Last week, BBP headed up to Boston for AWP’s annual conference. I’ve spent a lot of time in Boston, despite never having lived there, so I thought I knew what was coming: lots of snow, lots of beer. It was definitely cold, and we definitely drank a lot of beer, but Friday really surprised me.
As usual, I left Boston with a lot of questions. Why is Boston so expensive? Do people really buy clothes from Vineyard Vines? Why do I keep going back there?
But, my biggest question was prompted by the only panel I bothered to go to. Our own Buzz Poole was moderating and BBP’s publisher Elizabeth Koch was one of the panelists, so I kind of had to be there, and I thought it would be a boring 45 minutes of people giving their little presentations and then being outlandishly supportive of each other, which is sort of what you do at conferences in any given industry. But it was definitely not that. The panel got going a bit late, and as we sat in the silence waiting, Richard Nash joked “This is the John Cage panel.” Everyone laughed, but what followed wound up being the kind of dissonant, utterly discordant disagreement that would have been music to Cage’s ears.
The topic was “Books in the Age of Reader-Centric Publishing,” and the other panelists — Siglio’s Lisa Pearson, Ugly Ducking Presse’s Matvei Yankelevich, and Richard Nash of Small Demons and Red Lemonade — started out (and ended!) with a total disagreement over the idea of being “reader-centric,” which at its most basic definition refers to catering more to the perceived wants of the reader than you do perhaps to the author’s very clear wants and needs. Matvei and Lisa basically thought the concept was bullshit; Richard and Elizabeth did not.
I tried to take notes and transcribe as well as I could, and sometimes I succeeded at catching it all, and sometimes I failed. What follows is a collection of some of my favorite quips and insights from the panelists; I think they all represented their own viewpoints beautifully and really differently, and they didn’t want to agree, which as an audience member I liked a lot.
Buzz started things off with a prompt about the book as object, and Richard jumped in:
Richard Nash: When you’re creating work, you have two ideas to deal with simultaneously. There’s the practical implementation or formatting, the economic dimension, and there’s how you choose to express yourself. Is your interest more narrowly focused on how you wish to express yourself, regardless of the outcome in the culture, or do you [wish to reach as many people as possible]? What you are doing, regardless of that particular set of choices, is your engagement culture. You’re all playing the culture game, engaged in an act of self expression and cultural enacting.
I think he went on to make the point that format doesn’t have to matter more than the text itself. Then Buzz pushed it over to Lisa Pearson; she said the following, not necessarily as a response to Richard’s point. I heard it as a premise, as a statement of purpose for Siglio.
Lisa Pearson: I would use the word “form” instead of “format.” Every choice I make in terms of [the book’s] physical manifestation, is about asking the reader to engage in the book. Materiality is about the work as a whole. I hate the word content: when it’s separated out, when you plug it into a platform, that’s anathema to what I do.
Matvei Yanklevich of Ugly Duckling Presse, a nonprofit that publishes a lot of poetry and work in translations, chimed in next, following up on how UDP approaches the web:
Matvei Yankelevich: How the decisions are being made is a more difficult question, because we’re a collective. The web-based stuff we’ve done isn’t very innovative — we’re simply using the web as a place to archive ephemeral things that can’t be produced, like chapbooks, or things that are difficult and financially not possible to produce in a print format, and maybe they look better on screen. [The web] is a point of access to a kind of database of poems. The web thing is quite young still — [for example] it took a long time for printers not to use script... about 100 years, because people weren’t used to looking at [printed typography as opposed to script]. At some point the apocalypse will come anyway [laughter] and when it does, it does, so there’s no reason to rush into this and start calling things that aren’t things.
The book is a really handy technology. It’s not proprietary. You don’t need any software to read it, or plug into power, it’s all been done for you. You need light but these days you don’t even need that, with our super-sharp vision… A well made book makes you think about your relationship of your body to the text, whether it has elephants and origami and bling coming out of it or not… When we lose sight of the text being text, that’s where we come into problems.
Elizabeth Koch: Leigh [Newman] and I were really interested in creating a press that broke the boundaries of what a book could be — we were thinking in terms of voice, getting rid of the whole idea of genre, as many different types of energy and darkness with humor, subject matters that don’t always seem to go together. We wanted a book that spoke to something that we hadn’t felt yet. And this is really hard to find in terms of a straight manuscript, so we look at everything we can do with all the different ways to produce the actual book, [that allows for variation] beyond the body of the text itself.
[In the process of developing the digital editions of Louise: Amended we asked ourselves,] how can we create an interactive book that gets readers more into the world, as opposed to just throwing in [multimedia]. We felt like adding the additional material helps readers identify with the author in a way that was not more than, but slightly different than just reading her words.
[We think about] how to evolve the book outside of the confines of the page. The overarching idea is to bring as many different ways of connecting and sharing and being inspired by a story, and sort of a social reading way, and salons ... storytelling has always been social, but [we want] to bring people together in a social and layered way.
At this point, I took down the best possible transcription I could for the next 10 minutes or so. There are certainly things I missed, so please forgive the many ellipses, but I loved this part of the discussion, it was lively.
Buzz Poole: So, we agree that [the bookmaking process] is about shaping that form and bringing it to the reader. Matvei, you don’t like the term “reader-centric” — speak to that.
