A few years ago, it was impossible to talk to anyone in the book business without contracting a sense of doom. Publishers had seen how quickly new technologies destroyed the once mighty music industry and left newspapers and magazines teetering on the brink; so it was only natural to assume that books would be next. Once Amazon produced the first cheap and appealing e-reader, the Kindle, it seemed a safe bet that the next step would be online file-sharing, free streaming, and all the other legal and illegal innovations that destroyed the CD and the morning paper. Meanwhile, Amazon tried to take advantage of its market dominance to set a standard price of $9.99 for e-books, squeezing profit margins so tight that publishers feared they would go out of business. For a while, those that held out for a higher price point, like Hachette, saw their titles effectively banned by the online bookseller.
Along with this commercial and technological crisis came the crisis of confidence that affected every branch of the culture industry. Publishers, after all, are gatekeepers par excellence, deciding what writing should be put between hard covers and what should be relegated to the slush pile. And the very idea of gatekeeping, of discrimination between good and bad, worthy and unworthy, has taken a beating in the digital age. One of Amazon’s most potent weapons in its fight with Hachette was the idea that publishers themselves were elitist relics, standing between authors and their potential readers. Why bother submitting your manuscript to a publisher, and giving them 90 percent of sales revenue, when you could self-publish directly through Amazon’s Author Central program?
The last month, however, has proved that book publishing is not just alive and well but still has an irreplaceable role to play in the economy of culture. Two titles dominated the sales rankings in July: E.L. James’ Grey, a new installment in her popular franchise, and Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman (reviewed for Tablet here). Grey sold 2 million copies in its first three weeks of publication, while Lee has sold more than 1.1 million. These kinds of numbers are not just good news for the bottom lines of Vintage and HarperCollins, respectively. They are proof that, when it comes to turning a book into a national phenomenon, there is no beating the big publishers, with their publicity departments, sales forces, and distribution chains. Just as it still takes a record label to make a No. 1 hit, and a movie studio to make a blockbuster film, so the big big-city-based publishing houses are indispensable if you want a best-seller.
The real question for the future of publishing—and, more important, of literature—is what happens to the 99 percent of books that are not destined for megastardom. For as the major houses follow the Hollywood studios in laying big bets on sure things—both Grey and Go Set a Watchman were sequels, of a sort—they are also turning away from the midlist titles that were once their bread and butter. Authors may still dream of being published by a prestigious trade publisher, but the reality is that the majority of worthy books will no longer find a place on the lists of the big New York houses. Nor will those books receive the advances or the sales support that a big house can offer.
But this doesn’t mean that such books won’t be published at all. Rather, what we have seen over the last 10 years is a reconfiguration of the economy of literary prestige, at least in the small world of serious or “highbrow” literature. For readers who care about those kinds of books, publication by a small firm like McSweeney’s or Graywolf means just as much as publication by FSG or Knopf: It is an index of quality, even a source of buzz. One of the most talked-about books at the moment is Leon Neyfakh’s The Next Next Level, the story of his friendship with a failed rapper called Juiceboxx; it was published by Melville House. Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams, a critical and commercial hit last year, was a Graywolf title, as was the 2014 Pulitzer Prize winner in poetry, 3 Sections, by Vijay Seshadri.
Poetry, in fact, blazed the trail that all serious literature is now beginning to follow. While there is still a lot of prestige in being published by FSG or Knopf, it is no longer the surest route to canonicity or winning major prizes. Jacqueline Osherow, who writes about American Jewish experience better than any poet at work today, released her latest collection of poetry, Ultimatum From Paradise, through Louisiana State University Press. Osherow writes poems with an essayistic breadth and logic, which are kept in formal check by her dedication to rhyme and meter. “Penn Station: Fifty Years Gone,” for instance, is written in terza rima, the demanding form employed by Dante in The Divine Comedy. But Osherow achieves an informal, reflective tone by allowing the repeated end-words to rhyme loosely: “reunion/station/vision,” for instance. She delves deeply into the subject of memory and the passage of time, symbolized by the disappearance of Penn Station from the New York cityscape. And as always, Osherow is drawn to Jewish subjects, which she writes about emotionally but unsentimentally. “Dream Snapshots: Tel Aviv” captures both her Zionist amazement at the flourishing city and her longing that it could also be made to welcome “the people whose opposing/dreams boast a deep/knowledge of the local flora.”
