Schadenfreude is a nasty business, we all know. Nonetheless, as I hear the shrieks of anguish, see the flames and wince as the columns of the grand old publishing houses teeter and come crashing down--one by one, taken over by Goths--it's hard not to feel a touch, just a touch cheery. Sure, it's bad for freedom of thought and all that. But the mergers have made this a particularly good time to be an independent publisher. Authors quickly learn that while advances--monies paid in advance of earnings on a book--may be hefty, the conglomerates don't--can't--lavish attention on an individual work, unless the book is by someone already a brand name. Increasingly, they turn to the smaller houses, where editors still edit, and where a publisher might actually have read the lead titles being published by his company that season. My principal difficulty lies in defending turf from increasingly frantic editors at the major houses, who entice authors with cash offers we can't hope to match. Sometimes, writers are led astray. But I know they'll be back.
And if we learn how to manipulate them, the technologies foisted upon us will only help our situation. Marketing and editing are essential to the profession, but I have no sentimental feelings for our warehouse in Nevada. We're not in the business of limited editions (I hope!), and it doesn't matter to me whether or not a book is bought via a print-on-demand computer or is physically plucked off the warehouse shelves and sent to a bookstore. The battle remains the same: to attract readers to our particular editorial vision. I don't know that it was ever easy to publish original voices; by definition, someone who pushes the cultural envelope has rejected what is familiar and therefore what would be hospitable to the average reader. But with a vigorous program augmented by whatever electronic razzmatazz we can master, we stand a better chance than ever of having our books noticed and increasing our sales.
John G.H. Oakes is co-founder and publisher of the independent Four Walls Eight Windows, whose books include works by Abbie Hoffman, Amir Aczel and Gordon Lish.
Before determining whether publishers increasingly shrink from "difficult but important writing," let's define our terms.
"Difficult but important" fiction can be characterized by a fractured or nonexistent story line, characters we would rather not invite into our living rooms, dense or elliptical prose, and any experimental techniques requiring head-aching concentration. Anything you need to read twice and still aren't sure you understand qualifies as "difficult." Whether such writing is "important" depends on whether it advances the art form or illuminates its subject in a novel way. Reasonable minds can disagree on the attributes of various works. In fact, reasonable minds are certain to disagree. "Important" fiction is best determined by its importance to the individual reader. In the words of the great thinker and song stylist Johnny Mathis, "It's not for me to say."
"Difficult but important" nonfiction can be defined by its complexity (an analysis of missile defense systems, for example) or a perceived lack of interest in a topic that would benefit from greater public attention. Often, tackling such books is the literary equivalent of eating your vegetables or using one of those stomach-crunching machines at the gym. No pain, no gain.
Without question, publishers turn away "difficult" writing every day. I suspect most of that writing isn't so "important" in cultural or historical terms. In my 11 years at Random House, the baseline I used in assessing submissions--assuming the subject intrigued me--was a hunch that at least 10,000 book buyers and some major media outlets would find merit in the book. That's not an impossible standard, even for challenging or arcane nonfiction. Fiction is more problematic, but there are thousands of smaller publishers to serve as advocates for those works. The art will eventually emerge.
I've often wondered why any work needs to be "difficult." Great writers ought to be able to make anything vital to the average reader. Every single author I published, even those on the most "difficult" subjects, hoped for a wide readership. To reach that audience, writers ought to strive for lucidity as well as originality. Their work ought to be capable of compelling the reader's interest for the hours of undivided attention it will require.
Essentially, a book is a companion, the embodiment and distillation of a writer's most precise, heartfelt and imaginative thinking. How many companions would you like to spend at at least 10 consecutive hours listeningto? More significantly, how often do you subject yourself to the company of a "difficult" companion, someone who is resolutely obscure or pedantic? If you quite understandably prefer to opt for a video rental or an hour on eBay, then you, dear reader, are as much a part of the problem as the so-called titans of publishing.