Health Canada advises that crystal ball gazing is hazardous to your credibility, yet we insist on doing it anyway. Call it an addiction.
Literary journalism is particularly addicted to the crystal ball these days, as publishing is in crisis — by which I mean to say only that publishing is in perhaps slightly greater crisis than it usually is. (We are doomed. When’s lunch?) The latest example is found in the pages of the Globe & Mail, which is to say, online at the Globe & Mail — a distinction I make because it will soon become important — wherein the ever-hapless John Barber endeavours to get a read on the future of publishing.
Among Barber’s “trends to watch” is the revival of the short story, which is exemplified by … well, pretty much nothing at all, as there’s no evidence of a “revival” in progress.
What there is, in place of evidence, is a great deal of hope that the new world of electronic publishing and e-books will lead to a renewed interest in the short story. It makes sense: your e-reader doesn’t care whether you read a thick tome, or a thin one, and the disappearance of distribution costs means that you can sell single stories, instead of relying on collections or magazines to carry them. But I’m a-gonna tell you, don’t bet on that horse.
The notion that electronic media will promote the short story as a form relies on rigid ideas of form that themselves are shaped by past media. New media is as likely to change a form as to revive its popularity.
Consider the novella. (All those who whine that the short story receives no respect should consider the novella at length, and shut up.) The novella has all but disappeared, and the reason is simple: the reader, that person who (in theory, at least) buys books, tends to buy by weight, not volume. The twenty-dollar price tag on that trade paperback becomes steadily less attractive as the book grows skinnier; to the reader, buying this thing is like paying full price to watch a 30-minute movie. And so, with the exception of a few writers who specialize in the form (Jim Harrison), nobody writes novellas.
The same pressure leads novels to grow thicker. A 400-page novel is more attractive than a slim, 200-page novel, even though that 400-page novel may consist of 200 pages of novel and 200 pages of filler, word meal and editing by-product. Some readers equate the thickness of the novel with its difficulty, and therefore with their prowess as readers, which explains in part the appeal of William Vollmann. Readers like doorstops, and so there is pressure to pump air into a story to make it bigger, pressure that is created by the medium in which it is delivered — the book, with its physical heft and price tag.
Similarly, the short story is a product of media. It was created by the magazine, and the constraints on its length are created in part by the number of column inches available in an issue, and in part by the attention span of magazine readers.
We have already seen how, when liberated from the constraints of the magazine, the short story may grow. Short stories in literary magazines today are unlikely to exceed 5,000 words (at most), but when published in a collection, are often much longer. This is not to make the book thicker, one hopes; you could instead include one more story. It should be because, freed of artificial constraints on its length, that story can grow to its natural dimensions.
I believe strongly that every story has natural dimensions. Some ideas lead to novels, and others to short stories. Some lead to novellas. Too often, we try to squeeze these things into a smaller space, to fit into a magazine, or inflate them to fill the expectations of a novel. The results are not good.
A new medium in which to deliver stories, one that puts paid to artificial constraints of length, is not likely to promote the short story so much as it is likely to make the boundaries between short story, novella and novel fuzzier. We will still have short stories in our brave new world, but only as defined by some arbitrary definition that uses word count to place short stories in one bucket, and novellas in another. The notion that length defines form, in that context, begins to look silly; if, for example, a short story is under 7000 words, can you define the formal differences between a 6,999-word short story, and a 7,001-word long story?
Perhaps, in the future, we’ll stop talking about short stories and novels and begin talking only about stories, and how they are told.
Oh, the good old days. It used to be that publishers would be willing to take on a book, edit it, publicize it, wrap it in a nice-looking cover and push it on booksellers. But in today’s hyper-competitive publishing landscape, with a soft economy and an illiterate public, roles are changing.
“What we hear again and again is that publishers would love to publish books,” says literary agent Amanda Vautour, “but they just can’t afford to.”
