Literature in the Recession

By Midge Raymond,

  Filed under: On Publishing

Hirsh Sawhney has a nice post in today’s Guardian Books Blog on independent publishing, noting that while many of the bigger publishers are scrambling to cut expenses, the smaller, independent presses, which have always operated on lean budgets, are doing quite well.

Sawhney admits to being a bit biased (his book, Delhi Noir, is forthcoming in August by the independent publisher Akashic) — and I’m a little biased myself, Forgetting English having been published by a university press. But I think a lot of us who love good writing will appreciate his point of view: “[What] 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.”

It’s not just small-press pride that inspires Sawhney’s claim (nor is that why I’m repeating it here); it’s a fact that the smaller publishers simply do business differently, which in this economic climate has served them well. Small presses don’t generally pay gigantic advances, then suffer huge losses when books don’t earn them out. They’re accustomed to shoestring budgets (which most likely does not include martini lunches). And, as Sawhney points out, “when you’re independently owned, you’re somewhat insulated from the machinations of the market.”

Sawhney says he’s “hearing rumblings from friends and colleagues who work with bigger houses,” and while he’s not specific about what these rumblings are, exactly, the point he’s making is that he’s very happy with his own publisher — like me, he gets nearly instant replies to his emails and the careful, personal attention to his work that, these days, perhaps only an independent press can offer to each and every one of its writers.

Whether independents will “save literature from the recession,” I’m not sure…I do believe books will survive no matter what (even if we have to read them on our Kindles or laptops). But I too see the independents, and their authors, weathering this recession quite well. I’ve been grateful, many times over, that my book was published as a trade paperback (who can afford hardcovers these days?) and that every royalty statement I receive will reflect actual earnings, not how much farther I have to go until I’ve paid back my advance. And, as Sawhney writes, “The real virtue of working with an independent publisher is the artistic experimentation they not only allow, but encourage.”

But publishing is still an industry facing big changes. Kassia Krozser’s Booksquare post (or I should say critique) on the panel “New Think for Old Publishers” at South by Southwest 2009 offers an interesting and important look into the publishing industry of today. The panel’s goal was to address how traditional publishing would interact with our new digital world, “to learn what is going right and wrong in publishing…to learn how books and blogs can work.” Yet, Krozser writes, “Not one word spoken in that session, either from the panelists or from the audience, was new or innovative.”

Krozser followed up with another post yesterday on the same topic — it’s great food for thought, not only for publishers but for writers as well. Like it or not, publishing as we’ve known it will continue to change, and if publishers and writers alike aren’t ready, what’s likely to suffer the most is all those good books out there that won’t be able to find their audiences.

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