In a sense, poetry has benefited from the extreme smallness of its audience. When even a “major” poet only sells a few thousand copies, it is no longer worth the attention of the big commercial houses, so it ends up being published by small houses motivated more by love than profit. As Osherow’s example suggests, university presses have done an important service in stepping into the gap left by commercial publishing. It used to be the case that winning the Nobel Prize would at least guarantee a writer a U.S. trade publisher—and often that publisher was Drenka Willen, the legendary editor at Harcourt Brace, who was responsible for introducing José Saramago and Wisława Szymborska to America. But when the Nobel was given to Patrick Modiano, a French writer virtually unknown here, it was Yale University Press that hurried to make his work available. Pedigree: A Memoir, just out from Yale’s Margellos World Republic of Letters series, demonstrates Modiano’s obsession with his own unhappy and disorderly childhood. The brutal callousness of his parents—his father was a Jew who survived the Nazi Occupation of France, his mother a small-time actress—is perfectly reflected in the hurried indifference of Modiano’s prose, as translated by Mark Polizzotti. “I don’t believe that anything I’ll relate here truly matters to me. I’m writing these pages the way one compiles a report or resume, as documentation and to have done with a life that wasn’t my own,” he insists. Yet this chronicle of abandonments, betrayals, and confrontations, woven into a hazily recalled Parisian streetscape, gives the lie to Modiano’s casualness; the great story of his life is his childhood, to which he returns in book after book.
Modiano’s Jewishness is central to his family story—his father narrowly escaped deportation during the Occupation, thanks in part to his underworld connections. But it feels wrong to call him a Jewish writer, since he does not engage explicitly with Jewishness or Judaism. (He is about as Jewish a writer as W.G. Sebald, who was a Christian.) In this sense, he may be representative of the way Jewish writing has evolved over the last few decades, at just the same time that the publishing industry has undergone its own evolution. There is no doubt that Jewish writing continues to be sought after by the major New York houses; the principle that Jews buy books remains a guide to editors’ decision-making when it comes to acquiring works of fiction. Take, for instance, the five books on the short-list for this year’s Sami Rohr book prize; all five were published by major commercial houses, and they included some of the most talked-about books of 2014, including Molly Antopol’s The UnAmericans and Boris Fishman’s A Replacement Life.
At the same time, there is a definite sense today that Jewish writing has become a genre of American fiction, rather than the main event, as it was in the palmy days of Roth and Bellow—or E.L. Doctorow, whose recent passing brought back memories of that golden age. The classics of American Jewish literature were largely about Jews wrestling with or trying to escape their background, which meant that they were versions of the universal American story of immigration. (It is no coincidence that some of the most vital American Jewish writing today is by Soviet immigrants, who are the heirs to that experience.) Today, on the other hand, Jewish writers tend to be more Jewishly knowledgeable, more interested in actual Jewish communities and Judaism itself—which means that their writing’s primarily appeal is to other Jews, as with Nathan Englander or Allegra Goodman. The big and deserved buzz around Joshua Cohen’s Book of Numbers, earlier this year, was in part owed to the way it seemed to represent a return to the older, more universal, and ambitious model of Jewish fiction—fiction that is Jewish even as it tries to consume the whole world, as Roth and Bellow do.
