Last night I called my father, who turned 78 yesterday. The gifts I sent him all seem to be trickling in past the appropriate day. I'm always intrigued at how Amazon can do some things instantly and others take a bit. Had I ordered before the last minute, it would have all been a non-issue.
I read an article in the local newspaper about the Southern Methodist University [SMU] Press. The press is mired in a controversy I consider plastic and a bit beside the point. The press apparently had a budget of $ 400,000/annum which it spent on publishing 8 to 10 works of "literary fiction". Last year the university shut down the press, which had been in operation since 1937. It's never good news to shut down a press, especially when, as here, the action cost at least three jobs and put to rest a bit of history. Prominent authors and community members rallied around. The recent news is that the press will be revived in a print-on-demand and digital publication form, with a single staff member. The paper quoted one dismissive voice who compared the new system to something like a digital mimeograph machine.
I read an interview that suggests that the average print run for the press was 1500-2000 copies of a book. 125-150 copies were then sent out as review copies. Sales figures were not quoted, but I am assuming they were reasonably meager, because otherwise the press' budget shortfall would have been manageable. Also, it's reasonably possible, in my view, that if each voice now protesting SMU's actions had instead been buying the 'literary novels', the press would be here in its original form today. People who bewail how they are paving Paradise are frequently unwilling to help weed Paradise before the bulldozers arrive.
I am a co-owner of a small business, which definitely operates with profit as one goal. Yet I am not of the mind that every endeavor has to be about profit. I make music using Creative Commons licenses so that people can use them in videos or download them for free, because it's a good thing, in my view, to have some things shared for fun rather than profit. I donate to non-profits that deserve support even though their arts or nature missions are incapable of making a profit.
Yet I find myself out of perfect sympathy with those who rail about the SMU Press. The sum of $ 400,000 is a nice, if not spectacularly large, sum of money. Is the best "arts" use of this fund to print out 1,500 copies each of 10 new novels a year, each of which garners only a fraction of 1,500 readers? I suppose it is possible that a "hit" novel reaches a second printing, but had that been the case, I assume the press' profitability would have been better.
I have a bias about literary novels. I read a fair-ish but not huge number of them, as a significant if lesser part of my reading list. Yet in my view the world of "literary novels" tends to be a kind of odd academic club, not so much cloistered in an ivory tower as locked in a non-eternal network of participants who write and publish one another and one another's students' works. I have no idea if this applies to the SMU Press, so I announce my bias, without trying to imply that it factually applies here. I also find often that a kind of "MFA fiction" exists, laced with a kind of compact confessional style in which the author takes his or her life anecdotes, renders them a bit more absurd and humorous (or absurd and morbid) and then draws them up with a curious bow into an odd package. I freely confess I have this second bias about "literary fiction": it is often a bit like its own private and not very interesting world, populated with writers with a "look at me, look at me" sensibility that does not win me over.
Yet I imagine that with $ 150,000/year, a portion of which is used to hire a jack-of-all trades director, I could run an operation which used digital and print-on-demand to run a credible small press. With $ 50,000 more, a university could sponsor a fair number of readings and literary events, and probably even a poetry contest curated by a nationally-known poet. For $ 200,000/year, one could reach out to a lot more people than 10 relatively unread works of "literary fiction" could reach. If one planned one's releases and marketing carefully, one might recoup a good bit or all of that $ 200,000 in admission fees, donations, and, yes, sales.
I suppose that's my bottom line. I believe that there are worlds of novelists and poets and essay writers and artists and film-makers out there doing fascinating stuff. I think that "old media" things like literary presses did not serve them very well. Old-style press consumed arts resources, while proving unable to ignite readers or "spread the word". I think that a new style of support for the arts, which is local, a bit lean and mean, and which leverages the economies of new technology, is called for.
I'll grant that my vision is a bit more populist. It's possible that the ideal SMU press of my mind would not vet its novels past "learned panels" of readers, and might focus on marketing as a low budget, grass roots affair.
I don't mean this about the SMU Press in particular, but I mean it about academic presses in general. It's certainly a a good thing to print worthy works. But it's not a red badge of courage or a show of great valor merely to print books nobody wants to buy. The measure of the worth of something is not its profitability, but neither is it mere obscurity. If I had $ 200,000, and paid for a staff of one gifted soul from it, I could fund a press and arts organization which reached more people and went to more fun places than a "literary press' which print runs ten books of 1,500 copies/run.
I don't think that cash is king, but I do wonder if the arts folks sniffing their disapproval should find better uses of their time than bewailing the passing of an unpopular, if arguably worthy, press. My sympathies are with shoestring operations to whom $ 400,000 would fund a cutting-edge 'zine, permit the release of a Creative Commons classical music catalog, sponsor a literary con, and publish a few novels duly curated by an insightful editor. In my view, the people who makes the arts fun are out there doing it on a much smaller shoestring, and could make better use of half the funds than could a traditional press.
It's a bit sad to see any small press go, and yet I do wonder about the nobility of printing small runs of books that few people read. Is it truly more artistic to put on ballets in empty theaters? It's a puzzle.