Best of Times, Worst of Times
Narrative was founded in 2003 with the idea of exploring what could be done with quality literary publishing on the Internet. At that time nothing existed online that could stand alongside well-established literary periodicals, but it was clear that unless writers moved onto the Internet they would soon be marginalized. Today, with newspapers going out of business, New York book and magazine publishing constricting, and bookstores large and small closing their doors, writers more than ever feel the risk of marginalization, if not extinction, though more words than ever are in print and the means of obtaining printed words to read is expanding rapidly. The Author’s Guild achieved a good outcome in its negotiations with Google over revenue splits for writers’ works scanned and offered by Google Books, but the business models for writers and publishers–the sources of economic lifeblood–remain in question.
Everyone who follows the developments in publishing is reading and hearing the same news. After a prolonged period of latency in regard to the digital world, New York publishers are making a late stampede online and via every conceivable digital vehicle—Amazon’s Kindle, the Sony Reader, the iPhone with Stanza, eReader, and proprietary iPhone applications such as Penguin’s rather rudimentary app. The rush online seems to have come too late for some major publishers and retailers to save themselves, or perhaps the shift wrought in publishing and in culture by technology and new businesses, particularly Amazon, is so radical and far-reaching, so autonomous and inevitable a phenomenon, that from the outset only a few adept visionaries could have sufficient mastery to succeed.
Is this the best of times or the worst of times for readers and writers? Random House was created out of the wreckage of the Great Depression, when Bennett Cerf and others bought up failing publishers and their valuable backlists. But today the perennial worth of backlists is in doubt, as backlist material becomes universally available via myriad means that undercut the publishers’ ability to repackage and sell such material at a reliable profit, and the publishers’ frontlist profits are likewise shrinking in the face of the failure of bricks-and-mortar business models, pricing and revenue-sharing pressures in the online realm, and weakening demand in general.
Change of this magnitude, after some five hundred years of a relatively steady state in print publishing, is bound to be confusing. The current global economic crisis produced a tipping point that was already inevitable in New York publishing. The economic downturn only highlighted the erosion that had long been occurring but was too much denied. No one knows exactly what the future of publishing will be in ten or more years, but it is clearer now than it was a year and half ago. Amazon’s Kindle, though only a small part of that behemoth’s book revenue picture, symbolizes what’s to come, whether or not Kindle turns out to be the dominant vehicle for digital reading. What’s amazing is that conventional publishers were so slow to recognize what was happening or, recognizing it, were so slow to react. There are, of course, explanations, or rationalizations, for the publishers’ hesitancy to shift (they are still making money, and piracy and control of rights are persistent worries), but the truest, most reasonable explanation is a general disbelief that everything could change so much and, it seems, so quickly, though for the past twenty years technology and related businesses have been creating the change.
We are, as ever, optimistic about all this, though the news seems gloomy. Our concern focuses on two primary areas: The desire to encourage reading and the desire to explore publishing models that can help sustain the production of worthwhile literature. One of the great risks in the new world of publishing is that business models well oriented to deliver consumer products at the best price by the most convenient means may more than ever take for granted the artists—the writers—as though their works were equivalent to and as easily producible as, say, electronics equipment or apparel, which is not the case, though a strict market capitalist, an inventor, or a haute couture designer might convincingly argue otherwise. Why shouldn’t literary works be viewed like any other product?
We are often asked about our vision. What are we doing, why are we doing it, what value does it hold, is there a need for it, and what are its chances of success?
We are asked these questions by dedicated literary professionals and by nonliterary observers alike. To the former we may seem to be pursuing the impossible dream, and to the latter we may seem crazy or foolish, given that literary publishing involves improvisation, cannot be rationalized in pure business terms, and requires significant sacrifices from the people involved. If such effort were aimed at social services or healthcare, the need and worth of the effort would not be questioned. Most people are naturally more apt to experience an immediate, sympathetic reaction to an appeal for help in conjunction with images of homelessness, poverty, hunger, chronic illnesses, harms to the environment, or legal injustices to the underprivileged than to appeals for the support of the arts; and let it be said that, among the arts, literature is typically near the end of the line with its hat fairly cheerfully in its hand. Why cheerfully? Because why not? What other practical way is there, finally, than to be optimistic and resourceful?
