I’ve been reading a thought-provoking new book called Literary Publishing in the Twenty-First Century, edited by Tavis Kurowski, Wayne Miller, and Kevin Prufer and published by Milkweed Editions. It’s hard to see the whole of the literary ecosystem from any one desk, whether you’re an editor at a big New York publisher, an agent, a publisher who specializes in translations, a poetry editor, or even a book reviewer, and this book presents the perspectives of all these people and many more.
The writers speak to each other without knowing it: “American publishing is on the verge of collapse,” says John O’Brien, founder of Dalkey Archive Press, in “19 Things: More Thoughts on the Future of Fiction.” Daniel Slager, the publisher of Milkweed, opens his essay, “Coming to Milkweed Editions,” by saying that people at dinner parties tend to ask him how it feels to be “part of a dying industry,” but by the end, he concludes: “I have found myself in the midst of an enormous cultural transformation, with ramifications that promise a lifetime of creative adventure.”
In “The Self-Hating Book Critic,” Jessa Crispin, who recently shuttered Bookslut, bemoans what she sees as the closed loop of New York publishing and newspaper book reviewing, which makes me want to start reeling off counterexamples until I come upon agent Chris Parris-Lamb, in an interview with novelist Jonathan Lee, talking about how “drinks and lunches are an organic part of the publishing ecosystem,” which of course is true but far from the whole truth. (One quibble: perhaps it would have been enlightening to hear from some non–self-hating book critics. I can give you some names….)
Erin Belieu, the co-founder of VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, discusses the genesis of that organization’s revolutionary Count in an email conversation with Prufer that took place more than a year ago—seemingly before VIDA started accounting for race as well as gender, perhaps in response to powerful essays like Daniel José Older’s “Diversity Is Not Enough: Race, Power, Publishing,” which ran in Buzzfeed in 2014 and is reprinted here.
Donna Shear, director of the University of Nebraska Press, wonders whether fiction and poetry fit in with the mission of a university press. Megan Garr, editor of the journal Versal, writes about the economy of literary magazines, and Douglas Wolk writes about comics publishing. Doubleday editor Gerald Howard looks back on decades at the heart of “New York’s literary-industrial complex.” There’s a lot to learn from this eclectic volume, and I’ll definitely be digging more deeply into it in the weeks ahead.
Laurie Muchnick is the fiction editor.