Friday, October 16, 2009

The Last Book Party? Frankfurt Book Fair 2009


The last book party? In mainstream media the talking heads and the laptopped prognosticators are forecasting gloom and even doom for the publishing industry. Computers and ebooks are being blamed. But publishers, especially the independent publishers who are more agile on the dance floor, are still selling books and adapting to the new technologies and readers are buying books. And life in the publishing world is moving ahead.

And yesterday, in Germany, the Frankfurt Book Fair opened its doors once again. The FBF is the huge international rights fair for the publishing industry. The industry wigs--big and small--wheel and deal buying and selling publication rights for books from publishers in other languages. For publishers, these sales are the gravy, the icing on the cake, the cherry in the coke, the extra cash in the door. Cinco Puntos has never been to the Frankfurt Fair, but we have a rights agent that walks the floor there for us and at the London Book Fair as well. We regularly go to Guadalajara, the biggest rights conference in this hemisphere, and we've gone twice to the Children's Book Fair in Bologna, Italy. They are all madhouses. And they can be daunting, especially for the small guys like us, until we've gone for a few years and learned how to swim among the big fishes.

Harper Magazine published a great article by Gideon Lewis-Kraus in its March 2009 issue about last year's FBF (many kudos to Harper's for keeping this article available online). To give you a taste of the relationship of the act of writing and the writer to the raucous capitalism of the event, please eavesdrop in on a conversation that Gideon Lewis-Kraus had with Michael Pietsch, the publisher of Little Brown. They are discussing the constant drumbeat of doom that surrounds the publishing industry these days but they veer off elsewhere too:
He says that publishing is an industry founded on dissatisfaction. “There is a rich loam of disappointment.” He reconsiders. “It’s an industry built in a rich soil of disappointment.” He ultimately goes with “loam.” One can readily imagine this man actually editing, doing his part to help make those loam/soil calls. “Three out of ten books make money,” he says. He makes sure I understand that this means seven out of ten do not. “Most of the time a book never reaches the standards its writer, editor, and publisher have imagined for it. I tell writers not to come to Frankfurt,” he says. “This is all about the commodification of books. It’s a writer’s version of hell.”

Over the course of the week, I will hear a lot of this sentiment: that the stock should not be shown the abattoir. But the more I’m told that writers are excluded to protect their literary innocence, the more this begins to sound aggressive and suspect. It’s faux-apologetic, and I think its real point is not to deride the seamy flux but to flaunt it. The commerce is not the embarrassment; it is the pride. Writers aren’t invited or welcome because once their manuscripts are in the hands of their agents and their publishers and their foreign-rights reps, they are excused from the process. It is time for the professionals to take over.
Lewis-Kraus is able to capture the madness of the FBF. And it's a true madness, a madness that, if not quite cannibalistic, is indeed carnivorous. And it can be exciting and fun. The problem with all such articles, of course, is that they deal mostly with the big whales and sharks. The writers neglect the little fishes that many times are doing books and making waves that will last much longer and be more important than the stuff greased with the big money. Case in point is Gideon-Kraus' description of HarperStudio, "a boutique imprint" of Harper-Collins. (I doubt if a journalist will ever call Cinco Puntos "a boutique" publisher.) The HarperStudio publisher is Bob Miller (at HC via Hyperion/Disney), and he is the hero of Lewis-Kraus' little fable within the article. Miller, according to many industry wags, is supposed to be the man with the new publisher's business model that will revive the industry.
One idea behind HarperStudio is to break the prisoners’ dilemma of contemporary corporate publishing by doing away with the huge advance: the imprint won’t offer any advances larger than a hundred grand. But any profits will be shared fifty-fifty with the writer. Nobody has any clue whether this will work, but everyone seems hopeful about it, and if Bob Miller shows even a little success there’s a good chance other houses will follow suit. I’ve had two conversations so far in Frankfurt in which he has been called a “hero.”
Trouble with Miller's so-called "heroism" (besides the fact that it's fully funded by corporate bucks) is that our friend Johnny Temple at Akashic Books has been running this model for years. This is exactly his model, an idea which he borrowed from the infamous punk record label Discord. They probably borrowed it from somebody else. In the Indie World--publishing or record making--collaboration is a way of life. Still, Johnny and Discord etc get no credit and kudos. And Akashic does important books--politics, culture, cutting edge fiction and the Akashic Noir Series. Indeed, his noir anthologies featuring various cities and states have become bookstore mainstays. Maybe one of these days mainstream media will catch up to the important work that independent publishers have been doing for years. Even more important, perhaps they will begin to notice that the Indie World (read: small publishers) are nurturing the ideas that will guide publishing into the future.

[Notes: First, a happy disclaimer--Bobby Byrd and John Byrd of Cinco Puntos Press are editing Lone Star Noir for Akashic Books. It will be out Summer of 2010. The nice photo of Johnny T and his books is from the stopsmilingonline website from which is also linked to above.]

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