3 June 09 | Chad W. Post

Follow these links for Part I and Part II.

Over the past few years, the book industry has become much flatter, allowing many, many more people to enter into the business. For instance, the advent of self-publishing allows almost anyone to become an author and make their book available for sale. Blogs turn your voracious reader into a book reviewer almost overnight. And thanks to print on demand and e-technologies, the bar to entering the publishing market is much lower than it was back a couple decades ago.

Bookstores are one of the few areas of the industry that are still cost-prohibitive. You can’t compete with Amazon by creating an online store, and a physical location and all those physical books requires a huge cash outlay.

This fundamental change has upwrenched the industry in several ways though. The distribution chain for books still heavily favors the corporate publishers with solid nationwide distribution and long-term beneficial arrangements with major review sources and the chain bookstores.

One reason I think the “editors buzz panel” is silly is because it’s simply a chance for a few corporations to present the titles they’re going to be pimping hard over the next few months anyway. It’s not like you’re not already going to be hearing about these books—that decision was made way ahead of time by the marketing staff, or even by the editor who shelled out a million bucks for a particular book. The buzz panel gives the illusion of choice and participation. Booksellers can feel like they were in on the ground floor, but really? A book coming out from one of the big presses with a mammoth marketing budget (including tens of thousands being spent at B&N, the direct physical competitor to the indie booksellers attending this buzz panel) will be given all the necessary backing to take off. Sure, an indie store could decide to not carry it (but again, really? they want to stay in business by stocking books that are selling, and books getting a lot of attention and publishing push, tend to sell) or at least not recommend it, but the forces of publishing buzz are much bigger than a two-hour panel in which a hundred bookstores find out about the fall’s big titles.

That digression aside, BEA is one potentially great opportunity for smaller presses to reach readers they normally wouldn’t reach. This point hearkens back to the attendance criteria, but in a slightly different way. The corporate presses still have the best, biggest, and most noticeable places on the floor (unless HMH and Macmillan, which took out meeting rooms instead), but nevertheless, there is the opportunity at BEA for the indie presses (like those with PGW or Consortium), the micropresses, and the self-published to meet potential readers and promoters. It’s not often that the buyer at a store in Montana will take a call from a tiny press that they’ve never heard of, but at BEA, there is the chance that this same bookseller will wander by the tiny press booth, notice an interesting looking book, strike up a conversation, stock that title, and handsell a few dozen copies.

One of the problems (and oh god, are there a lot of problems) with the current structure of the book industry is the fact that a traditional press can not survive making connections like this that will help sell a few hundred extra copies of a book. It’s one of the reasons that during the Arab-U.S. Editors Panel Erroll McDonald from Pantheon was so adamant about translations failing in the U.S.

As you can see from Gwen’s recap (the above link), during this panel about the obstacles and opportunities in exchanging works between Arab and U.S. publishers, McDonald took the very old corporate view that translations can’t be successful in the U.S. because America is “breathtakingly provincial” and that international lit is ghettoized in the stores, in the media, etc. Therefore, no one buys it, Pantheon doesn’t make enough money to keep the overlords happy, and we ignore the rest of the world to produce and promote our own crappy books.

This is one of those topics that gets me all hyped up and jittery, so I’ll try and save most of my rant for a longer, more complete post, but basically, I think McDonald’s presentation was predicated on two questionable tenets that are worth examining.

First of all, the definition of “success” is, and probably will be for the foreseeable future, based on the mega-sales level that can be achieved by Dan Brown or Stephen King, or whomever. A book isn’t successful unless it’s selling tens of thousands of copies. Sales = success. Or more specifically, sales large enough to sustain an outdated and dying business model = success. Fuck. That. Thanks to changes in the industry, new presses are starting up with sustainable business models premised on sales in the 2,000 – 5,000 range. Of course, these presses aren’t going to make anyone a millionaire, but they are presses that will be successful in creating a diverse, vibrant book culture. You could shun this as “spiritual success,” but going back to the mediocrity point, only a few people are going to get rich in the book world, so you have to do something that will make you feel good about your life.

And besides, coming from a major press like Pantheon, this “translations cost too much to publish” argument is total bullshit. I can’t say for certain, but I suspect that Pantheon offers $100,000 advances on a routine basis. And yet, don’t want to do a translation because they’d have to pay a translator $10,000. . . . Which, yes, it’s an “additional cost,” unless you acknowledge that the rights to the best works of international literature are available for much, much less than $100,000. In any given year, 80% of all translations are published by small presses—none of which offer anywhere near $100,000 for the rights. So Pantheon could do these books and be “successful”—they just don’t want to.

(The moment of the panel that really pissed me off was McDonald’s claim that an editor won’t just read an Arab book and decide to publish it. He/she will only do it once it’s been successfully published in Germany, in France, in Spain, etc., etc. Once it’s a known quantity then you can do it. Of course, he hedged in answering whether an editor does the same thing when evaluating the work of a debut American novelist . . . Dude also insisted there are no presses in America doing only literature in translation, so whatever.)

Secondly, and maybe more importantly, I think he’s conflating the words “isolated” and “provincial” to create a self-fulfilling situation. Americans may or may not be provincial when it comes to reading foreign fiction (recent successes of 2666 and The Elegance of the Hedgehog would argue that they’re not), but they’re definitely isolated from the rest of the world’s book culture. As anyone who’s read this blog more than once knows, there are very few books in translation published in America on a yearly basis. We live in a culturally isolated world. I’m just not willing to believe that this is due to our inherent fear of international literature . . . If I was subjected to as many invasive ads, reviews, interviews, etc., etc., for Munif’s Cities of Salt as I am for Angels and Demons, I might well have read this book. The business model that dominates publishing (although there are things on the edges that successfully run counter to this) is the blockbuster idea that pours immense resources into promoting the most accessible works, shaping public consciousness to make money and then claiming that the books people never even heard about (because the press never spent a second figuring out how to let people know about them) didn’t sell because people don’t like those sorts of books.

This flattening is even more evident when it comes to reviewers and the old print vs. online kerfuffle. But more on that issue—and its relation to voracious readers and readers in general—in part IV.

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