Monday, March 27, 2017

Publishing books is a long-term commitment

After years of serving as editor-in-chief of a major literary journal, and quite successfully, I had an idea: Why not start a press?

Everything was in place to make the idea work. I had a partner who was motivated and smart; we had a capable staff; we had contacts; we had the necessary skills and technology and know-how in all areas of production.

While I could stand in the middle of the magazine office and look around and see everything needed to make a book, what I couldn’t envision clearly enough was an effective way to get books into the hands of readers. This gave me pause—and considerations like these are the reason I never went into book publishing.

Committing to publish books is so very different from committing to publish a magazine. My first-ever publication was with a now-defunct journal called Farmers Market. I loved that magazine, and I treasure my copy of it. Recently I talked with an old friend of mine, and she said that this journal printed her first poem, too. This is a friend I really resonate with, and our Farmers Market connection felt pretty profound.

When a terrific little journal goes away, people like my friend and I can look back on it with fondness. We remember that magazine, and the good work inside, and the care they took with our work, and we feel nothing but warmth. The world was a nicer place with this journal in it.

But when a press goes away, things are much trickier. Journals are supposed to be temporary—the word comes from the Latin diurnus, meaning “of the day” (think “diurnal”) via the French adjective journal, “daily” (as in the soup “du jour”). It’s OK if something so temporary goes out of regular production and out of print. 

When a press goes under, its books can disappear, too. Books, though, are meant to be permanent. When we love a writer, we want to read everything that writer has ever produced, and it’s very frustrating when we can’t get our hands or our eyes on any single part of that collection. A book is an enduring record of a period in a literary artist’s creative life.

Mind you, there is never any reason in an age of digital publishing and print on demand for a book to become unavailable. A responsible publisher takes care to ensure that a press’s catalog goes on after the press or anyone on its staff is gone. One lovely option happens when another press takes over the catalog of one that is going out of business. Since a defunct press has no potential for profit, there are many examples of presses taking over a publisher’s list at no cost. Small press publishers tend to be in their field for love of literature, and making sure the books endure are the foremost concern of the average publisher who is discontinuing that holy work.

I ultimately chose not to become a publisher, but not because I didn’t believe I had it in me to promote new books, distribute them broadly, and fulfill orders efficiently. My sticking point was that after a thorough gut-check, I couldn’t honestly say that I was interested in entering into publishing for the long haul. And one must.

The fact is that it’s somewhat easier to publish a magazine than it is to publish books. To do it justice, every book contract includes a tacit (or possibly an overt) expectation that press releases will go out and media interviews will be sought; advance review copies will go to the major reviewers and to select minor reviewers with plenty of lead time; the release day will include a social media splash. An excellent distributor will be brought in to get books in stores; in addition, local bookstores will be contacted and readings or release parties will be set up. 

Magazines are released to subscribers and via distribution to bookstores. Often there is a system in place to get into local bookstores by consignment or to notify media via press releases of each new issue. My magazine always found most of its readers at the annual AWP Conference, where it was eagerly snatched up—and bullishly offered to those who tried to pass it by. But that’s it. That’s a journal’s commitment to its authors. An issue’s release should include a pause for celebration—unlike a book’s release, which is a huge occasion.

Because I wasn’t willing to devote my life to a press, I didn’t. And this was the right decision. Sure, there are ways that a responsible publisher can allow for a smooth transition if things happen to fall apart. But without that drive to promote and sustain each book, I had no business entering the field. And that’s why I’ve never regretted my decision to stick to magazines.

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