What Do You Think You’re Doing? On Starting a Fiction Press When the Book is Supposed to Be Dead

Teaching in BSU’s Writing Program is a deeply fulfilling, collaborative, ongoing learning experience. But it rarely ever leaves me feeling like the definitive expert in anything. This is as it should be; I seek to learn from my students as I help them to learn from me and from one another. Still, at some point in a professional life, a time comes when expertise—and the confidence that accompanies it—is required. For most of us who teach at the college level, this requirement is met by the practice of scholarship, where we contribute new ideas to our respective fields.

But for a creative writer—or any artist—the practice of scholarship is fraught with insecurity and struggle. This, too, is as it should be. While all good scholarship is a process of discovery, of reimagining and rethinking and challenging each idea, for most creative writers, the work never quite reaches the point of asserting its ideas. Few of us ever know when a great story is done. (Most of us don’t even know, as regards our own work, what “done” means.)

For years, at first in graduate school at Puerto del Sol, then for the past several years at Freight Stories, the online fiction journal I co-edit with Andrew Scott, I’ve exercised my expertise in fiction as an editor and publisher of short stories. Last year I began seriously looking for something bigger.

What do you think you’re doing? 

The book is dead. Long live the book.

The death of the book is greatly overestimated. While total U.S. book revenues have declined since their peak in 2005, it’s only been six years since more money was spent on books than ever before. Further, the decline of book revenue does not necessarily reflect a decline in the total number of books sold. Consider that many small presses price their eBooks ridiculously low, generating, obviously, less revenue per copy, for one example of a mitigating factor. Details like this are boring, so they get left out of trend articles and internet conversations. But ignoring them plays into a narrative about the production and consumption of literature that is both inaccurate and damaging. Actual sales figures do suggest that hardcovers may be in death throes for everybody except libraries and collectors. But books—both electronic and paperback—are doing just fine.

What may be dying are old ways of working in the book industry. In the seven months since I announced my presence as an industry insider, big New York presses have taken dozens of steps toward the working models of small presses—they’re moving more quickly from contract to pub date (traditionally no less than a twelve month span) and from hardcover to paperback editions. (The linked New York Times article attributes this to the rise of eBooks, but I don’t think that explains it.) The rest of the system—where Kirkus and Publisher’s Weekly won’t review you if you don’t send them a copy of the book three to four months in advance of release—will struggle to catch up. But it will catch up.

Formerly locked doors are opening to small presses. I ended my work day last Thursday with a lovely conversation with a buyer at Barnes & Noble’s corporate headquarters about my first original title, a story collection by National Book Award finalist Patricia Henley. Last year’s National Book Award winner in fiction was published by a tiny press. The Pulitzer before that was, too.

It seems the world of publishing literature is circling back to its beginnings—family businesses, real relationships with authors, equitable royalty splits. It was possible to be profitable in the old mode, before huge corporations ate the family businesses and imposed a profit demand 400 to 500% higher than was previously expected. I want very much to have a role in that rebirth.

What do you think you’re doing?

When I was in high school, there was a Reebok print ad with the slogan, “Why be perfect at one thing when you can be pretty damn good at everything?” It was selling cross-trainers, of course. But also something else. I tore it out of a magazine. I’ve kept it for twenty years.

I wasn’t a writer yet then, but I see now how the ad speaks to a novelist’s work. A novelist creates whole worlds, has to know enough about the world—both the real one and the imagined—to get it right. She has to understand structure, style, image, narrative theory, all of it.

For a one-woman press (Engine Books has no employees), publishing is like that, too. I read a query letter to see whether I might want to work with a writer, to see potential and professionalism. I read a manuscript to see what’s there, and perhaps what should be there, and whether it belongs at Engine Books. Once a manuscript is accepted, I advise the writer on both large and small revisions of the book’s next draft, and begin to imagine it as a finished product. I design its cover and lay out its pages. I generate publicity, create a web campaign. I make phone calls and send emails to reviewers, bookstores, foundations hosting contests. I stuff envelopes with advance copies, promotional fliers, personalized letters. I write follow-up emails to the recipients of the envelopes. I arrange appearances.

The inflection of that subheading—the suggestion that someone else, someone male, or older, or already on the inside—would be better equipped for this work is not at all unfamiliar to me. There are only a small handful of presses run by women, and among them, even fewer wherein the women are more than figureheads, for one example. But “You can’t do that” was a familiar refrain to me long before I even thought about the publishing world, one I’ve heard all my life. All my life, it’s been a source of motivation.

So I’ll spend the remaining days until the fall semester begins finalizing contracts with the four authors whose books I’ll publish in 2012, editing those books, answering and returning phone calls from reviewers and retailers, building the necessary relationships to get those books into readers’ hands. During the academic year, I’ll stuff envelopes and design covers in the evenings, after teaching and grading and answering student emails. I’m not sure there’s anything more fulfilling or valuable a teacher of writing can do than bring new literature into the world.

For more information about Engine Books, please visit the press at enginebooks.org.