Authors, finding publishers unwilling to take on the work of turning their worthless manuscripts into books, are increasingly hiring freelance publishers to do the work for them. “I advise all my authors that their project has to be as close to a finished book as possible before a publisher will take a risk on it,” says Vautour. “Nowadays, that means it has to be edited, designed, printed, hyped and pimped, and preferably on the shelves of major bookstore chains before we approach a publisher.”
“Ideally, the author should arrange coop at Chapters/Indigo. Most publishers are much more willing to at least consider a ‘Heather’s Pick’ than, you know, just some novel stuck back in Fiction and Literature someplace.”
Typical of the new trend is Vancouver author Janet Hackenscribble, whose blockbuster hit Not Bloody Likely was written by a ghostwriter, rewritten by a stream of freelance editors, and publicized by an aggressive campaign of murder and mayhem before finding prominent paid placement for an undisclosed fee at chain bookstores across the country. Just before Christmas last year, following shortlist nominations for the Giller, Writers Trust and Governor General’s awards, Random House picked up Not Bloody Likely. The deal was a lucrative one by today’s standards, with at least half a percent of the discounted sale price going to the author.
I was pleased to see Johanna Skibsrud take the Giller last night. I’m one of those lucky people with a first printing of The Sentimentalists, which I’m reading now. And I’m liking it. Better than Annabel, though not better than Light Lifting. But if Alexander MacLeod couldn’t win, I’m happy to see Skibsrud take it.
I’m happy to see it because it’s a good book, and also because it’s a chance for a small press, Gaspereau, to get some attention for the quality of their publishing program. Small presses do the literary grunt work in this country. They pound the ground and flush the new talent out of cover. And then, too often, bigger presses and agents leap into the game, and the small press is back to pounding the ground. They take the risks that agents and big houses do not; they’re the ones willing to take a dive on a new writer. They deserve the recognition.
Furthermore, Gaspereau makes beautiful books.
So my concern over the mess Johanna Skibsrud now finds herself in is not “shit talk about Gaspereau.” The fact is that Gaspereau is fully capable of meeting the normal demand for their books. And Andrew Steeves’ refusal to change his ways when the book was shortlisted was no big deal; the demand for a shortlist book is only a few thousand copies.
But winning … that places you in exceptional circumstances. Winning the Giller is not business as usual. Not for anyone, multinationals included. And this is where Gaspereau is making a serious mistake.
A lot of fuss is being made over booksellers and readers, and whether they’ll be able to get the book. Let me say this: I don’t give a shit about booksellers or readers here. They’re not on my team. Today, I only care about writers.
A writer gets one shot at something like this. At 27.95 and 10% royalty, with the Giller likely to move 75,000 copies, Johanna Skibsrud is looking at a $209,625 payday. But that demand has a time limit; much of it will be gone by Christmas, as frustrated readers buy something else. And next year will see another Must Read. This is a limited-time offer, whatever the feel-good promises that readers will wait, and you have to call now.
Meanwhile, Gaspereau can print only 1,000 copies a week. That’s 6,000 before Christmas; Skibsrud’s take, $16,770, I’m guessing about 20% of what she’d otherwise expect.
Filthy lucre! Writers, artists, we’re not supposed to care about money — we’re supposed to care about art. We’re supposed to love beautiful, hand-crafted books of the sort Gaspereau publishes. We’re not supposed to let the promise of $209,625 sway us from our path of purity. Skibsrud gently says that the business end is not up to her; she just wants readers!
(And she wants her fucking book fucking printed, although not in precisely those words.)
Filthy lucre? Bullshit. Money matters. Money is what lets you keep working at writing, which business is, for the most part, a money-loser. Money pays off the debts you rack up. It pays the mortgage and buys the groceries. This is why writers have day jobs, even when they pretend that they don’t, or understanding spouses with good jobs. And you get one shot at a payday like this one. One shot.