It’s very difficult to make a convincing argument that literature is as important, say, as AIDS research, even if you believe that both are crucially, equally, important. Is literature a matter of life and death, after all? Only if you consider the spirit of an individual, and of one individual connected to another and, thus, the spirit of an age and of civilization itself, a matter of life and death. One thinks of the circumstances in which Cervantes wrote Don Quixote, or of Jane Austen’s clear eye on society, though she was unable to achieve a social life in the main, or of Virginia Woolf’s catalyzing influence not only on modern literature but also on women’s lives. One thinks about Turgenev and Tolstoy’s influence on life and art and of the many ways in which literature inspires individual lives and becomes one of the most accurate reflections of history and meaning. Or, in simpler business terms: If business takes so much profit for itself that there is less and less left for the creators, the quality and then the existence of creation will suffer, not only in the production of the works themselves but in the ability of an audience to recognize and appreciate such works. It is not at all clear that the captains of the new media, in their genius, exuberance, and success, have adequately considered this equation, and we are somewhat doubtful that they will: It’s not their job or primary interest, and to expect it of them is unrealistic.
In this milieu, we continue to dedicate ourselves to literary excellence, to affirming and encouraging both established and new writers, and to moving ahead into the new terrain of digital publishing. In the past, it was enough that a literary magazine sustained itself, year in, year out, at a modest threshold of a few thousand readers, as many have done and continue to do. Until recently, Narrative pursued its goals by bringing out an online journal in a fashion similar to old-style literary quarterlies. Three times a year Narrative issued new contents and moved prior contents to our permanent online library. This method took only partial advantage of the Internet’s ability to connect readers and writers, though we have been able to reach many more readers, more quickly than old-style literary magazines. From year to year, we have doubled our audience and now reach more than 45,000 readers. We think it is essential to reach as many readers as possible in order to help counteract the downturn in literary reading, the loss of literary activity and commentary in newspapers, and the incipient despair that writers feel in relation to current trends.
In 2008, thanks to the generosity of many volunteers and donors, we were able to upgrade our technology and to revise our publishing model, and we are now bringing out new content weekly, biweekly, and monthly. In the coming year, we will publish more story writers and poets than The New Yorker or any other literary periodical. And, in December, Narrative became the first and only literary magazine on Amazon’s Kindle, where we joined Time, Newsweek, Forbes, and a select group of other major national magazines. Each month a new issue of Narrative will appear on Kindle, drawn from selected contents of our online issues and including some previously unpublished stories and articles that will appear on Kindle prior to appearing online. We are also making Narrative more widely available to readers by providing the magazine electronically and in hard-copy subscriptions to college and university libraries throughout the United States and Canada.
In addition to publishing more works and writers across more electronic channels of distribution, we are also publishing a wider variety of material, including cartoons, graphic stories, photography, more nonfiction, and some of the world’s best authors writing about the books and authors they love. We continue to present a great number of new and emerging writers as well. Nine out of the twenty authors in our last issue were new or emerging, and nearly half the authors whom we’ve published since 2003 have been newer ones, and more than a few of them have gone on to gain wider recognition. Last year we undertook a program, Narrative30Below, to reach out in particular to readers and writers under the age of thirty, and as a result we have found quite a few good, new, young talents to publish.
We are taking a long view. It’s going to be another decade, or more, before the nature of the digital literary landscape becomes clearer, though beginning as early as the early 1990s it was evident that writers and dedicated readers must move into the new media and that they must keep doing so as these media evolve.
Our view has always been not to count too much on large corporations to provide a humanist attitude; when push comes to shove, the corporation looks out for itself, as it must. Individuals are seldom stronger within a corporate structure than they are strong outside it. For writers, the goal is to make the best art that they can, and then, without confusing art and business, to do the best business they can. And in the current environment, that will often mean experimentation and improvisation with new, untried models. Some models work better than others, but it is an exciting and creative time overall, and as in all times, the excellent will usually come to light and persist and become permanent.
An ongoing riddle to be solved, then, is how to encourage literary reading and appreciation beyond the small literary world of true believers so that the overall audience does not end up consisting only of writers reading other writers. Part of the answer is, simply, fashion. There is a cyclic nature to things, and the wheel will turn and there will be another “renaissance” for literary work, though predicting its moment is impossible. It will likely be led by the appearance of a writer who captures the popular imagination in such a way that everyone begins reading literature anew. Likely the reading will take place on-screen as much as it does in hard copy.
We’re watching a shift in formats and a migration of attention. We have to do all we can reasonably do to inform and lead aspects of that migration. We are like the penniless producer Pennyman, in the film Shakespeare in Love, who, when asked how the show will go on, shrugs matter-of-factly and says, It’s a mystery.
And so it is, but we can be sure that the show will go on. And on. With many wonderful things to come.