Monday, June 1, 2009

Publishing big and small

In "The Long Goodbye? The Book Business and its Woes," Elisabeth Sifton gives a compelling account of the book industry's accelerated demise, one that makes me wonder how small press poetry has responded and will respond in the short-to-medium run.

Herself a senior VP at FS&G, Sifton writes as a bibliophile who nevertheless spares no stern gaze upon her own industry; she is no technophobe but also clearly gets that we are subject to our technologies, and that change to the human species is being exacted in our move from print to screen and beyond:
for centuries books have been intimately woven into our
sense of ourselves, into the means by which we find out
who we are and who we want to be.... Books have had a
kind of spooky power, embedded as they are in the very
structures of learning, commerce and culture by which
we have absorbed, stored and transmitted information,
opinion, art and wisdom.
She recounts the consolidation and increasing monopolization of the book industry dating back to the 1960s, the more recently manifested "truly vast corporate fecklessness, which has brought us a world-historical economic meltdown that dwarfs everything," and the wretched business models with which mainstream publishers have limped along even before the now imminent collapse of print journalism.
Here I want only to stress that the loss of so many
book-review pages nationwide is crippling all aspects
of our literary life. And I mean all. Book news and
criticism were fundamental to the old model of book
publishing and to the education of writers; Internet
coverage of books, much of it witty and interesting,
does not begin to compensate for their loss.
And here I start to wonder how divergent our small press publishing practices really are. Surely, efforts by Rain Taxi, the Poetry Project Newsletter and the online Galatea Resurrects notwithstanding, our indy reviewing practices are also suffering -- as some 32 poets and critics (including yours truly) discussed in a recent online roundtable.

Sifton then points to the sheer glut of published product, pointing out how "Every week the trade bulletins report hundreds of new books being signed up, sometimes for absurd amounts of money, by dozens of publishers." Clearly money is rarely if ever at issue in the small press world, but one wonders what the stats would look like if all the small press product being published below the radar of the trade journals were included! "Self-indulgent excess doesn't go away," Sifton continues. "This exorbitance in the book sector, as in the gigantic financial and housing sectors, has been weakening our culture for decades." And again I can't help thinking, while her analogies to finance and housing are probably accurate in some respects but tenuous in most, that our alternative, avant-garde, experimental, innovative and non-mainstream publishing practices ought not even draw the remotest parallels to these rapacious megacorporate blunders.

Sifton goes on to the traditional gruntwork of a mainstream publisher (sexism duly noted, perhaps intentional on her part):
the editorial and advocacy work his staff did on behalf
of the nascent books, building an audience for them,
preparing the ground; the copy-editing, proofreading
and legal checks; the typographical designs devised
and manufacturing quality achieved; the efforts made
to get attention paid to, and sales consummated of,
books that might otherwise go unnoticed in the
noisy, trivializing, inattentive world where readers
Who among our small press publishers would refuse the same diligence (and relish a paid support staff) for similar notice from that small market segment of "the noisy, trivilizing, inattentive world" otherwise known as the national or even international small press poetry audience?

When her history of the book industry's ongoing demise arrives at the present, Sifton continues to pose interesting questions even if her outlook remains bleak at best:
In this dystopia, one can scarcely get attention paid
to new books except those that fit in with the flora and
fauna already found there. True, you can easily reach
niche audiences and specialty communities for your
oh-so-unique book, but what of the general culture?
How is your book being read? And in what manner might
you try--say, ten years from now--to write something
new? How will you know if it's any good? How will it
become known? Will it be a book?
But the bleakness of her outlook is predicated on some assumptions I do not share: that widespread attention to our work is not only desirable but necessary, that "niche audiences and specialty communities" are somehow less desirable in and for themselves than some presence in "the general culture" (whatever that is), that values and judgments of quality are best derived from sources (presumably "the general culture") outside the locality or the region of production and consumption, that notoriety is important, and that writing is somehow contingent upon and even exclusive to the form of the book.

I am most recently compelled by Lewis Mumford's 1967 call for efforts "that have been initiated by animated individual minds, small groups, and local communities nibbling at the edges of the power structure by breaking routines and defying regulations. Such an attack seeks, not to capture the citadel of power, but to withdraw from it and quietly paralyse it."


  1. After it is paralyzed, then do you...cook it?

  2. What color does the power structure turn when it is paralyzed, or does it move away from its former appearance like an ant ball?