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Episode LII: "'Universality' is, of course, a loaded term"

Published 2/17/16
In this installment, I speak with Wayne Miller, the editor of Literary Publishing in the Twenty-First CenturyTopics include the big picture of new publishing, diffusion, corporate paradoxes, diversity in books and the lack thereof, “universality”, MFA deacceleration & more.

Today I’m with Wayne Miller, the Editor of Copper Nickel, an Associate Professor at the University of Colorado Denver, and one of the editors of the upcoming release, Literary Publishing in the Twenty-First Century (from Milkweed Editions). The book is an anthology of essays by industry mavericks, authors, editors and publishers on ‘how writers and readers are adapting to the rapidly changing industry’. Let’s start big and bulky and then narrow our focus. So: what’s changed, and what’s changing, in publishing?

Thanks, Andrew, for your interest in the book and for talking with me. I appreciate it! In answering, I should start with the caveat that the collective literary and publishing knowledge in Literary Publishing in the Twenty-First Century is significantly larger than mine as an individual, so I'm wary of presenting my thoughts here as in any way definitive or reflective of the totality of the book. Still, my sense is that a lot has been changing over the last twenty years or so, but it's only fairly recently that it's become clear that these changes, which once seemed novel in a piecemeal way, are now simply the way things work. Part of our impetus for the book was to try to take stock of those changes. So, starting big: the literary publishing world has become incredibly unpredictable and contradictory. On the one hand we hear every year in some article or another about the death of publishing or the death of literature, and most newspapers across the US have gutted their Books sections. In the meantime, 10x the number of people attend the AWP conference each year as did in 2000, and an almost absurd number of Americans have an MFA in writing. (I say that as one of those absurd folks with an MFA.) The number of literary magazines has tripled in the last thirty years, thanks to desktop publishing programs. The Internet has revolutionized how literature is marketed and read. Though only five years ago everyone was worried about Amazon taking over everything when Laurence Kirschbaum was hired to start a publishing wing there, by 2015 that venture looks to have mostly failed. Similarly, not too long everyone was up in arms about ebooks and the death of independent bookstores; now independent bookstores look to be making a comeback and ebook sales have plateaued. Most clearly and most generally, perhaps, independent presses are carrying more of the publishing load than they used to as the big NYC presses have consolidated and consolidated. There's more, but I think the umbrella words are unpredictable and contradictory.

To me, what's most salient about the changes you listed above, is a shattering and redistribution on the supply side of books, while demand remains relatively unchanged (or increases). That increase in options for readers (both in what they're reading and how they're reading it) is great for them, but the truth is when you consider 'publishing', the industry, times could be bleaker ahead. Though there's more room and means for a smaller publisher to make a splash, it’s a double-edged sword. To make an analogy to the beer world, some people might look at what's out there and say 'this has never been a better time for microbrews', when in fact it's really hard for each of them, because the demand has a low attention span, and the supply is rising faster and faster. How optimistic are you considering just the financials of the equation?

I think that's exactly right. From a publisher's standpoint (and perhaps from an author's too), diffusion is the central difficulty. With so many books being made and so many genres and subgenres available, how does a publisher convince an audience to consolidate around any one particular book? For big NYC presses this is difficult because of the short-term sales pressures they feel from the larger, publicly-held conglomerates they've been absorbed into. Sometimes it can take some time, in other words, for a significant audience to find a book (through word-of-mouth, etc.), and NYC presses have less time than they once did. And your analogy of the growth of microbrews is a terrific one for thinking about the difficulties little presses face in this environment. Matthew Stadler, in his essay "The Ends of the Book: Reading, Economies, and Publics," talks about the ways in which communities are built around books—drawing a line between "publishing" (i.e., making books and putting them out there) and "publication" (i.e., the building of new "publics" for literary works). That's the goal, I think. But then it's also true that the financials for small and independent presses are difficult without some sort of financial backing (grants, private funders, etc.) precisely because of the problem of diffusion though, paradoxically, it's that diffusion that allows them to move into the market in a significant way.

