On the surface, the op-ed piece that FSG publisher Jonathan Galassi wrote for the Tiimes this past weekend seems pretty mundane. His main point seems to be that good editors at good publishing houses make good books better. Or more directly: publishers do more than simply print and sell books. They have special knowledge about book-world things that not many other people have.
All that is true. Absolutely. And I don’t think anyone would really argue with that. (We all know the value of a great editor, right? And although authors will bitch—they always bitch—about the amount of publicity their publicist is getting them, I doubt more than a handful of authors would really enjoy all the legwork that goes into pitching a book to reviewers, arranging a tour, etc.)
Even Galassi’s conclusion feels a bit tautological:
In this increasingly virtual age of open access and universal availability, it’s important for readers to keep in mind what it is that a publisher does for an author. A publisher — and I write as one — does far more than print and sell a book. It selects, nurtures, positions and promotes the writer’s work.
An e-book distributor is not a publisher, but rather a purveyor of work that has already been created. In this way, e-books are no different from large-print or paperback or audio versions. They are simply the latest link in an unbroken editorial chain, the newest format for one of man’s greatest inventions: the constantly evolving, imperishable book — given its definitive form by a publisher.
(Although I must admit, I’m a bit confused by the closing line. Is “man’s greatest invention” an imperishable book as produced by the publisher or simply an imperishable book? Is this some chicken-and-egg zen thing? Like there is no book that presupposes a publisher?)
To the general reader, this op-ed piece might not sound like much. But this is actually a pretty well-crafted statement about a couple of touchy e-book/future of publishing issues.
First off, in the very first paragraph, Galassi brings up the situation regarding the e-book version of William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice. In case you’re not familiar with the behind-the-scenes positioning related to this, the basic story is that although Random House is the publisher of the print version of Sophie’s Choice, Jane Friedman of Open Road Integrated Media (and formerly of HarperCollins), bought up the e-rights and this will be one of the first e-books she publishes.
In response, Random House issued a blanket statement claiming that the “book and volume publishing rights” in their standard pre-e-everything contracts actually included e-book rights, thereby preventing estates from selling off e-book rights to some other publishers. Er, in Galassi lingo, “e-book distributor.”
Rather than jump into this legal fray and try and make a claim that, like the constitution, these old-school contracts are totally open to interpretation and subtle time-adjustments, Galassi instead appeals to the logic that without a great editor (and publicist and sales force and and and), Styron wouldn’t have been known for shit, and thus Random House should be the one to benefit from his success—in whatever form that takes. Remember, there would be no e-book if there weren’t first a print publisher.
This argument is definitely appealing. No one likes to think that they could do all the ground work on something only to have a third-party come along and profit off of your hard work and expertise. And the subtle move of making Open Road a e-distributor is kind of brilliant. In the court of public opinion, Galassi’s scoring some major points here.
And although it may not be as explicit, I also think you could read this piece as the beginnings of an argument about how e-books should cost the same as a print version. After all, the amount of editorial expertise and work that goes into producing an e-book is the same as what goes into the print version . . .
E-book pricing and rights issues are the 2010 battlegrounds, and this is a great foundation-laying piece for one side of the argument. Galassi is one of the best publishers in the business (and I say that not just because of his on-going commitment to literature in translation), and a pretty brilliant guy. And I know that I would be seriously pissed if someone came along and bought the e-rights to some of our books right out from under us and managed to make
thousands hundreds tens of dollars off of Kindle sales.
That said, the business world is the business world, and where there’s an opportunity to make money, someone is going to step in and exploit it. It’s the American Way. Right? And as sick as pure capitalism makes me, it only seems fair that authors have the right to benefit through new sales of their work that have opened up due to technological advances. Maybe if Random House, FSG, and the like offer their authors an incentive (a new advance just for the e-book sales?), the estates wouldn’t be tempted to sell the rights to an e-book distributor . . . Simply laying down a claim to these rights—solid argument and all—feels just a bit totalitarian and creepy.
Then again, that’s why/how these companies are making millions of dollars in profit every year . . .
A couple weeks ago, the Philoctetes Center for the Multidisciplinary Study of the Imagination (one of the best names I’ve ever come across), hosted an interesting event on translation:
Borges once noted that nothing was more central to the “modest mystery” of literature than translation. Across centuries and language barriers, culture survives through translation, and it’s an essential consideration in the art of reading. This panel will explore translation’s role in literary culture, as well as the figure of the translator. Topics for discussion include the nature of the relationship between translation and original writing; the influence of editors and publishers; translators’ aesthetic, political, and psychological concerns; and the role of translation in contemporary global culture.
And what a lineup or panelists! Peter Cole, Peter Constantine, Jonathan Galassi, Edith Grossman, Suzanne Jill Levine, and Qiu Xiaolong . . . And you don’t have to just read about this event—a video of the full 2-hour event is available on the website. (I wish more venues would do this. Sure, this video is really well cut, edited, and produced, but even a down-and-dirty single-shot recording would be interesting to a lot of people.)
The format of this event is really interesting as well. A true roundtable, the guests all sit facing each other, with the audience outside of the circle. Seems much more conducive to interaction than your typical all-in-a-straight-line panel . . .
[Addendum: I’ll second Edie Grossman’s assertion that Macedonio Fernandez was “the most eccentric man who ever lived in the northern or southern hemispheres.” And it’s really cool that one of our authors—Macedonio’s The Museum of Eterna’s Novel comes out next January—was the first thing Edie ever translated.]
Imagine the most baroque excesses of Goethe, Shakespeare, and Poe, blended together and poured into a single book: That is The Nightwatches of Bonaventura. Ophelia and Hamlet fall in love in a madhouse, suicidal young men deliver mournful and heartfelt. . .
In 1899, Maurice Ravel wrote “Pavane pour une infante défunte” (“Pavane for a Dead Princess”) for solo piano (a decade later, he published an orchestral version). The piece wasn’t written for a particular person; Ravel simply wanted to compose a. . .
Fiston Mwanza Mujila is an award-winning author, born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, who now, at 33, lives in Austria. From what I could find, much of his work is influenced by the Congo’s battle for independence and its. . .
Twenty-One Days of a Neurasthenic is not a novel in the traditional sense. Rather, it is a collection of vignettes recorded by journalist Georges Vasseur in his diary during a month spent in the Pyrenées Mountains to treat his nervous. . .
Founded in 1960 by such creative pioneers as George Perec, Raymond Queneau and Italo Calvino, the Oulipo, shorthand for Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, came about in when a group of writers and mathematicians sought constraints to find new structures and. . .
There’s little to say about a series of prose poems that willfully refuse to identify pronoun antecedents. Or perhaps there are a million things. The poems in Morse, My Deaf Friend— the chapbook by Miloš Djurdjević published by Ugly Duckling. . .
The Crimson Thread of Abandon is the first collection of short fiction available in English by the prolific Japanese writer and all-around avant-garde trickster Terayama Shūji, who died in 1983 at the age of 47. This collection would be important. . .