Taking Chances Today
by Florrie Binford Kichler
On display at the Indianapolis Museum of Art and preserved under glass, the manuscript, in the form of a scroll, measures 120 feet (one third the length of a football field) by approximately 8.5 inches.
Stained, ragged, and consisting of pieces of tracing paper taped together, it boasts 40 yards of words, typed continuously on an Underwood typewriter during three weeks in 1951. The discouraged young author of this scroll spent six years shopping his book, which, despite multiple drafts, was deemed unpublishable by each publisher who saw it.
Malcolm Cowley, who read it at Viking Press, wrote, “Some of his best episodes would get the book suppressed for obscenity, but I think there is a book here that should and must be published.”
Viking still rejected the book.
Then, after heavy editing and legal vetting, Viking Press accepted the book and published it in 1957.
A half-century later, Jack Kerouac’s classic and groundbreaking anthem to the Beat generation, On the Road, has sold more than 3 million copies and continues to sell 100,000 copies a year.
In 1957, television was still in its infancy, and there were no video games, no computers, no Internet, and no cell phones. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, the book-title output that year was 13,142. Last year, Bowker reported 411,422 titles published, all battling with the Wii, Facebook, iPhone, and 175 cable channels for the consumer’s attention. As I gazed through the glass at Kerouac’s 50-year-old words in faded Courier type with occasional handwritten corrections and xxxx’s signifying crossed-out words, I couldn’t help but wonder—what if Kerouac had submitted his novel in 2007 instead of 1957? Would any publisher have looked at it twice? And if so, would readers have noticed?
The answers are: Unlikely but possible; and not without a huge marketing and publicity campaign, including social media and reviews in all the major offline publications and online book blogs. Fiction’s a hard sell, especially by an unknown author without a platform.
Seduced by Speed?
We advise all new publishers to have a business plan and a marketing plan, to project title profitability, and to choose not to publish if publishing won’t make money. And that’s good advice—advice we must follow if we are to pay the bills and grow our companies. But is there any room in that business model for books that should be published—regardless of platform? And, more important, what happens if the books that should be published aren’t?
Of course, all authors feel their books should be published, and the exponential growth of those who have chosen to publish their own words is testimony to that. And I would never suggest that any author’s voice be stifled for any reason.
Still, I am concerned about what may not get published.
I like to think that exceptional writing will always stand out. After all, Maxwell Perkins, convinced that “There is a book here,” spent years editing Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel to make it the critically acclaimed novel it became. But in this age of sound-bites and one-at-a-time printing, often shorter is better, editing is spellcheck, and 72-hour turnaround of manuscript into book is, if not the norm, certainly not unusual. The primary consideration becomes not whether the manuscript is worthy or the writing compelling or how it can be improved, but rather how fast we can get it out there to sell.
The speed and efficiency that production technology provide are exactly what made it possible for those 411,422 books to see print in 2007. And as a publisher myself, I will be the first to assert that staying profitable would be a huge challenge without them. But at the same time I worry that if we publishers worship at the altar of speed in the interest of profits, we may be missing a major contribution in the interest of intellectual and artistic development.
As independent publishers, we have always prided ourselves on being the keepers of the culture—those who would take a chance on the edgy, controversial, nonmainstream, innovative title that the big guys wouldn’t touch. It would be the readers’ loss if we abandoned that identity in the rush to market.
However, it would also be the reader’s loss if we went out of business.
In the end, it’s about balance, calculated risk—and vision. Each has its place in publishing, and I would never advocate the third at the expense of the first two. Still, in our daily stampede to make a living, sometimes vision is neglected. Viking Press, albeit reluctantly, saw the potential in On the Road; as a reader, I believe we are the richer for the writings of Jack Kerouac.
As a publisher, I wonder: Would I have taken the chance?
My virtual door is always open. Please share your comments, thoughts, and ideas by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org.