Sunday, February 17, 2008

Posting and Punditry

This space, for those handful of you who check in on occasion, has been quiet for awhile. After the first few weeks I began to receive queries about my well-being. Was I all right? Had something happened, or was I in any sort of trouble? Even one person who feared the silence indicative of something they had feared bound to happen: we'd bitten off too much and it had finally caught up with us. Blog silence as a sign of impending doom.

I'm happy to report that not only am I well, but that the press is no closer to collapse than it was a month ago. Nor, alas, is it any further away from it. My reasons for quitting Thirsty for awhile were both personal and professional. I've too little time any more and keeping up the chatter seemed not worth it. I decided it would be more beneficial to read a book if I had a half an hour to kill, to get back to reading for pleasure, something I've had a hard time doing over the last couple of years. So I sat down with Roth and Houellebecq and Arthur Krystal; Grant Buday, Cormac McCarthy, Arturo Perez-Reverte. Most recently, Charles Foran's Last House of Ulster. Reading these seemed much more worthwhile than sitting for yet another half an hour a day trying to keep a blog current. If you're actually reading this, I expect it is because you're one of the few who still care about books and good literature; if you're like me, you're finding it harder and harder to find time to get to the books you want to, to keep up to date on what's new and worth reading, to get to the stack of classics sitting on your shelves or piled next to the nightstand. In my own case, the volumes of Clive James, including his latest, Cultural Amnesia, which I picked up this past week in Toronto; Bolano's Savage Detectives, Casares's Invention of Morel, The Best Canadian Stories and Journey Prize anthologies. This blog meant that I had that much less time to read, to remind myself why the hell I spend the time I do behind this computer in the first place. We'd all do better to spend less time with blogs, more time with books, so taking a break seemed a way to deal with this.

But it was more than that. When I started this blog it was the hope that it would be a press blog, with all of Biblioasis' many talented writers contributing. That lasted for about two weeks. It became a publisher's blog, news, reviews, views. I've been told, more than once, that it quickly developed into the best example of its kind in the country, which says more about how poor the rest must be than how good this one was. But the rule of blogging is that new content is essential. If you can't keep people coming back, there's no point doing it at all. So I tried to post regularly, every day for a while, and then at least several times a week. I posted reviews, announcements, the odd poem, editorial, rant. Some were good, some I later regretted. Some were posted in anger and frustration, and caused problems I'd not foreseen. One, unintentionally, caused a person a fair amount of embarrassment and pain. I became a touch careless, not checking up on things as I should, got in the habit of commenting on things in a way that, had I stopped for a few minutes, I probably wouldn't have. In my search for content and commentary, in my attempts to keep things fresh, I posted about things best kept a bit more under wraps. I began to feel less a publisher where this blog was concerned and more a pundit.

This focus on the new is part of the problem. It's a cliche to say that literature is not about the new. But in publishing, in literary publishing, it's getting damned hard to talk about anything else. It's hard to get anyone to even consider covering/reviewing/discussing a book that's even a couple of months old. Want to try and get a writer from last spring a few gigs in April? Forget it. Here we are, February, the Spring 2008 season hardly even begun, and I need to have all my covers and catalogue copy and everything else to my US distributor for Fall by tomorrow evening; to our Canadian sales force in less than two weeks. At the same time, books that were ordered 45, 60, 90 days ago are already being returned to the warehouse. The preparation for a season's titles begins earlier and earlier; the actual selling season seems shorter and shorter. And no one any longer is interested in backlist. The fact that Leon Rooke's Hitting the Charts remains one of the most important books we've published -- and are likely to for many a year -- is irrelevant. A master's selected stories, stories which, in the words of Russell Banks, "work out there in the terra incognita, mapping limits" and hardly anyone has read it; and now that it is backlist, relegated to the amazonian 3-5 weeks, unavailable on bookstore shelves across the land for the casual browser to trip upon, t'is unlikely anyone will. How many out there will find David Hickey's In the Lights of a Midnight Plow now? Eric Ormsby's Time's Covenant? Goran Simic's From Sarajevo With Sorrow? Pray for a course list, as it's the only chance of a book having a meaningful afterlife, and in the age of the coursepak even this is damn remote. No, alas. Rather, let's talk about what's new.

So I thought, in some sort of strange, tangential, way, this blog might be contributing to the problem. Punditry, by focusing on the new, on keeping the content fresh as opposed to the quality of it. Not sure that makes any sense at all, but t'was my thinking.

Anyway: I'm back at it again. New books to push, new frustrations to share. Though, as this semi-coherent rant has already taken much too much time, perhaps I should leave it here.

Cultural Amnesia. Clive James' volume, sitting an arm's length away. Says it all, really. Perhaps when I finish General Ludd -- perhaps a future Renditions book (the pitching begins) -- I'll pick up there.


Anonymous said...

In one sense the new is always familiar: it is what the old used to be.

Charlie Foran said...

Writing in the February Harper's, Ursula Le Guin foresees the inevitable collapse of corporate publishing. To paraphrase: The squeezing of the round-peg of literary publishing into the square hole of corporate publishing/bookselling has been a disaster. A disaster for literary culture, a disaster for readers, and a disaster for the corporations themselves. The buying up of publishers by global media corporations, along with opening of chain stores, starting about 15 years ago, were both done on the assumption that these ventures could make proper corporate money, proper corporate returns, out of the business. To do this, all that was needed was the application of a pop culture sales model to book production and sales. The math was simple. Like shoes, say, selling 1000 copies of 10 books was a good deal easier, and more profitable, than even ATTEMPTING to sell 10 copies of 1000 different books. Even 100 copies of 100 books was too much bother.

As such, the winnowing of mid-lists, the careful packaging, from agent onwards, of 'hit' book products and, above all else, the obsession with the new -- new author, new author type, new hype, fresh face, fresh back story, fresh sensitivity, fresh historical wrong to be righted, fresh guilt, etc -- were all done towards the goal of selling that 1000 copies of those 10 books.

Le Guin's view is that this simply hasn't worked. Or rather, it certainly hasn't worked to the 'satisfaction' (ie. level of profit) of any self-respecting corporate entity. She envisions a slow sell off of publishers by their disillusioned overlords, with a happy reversion to houses run by passionate, literary-culture-types who are content to make a living. Likewise, the parallel collapse of box book stores, for similar woeful economic performance reasons, and the return -- wait for it -- of the independent bookseller, a person of similar intrepid, individualistic temperament.

In short, if everyone who cares hangs tough, doesn't despair (and/or simply go under), book producing, and book selling, could see a revival -- one based, weirdly, on a reversion to the dowdy, hands-on practices and ethics of yesterday.

Alex said...

I'm beginning to feel/suspect more and more that the Internet is not friendly to book culture. I'm with you on feeling the crunch of time and having to take a break from regular postings to actually do some reading. It's why I took a year off. Hope you're enjoying the books!