Literature Director, National Endowment for the Arts
When I started working in the mid 1980s, the publishing world was not unlike the one I’m leaving today. It’s filled with passionate people questioning how the business will get through the latest transitions. Whether it’s the death of the book club; the decreasing influence of reviews (or just the decrease of them and reviewers, period); the birth, then death, of the superstore; the multi-national conglomeration of houses; complaints about distribution and returns: or about a fickle reading public, everything old is new again. Only one thing really blindsided us – the ebook and its radical transformation of our field.
It’s too early to know if this new medium will have a radical effect on the work of publishing folk, finish independent bookstores off for good or come to prevail in the form of Kindle or iPad. But it’s not too early to wonder if the new medium will lead writers to new forms. Will Hypertext, once promoted by Robert Coover and other experimental writers, have a renaissance? What else will change with digitization?
In my new job as the Literature Director of the National Endowment for the Arts, I hope to lead grantees—specifically small presses and journals—to a better understanding of our new world so that they have a fighting chance to prevail. The non-profit presses and magazines that the NEA funds publish work of the highest artistic merit. More than ever, they fill in where the large publishing houses leave gaps by supporting mid-career writers; in translation; in poetry; in publishing work that is both culturally and formally adventurous. Ebooks and POD technology also give these small presses a chance to spend less on inventory and more on editorial and marketing. That’s good news.
A different world can offer new and exciting opportunities; it can even help those who have been marginalized by mainstream publishing. My hope is that the transitions we are facing, hard as they are to fathom at times, do some good for those who need it most. Non-profit presses are our farm teams. Please spend this year thinking about how you can support their work.