While the majors are in terrified thrall to the bottom line, the shoestring passions of the small presses will carry on regardless
It’s not a good time for New York’s books world, or so they tell me. I’ve just returned to this legendary literary capital to earn a living as a hack, and the tales of publishing pessimism are already suffocating me.
Book sales are flagging, to put it mildly; some predict 2009 will be the worst year the industry has seen in decades. As a result, senior editors are being axed, and others have been told to stop acquiring new books and having Martini lunches on the company tab.
More serious still, the books sections of several major newspapers have shut down; reduced coverage of books will likely translate into even fewer sales. Publishers, they say, will have no choice but to sink their resources into safer investments – we should probably look forward to a rash of ghost-written celebrity novels. According to some, the only thing left to read in a few years will be raunchy, simplistic e-books.
Could literary culture really be breathing its last? Should readers and writers be running for cover? Of course not. But what, then, will save literature from economic disaster? Simple: independent publishing. Yes, independents – the ones who struggle to sell enough books to make payroll – will ensure that engaging, challenging books continue to be produced and consumed. It’s they who’ll safeguard literature through the dark economic days ahead.
I’m biased, of course. My own book – yes, here comes some shameless self-promotion – is being published by one of New York’s most exciting small publishers, Akashic. After working closely with this boutique house for more than two years – and hearing rumblings from friends and colleagues who work with bigger houses – I’m convinced that the services small and mid-sized independent publishers provide are truly unique.
First of all, there’s the personal care that a writer receives from an indie house. I send an email with an idea or a doubt; two minutes later, my very busy publisher writes me back. I have an issue with some changes to my manuscript or concerns about a foreign licensing deal; we discuss it over orange juice on a Sunday morning.
But this touchy-feeliness is just the icing on the cake. The real virtue of working with an independent publisher is the artistic experimentation they not only allow, but encourage. Akashic’s proclivity for edginess and iconoclasm was apparent every step of the way while I was editing Delhi Noir, an anthology of urban Indian fiction for them, and this tendency is apparent in most of the titles they put out.