Friday, February 13, 2009

Books and Baseball

Not long ago I came up with an idea that would benefit every reader and writer of fiction in this country. My idea is this: Every American city that supports a Major League Baseball team should also be home to a vital publishing house of American fiction.

In case you’ve forgotten, or never knew, the cities MLB teams call home are:

Anaheim, CA, Arlington, TX, Atlanta, GA, Baltimore, MD, Boston, MA, Chicago, IL, Cincinnati, OH, Cleveland, OH, Denver, CO, Detroit, MI, Houston, TX, Kansas City, MO, Los Angeles, CA, Miami, FL, Milwaukee, WI, Minneapolis, MN, New York, NY, Oakland, CA, Philadelphia, PA, Phoenix, AZ, Pittsburgh, PA, San Diego, CA, San Francisco, CA, Seattle, WA, St. Louis, MO, St. Petersburg, FL, and Washington, DC

Yes, I know I’ve omitted Toronto; Canada will have to fend for itself.

Of the cities on the above list, Chicago and New York support two teams; Los Angeles is a potent enough name to have a team within its city limits and another in Orange County, i.e. the Los Angeles Angels, who play in Anaheim.

Now, let’s look at the cities on the list that support thriving publishers of American fiction. Well, New York is first, foremost, and all but unique. There are whole directories listing New York publishers of fiction. Boston has a handful of fiction publishers. Chicago has a few. Maybe you can find one or two in L.A. But that’s about it.

If I’ve just ruffled the feathers of any small publishers of whom I’m not aware, I apologize. But when I say a thriving publisher of American fiction, I mean a business that can afford to pay at least a five-figure advance, has national distribution channnels, has a publicity budget for each title, and stands at least some chance of getting shelf space in most bookstores. (More on this point later.)

The inspiration for my idea comes from the publisher of my new novel, The President’s Henchman, Variance Publishing. Variance meets all of the criteria I mentioned in the preceding paragraph. It is located in Cabot, Arkansas, a suburb of Little Rock, with a population of 21,000. That makes Cabot much smaller than any of the MLB cities. Culturally, though, in terms of publishing American fiction, Cabot is outperforming many cities that like to call themselves Big League.

However, Variance has—temporarily, I hope—bumped up against a ceiling: It has received all the manuscript submissions it can handle. Which means I got in just in time, and almost surely other authors were too late in finding this new publisher.

So what are these writers to do? Well, most likely they are trying to get their novels published by a New York house. That’s what you do. That’s where the money and the glory are. But as Jon Stewart likes to say: Maybe not so much.

Outside of J.K. Rowling’s mega-selling Harry Potter series, the market for American fiction is essentially flat. Newsweek quotes an unnamed publishing source in its January 26, 2009 edition as saying, “There’s likely to be a buying strike in the book business for up to six months.” When the New York publishers are buying, they are increasingly looking for blockbusters. As if anyone can recognize a blockbuster ahead of time. Still, if you make an editor labor under the expectation that any book he or she buys had better sell in boxcar numbers, the tendency will be to take very few chances, even to the point of rejecting novels the editor personally enjoys.

Charlie Rose was interviewing John Grisham recently and Rose said that the publishers of fiction depend for their survival on mega-sellers like Grisham. If that’s the case, the publishers are doomed because they are working with a resource limited in number and life expectancy, a resource that won’t be adequately renewed because of the barriers the publishers have erected against writers with new voices and new stories.

This is not a slam against any big-time best-selling writer. Not at all. They’ve paid their dues and their books make a lot of readers happy. God bless them.

But the next Forrest Gump is going to come from outside their number.

In case you didn’t know, Forrest Gump was a great book by Winston Groom before it became a great movie with Tom Hanks. It was published by Pocket Books in 1994. But tell me, what New York publisher, today, is going to buy a book about an idiot from Alabama? Even one that was brilliantly written. But what if there were thriving publishers in Atlanta, Miami and Arlington, TX—those MLB cities, remember—you think they might be more inclined to publish the story of someone like Forrest?

For all the chain stores we shop in, and all the chain restaurants we eat in, all the dumb TV shows available to all of us, all the homogeneity that defines popular culture, the United States still has a wealth of storytellers with distinctive regional voices. Trying to filter them all through New York has created an immense bottleneck. The wheat is being thrown away with the chaff. This is a cultural disservice to the whole country.

The simple fact is, people in the Southeast are likely to appreciate different stories than people in the Northwest, whose preferences might not resonate with people in New England. But there likely would be novels that would sell well in all these regions—but still not meet the demands of an editor in New York whose corporate bosses demand blockbusters.

The corporate approach to publishing is flawed in the most basic sense: Businessmen want guarantees of success, and there are no guarantees in art. Not in writing, not in moviemaking, not in music, not in painting. That doesn’t stop left-brained MBAs from trying, but it does diminish the range of what we have to read, watch, hear, and see.

Or possibly, unlike me, you believe there are more good books, movies, songs, and paintings than there were twenty years ago.

What I’ve noticed is there are indisputably more people today whose wealth is measured in millions or billions of dollars. A good many of these people have made their money by using technology in creative ways. It doesn’t seem like much of stretch to ask some of them—twenty-nine would do; the same number of American MLB cities—to start publishing companies. They could start by hiring smart people, locally please, as editors and tell them, “Here’s a list of writers I’ve always loved. Find me more who will make me as happy as they did.”

Now, would that be so hard? Yeah, I know the economy stinks, but even an English major like me knows that the best time to get in on something is at the bottom not the top. And we have to be at least near the bottom, don’t we? God, I sure hope so.

Now, let’s look back at the bookstore situation I mentioned near the beginning of this piece. It’s damn tough to get space in a bricks and mortar Barnes & Noble or Borders. They’ve jumped on the blockbuster bandwagon, too. But if new, interesting novels were flooding the market from all points of the compass, not only would the big chains have to reconsider their business models, new venues would spring up to accommodate the product surge. Maybe chains of book “niches” would pop up in larger stores, reflecting the buying preferences of their regions and, I would hope, picking up on interesting books from other parts of the country.

Anyway, that’s my idea. So if you know someone with a good chunk of money, someone who enjoys reading and doing something, well, novel, tell them you’ve got a big league idea for them. Tell them you thought of it yourself.

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