It's also worth saying that there are often multiple economies at work when it comes to literary publishing. Obviously finances matter both to publishers and authors. But given how many writers teach in the academy and make their money elsewhere than simply from their books, an economy of prestige for an author, an economy of simply publication numbers—these academic pressures can complicate what might otherwise be a "purer," more straightforward publishing economy built on sales. Donna Shear, editor of the University of Nebraska Press, raises some interesting questions in LP21 about what sorts of literary work university presses should and shouldn't be publishing, given the different ways different genres interact with the perceived publishing hierarchies.

In what ways are corporate houses adapting? Besides financials and consolidation, are we seeing any change in the actual books they're publishing?

Other than as a general reader, I'm not sure I'm the right person to answer that. My tiny corner of the publishing world has been that of small university magazines for my entire editorial career; I rarely interact directly with large-scale publishers or editors. In LP21, Gerald Howard, VP of Doubleday asserts that, in the context of current financials and consolidation, he's both "unaffected" by the changes and "entirely in sync with them." I suspect that's the sort of contradictory/paradoxical answer most editors at big-five houses and imprints would give, and I suspect it's a good representation of the reality.

I also think that as the diffusion we were talking about has grown, terrific independent presses like Graywolf have become increasingly attractive options for some literary writers and, thus, have entered a kind of top-tier in terms of prestige. It's an interesting question: what the exact line is between, say, the prose on Graywolf and the prose published in NYC. And then the corollary: would that Graywolf prose have been picked up by a NYC press, say, thirty years ago and no longer is today. I'm not entirely sure of the answer.

One of the questions the book seeks to answer is, “How can an industry traditionally dominated by white men become more diverse and inclusive?” If this was easy to answer, it would have been already. So instead I’ll ask: what are the barriers between where the industry is today, and one which matches the population’s demographics? How did you seek to tackle the issue in LP21?

It's a terrific, important, and deeply complex question that Daniel José Older discusses in the book by focusing in part on children's and young adult books—which I think is the right place to start. A largely white publishing world disproportionately populates children's literature with white (and heteronormative) characters, and then it's very hard down the road to say to readers and writers of color that, no!, you're welcome, we swear, to join this conversation and industry! But, as Older points out, this is also where the complicated questions of market and perception-of-market entangle. Is it actually true that children's book with white character sell better?—as publishers sometimes say in defense of their practices. Or is that merely a perception in the industry that becomes self-fulfilling when publishers choose to publish a lot of children's books with white characters? And how much of an obligation does a publisher have, in these potentially difficult financial times for the industry, to think about inclusiveness above or alongside sales? To take socially conscious risks, in other words? Or would children's books actually sell better if they were, as a whole, more diverse? And then, down the road, the editors and gatekeepers remain disproportionately white, which serves to complicate both acquisitions and editing processes for writers of color, thus potentially keeping the books that are published disproportionately white. At the beginning of his essay, Older relates a moment when a white editor suggested that a Latina character in Older's novel wouldn't feel uncomfortable in a potentially racially loaded situation because that sort of thing "[d]oesn't happen in this day and age." That's a problematic moment on many levels.

In terms of gender, VIDA has for several years been regularly advocating for women in the literary publishing world—particularly through the VIDA Count, which, as most readers of this will know, tracks the genders of those included in major periodicals. In LP21 Erin Belieu talks about the strategies she and her colleagues have employed in developing VIDA's presence and effecting change. A key irony regarding gender is that the literary world is well populated with women in all corners—graduate programs, faculties, agencies, journals, publishing houses—but there's still a way that prestige and power still tend to tilt disproportionately toward men—and particularly male writers. For this reason, though, perhaps it could be asserted that the situation for women in literature is a little different than than for writers of color, since women are already very present in the literary world—disproportionately so, actually. VIDA's strategy of regularly pointing to disparities and supporting women writers on the ground level makes terrific sense, given this fact. For people of color in the literary world, the situation is perhaps more complicated, since there's a lack of representation from the ground level. But I'm also a little wary of asserting that too strongly, since I'm a white guy and mostly speculating from the outside, if that makes sense.

There certainly is a difference between representation, sales and prestige. The last category obviously being more in the hands of a small group of people at the top, deciding a small set of awards. Just looking at sales though, assuming publishers are profit-driven entities, what would stop them from putting out books from authors (and of characters) that match the demographics of the reading public?

