Crossroads Essay




Uniting local authors, publishers, booksellers and readers

Notes from a presentation before attendees of the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association trade show,
Wednesday, September 19, in Bellevue, WA; other panelists include bookseller and PNBA president,
Paul Hanson and small press publishers Michael Dylan Welch and Jim Bodeen.

The publishing world has witnessed some striking changes in recent months: the AMS bankruptcy and its impact on PWG (now Perseus); last spring's steep postal rate hikes; and dwindling advances—but increased marketing responsibilities—for new writers. The consequences of these changes are being felt not only by newer authors and small presses, but by booksellers, and there is concern over the future and diversity of new American voices if current industry models don't adapt.

I believe Cherian George’s article published in Stanford Business seven years ago (Ideas: Paper and Pixel, The Future of Publishing) holds a key to understanding how a meeting of minds at the local angle can serve these publishers, writers, booksellers and, ultimately, readers. Writes George:

“Writers can be thwarted by the economics of mainstream book publishing. The high cost of printing, distribution, and marketing means that a publisher must be assured of critical reader mass before it becomes worthwhile to accept a manuscript. The Internet transforms the math. With investment in printing and distribution reduced to nearly zero, a solitary writer can make a book available to millions worldwide and bypass the publisher entirely. However, there is a huge catch: The Net enables a writer to put content out but does not guarantee that it will be noticed. For a book to become a bestseller, a traditional publisher's marketing muscle and distribution network through bricks-and-mortar bookstores is hard to beat. Few contemporary novelists are big enough brand names in their own right to draw attention regardless of who publishes their books.”
George’s comment captures the true complexity of what it means to publish a book in America today. Especially a book written by a new or first-time author. It’s all about economics, not only for the publisher, whose goal it is to make a product, but also for the writer, who must market her book on dwindling funds, and for the bookseller, whose purpose it is to meet the needs of its customers—readers—while still turning a profit.

It seems to me, and to the panelists we have here today, that unifying these four elements of the process could go a long way toward preserving new voices and ideas in contemporary American literature. The fact that the Internet can mediate some of these inequities means that writers and booksellers are using technology to find alternatives for publishing and selling literature, thereby bypassing the roadblocks of conventional wisdom which in many ways continue to inform the mainstream publishing mindset.

The good news? The small press has picked up on this problem. There are more small presses than ever before, and it’s my opinion that, in the last ten years, they’ve never taken more risks with writers and content and, in fact, there’s an explosion of genre bending going on which I don’t see abating anytime soon.

I’d like to point at Hawthorne Books in Portland, OR as another example of what I mean. Hawthorne was formed, according to their mission statement, because “We suspected that good writers were being cast aside as a result of consolidation in the publishing industry.” In 2001, they decided it was time to find these writers and give them a voice. And not only have they done so, but they and their authors have collected all sorts of accolades as a result.

They, in fact, represent an ideal counterpart in the crossroads we’re discussing today, of writers, readers, publishers, and booksellers. If a local small press can bring forth a bevy of local talent, it only seems natural that local booksellers would benefit in bringing that talent before the local reading community. Maybe not at first, but in the long run. But a combined local effort could, in fact, develop a thriving career for a talented author who might otherwise be lost in the wilderness of New York publishing. That thriving career can translate into sales easily enough. You can see, then, the economic possibilities inherent in acting locally.

Today I wish to explore what can be done to more effectively promote literature on the local level (from writer to publisher to bookseller to reader). Specifically, I'd like to address how new media can work locally with publishers and booksellers.

From a recent entry ("Philanthropy, Magazines, and Your Future") at the blog, The Publishing Spot: “The sky is falling in the writing industry, and things will look much different in ten years.” If the next ten years are anything like the last five, we’re in for some big changes.

My own experiences as an internet publisher, interactive community director and writer published on the web point to some interesting movements toward the electronic media.

Everyone in the publishing heirarchy, from the reader to the writer to the editor to the publisher to the bookseller, has a website. Books are reviewed, catalogued, and discussed regularly on the web. Amazon sells short stories for pennies per download. Literary podcasts featuring original short work, classic material in the public domain, and books on tape in mp3 are growing in popularity as alternatives to reading printed books. How-to books sold as downloads are another choice some writers and small presses are making to get their work directly into the hands of readers for less expense. As an interactive community director, I’m currently keeping tabs on a wiki novel written by magical realists from all across the US. Novels are being penned in collaboration by people who have never met IRL (in real life). Global brainstorming among writers has never found a more fertile place than the Internet.

The more concrete world of print publishing, which includes bound books and magazines, their readers and writers, can find plenty of common ground with new media, including the internet, electronic publishers and their readers and writers. That is, if everyone involved agrees to the same goal: protecting and preserving the interests of each other.

Imagine. Booksellers could have weekly podcasts to entice their listeners to either visit the ol’ brick and mortar or buy directly through their websites. Print publishers could do the same by featuring the new voices on their most recent lists via mp3 downloads. Writers and electronic publishers could plant links on their websites which lead to BookSense portals. I do. It’s easy. Publishers might consider offering both print and electronic versions of their publications for sale, with links to booksellers.

In fact, it won’t be long before the innovative among us all start mixing and matching media to create unbelievably clever news ways to deliver literature to readers. The possibilities are limited only by our collective imagination.

But if there’s one thing that confounding for all parties, it’s this notion that one form of media is superior to another. The fact is, both print and electronic media have their strengths and weaknesses. Both are responsible for providing both excellence and mediocrity in content. Both have something to sell. And both share a love for literature. Everyone has a stake in the matter.

It may seem insurmountable in an industry that’s expected to change radically in the next ten years, but I believe it behooves us all to match our shared interests by supplementing one kind of media with another at the grassroots level.

I say, don’t wait for the Big Houses and the Name Authors and the Chain Booksellers to respond. I say, start small and locally, with regional publishers, hometown authors, specialized local electronic media and independent booksellers. Go to Main Street. Why not collaborate, share resources, and network locally?

Enter the New York State Literary Tree. The New York State Literary Tree serves as a clearinghouse of combined interests: literary organizations, libraries, book stores, authors, distributors, the small press and event venues contribute to this state-wide effort—read local—to benefit the entire literary landscape overall.

It’s an ambitious bright spot on the horizon, one that we, here in the Pacific Northwest, could strive for ourselves. We could do this ourselves, and by doing so, visibly personify the progressive and inspiring quality of the very literature coming out of our region.

I don’t believe this sort of re-visioning of the industry is going to happen from the top down unless it’s through acts of philanthropy. While I’m generally an optimistic person, I’m not convinced that enough charitable effort is going to come any time soon from the mainstream publishing world while it straddles its current, ever-shifting economy.

This is the crossroads I think we’re at right now, and it’s my hope ultimately, as a booklover, that all of us who participate in the pursuit of literature take the opportunity now, through new media channels and otherwise, to work together toward a shared and relevant future that pays off for everyone involved.

Tamara Kaye Sellman, Bellevue, WA—September 19, 2007