You would hope your partners would understand. Writers should view publishers as partners, a view that the big houses seem to discourage. You sign on with a publisher because you look for the services they provide: editing, printing, publicity and so on. They take the financial risks, and they make the decisions that create those risks, such as just how big the print run should be. You work together, in good faith, to make the book a success. You owe each other this. You are on the same team. And in the small press world, the relationship is personal.
Andrew Steeves at Gaspereau has said that he knows he can meet demand by outsourcing production, but he won’t. He has stuck by his principles, which is admirable. He has said a great deal about the art of making fine books, but I note there’s one subject on which he’s been silent: doing right by your authors. In sticking to “business as usual” in the face of the Giller hype, Steeves is sticking it to market forces and commercial interests for which he has no respect. And Skibsrud’s interests have become collateral damage.
Forget filthy lucre, awards, contracts, and all the rest. Business is personal, and there is one cardinal rule: don’t forget your friends.
UPDATE: I originally attributed “shit talk about Gaspereau” to Stacey May Fowles (and misspelt her name). She did say this, but not with reference to me. I removed the attribution and apologize for “Stacy.”
Galleycat informs us of a new literary libation, named the Literary Agent. This is, apparently, something of a cross between a Whiskey Sour and a Hemingway Daiquiri, but I don’t care about that.
What I care about is the first sentence of that post at Galleycat, a sentence that reminds me of why I’m glad not to be writing in the States, where nowadays (they say) you’re sunk unless you can find an agent.
That sentence is: “Literary agents are like rock stars in the world of writers, and one food blog has finally built a drink to honor these bookish representatives.”
Let me repeat that first clause, in case the horror is slow to creep upon you: “Literary agents are like rock stars in the world of writers.”
The economics of writing and publishing are quite insane. In terms of supply and demand, we have a small demand for books, a publishing industry that gluts the market with many more books than it demands, agents who in turn glut publishers with many more proposals than they require, and finally, a zillion would-be writers who glut the agents’ inboxes with many more manuscripts than they want to consider, most of which should promptly be burned as a service to humanity.
The consequence of this insane economics is that the business relationships are skewed, and we forget who’s working for whom. Agents are not stars. It’s a business, and they provide services in exchange for money, while their clients hum the opening bars of Bob Dylan’s “Positively Fourth Street.”
And I’m not sure about that cocktail, either. I mean, if you’re going to have a drink called “The Literary Agent,” I think the specifications are simple: it should open with great promise and floral overtones, lead into a long, bitter finish, and then drop you in the gutter with a bad taste in your mouth.
Recipe suggestions are welcome.
You know, I think we’d all benefit if fewer people were convinced they had a book in them, and more importantly, that said book needed to get out. Heck, my puppy has a book in her—my copy of The Complete Novels of Flann O’Brien, in fact—and that book is bound to come out sooner or later. But trust me, you won’t want to read it when it does.
The firm belief that we all have a book in us is responsible for a similar product. So you’d expect, with that attitude, that I’d applaud Geoff Pevere’s wake-up call to would be authors in The Toronto Star. But I won’t, for two reasons.
First, articles of this sort achieve nothing good. Would-be writers of sensitive disposition, people who actually can write, read this sort of thing, look at what they’ve written, and burn their manuscripts in frustration. And these are the writers most likely to succeed. Those with an ironclad and unjustified faith in their own brilliance, on the other hand, carry on without heed.
So what’s the point?
Second, the rather bleak picture that Pevere paints is, thanks to it’s large-house, agent-driven perspective, incomplete.
“Critical response to a book could once make a big difference to a book,” he says. “Now it’s great to get terrific reviews —where it’s possible to still get a review, and that’s harder and harder all the time — but that’s not what a retailer or a publisher looks at first. It’s the sales you racked … it’s sometimes easier to get something that is fresh and new — a first novel by someone that no one has heard of—published than it is to get the third or fourth novel published by someone who has written in the past but whose book sales haven’t been record-setting.”
