Crashing the Gates: Self-Publishing and the National Book Awards

Fascinating look at the National Book Awards process from Eric Obenauf, publisher and editor of the press Two Dollar Radio.

Obenauf’s jumping-off point is this year’s expansion to a longlist for fiction nominees (from five to ten), which sounded promising to him, as it did to all lovers of good fiction.  Until, that is, he saw the list, which was packed with offerings from traditional publishers. This struck him as missing an opportunity:

[R]ather than five slices of plain bread hopping out of the toaster we were met with ten instead. What was the point of expanding to a longlist at all?

As I explain below, I don’t fully agree with his solution, but boy does he nail the diagnosis:

In 2001, five conglomerates accounted for 80% of book sales in the United States, and the motivation behind their practices was the bottom-line. That means that most of the books produced in the United States were generated by five offices, and they cared little about innovation, or creativity, or discovering new voices. Their shepherds were no longer righteous individuals who believed that literature deserved its own place in the cultural arena and that it had something valuable to contribute there. The formula was inverted by corporations as they bought Pantheon, and Knopf, and on down the line, so that the focus became producing literature that was informed by or responding to cultural trends, rather than creating or influencing them. This backward mindset is what would convince readers and many writers to believe that novels are, and may only be, “stiff, fairly unchanging, and conservative as a form.”

Yes! It’s amazing to me that people whose natural inclination is to view literature as a necessary tonic for  corporate-think haven’t recognized that publishing houses (owned by for-profit conglomerates) tend toward that just like every other industry. Bring on the small presses, with their anarchic, eclectic, unconventional, apple-cart-upsetting mindsets!

And here’s where I disagree with Obenauf (if I understand his position correctly). Not that he goes too far, but that he doesn’t go far enough:

The upside of this undemocratic one-percenting of the literary world is that it mothered our present era. New presses took root, staking their reputation on the fresh voices with fresh visions that were being disregarded by the corporate publishers…. [S]mall publishers are regularly churning out not only top-notch work, [and] in many cases their books are of higher quality than those of their better-staffed, better-paid counterparts at corporate presses. This is where our literary culture stands, in the midst of what was referred to earlier this week as “the golden age of indie publishing.”

Agreed! And stipulated that many of the purest indies (i.e., the self-published authors) are putting out products without the editing, the covers, and the sheen that the indie publishers have affectionately put into their catalog.

But! There’s a big difference between a raw self-published work and one chosen for publication by a small press, and it’s all in the word “chosen.” Even at a small press, there is still a gatekeeper at work. We might not have five major gatekeepers. We might have five hundred. I’d like to see five million – all with the ability to fund their own work.

Now, would I like to see small presses jump into the process after self-published authors have already put their book out there and created a following? Absolutely. But let’s not pretend that small presses don’t have their own bottom lines. They need to sell books, they need to answer to someone who’s supplying them with money. All of that decreases the likelihood of publishing something unconventional – unless it’s already been shown to have some appeal to readers. The equation looks like this:

(book that’s demonstrated some word-of-mouth appeal) + (small press refinement) = better system

Lecture over. Now where can I get a cover designer who can draw like Kal to help me with the cover for the next book?

Image Credit: (image for Raven Beer drawn by Kevin Kallaugher)

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