Thursday, May 6, 2010

iPads, Doctorow, Journals

I know it’s aged in the last few weeks (three generations or more in magazine shelf life), but the article by Ken Auletta called “Publish or Perish” (TNY, April 26, 2010) is certainly worth reading. The future of books appears even gloomier than I had thought, with many people just giving up on the printed tomes we’ve grown so accustomed to over the last hundreds of years. Add to that an economic crisis and a culture of downward pricing (or free access) associated with the Internet, and we are left with legions of authors orphaned by traditional publishing houses (or simply routed away from them), who turn to self-publishing and direct marketing of their books through retailers like Amazon.

The article is filled with interesting facts about the book industry, which I always find elusive and intriguing. For instance, I didn’t know that Amazon is constantly selling books at a loss, and has done so especially in its e-books for the Kindle. I was surprised to find out that the major book publishers “do no market research.” And this was sobering: “The industry produces more than a hundred thousand books a year, seventy per cent of which will not earn back the money that their authors have been advanced; aside from returns, royalty advances are by far publishers’ biggest expense. Although critics argue that traditional book publishing takes too much money from authors, in reality the profits earned by the relatively small percentage of authors whose books make money essentially go to subsidizing less commercially successful writers. The system is inefficient, but it supports a class of professional writers, which might not otherwise exist.” Seventy percent? That’s far higher than I expected.

That same edition of The New Yorker published a short story by E. L. Doctorow called “Edgemont Drive.” It’s a story that describes an old man—a poet, a professor—who parks in front of a house where he used to live as child. There are no quotation marks or narrators: just the people speaking, a paragraph each. The story exposes the struggle between a jealous, pessimistic man and his naïve, depressed wife. The couple lives in the house that the poet visits. The story is daring, and it gets away with it because other voices intrude and we don’t lose our sense of who’s speaking. But that’s all I have to say about its merit. The story reminded me of a piece by Sam Shepard in Zoetrope last year (a comment here on Perpetual Folly), but Shepard’s brief story was more intriguing and provocative.

On a final note, an interesting ranking of literary magazines was published a few days ago by Lincoln Michel of The Faster Times, here. He organized the journals into tiers, with an off-the-charts tier made up of Harper’s and The New Yorker, followed by five tiers. The author has since given up on his ranking (the reasons are explained in the article), and what you find now is a list. Still, it’s very useful if you are considering what magazines you should submit your stories to. It also gives you a sense of the magnitude of the universe of literary magazines in the English-speaking world. It would be a serious challenge to do something similar in, say, Spanish: I can count respected literary journals in Spanish with the fingers of one hand. So, after the sour note about book publishing at the beginning of this post, I end with a heartening reminder of the wide array of publishing opportunities still available for fiction.

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