That's a great question, and I don't know the answer. And I surely haven't participated in a study of the industry's offerings, nor have I worked in children's/YA publishing, so I'm really saying what I'm saying based on a combination of my own perceptions (as a parent of two young children) of what's out there and Older's essay, which points to the statistic that "Of 3200 children's books published in 2013, just 93 were about black people." Perhaps there's a kind of conservatism in acquisitions that says something like, "These sorts of characters/stories have sold well for us before. Let's stick with them." In his essay, Older points to rejection letters writers of color that say things like "Great writing and story but I didn't identify with the main character," or the general advice to "write more universal characters." In such a case, "universality" is, of course, a loaded term based on the perceptions and experiences of a largely white publishing industry.

What are a few essays in the book that you feel are the most surprising/controversial/out of the normal conversation?

I think Matthew Stadler's does a terrific job of reframing the conversation about publishing away from financials and toward the idea of community building, which, paradoxically, is I think a really good way to improve the financials. Steve Wasserman in "The Amazon Effect" goes after Bezos and Amazon pretty aggressively. Jessa Crispin's "The Self-Hating Book Critic" is a brilliant indictment and self-examination of the ways in which criticism often fails to do more than prop up the literary hierarchies that already exist. And the book begins with Sven Birkerts talking about the ways in which technology—e.g., the internet, smart phones, and social media—have complicated and potentially altered forever our experience of reading; it ends with Richard Nash taking issue with Birkerts' assessment, ultimately arguing that the book has been a primary driver of technological and social changes over the last thousand years, not their recipient. In other words, he's saying, the hand-wringing is unnecessary since "[T]he business of literature is [and always has been] blowing shit up." 

That's a pretty potent mix of contributors. I've interviewed Nash and Crispin myself, and they are both brimming with ideas. Birkerts is a very talented writer, and I look forward to becoming acquainted with Stadler and Wasserman. How was the book put together, from initial idea to getting all of the pieces in place?

I teach a regular class in literary publishing, and pretty quickly it occurred to me that there was no good book thinking about these questions that wasn't dated. Kevin Prufer and I have been friends and collaborators for a long time—we worked on the literary journal Pleiades together from 2002-2010, and we coedited the anthology New European Poets. As soon as we'd talked about it—back in 2011—we agreed to look toward doing this book together. Just a few months later I was talking with Travis Kurowski, who was in the process of editing his book on the Little Magazine, and it become clear to me that he was more broadly aware of publishing trends and technologies than Kevin and I were, so we asked him to join us. Then we came up with an initial list of editors, agents, writers, etc. to solicit essays from, hoping to capture a good view of literary publishing that would include big-press and small-press voices, graphic novel publishing, some thinking about Amazon, etc. Given the breadth of the industry, not to mention the speed at which the industry changes, our goal was to catch a wide-ranging snapshot, rather to try to be exhaustive. When a few solicited writers dropped out, we sought out others who could speak to the industry from similar perspectives. That's really how the book came together.

We're nearly out of time, so I'll ask you one last question. When you go back in time and look at predictions for the industry, even as recently as 2010, you find them pretty far off. Why do you think now is a better temporal vantage point?

I don't! I'm very wary of making any significant predictions! That's why I say a "wide-ranging snapshot" rather than a clear vantage. But, I'll very cautiously add—just thinking out loud, really—that I think the period of massive creative writing expansion in the academy is probably mostly over. Some more programs will crop up, sure, but I don't think we'll see the extraordinary growth we saw, say, ten or fifteen years ago. If that's true (IF!), that's one industry-altering phenomenon that's settling down. We've gone from the "big six" houses to the "big five." Could we go to four? Maybe. Amazon's expansion into publishing hasn't been the big success a lot of people feared it would be. Does that mean we've reached a kind of boundary or limit? Maybe, at least for now . . . But I don't want to get ahead of myself, so let me reiterate: We didn't start making this book because we thought we were at a good place to see the industry-to-come; we started making it because we didn't see another book like it and wanted to have and read this sort of book. That said, it's turned out in 2016, at the end of the process, to be a more interesting and perhaps (perhaps!) more clear-eyed moment to take a good look at publishing than it seemed like it might be when we started back in 2011.

Thanks for your time, Wayne, and your words.

Thank you, Andrew! I really appreciate it.