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Getting Books on your Shelf: The Pros and Cons of Big versus Small Presses

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Social justice has been a lifelong passion of mine, as has reading. Needless to say, I was thrilled when I realised, as a tween, that the two are intimately related. After all, “the reality of man is his thought (…). If a man’s thought is constantly aspiring towards heavenly subjects then does he become saintly; if on the other hand his thought does not soar, but is directed downwards to centre itself upon the things of this world, he grows more and more material until he arrives at a state little better than that of a mere animal” (‘Abdu’l-Bahà, Paris Talks). As you can imagine, this was one of the most awesome realizations ever, as I could finally justify to my friends the countless hours spent with my nose buried in a book.

Since you are what you read, the choice of what you read is important, be it fiction or non-fiction. “Human utterance is an essence which aspireth to exert its influence and needeth moderation. As to its influence, this is conditional upon refinement which in turn is dependent upon hearts which are detached and pure” (Tablets of Bahà’u’llàh). Since the choice of what one reads is intimately related to what is available to be read, it gives anyone who has anything to do with writing a unique responsibility.

In particular, I’d like to focus on books.

I recently had the pleasure of talking to Maryglenn, an independent book publicist who works amongst others with small presses such as Oceanview Publishing. Oceanview is a small independent publisher based in Massachusetts and has published many award winning books (check out the list). Knowing that I have many prejudices and have been influenced by many stereotypes about the publishing world & corporations, I decided to take advantage of this lovely person to sound off the topic of quality of publishing.

It became very quickly obvious that, just like with everything else, there is no black and white when one compares the pros and cons of big versus small publishers. They each have the potential to bring readers the very best, while at the same time having the potential to bring us the very worst.

As my friend MJ mentioned in one of our chats , creating art, be it musical, written or other, is about sharing one’s interpretation of the world in an artistic way, and thus is very unique to each artists. By the same token, the audience’s appreciation also greatly varies. However the fact remains that to be able to make a living out of it, one has to be able to sell said creation; consequently, appealing to a larger public seems strategic, to say the least. This is also important for publishers, all the more now that books now have to compete with blogs (ha!), websites, magazines, TV and movies.

Taking in the abovementioned quotes about how man’s reality is shaped by his thoughts, and how man’s thoughts evolve and increase in complexity as his ability to use words to express himself increases, it becomes obvious that the responsibility publishers bear should be more than simply being in the black (i.e. to their shareholders). And yet it seems that for every well-written publication that helps in this process, either fiction or non-fiction, there is half a dozen terribly written books that can compare to the literary world’s junk food.

And so, in my limited and uninformed opinion, it seemed that big presses were the bad guys, as to easily ever-increase their profit margin in an increasingly competitive market, they were following the path other corporations have followed: by selling its soul, increasing production of less than stellar books (here’s looking at you, Twilight). I also thought that small presses were probably created to respond to the need to have less popular yet important titles published – which in retrospect, seems a lot less logical a thought post-Maryglenn.

A lot of what she explained to me went against my initial ideas about big publishers. Just like Starbucks has helped Mom and Pop coffee houses by increasing the demand for specialty coffee, big publishers do have a positive influence on the publishing world, including on smaller presses (check out the book Stabucked by Taylor Clark for an interesting analysis on the Starbucks phenomenon).

The most important contribution from big presses is that, because of the popular ‘fluff’ they publish, they have the means to publish the occasional ‘important’ book that doesn’t bring in any profit. And because of the rather large reach and distribution capacities, they are able to get these books into the hands of people who otherwise would never had had the opportunity to read such material.

Of course the Internet gives small presses more tools to increase their reach, but they can’t as of yet compete with big presses’ omnipresence in airports, bookstores, drug stores and groceries stores – they are everywhere.

I had never thought about it that way: the ‘fluff’ as a means to get more worthy books in the hands of readers.

Another conception Maryglenn challenged me to rethink is that of the relationship between success and quality. For, just like something successful doesn’t necessarily mean it’s of quality, it also doesn’t mean that something that is successful isn’t of good quality.

Liking a book is a very personal thing, and doesn’t always depend on good grammar, lack of typos and use of advanced English. One has only to think about Twilight, who shot to the top on merit of the appeal of it storyline despite the almost universally acclaimed mediocre writing.

Therefore it seems rather ridiculous to try to define ‘quality’ in publishing by such standards.

Maryglenn shared a very interesting personal reflection with me. She mentioned how different the appreciation of a book can be between reviewers, and how some books have the unique quality of being polarizing: some love it, some hate it, and almost no one is lukewarm about it.

Which makes me wonder: could the quality of the book be not only the writing etc, but rather in the conversation it engenders? After all, consultation and reflection are the two main tools we as the human race have to figure out how to live together.

Going back to Twilight, Maryglenn is right when she insists that its influence isn’t all that negative, as it has gotten many teenage girls reading. As someone who works with tweens and young teens and who has read Twilight, it also creates a great common point from which various discussions can be had. After all, conceptions of romance and relationships need to be addressed and what better way to kick start a conversation by analysing a fictional relationship to deepen a teen’s understanding of what consists a healthy vs. an unhealthy relationship?

Which has made me realise that what bothers me most about works like Twilight is not the book in itself; after all, I read it and, despite the rather terrible writing, I did enjoy the story. What bothers me is the lack of conversation about the book. Yes there are countless blog posts and articles about it, but how many teenagers actually get to sit down and discuss, openly, honestly and respectfully, about the negative and positive facets of Edward and Bella’s relationship?

This means that you are not what you read, but rather, you are what you discuss about your reading. If you just read books without thinking, passively absorbing whatever it holds between its pages, your personality is a passive one, and you don’t participate in the affairs of humanity, be it at a personal, family, community or worldwide level, as much as you could (if at all). This also implies that if you read the greatest book of all, whatever that book may be, it won’t do you much good.

But if you read a book, any book, even a terrible one, and actively reflect about its implications, consult with others about it and learn life lessons from it, then you are someone with an active personality who manages to participate, however humbly, in the affairs of humanity. And since we should be “anxiously concerned with the needs of the age (we) live in, and center (our) deliberations on its exigencies and requirements” (Gleanings from the Writings of Bahà’u’llàh), I think that this is an important criteria in evaluating the quality of a book: does it engender discussion?

And so the question now becomes: what role should publishers play in this paradigm?

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3 thoughts on “Getting Books on your Shelf: The Pros and Cons of Big versus Small Presses

  1. I love writing creative. It’s such a great way to express yourself. You can talk about supersensitive subjects in parable.

  2. I always thought book clubs seemed like a cheesy thing to be part of and a big waste of time, yet this article of yours would put it in a new light. Kind of like ruhí study circles. Reflecting together, clashing our differing opinions to bring about some sparks of truth. The guidance we find in the Teachings apply to all aspects and avenues of life. So interesting, thank you.

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