Matvei: To me it’s just a buzzword, that doesn’t seem to me to have to do with the book, but more with various marketing strategies. It’s also cool to have more people have access to more varying stories, which is possible through small press distribution. I want to talk to a lot of people about different things, and those communities to me don’t have to be online, because i personally don’t find any kind of [incentive] in that relationship to people. I’m more interested in stories that NOT everybody can relate to, especially, in poetry.
Richard: It sounds like what you’ve just described could be a manifesto for reader centric publishing. But that depends on what the term means, obviously.
Matvei: [Do you mean] talking about books and these conversations — how do they influence the author and the publisher, post production?... Language has made us both forget things, and remember things.
Maybe I don’t understand what you mean by reader-centric, but maybe that is a problem, that I don’t understand that. [Or] maybe something’s wrong with me. [laughter]
Richard: One has a conversation about what it means to publish, and one engages with readers...
Matvei: Maybe engaging with readers is a whole parameter that I’m not interested in.
Richard: You’re doing it right now.
Matvei: Not just people who are literate, people who are literally reading the thing you’re publishing.
Richard: We are creating a context, it doesn’t happen in a void. That non-voidness, that presence, whether it is a purely oral, what for now we call a quasi medium of text on a page, to show how provisional text on a page has been, take the farthest, most opposed points: What are the spaces in between, range in any number of ways from transcription of talks, to the text message with its compression of language, those different kinds of uttering go on around the book, in a way that… if one chooses to ignore it, it’s an act unto itself, like Salinger did, he chose to ignore the way he participated in the culture, but that’s still a move, so people become obsessed… like Pynchon etc. [By engaging or not engaging in cultural dialogues] we make a move whether we want to or not.
Elizabeth: [Reader-centric means] user focused and “reader first” but then there is also just the broad definition which is, of course [publishing is] reader-centric.
Matvei: Yeah, all these things are really interesting, but these are vague terms. I don’t see any resistance, in the publishing world, to be reader-centric. But for us, as a nonprofit, we’re driven to promote our authors, to put their work out, and that’s an author-centric position.
Lisa: Why is marketing just reader-centric?
Matvei: Of course you want to promote the book, but that’s different than making a book that is based on what the audience wants.
Lisa: I think we’re getting stuck on terminology. Matvei and I are a little skeptical of this phrase, because it is attached to the “ebook digital culture social media” thing, which is what corporations are good at: figuring out what a particular market wants, and then marketing to it.
[But for us at Siglio], it’s about making sure that the art lives on the page in the way it is supposed to.
Richard: There’s a perception of what corporate publishing is … it is inaccurate. Corporate publishing is an endless history of a complete failure to find an audience.
Now, the means of production are much more broadly available, and so people are publishing for more expressive reasons, which means you want to connect. In many ways, traditional corporate publishing was radically inattentive to the reader, because the reader just [bought what was made available]. And we [the group of people sitting on the panel as a whole, small publishers as a whole] give a fuck.
Who is reading your book matters, there is a connection. If you care about providing a variety of disparate voices, you’re seeking meaning. And the search for meaning, to me, regardless of .. what might be said on Mashable or TechCrunch or in boosterish books and articles about the internet… that is the kind of the true reader-centric.
At this point Richard threw out some numbers about the history of publishing that everyone disagreed with and I stopped taking notes and just kind of gawked at it all. Eventually they returned to the topic at hand.
Elizabeth: Reader-centric is about... changing a book for readers? Well, I want people to keep reading, so let’s create an alternative version, for people who want to engage, for as many choices for our reader, to read.
Matvei: But what is the thing that you [wind up] putting out there? Those platforms [can change or vary] the text itself.
I don’t really care about making people feel comfortable, or making people who don’t want to read, read. The Kindle suggests that the work can be reformatted — which maybe isn’t so great for the author.... [My students at Columbia] want to get their hands dirty. [Digitizing work] is just an aspect.... A [printed] book is a respite from a screen.
Lisa: I would love to see a project come to me that exploits [multiple digital platforms]. How do you locate the inextricable relationship between form and content? But honestly I haven’t seen that, I’ve just seen add-ons.
That’s basically the end of the panel and where I stopped taking notes. For my own two cents, here at BBP we try to move the book through every format possible, with a great deal of care; whatever the extra steps are that we need to take to ensure that the text shines in a particular format, we do that. I genuinely respect Matvei’s hard line, IDGAF position, and as a nonprofit that’s where they should be — creating work that is totally true to itself.
For us, we’re a for-profit, this is our business. You want to read one of our books on your cellphone? I’m not going to judge you or refuse to sell it to you in that format. We try to make work people want to buy, so that we don’t have to have day jobs doing something else, which for me would be … I don’t know, pushing heds and deks somewhere else, playing an SEO game all day every day, or maybe I'd still be back in Chicago working in the West Loop on dream boards for iPad or what have you.
Ultimately I would rather be doing this, dealing with excellent writing that tries to create or explain a particular kind of experience, than a lot of other things. Of all my questions about Boston, this panel made me ask myself whether or not I was glad that this industry would be in a technological position where people could so vehemently disagree about the finer points of literary publishing; and yes, at the end of the day, I am glad. I’m glad because it allows someone like me, whose mind is attracted to larger systematic questions about data and the application of software, to still participate in the world of literature for a living. It’s still an industry and it will continue to be, and ultimately we’ll resolve the issue of digital form in a way that works with a broad variety of texts. Books aren’t dead.
Credit: Flickr user adamwebb. Used with a Creative Commons license.