others may want to bring up examples they know about. Some of the serious editors remain—like Elisabeth Sifton, Jonathan Galassi, Daniel Halpern, and Jill Bialosky—but are their positions secure? Not unless the numbers crunch the way they better.

Obviously publishers have to make a profit in order to keep their doors open. But the bar has been set too high; the profit margin currently demanded in publishing can only be achieved by dispensing with books that have (in any one generation, that is) minority appeal. Granted that the audience for literature of high quality is small, why is that fact embarrassing? I’m willing to bet that, when Sidney’s poems appeared in 16th century England, he had less than a hundred readers. And we know that the first edition of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass sold about 500 copies. The literate have always been a minority in any single generation; over the centuries their numbers grow. Granting that the fully competent audience of readers is a minority, doesn’t that minority have rights?

Luckily, here in these United States, we don’t have to depend entirely on the big trade-book houses for new literature. We have the university presses and the small presses, both publishing poetry and fiction. And anyone who has the least grasp of what’s what realizes that these presses must be taken just as seriously (more seriously?) than the for-profit publishers. The process of expanding available first-order fiction and poetry can’t be entrusted to company men whose eyes are focused only on the bottom line.

Returning to the New Yorker cover, note that the aspiring author is young. The whole emphasis in publishing, especially where fiction is concerned, is on youth. Young people give nice jacket photo; they will look good in TV interviews, and what sells better than sex? Besides, American culture is gaga over youth, staggeringly more interested in What the Kids Are Doing than in the thoughts or actions of any other sector of society. What these adored young American Idols don’t realize is that, once they hit their thirties, except for a few flukes or lucky cases, they will be hustled out of the limelight, regarded as “so last decade.” The Industry will have moved on to still younger authors, the new kids on the block, who can be more successfully marketed. Where is Erich Siegel? Renata Adler? Thomas McGuane? Bobbie Ann Mason? Gloria Naylor? Frederick Barthelme? Tama Janowitz? Susan Minot? This same pattern can be found, in greater or lesser degree, in all of the arts, though, granted, its most blatant instance is pop music. If we turn to poetry, we see an enormous number of prizes for first books, some of them pegged to age, for example, the Yale Younger Poets’ Prize. There is one prize (the Lamont) for a second book; at which point the support stops.

Because I’ve been on the scene for more than thirty years, I’ve watched as so many hopefuls were introduced and cried up as the best thing since sliced bread; only to see them abandoned in favor of newer kids on the block as the decades rolled on. True, many of them weren’t all that great even in the beginning. Granted, we always need to encourage beginners, hoping that they will gain experience and improve, even if their abilities are limited when they first set out. But the scrap-heap pattern is noticeable enough to deserve reflection. When beginning poets ask for advice from the golden-oldie sage, I say this: Don’t accord 100% trust in all the adulation you are receiving now. The public loves novelty. When you are no longer a novelty, you will have to have something more solid to offer. Get busy and find out what that’s going to be. Also, recognize that in most cases, jobs and family duties tend to elbow aside the will and the opportunity to create. And maybe for some those things will prove to be more important than writing, which is fine. Still: think priorities.


Ryan said...

I'm excited to have come across your blog. I've really enjoyed the posts so far and look forward to more. Best, Ryan


Steve Fellner said...


It feel weird responding to your blog becuase you are sort of an iconic figure having had several friends talk about your prosody class as such an important thing in their careers and having read your work with curioosty and genuine interest over ther years.

I must say that I was a bit surrpised by this post; it seems unkind ina way that I would never expected from the person who wrote the poems you have and the way I 've heard you teach.

It seems not only unkind but a bit inaccurate. It almost seems that you're claiming that young writers are to blame for the way that the publishing industry acts. Is that really fair or accurate?

First if we narrow this to poetry, it is such an oversaturated market that I think that hardly anyone, even those with connections, even those who have gone to Columbia, are reaping awards and money, and especially not young writers. Which is sort of sad a lot of young writers who are deserving are being ignored and not given what they deserve/need.

Also the market is so oversaturated in poetry that no one reall cares if youre attractive or not. I have hot gay male friends who would be more than willing to sleep their way to the top, but it doesnt matter: there's not enough room for everyoe deserving to haev a book. (I always wanted to sleep my way to the top but fortunately or unfortunbately I'm unattrtactive and dumby: no sex appeal: and it took me years and years to publish my almost mediocre, uneven book.)

And also a lot fo those awards the big ones are dominated by people who have published many books many books by good presses: I don't see young people winning all that much (hats off to matthea harvey for being nominated: a wonderful editor and interesting poet)

I know from your poems and what my friends say how cool you are so why are you misdiagnosing the situtation.

It's a game, a fun game, this poetry business, and if youre hot and young and you can work it and slip through and find yourself a way in a field dominated by people who are interested in poetry I say congratulations.

Why not address the fact that there is really so venues for yong poets or that theres so few ethical contests for writers who need them?

You sound unkind in this post, and I hope you show some nuance in this argument in later posts as you do in your poetry and classes.

Steve Fellner

Alfred Corn said...

Hi Steve. You have a lot of passion, a good thing. About young poets, did you see that Natasha Tretheway's second book won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize? But obviously not every young poet of the hundreds attempting to do so can win the roughly 20 prizes offered each year for first or second books--nor even be published at all. Meanwhile, I know of several poets who've published many books over the past several decades, well received and even prize-winning books; and these poets, still writing brilliantly, can't now find a publisher for their work. So it's difficult for everyone, not just the young.

Steve Fellner said...


Thanks for wriitng back to me. I love attention. I'm weak like that.

As for Natasha Tretheway, it's about time an African-American female writer got some attention after some truly amazing ones (I don't think Tretheway is amazing in any way) haven't received the Pulitzer liek Thylias Moss (hands-down along with Frank Bidart the two best American and important poets).

But if you look at the list of Pulitzers, Alfred, it's a pretty typical list. Claudia Emerson! Please. Ted Kooser. They're nice, but older, and very middle-class. But that's the Pulitzer for, they rarely choose anything that's challenging in terms of aesthetics and pliotics.

I have nothing against being dull but most of them are pretty much. There's nothing inherently writing dull narrative about middle-class life (that's what I try to with much less success and skill) but make it sorta fun to read. This isn't to say that Ted Kooser doesn't actually write a witty line, but a lot of it is beningn dross. Which isn't again a bad thing. I'm sure he's a nice man, but nothing special. Which of course isn't a bad thing except if we put stock in it.

Just want to respond to your question because Natasha Tretheway sadly isn't that common. And because I know so many people will be reading your blog I felt I had a spiritual responsibility to provide a counterargument.

P.S. I liked your review in the latest gay and lesbian worldwide magazine. Reviews usualyl aren't that well crafted.