Some of the most interesting Jewish books being written today, in fact, are too local in their appeal to find a place with the big publishers; they are just the kind of books that need small presses to do them justice. Fig Tree Books launched this year as a publisher dedicated to the American Jewish Experience, with titles including Meyer Levin’s classic Leopold and Loeb novel, Compulsion (reviewed for Tablet here). This makes it a good complement to Toby Press, the indispensable publisher of Israeli and world Jewish literature. A book like The Pater, Elliot Jager’s forthcoming memoir about being a childless Jewish man, is probably too intimately engaged with Jewish law and spirituality to appeal to a wide audience. Jager writes unguardedly about his difficult relationship with his own father and the grief of not being able to become a father himself. But the most interesting parts of the book are his interviews with other Jewish couples struggling with infertility—every technique from IVF to praying at the grave of a tzaddik is employed—and the ways they try to reconcile this grief with their belief in a benevolent God. (Things aren’t made any easier by the Talmudic dictum that a person without children is as good as dead.) The Pater clearly needed a Jewish publisher like Toby Press to bring it to those readers who will find it most meaningful.
Meanwhile, a new series of books from the Centro Primo Levi, available as e-books or print-on-demand, is bringing a whole new world of Italian Jewish literature to the United States, such as Skirmishes on Lake Ladoga, a low-key but evocative memoir of Jewish life under Fascism by Roberto Bassi. Bassi describes his childhood in Venice in the late 1930s, when a regime that had previously won the support of many Italian Jews began to introduce anti-Semitic legislation. Bassi was expelled from his school and began to take lessons with a group of Jewish children; one class project involved compiling a typewritten phone directory of the city’s Jews, since they had been purged from the official telephone book. After Mussolini’s surrender, Bassi’s family fled Venice to find refuge with relatives in Rome, only to find that their hoped-for saviors had been deported to Auschwitz just hours before. He survived the end of the war thanks to the headmistress of a school for orphans, who agreed to hide him and his sister—though she could do nothing about the food shortages that led the young Bassi to learn to regurgitate his lunch so he could eat it a second time. The Italian Jewish experience during the Holocaust is comparatively little known in America, making Skirmishes an especially valuable contribution.
There are, in most cases, good reasons why a book ends up at Knopf rather than, say, University of New Orleans Press, which publishes Death by Pastrami by Leonard S. Bernstein. Bernstein’s anecdotes of the old Jewish Garment District in New York have a Malamud-esque flavor—neither their subject nor their style makes them newsworthy, in the way that innovative, high-profile fiction like Joshua Cohen’s Book of Numbers (reviewed for Tablet here) is newsworthy. But Death by Pastrami is authentically observed and more entertaining than its modest presentation might lead you to expect. “Rhoda and the Six Wildcats” concerns a pair of business partners who get into a confrontation with the garment workers’ union, after a mentally impaired stockboy gropes one of the seamstresses. Should they fire the boy, who has nowhere else to go, or keep him on and offend the rest of their employees? These small human dramas are Bernstein’s specialty—in other stories, a manager falls in love with one of his seamstresses, and a man decides to wear the same suit every day of his life, with disastrous consequences. Death by Pastrami is a book that deserves to exist, and that the right reader will enjoy; and were it not for UNO Press, which is tiny even by the standards of university presses, it might never have seen the light of day.
What all these small-press books have in common, despite all their differences in ambition and accomplishment, is that they were published and not self-published. The self-published author has a justified grievance against critics, who tend to automatically dismiss all such books from consideration. It is possible that there are treasures lying buried deep in the Amazon Author Central catalog—there is always the at least financially encouraging example of E.L. James, who started out self-publishing Fifty Shades of Grey. But when there are so many small publishers out there, all looking for manuscripts, it is a safe rule of thumb that a self-published book is a bad investment of time. A writer who wants an audience broader than friends and family still needs a publishing house behind him or her.
Indeed, as technology makes self-publication easier, the importance of editors and publishers does not shrink, as you might expect, but grows. Gate-keepers, it turns out, are not self-appointed snobs, but providers of an indispensable service: They make it possible to avoid drowning in the endless ocean of new books. (Last year, more than 300,000 print titles were published in the United States.) This is not to say that the book with the biggest marketing budget is always the best book or the most worth reading. But it does mean that it’s worthwhile getting to know the profiles of different publishers—learning what to expect from an FSG book or a Toby Press book—and letting them guide your reading choices. “Corporations are people,” Mitt Romney said, and the same is true of publishing houses—ideally, they are people who know and love books. And who else’s recommendation would you rather have?
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