Stop the Editor Hating!

Okay, okay, I know . . . I’ve done it, you’ve done it. At one point in the past five years or so, each and every one of us has blamed big commercial New York editors for promoting a blockbuster model of publishing that’s killing literary fiction.

Which, true, has a fair amount of truth to it, but enough already. That’s more or less how I felt when I was reading Jay Baron Nicorvo’s essay in Guernica, pitched as a response to Ted “Write More Relevant Books You Navel Gazing Hacks” Genoways.

For what it’s worth, I side more with Nicorvo here than Genoways, it’s just that I’m tired of hearing this:

These days, editors at commercial publishing houses are required to do the same. They attempt to herd the mob because they no longer know how to reach the reader. Old media had a direct line to the audience that bought books, newspapers, and magazines. Publicity and marketing departments knew where to effectively (if not cheaply) spread the word about forthcoming titles and upcoming issues, expecting to get out what they put in. They’d print a few hundred or a few thousand galleys, mail them first-class to reviewers, watch the reviews roll in, and count the sales. But reviews no longer sell books. New media is the internet, and publicity and marketing departments have little central control over the flow of information. Amateur reviews of a book on Amazon are as important if not more so than the professional assessments in Publishers Weekly. And so what do editors do? They cling to what’s working, if not working well—blockbusters. The dominant, dysfunctional business model for movies has been adapted for books. And this is why more authors like John Edgar Wideman have had enough; he’d rather self-publish and have a larger say than be hamstrung by a system favoring quantity over quality.

Right, I get it, I agree (well, not exactly about that Amazon vs PW thing . . . do buyers at bookstores read Amazon reviews to make buying decisions? Do editors use them to decide what to assign for review?). But frankly, this line of argumentation hasn’t brought about a wave of revulsion and transformation in the publishing industry. So let’s move on. We know what doesn’t work, so let’s start talking about what does work.

For more on that, I ask you to watch this speech given by the ever-visionary Richard Nash.

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I was at a recent talk about this issue, in which the speaker exhorted publishers to work from the bottom (the internet) up, finding prospective book ideas / authors from places like high-quality or creative blogs, and info-websites.

A middle-aged member of the audience raised his hand and asked, “But how to we older guys get involved in the web?” It was one of those moments where the problem is only clear to those who already knew what it was. I nearly stood up and yelled, “Hire me.”

Nicorvo’s article doesn’t really make any sense. He says that Genoways is wrong because MFA grads aren’t that prolific as book publishers… but Genoways’ article isn’t about books. It’s about lit mags, which are generally dominated by MFA grads. I think he’s just reacting to the (inappropriate) title of Genoways’ article. Having read slush piles and MFA submissions before, I can’t really fault Genoways for his distress. I was once rejected from a lit mag with what at the time seemed insulting, but now seems perfectly appropriate: a tiny, impersonal form rejection note, and a subscription request. The other problem with Nicorvo’s argument is that he blames editors while glossing over his comment that, “[editors are] lucky if they can even distinguish their tastes from what their bosses and the bottom line demand.” What about those bosses? If editors have to dumb down their selections to keep their jobs, isn’t that a result of the bosses, the distributors, and the publishing business models? Lastly, I notice that Nicorvo’s wife is Thisbe Nissen, who is a teacher at Iowa (with a high-powered agent) and the writer of several books published through a Random House imprint, books that really can’t be considered blockbusters. I think this is usually called “looking a gift horse in the mouth.”

Travis asked, “What about those bosses?” I would suggest that Nicorvo is, in fact, focused primarily on them. Editors, he says, “if they want to keep their jobs, acquire for the mass market.” That conditional clause is crucial, and the same point is repeated throughout the essay.

Also, I don’t think the argument is that “Genoways is wrong because MFA grads aren’t that prolific as book publishers.” The argument is that fiction is struggling because the dominant publishing model is broken; whereas Genoways argues that the dominant writing model (i.e., writers trained at MFA programs) is broken. I think Nicorvo is right: it’s the publishing model, not the writing model, that needs fixing.

PJ, the fact remains that Genoways is talking specifically about fiction in literary magazines, and Nicorvo counters it by blaming editors for a blockbuster mentality, when editors of literary magazines have, if anything, the opposite mentality. As for Nicorvo being primarily focused on the bosses of editors, I must have missed that somewhere in his thesis statement that “It’s the editors, not the writers, who need encouraging. Editors need to change what, and how, they acquire.” He calls for restructuring New York City publishing, but puts the entire onus on editors who are now just barely able to squeak out a living, and have a relatively small amount of control.

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