Publishers and publication

Portland is the DIY capitol of the west coast, and possibly the United States. Homebrew enterprise and tactics for circumventing traditional media are a kind of local obsession here; self-publication of some kind is nearly a coming-of-age ritual for Portlandrian youth.

One of the more interesting ventures along these lines is Matthew Stadler’s project, the Publication Studio. Run out of a downtown storefront, the studio produces small runs of print-on-demand books, largely by writers who have escaped mainstream recognition. In this video, he talks about his vision for the future of publishing:

What is Publication? A talk by Matthew Stadler from Publication Studio on Vimeo.

Although he’s talking about the effects of new technologies like print-on-demand and e-books, one thing that strikes me about his comments is how much they feel like a throwback to older approaches to publishing.

The alleged promise of e-books and like is that they put publication within reach for everyone. Now you too can be a published author! And in a few cases, I expect that these technologies will result in otherwise neglected geniuses being saved from a lifetime of basement solitude. But if there’s malaise in the contemporary literary world, by and large it’s not the result of too few books being published. In fact, it’s the opposite: wandering through the aisles of my local bookstore, the bedeviling question is how to avoid being overwhelmed by the tsunami of dreck on all sides, how to sift through the zillion titles on offer and find the handful that will actually speak to me.

So the problem — at least for a reader — isn’t a poverty of titles, but rather of guidance. Although this is nominally the role of trusted reviewers, the sheer mass of newly-released books (not to mention self-published works) coupled with shrinking newspaper arts sections means the traditional critical establishment simply can’t keep up. And even if it could, a broad-based reviewing machine (like, say, the NYRB) doesn’t really speak to my particular tastes. The web may help to some degree, but again the insane volume of things to review must daunt even the most dauntless blogger.

Enter the editor. Back in the dark ages of publishing, the role of an editor was — among other things — to select books for their list which fit a particular aesthetic. Rather than spewing out new titles helter-skelter, editors worked to cultivate a particular kind of work and a particular kind of reader. (Max Perkins, anyone?) And it’s this kind of thoughtful, community-building publication that Stadler ultimately seems to be talking about:

Publication requires being a good host, being sensitive to context, to people, being willing to hear…. Publication requires consistency….

The quick changes, the premium on novelty, the need for a next debut novelist once the last one has moved, tiresomely, on to their second novel, is not a happy companion to publication.

With this approach to publishing, readers could become devotees not just of specific authors but of editors as well. The editor is a long-distance friend, whose taste and judgment the reader can rely upon. It’s a model that, I believe, is increasingly relevant in a world of overwhelming plurality, and one that a number of publishers have begun to revive: examples include small imprints like Amy Einhorn Books (shameless plug: Amy is my editor), Pamela Dorman Books, and others.

As Matthew Stadler notes:

Don’t fear the coming pluralism. The vastness and variety of books… is in fact a very rich ecology that makes for a healthy literary culture of production and innovation.

Yes, this is true — but that richness only becomes apparent if we as readers have trusted allies to help us find our way.

This entry was posted in Sundry. Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.