How Raw Capitalism Is Devouring American Culture
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The editor, Silverberg says, is the irreplaceable part of the traditional publishing equation. He mentions in particular Galassi’s editing of Denis Johnson, Jonathan Franzen and Michael Cunningham over the years. “They work with the writer to make the best possible book. We can’t afford to lose editors. Editor as arbiter, editor as teacher, editor as collaborator. It’s hard to sit in that room by yourself. Writers lose perspective; editors can bring perspective.”
One of the key roles of an editor, Galassi himself says, is to find little-known writers whose work deserves to be put between covers, and moved from obscurity writing short stories or articles into a cultural conversation. “Do writers want to spend their time marketing themselves, or writing their books? There’s no dearth of need for publishers.”
One publishing veteran who asked not to be named says the official voices will announce how essential editors are. “They’ll all proclaim, ‘The editors are the jewels in the crown …’ “ The stronger they insist on it, the faster the editors’ execution will come.
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This could all lead to a silver lining for some parties: Lean, mean presses with focused missions – Graywolf, Seven Stories, Milkweed, New Directions – could do OK as publishing shrinks and six majors becomes three. “Poetry, translation, literary,” Silverberg says of the kind of boutique presses that could thrive. “They know their audiences better than they ever have.”
As wonderful as these presses are, they tend to give very small or nonexistent advances. Much of their funds come from philanthropy, the NEA and state or local arts agencies, and that money rises or falls with political leadership, tax codes and other variables.
And while self-publishing has brought some good work out along with a lot of bad, there is little to no money at the front end. (We tend to hear about the rare exception of runaway success, not the hundreds of thousands of self-published books per year that go nowhere or lose their authors money.) For the independently wealthy, those who married well, or businessmen writing valiantly on the secrets of their success, these are real options. As with much of the Internet-driven transformation of the creative class, authors hoping to make a middle-class living with a modest advance will increasingly be out of luck.
One thing that could have made this story end differently is if the United States had a significant cultural policy. We have a trade policy – we protect industries we value – and we have an anti-trust policy designed to protect consumers. We have arts and humanities endowments that assist institutions. But our cultural policy is mostly to let culture fend for itself in the open market. It works great, but sometimes it doesn’t.
Many counties in Europe have cultural policies, Levine points out. Germany has a thriving book business – with many independent bookstores and a rich mix of publishers – because the government forbids price discounts in most cases.
“If you’re a minister of culture,” Levine says, “it’s your job to further culture. It’s seen as something government should do. If you left it all to the market, almost no one would write anything in Swedish … because it’s such a small market.”
In the U.S., though, we’re accustomed to our culture – Hollywood movies, for instance – dominating, and our language serving as the world’s lingua franca: We never had to find a way to assist and preserve our culture on the world stage the way smaller nations did. (European nations developed various kinds of protections for their musical and arts “heritage” as American pop culture conquered the world in the postwar years.) So now we find ourselves with four of our six big publishers owned by European corporations. (One of the two “American” companies is essentially owned by a rogue Australian.) And with a deal between a German corporation (Bertelsmann) and a British one (Pearson, which owns Penguin) potentially rewriting American publishing.