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Peering Down the Rabbit Hole of Make-Believe: Confessions of an Independent Publisher

Mixed media illustration: Copyright 2008 Judy Scott All Rights Reserved

BRANT BEACH, N.J. — When people ask me what I do for a living and I answer, “publish books,” the sensible follow-up question I often get is “what kind of books?”. It’s here I usually stumble for my best choice of answers. If I simply say, “fiction,” it pushes me down the rabbit hole of “what kind of fiction?” to which I have no good reply except to say, “all kinds.” To respond, “literary fiction,” only adds to the confusion as it seems to require further explanation that ends up sounding arcane, snooty or economically irrational.

Questioner: Literary fiction?
Me: Yep, not genre fiction.
Questioner: Genre?
Me: You know, mysteries, thrillers, science fiction, romance.
Questioner: Oh, you don’t publish those?
Me: No.
Questioner: So what do you publish then?
(Vagueness at this point in the conversation is tempting but it would only guarantee more missteps as it fails to speak to the challenges of a small, commercial press that positions itself as genre-busting and literary.)
Me: You know, books that don’t sell.

So the question begs to be asked: How does one purport to publish literature and stay in business in this modern age of Google Books and shuttered bookstores without being looked at as if you’ve lost all sense of reality?

After all, a mission statement with the lofty goal of “redefining the role of literature” doesn’t exactly inspire rich relatives, investors or bank officers to scurry to your doorstep to help finance the undertaking. Altruism does not a book business plan make, particularly when your organization is structured as a for-profit enterprise and not a 501(c)3. There are sound, fiscally responsible reasons that most literary presses are formed as tax-exempt, non-profit entities. Works such as Main Street, a satirical novel written by Sinclair Lewis and published in 1920, simply do not sell in droves on Main Street.

On every conceivable level, it is ludicrous for a small 21st century press to think it could generate a runaway bestseller with the rather unoriginal, strategic platform of “discovering new writers.” In a marketplace wrought and overrun with tinsel and noise, how does one hold faith in the premise of producing a work of literature and somehow shift the tides of crass commercialism and present it as a mainstream American novel?

A little madness and a lot of blind passion go a long way in this marginal livelihood.

According to Tim Parks in The New York Review of Books article, “America First?”, many people still “share a vision of the novel as a peculiarly liberal art … dedicated to the construction of a better future … and deeply hostile to anything that curbs the freedom of the individual.” This is a refreshing perspective.

Parks also goes on to debate whether Europe, in fact, remains the center of the literary world as some Nobel Prize judge claims, and makes a strong case for American publishers to step forward, out of duty to foreign writers, and translate more literature into English. Otherwise, he states, their work cannot compete for international literary prizes, such as the Nobel. He then expands upon the idea of a “literary internationalism” with American writers at the forefront, and this whole concept excites the Dickens out of me.

American writers, I dare shout, should crawl from the rabbit hole of make-believe and fuel the charge for literary presses to not only sustain on life support (predominantly via public funding), but thrive in an open marketplace due to a soul(art)-starved citizenry. As for the classification of what writers produce on paper and how to explain it, let’s not get hung up on the semantics. Let publishers, marketers and booksellers figure out how to deal with the burden of planting feet in two worlds—general (commercial) fiction and literary fiction (literature)—that need to put aside their childlike hostilities and stigmas: formulaic drivel vs. intellectual snobbery.

I may refuse to be pigeonholed as a publisher. And I still may have a difficult time explaining to friends and family exactly what it is I do and the types of books I publish. But rather I concentrate on the quality of the storytelling (highbrow, lowbrow and between), and help force the delineations and stereotypes of genre to blur and fade until consumers, librarians, and booksellers no longer pay them much mind, no less know how to tell the difference.

Let us take a page out of the hybrid, fertile mind of Neil Gaiman, whose introduction to a new anthology raises the timeless, foolhardy argument that splits genre fiction fans and literary lovers alike, despite their mutual passion for the printed word.

Let us not worry about how we categorize a novel. First, as writers, let us tell a good story. Second, as publishers, let us get it in front of our audience in myriad ways. Then, as readers and arbiters of narrative and societal taste, let us decide if the characters are worthy to be kept on our bookshelves.

Finally, let us, please, stop worrying about where the book belongs on the shelves of a library or bookstore and instead concern ourselves about why the book belongs there in the first place.

About Dan Cafaro

Dan Cafaro is the founder and publisher of Atticus Books, a small press based in Madison, N.J. When Dan is not following his wife around the country, he is known to sit for long periods of time pondering how to live off the grid. Atticus Review is his first literary journal.

1 Awesome Comments So Far

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  1. Renee
    July 3, 2010 at 11:39 pm #

    Wow, well said. I keep saying this over and over again. I’m sharing this. Thanks.