When it comes to the plummeting fortunes of the publishing industry, everybody wants to talk about the record industry. But it looks to me a lot more like mainstream publishing is heading down a wavering trail blazed by the last few decades of poetry.
Announcing a new self-publishing venture recently, Harlequin unleashed unholy fury from writers across the spectrum—established, emerging and hoping-to-be. Even the indie publishing community spoke up against the venture (make sure you read the comments on Small Beer Press’ hilarious post). They’re not the first publisher to experiment with a vanity division, but their readership is among the most intense. Apparently “brand” does matter in book publishing—or at least some do. In this case, the publisher’s struggle for new revenue streams slammed up against the reading/writing community’s passionate belief that the old school system is the only legitimate way to confer the title “author.” This conflict mirrors the poetry contest wars over the last twenty years. See under: Foetry.
Most poets spend several years and many hundreds of dollars submitting manuscripts to contests in hopes of being chosen for publication. While some of the biggest names in the business (Graywolf, Copper Canyon, FSG, New Directions) have not had to resort to the contest model, nearly every other house has. While there are decent arguments against this system (especially re: potential for scams), the truth is there isn’t enough money to be made in publishing a book of poetry by anyone not named Billy (Collins or Corrigan that is). In fact, I have serious doubts that the Knopfs of the world will be able to continue to publish money-losing genres like poetry as long as they report to corporate HQ in Germany. In fact, when the corporate model hit poetry in the 1970s poetry publishing saw a big hit at all the major publishers – a reality that motivated Daniel Halpern and James Michener to create the National Poetry Series. The current poetry programs for almost all publishers are simply a vestige of the old system that will soon be squeezed shut by the increasingly harsh economic reality for books. If there weren’t contests, the only publishers of poetry would be wealthy scions like James Laughlin. That worked out pretty well for New Directions and modernism in general, but it’s not a model that fills me with hope for our own crowd-juiced, hyper-capitalist, nominally-democratic moment.
Still, despite all the hand-wringing, poetry has never been stronger. You can disagree about who the “best” poets are, but there are very strong books coming out in every style – lyric, abundant, absurdist, austere, flarfy, conceptuallissimo, spoken word -- and that indicates a healthy environment of creativity and readership. While no single book sells enough copies to make a mark on Nielsen Bookscan, the number of poetry readers in aggregate has spurred a creative new business model that has the industry buzzing. Hell, even the 2009 National Book Award for poetry seems to be cause for more celebration than angst.
There remains a working business model for the James Pattersons, Sarah Palins, and vanity press aggregators. But there is no room in that model for worrying about literature. Once upon a time this would have been a problem for serious reading. Access to major publishers was the only way to get work into the hands of the reading public. But with inventories tightening up at independent bookstores and major chains alike, publication by a major house is no guarantee your book will be carried in a general bookstore. That, combined with anybody’s ability to sell anything to anyone online whether through Amazon, SPD Books or from your own site, means that there is no longer a distinct advantage to publication by a major house. Wanting it both ways -- corporate-style profits produced by thought-inducing, break-the-mold art -- is unrealistic and as condescending to people who enjoy books-as-mindless-entertainment as those who like them as brainfood.
Literature has always done its best work as a coterie business. So it will.