Why I Publish Books
This spring I was a visiting writer at Savannah College of Art and Design. It was a great opportunity to meet with engaged writers and discuss subjects like how publishing works, challenges presented by (and against) conceptual writing, how you can push stories till they break—for that we read Amy Hempel, Cathy Day, John Cheever, Lydia Davis—and my favorite, a whole class spent discussing Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. My visits culminated with a public presentation this past Tuesday, for which I used the format of a presentation to a board of directors. This is that talk.
The subject of my talk tonight is “what do we need books for when TV is so good,” and I’ll tell you now that I don’t have a convincing answer.
And that’s strange, because I’ve devoted my life to books. I write them, publish them, help others write and publish them, and I am keenly interested in the history, business, and theories that surround them.
More importantly, reading is sometimes immensely pleasurable for me. When I’ve found a book to love, I hate being away from it. I find myself thinking about it all the time. I think this annoyance at being deprived of reading time is something all book lovers understand.
My elementary school librarian taught me that with books, I can go anywhere. I can travel the world and the whole universe with books. This is an unsatisfying metaphor for me as an adult, but something very like it still seems true.
And I understand that, from a physiological perspective, reading does important things to develop the brain and sharpen connective neurological functions. Which, like, awesome. A study at Emory last year, called “Short- and Long-Term Effects of a Novel on Connectivity in the Brain,” showed that reading novels instills and improves muscle memory in the same way that athletes develop it practicing sports.
And despite all this, 42% of college graduates won’t read another book after they finish school. Ever. 50% of the population of adults can’t read at an 8th grade level.
Why is that? I don’t think the answer begins with stupidity or laziness, or even disinterest in the value that books offer. There are many other reasons that must come before presuming the worst, including the fact that there’s an elitism in the way that books are priced.
But a more basic part of the problem, which I believe may be more of a solution than a problem, is that television and cinema provide the same access to important ideas as what’s found in books—but in more accessible packaging.
And that is the challenge for book publishing, but I don’t think it’s a concern for literature. Literature is thriving in new media. It’s even somehow become the foundation of better video games.
And like so many others in this country, I just finished watching Mad Men. It is a brilliant story: complex and mysteriously elegant and inspiring, and it caused me to grapple with the human condition in the same way that reading books does, albeit, granted, it probably happened without the synaptic workout that comes from turning the page. But it also offered me a glimpse into the world my relatives lived in, and that way to connect to them is meaningful to me.
What the most innovative publishers are learning now is that their job is less about making books and more about finding other ways to engage readers. This often takes the form of throwing big parties, or hosting writing workshops, creating forums for readers to engage with editors, opening bookstores or lending libraries, or something else new and fun, like Two Dollar Radio’s indie film company. Also of interest is Concord Free Press, which makes their books available for free, and asks their readers to pay it forward with a donation to charity. In this way they’ve already prompted $500,000 in giving.
And then there are the good folks who are deeply interested in literature but, rather than publish, do something related. I’m thinking of Submittable, of course, and Mellow Pages (who are currently on hiatus), and Vouched.
In an important article at Virginia Quarterly Review, Chris Fischbach, the publisher of Coffee House Books, says he scrutinized the assumptions the press operated under and the biggest one, and the most wrong one, was that they are in the business of publishing books. “No,” he writes, “[that’s] a tactic we use to achieve our actual goal, which is to connect writers and readers.”
Which, like, yes.
Making books is the easiest thing in the world. If it wasn’t easy, there wouldn’t be so many bad ones—and I’m not referring here to the dramatic increase in the number of self-published titles. I think self-publishing ultimately facilitates the real work of books, which is generating conversation.
What’s hard is carving out a community for the books, and not just so that there is a big pool of potential customers. Because for all my hand-wringing about the waning relevance of books, I have never doubted the importance and general excitement of the book community. I believe civilization is constantly moving toward improving its understanding of justice, and that disseminating ideas doesn’t just happen in end products like finished books or screenplays, but in conversations among people who care about these things.
So I would build on Chris Fischbach’s stated aim and say that it’s my goal not just to connect readers with writers, but to connect writers with writers and readers with writers and writers with readers.
Publishers need to exist and sell books profitably if only so this community can continue their work. But the ways that we do it should be fluid and adaptable, acknowledging the actual desires of the reading public and, just as importantly, people who don’t read books. Of course, the most adaptable publishers are small presses, who account for 78% of the titles published every year.
Unfortunately, big houses—the top 20 of which somehow account for 93% of book sales (according to Andre Schiffrin in 2000)—are historically awful at fulfilling the desires of their customers. This current tension with ebook pricing has played out with every new trend, from book of the month clubs to paperback release schedules. The big publishers are massive conglomerates with operating budgets in the billions, but that only seems to mean that they have to protect their traditional revenue model, reporting up to parent companies with no history or interest in books.
Meanwhile, one of the most interesting experiences I’ve had while trying to “give the people what they want” from literature comes from planning events at AWP. It started quite accidentally, the first time Gene Morgan, Zach Dodson and I tried to put together “Literature Party,” an event which features short readings from three amazing writers, then a DJ. To secure the venue we wanted, The Black Cat in DC, we had to pay $3500. Of course, that meant we’d have to charge a cover, which was something pretty unheard of at AWP. The number of free events happening there means it’s a buyer’s market. Who’s going to pay?
So with trepidation and a good handful of sponsors, we charged $12, which it turns out people were happy to pay (and then they were happy to spend many times that amount on drinks at the bar). After we covered the cost of the party, including paying the performers as well as the venue, we still had over $3,000, which we donated to a local literacy group. We did this for years, always making a sizable donation.
The kicker, though, is that those same people who buy tickets and drinks at Literature Party, of course, are less inclined to spend $15 for a book. But look at this! My operating budget to publish five books a year is about $10,000. If I could somehow put together four of these parties a year, I’d be able to give Publishing Genius books away for free. I get excited thinking about that, about the rationale behind it, because it shows the vitality of literature. We need to be able to find ways to give more people more of what they want, because it allows us as publishers to do what we want.
In the case of Publishing Genius, that is to bolster the work of the community.
It took me a long time to understand that my interest in publishing doesn’t come from a love of great sentences, or ideas, or even the sense that, like many of my colleagues, I could put out an award winning book. Instead, my relationship to the work can best be conveyed in the image of me as a child, bored and cramped on long car rides, passionately taking in the words on every billboard and street sign that we drove past. Which is to say that I absorb messages when I perceive that there is Something More stirring.
There is always Something More. That anticipation informs my desire to participate in the conversation. Publishing is the way I participate, in the same way that writers write.
So with that in mind, I’d love to introduce you to some of the books I’ve worked on recently. Here’s the slideshow.
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