The Troubles of Advocating for Literary Publishing [Yes, Things Are That Bad]

This past Monday I participated in LitTAP’s 2011 Facing Pages Convening, a day-long event dedicated to helping nonprofit literary organizations to better “Tell Their Story” in fundraising documents and marketing materials. My main role in the conference was to serve as the Simon Cowell of the “Marketing Clinic” and tell everyone that their websites and/or brochures were less than amazing. But in a gentle, positive-feedback sort of way.

There’s a lot that could be said about “telling one’s story,” but the part of the conference that was most interesting to me was the advocacy update. For those who don’t move in this sphere, nonprofit presses and literary organizations are pretty much always in trouble. Some of the larger ones—the Graywolfs and Dalkeys and Copper Canyons of the world—are a bit better off due to the number of years that they’ve survived, their typical sales levels, the number of donors who support them on a regular basis. But the vast majority of these places are a couple failed grant proposals away from shutting down.

Which is scary. These presses and reading series and literary centers and arts in education organizations are doing some really interesting programming—in part because outside funding mechanisms allows them a certain freedom from market pressures. And although great books would still be published if the nonprofits all folded, the whole of book culture would suffer a huge loss.

This is a hard point to get across for any number of reasons, but the idea of any arts field being 100% subjected to market forces scares the shit out of me. That’s partially due to my socialist tendencies, but mostly because I believe culture is best off if there’s a mix of money making endeavors and those that are serving a slightly difference audience/goal. I want to live in a world where not everything is valued solely by how much money it makes.

That’s a pretty traditional view (culture is good for civilization, arts need to be protected from marketplace pressures) and one of the reasons why things like the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York State Council on the Arts exist. For decades, these government entities have helped support thousands of artists and organizations. Sure, some of the organizations are better than others, and sometime the money distribution isn’t perfect, but nevertheless, NEA and NYSCA grants have been absolutely essential.

Well. The culture wars come and go, but no matter what, arts are always a target when it comes time to cut spending. (Which is utter bullshit, but that’s not the point of this post.) So now that the banks have ruined our world for the foreseeable future, NYSCA is facing at least a 10% cut in funding, and Obama has recommended a 17% reduction in funding for the NEA.

Just to put this in a bit of perspective, the NEA’s funding is essentially the same as it was back in the mid-1980. The mid-1980s! When gas was $1.20 a gallon and the Dow Jones Industrial Average was around 2,000.

Anyway, in talking about this, the conversation moved into advocacy and the need to advocates for not just funding for the arts, but funding for literature in general. Cause if the arts are in trouble, literature is especially screwed.

This got me thinking about advocating for literature, and it seems like there are three or four main obstacles to overcome if we’re going to protect the nonprofit literary organizations in the U.S.:

1) Most of the people involved in literature work for for profits. This is a huge difference from theater and museums and symphonies and dance companies and whatnot. In most (all?) of the other arts disciplines, 99% of the people involved work for nonprofits. They value the nonprofit ideal and are committed to fundraising and the concept of donation-supported arts organizations. But books? I suspect that 95% of the people working in the industry are working for Bertelsmann or its equivalent. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but the idea that “books should make money” sort of trickles down, and the remaining 5% of us are on an island, trying to convince the world of the worth of public funding for nonprofit presses. That’s a pretty shitty battle to be fighting. And a huge disparity from the other arts fields.

2) Kids don’t do advocacy. I’m not sure exactly how one advocates for the arts, but in talking about what we could do, the common refrain was that we should organize, meet with representatives, show up in their offices, etc. Which sounds so old fashioned. Anyone under the age of 40 would much rather send an email or write a blog post (witness) or something that’s much more in line with how we function in the world. But the olds like their meetings. And their way of doing things. Which is why all these other lobbyists are so effing successful. Since only a portion of the book world is even interested, we’d get a lot more done if we could seize on the passion of our young, underpaid, still quixotic constituents. But convincing them that they should meet with representatives about literature? Please.

3) No one is allowed to do this. My understanding is that most all of us have to do any and all advocacy work outside of actual work. There are tons of regulations and rules and all that, which are necessary and protective, but which don’t help the microscopic three-person press that’s doing any and everything it can do to stay alive from one $5,000 grant to the next. Other industries have a huge advantage here. Without getting myself into trouble, I’m just going to say that I suspect things are a little different elsewhere.

4) There’s no money for lobbyists. Even other arts disciplines have more lobbyists working to ensure that they’re part of the conversation. Literature has one part-time person who isn’t even based in D.C. He’s a genius, and an awesome individual, but still.

Thinking about all of this—most people in books aren’t concerned with this issue, no one has any time, no one wants to do things in the old-fashioned way—left me feeling pretty discouraged. All the issues surrounding arts funding, such as the allocation of funds, funding policies, etc., are fascinating, but it just seems so bleak . . . And like it would take a brilliant new group of 20-somethings who are dedicated to arts, interested in government, and savvy enough to figure out new modes of engagement to fix this system. Otherwise, a 20% this year will become a 25% next time there’s a budget crunch (or whatever) and over time things will become a bit less diverse. And you won’t even realize what is lost until it’s gone for good.

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