Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Note to Bonnie

The other day one of the authors we publish at Other Press, Bonnie Nadzam (whose novel Lamb won the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize in 2011), wrote telling me that she had been asked by her British publisher to complete an author interview. One of the questions they'd asked her was, "What would you change about the publishing industry?" Bonnie asked for my help to frame an intelligent answer to the question. I'm not sure if I was any help but here is the response I gave her (slightly edited from the original email):

Hi Bonnie,

Great to hear from you — hope your busy-ness allows for thinking and writing, let alone typing…

As for the question "What would you change about the publishing industry?" I don't know what to tell you. Some short answers might be -- "Stop pretending to be a business. You're a cottage industry." or "Don't lose faith in the bedrock assumptions underlying your work: books matter, books will last, quality will win out in the end." or "Embrace change only if it enables you to publish better." or "Get rid of the MBAs." or "Don't fear new technology, learn how to use it."

These may seem glib responses, but they're not. The biggest problem the publishing industry faces is one of attitude — too many of its participants bemoaning the fate of print, their own fate, the fate of literature itself, etc. Their sourness and angst cast a huge shadow on the rest of us who are trying to do a good job. All the talk about digital vs. print, Amazon vs the World, online vs bricks-and-mortar, self-publishing vs "legacy houses" is superficial and distracting but not benign. By constantly fretting and telling ourselves what a seismic upheaval we're experiencing, we wind up undermining the very confidence needed to survive that upheaval.

If one acknowledges that publishing was, is, and always will be a marginal industry in terms of revenue and profit, but an essential activity in terms of buttressing a culture and disseminating knowledge, then one is prepared to live with its contradictions.

That said, there are a thousand and one concrete items that need addressing, from copyright to pricing to contracts to "discoverability" to format compatibility and so on. I'm happy to send you a longish piece by Steve Wasserman that appeared in The Nation back in June, ostensibly about Amazon, but a valuable overview of the whole biz: Just let me know if you'd like to see anything else.


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