Notebook: Gatekeepers, Part II

by Ann Kjellberg, Book Post editor

Jill Schoolman, founding publisher of the internationally-focused Archipelago Books (right), receiving the Words Without Borders Ottaway Award in 2017, with previous winners Barbara Epler, president of New Directions (left), and Drenka Willen, who for fifty years brought literature in translation to Harcourt, joined by Words Without Borders chair James Ottaway. The editorial director of Words Without Borders, incidentally, is Susan Harris. Photo by Beowulf Sheehan

Read Part I of this post here

The (then) young editor Jonathan Karp said on the founding of the imprint Twelve in 2008, “what I really wanted to do with this imprint was to make a promise to every writer we publish that we would do everything in our power to make his or her book a best seller.” The Random House imprint One World, helmed by Chris Jackson, has the explicit charge of giving institutional energy to previously unheard voices.

Interestingly, the most visible publishing imprints now formed around one editor’s vision and reputation are focused on nonfiction. Karp wrote prophetically in The Washington Post, in an article called, “Turning the Page on the Disposable Book,” of the need for more focused attention on the publication of books in order to secure what we might know call the “fact-based discourse”:

fewer authors are devoting more than two years to their projects. The system demands more, faster. Conventional wisdom holds that popular novelists should deliver one or two books per year. Nonfiction authors often aren't paid enough to work full-time on a book for more than a year or two. There’s no guarantee that a book will be better if an author spends more time writing it, but years of research and reflection often provide a perspective that offers readers a kind of wisdom and authority they can't get anywhere else … Book publishers might be able to compete with news media, but we're foolish to try.

The question of how to give serious ideas purchase in a fast-changing information environment has since become central to the era. To what extent do they need the committed attention of a specific human, with specific traits and skills, to endure and spread and thrive?

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There are named imprints elsewhere in publishing, usually offered more as a laurel to a distinguished career than an effort to forge an identifiable list, but perhaps the strongest legacy of individual vision in publishing is now felt in the smaller houses we’ve written about before, such as New Directions (run by Barbara Epler) and Graywolf (run by Fiona McCrae), which are more able to make adventurous decisions and cut a distinctive figure than the big risk-averse corporations into which large publishing has coalesced. We’ve also noted the idea being pioneered by Anne Trubek at Belt (among others) of nourishing a regionally-driven editorial vision, in a time when the notion that publishing hub New York can speak for the nation has fallen into question. Notably women are visibly ascendant in these efforts—outside the corporate boardroom, operating with lower margins but more opportunities for experimentation and creativity. (See also Archipelago’s Jill Schoolman, pictured above, and City Lights’s Elaine Katzenberger.)

Another area where Mehta made a prophetic contribution was his early embrace of digital rights; the Times noted that e-books were not profitable at the time he started writing digital rights into book contracts, but eventually they became “the savior of publishing.” In a recent piece in Vox Constance Grady and self-publishing advocate Jane Friedman argued for lower prices for e-books—advancing (in a case close to our heart) that it would expand readership. But I looked in vain for a deeper analysis in Grady’s piece of the actual costs of the publishing infrastructure. If the Knopfs of the future lose revenue from widespread physical book sales, will books selling at less than $9.99 a copy be able to maintain the kind of support that Ishiguru spoke of as giving him a viable way of life, and giving his books a more-than-niche audience?

When I started my own little literary magazine, Little Star, I had a dream of offering some of my writers, whose early books were inexplicably out of print, the opportunity to self-publish on my site: I thought that Little Star could be the sort of “discovery” engine that observers worry is lacking in the vast digital bazaar, and when writers self-publish they garner a much higher share of the return. Indeed around that time the estate of author William Styron reclaimed its digital rights with such a model in mind. But the sorts of forces that we now find drive visibility in digital realm—“divisive” content, data-mining, the hidden commercial interests of multi-platform monopolies, exploitation by malefactors—suggest we may need a more subtle understanding of the value and nourishment potentially offered by gatekeepers, perhaps redefined in ways that the conservative behemoths of book publishing have not been able to envision.

Sometimes I find myself missing that friend of my youth, the radio: encountering a voice I recognize in the car introducing a band I did not know or a long-forgotten song; hearing the opera along with countless invisible others as I folded laundry or chopped vegetables on a weekend afternoon. In a small town where my family spent time, the nighttime DJ on the local radio station worked in the post office. Everyone knew her; she could make in-jokes out of music and respond to the events of the day with songs and introduce people to styles and ideas that were perhaps just outside their usual experience. I still find the experience of listening music that’s been shuffled or organized by an algorithm faintly jarring: I think I have a cellular memory of hearing music chosen to follow in succession by a person who is paying attention. The question before us now is how we will balance the exhilarating freedoms of our new forms of information against the benefits of receiving the work of the mind through human hands, whether we will find a way to situate, maintain, and value the precious work of caring for and communicating our culture.

Ann Kjellberg is the founding editor of Book Post. She contributes a Notebook installment about the world of books to the newsletter every couple of weeks. Visit the Book Post archive for more.

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