Tuesday, August 3, 2010

What about Indie Presses?

Despite the tumult in the publishing industry over the last decade or so, indie presses seem to be doing just fine. Maybe they've even gotten stronger.

Of course, there has always been "big" well-run indies like Dzanc Books, but I'm talking about the layers of indie presses underneath them, these places that, as debut and mid-list writers fall out of favor with big house publishers, are positioned to take on these "risks" and publish their works.

I'm thinking about books like Tinkers, which won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and Currency, which I bought last week at a reading. I've read Tinkers, am just starting Currency, and I'm struck by the difference between these books and the one or two big-house-published books I've read lately.

Maybe it's me, but I've noticed a distinct trend in big-house-published fiction over the past year, and even over the past decade. All of these books start out very strong, almost like a short story in a top-tier literary magazine, but then the quality diminishes after 10, or 25, or 50 pages, becoming, if not pedestrian, something less than fully realized.

I don't pretend to know what goes on at big publishing houses, or with these big authors, but I get the sense that there's a point where "good enough" becomes more important than "as good as it can be," "good enough" being good enough to sell to an editor, to publish, to sell to book sellers, to sell to the public. The idea for the book is strong, the opening chapter is strong. What more do you really need to sell a book?

For the most part, I haven't noticed this same tapering-off in quality when I read good indie-published books. They tend to deliver what they promise.

But wait a second. Aren't Random House, Penguin, and all the other biggies the arbiters of what is the best of the best in fiction? If we judge by major awards, the biggies have ruled my whole life. Are times a-changing?

This might explain some of it: Both of the indie books I mention above went through rounds and rounds of rejection, and years and years of revision, before finally finding a home. Their authors often wondered if their novels would ever see the light of day. In the case of Currency, its author, Zoe Zolbrod, stored the manuscript away after various publishing insiders couldn't find a taker for it. Each agent or editor pushed Zolbrod's book through a revision, and for whatever reason it never got published. It took Gina Frangello of Other Voices Books to contact Zolbrod, make her drag the thing out of the closet and give the novel another chance. Finally, the novel found its home with Frangello and Other Voices.

I'd bet Paul Harding, with Tinkers, has similar stories to tell.

And I think that's the difference. These authors really took the time--or had the time forced upon them--to make sure their novels were the best they could be. They took the time to submit, and get opinions, and reconsider, and rewrite, and revise, and put away, and do it all over again--all this after the thing was "done" to their eyes.

I once read this comment from an agent: "When a new author comes to me, I want to hear, 'I've worked on nothing but this book for a decade.'"

And, of course, this need to revise and reconsider over years and years isn't something only indie-published writers practice. That's about how long Jonathan Franzen took to write and publish The Corrections, a novel that, no matter what you think of it or him, delivers what it promises from page one. His new novel, Freedom, which comes out in the fall, also took about nine years from beginning to end.

I'm looking forward to that one.

Yours in laying down the law,


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