But Doug Pepper says:
“In some cases, agents are very important. We rely on them, because that’s all they do.” says Pepper. “They go out there and find stuff, and they cut a lot of the dross out. There’s agents I know, they have fabulous taste and they’ve backed it up with success. When they tell me to read a book, it doesn’t necessarily mean I’m going to agree with them, but I’ll read it. It will mean a lot to me that that agent says that.”
Before the fact, agents are held to be superb arbiters of merit, and increasingly take on the role of front-line editors, whipping manuscripts into commercial shape—often at the author’s risk, with no guarantee of representation.
After the fact, shit slides off their Teflon suits and sticks to the author; instead of holding him responsible for the one thing he really controls—the quality of his own work—we’re gonna hold him responsible for all the decisions made through the entire production chain, from agent to bookseller, and cut that bastard loose.
This is a case of trying to have your Complete Novels of Flann O’Brien and eat it too, something that my puppy has demonstrated to be impossible.
In the midst of some promotional bullshit at Galleycat—puppy fatherhood has put paid to my usual tendency to beat around the bush, likewise my patience—I find a nugget of wisdom (notwithstanding the spurious, nonsensical reference to “this economy”) from agent Julie Barer:
I know it’s somewhat of an unpopular opinion, but I think it’s unrealistic to expect that you can support yourself solely as a writer in this economy. Most of the writers I know teach, or have other day jobs to support themselves, so the best way to avoid eating ramen noodles is to not rely completely on your book advance to pay your bills.
Unfortunately, the nugget of wisdom is followed immediately by this nugget of foolishness:
In the end, the better you make the book, the better the chances that you’ll get a healthy advance, and the harder you work with your publisher to promote the book by publishing stories or nonfiction essays to raise your profile, by blogging and keeping your website active, by thinking outside of the box in terms of marketing and publicity, the better your book will do. But at the end of the day it’s the quality of the work that matters the most.
If you’re a good writer you’ll get a good advance … but you’ll have to jump naked through flaming hoops on a motorcycle to sell copies, because nobody else is gonna do it for you. It would help if you could be Cory Doctorow. Can you do that? Well, better make it good, then. And if it doesn’t sell, well, it must not have been good … I guess you really didn’t deserve that advance!
Am I alone in feeling that a circular argument prevails in American publishing these days? If your book is good, it will sell. If it didn’t sell, it must not have been good. Sorry, but we can’t do your next one, because the sales numbers don’t lie: you don’t write good books.
Yes, the needle on the Grumpy-Meter is jammed against the post. Ya wanna make something of it?
Via GalleyCat on Twitter, I read of this strange notion:
Sony’s Haber compares LPs to CD transition–sudden resale of back catalog in new format–to publishing today. #ebooksummit
Uh … I hope he isn’t seriously expecting people to buy that one. And that he’s not saying what I think he’s saying.
Books differ from LPs, CDs and mp3s in several important ways which make these kinds of comparisons just plain silly.
Books are human-readable. Unlike LPs, you don’t need special equipment to decode the information recorded therein. Also, they have a very long life — unlike LPs, they don’t scratch and warp.
Well, they do, but you can still read them afterwards.
Furthermore, many people don’t re-read books. But we listen to records* more than once — with the possible exception of those bought by well-meaning aunts.
Those back catalogue sales were driven by people replacing LPs. People replaced their LP catalogues because their LPs were scratched, warped, and wearing out, because CDs were viewed at the time as having superior sound, because they didn’t want to fix their turntable when it broke, and so on.
I can’t see any compelling reason for a consumer to replace his existing books — human-readable, near-permanent media — with e-books just because he buys a shiny new reader. Chances are, you don’t want to re-read them; if you do, they’re on the shelf.
This expectation of a sudden resale of the back catalogue, it seems to me, is nothing but goofy tech boosterism. It seems far more likely that the back catalogue will continue to sell at the same rate, but with an increasing share of the new format.
* if v-phrase = “listen to records” then message “You’re showing your age again, dude.”