Flavorwire suggests we are in a golden age, listing 25 independent presses which support their view. I would add McSweeney’s and New York Review Books to their list, and note them as examples of what I alluded to in my last post —  making books with high production values — treating books as aesthetic as well as literary objects.

I do believe that as big businesses break apart, small businesses form out of the “ruins” when opportunities and unemployed staff abound — though maybe with Random House-Penguin just having gotten going it’s a little premature to be talking about big houses breaking up. There are, by the way, rumors of another large house moving out of New York City, firing all its staff and rehiring (selectively) at their new location. The e-book revolution may be the immediate driver, but there are of course multiple factors driving changes in the publishing business. I am no financial expert, but I do think we must by now have demonstrated the irrationality of trying to turn book publishing into an efficient, high-profit operation. Every (serious) book is unique, and presents its own peculiar editorial, design, production and marketing needs. Individuals buy books as a result of very individual needs. One or two categories of book can of course be commoditized, as the big conglomerates have always wanted to, but there just aren’t enough of them to sustain a business of the size needed for survival. Little books have to be added to the mix, and these are badly served by the best-seller-machines. Serious books require serious attention: you cannot set up a rigid system for dealing with them and just tell staff to follow the “Standard Practice Instructions” — what you really need are smart people who are able to work out for themselves what the difficulties are and come up with good solutions. Intelligent generalists, not well-drilled automatons. Sounds a lot like a small publishing company.

Jill Lepore’s piece, “The New Economy of Letters”, in The Chronicle of Higher Education Review of 6 September 2013 makes some good points, but ends with an over-optimistic call for university presses to step into the gap, pick up the slack, and publish those quality mid-list titles which are being squeezed by the system. This stretch is no doubt explainable by the fact that the piece is based upon her talk to The Association of American University Presses earlier this year. The problems with implementing it are not insurmountable, though they are large — university presses, departments of universities, exist to further the ends of their parent institutions, which basically means to promote research and higher education. To the extent that the sorts of serious, mid-list titles Professor Lepore is talking about fit with that mission, university presses are already publishing them. No doubt they could do a few more. Maybe the authors of these books would accept the royalty terms they were offered, and maybe a decent quantity could be sold to the trade, but universities do not have any remit to save publishing, save literature, or even save culture (except by their central mission of educating the youth). It will be difficult for university presses to change gear.

The central point of her article (to me at least) is that academics have tended to write for free (or for very little) and that this has directly impacted the quality of their prose and their attitude towards deadlines. To turn this inside out, one might say that the quality of the writing is in direct proportion to the size of the pay-off, which can be money or reputation based. The trope of the penniless, garret-bound poet writing away for posterity isn’t utterly fantastical. I doubt if a reduction in potential outlets for their more general writings is going to make academics any better at writing English than they are today, and any payment which a university press is going to be allowed to offer them is unlikely to change that situation. One might perhaps note that the foregoing should not be taken to mean that there are not today many well-written books by academics which are being well and successfully published by university presses and others, some even very large. Just don’t look for an increase in their proportion.