Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Publishing Looking Up + New Poet Laureate, Philip Levine

Apple's iPad, with iBook Library & iBook
Up until a few years ago the publishing portion of the undergraduate creative writing major course on the history, sociology, and global cultures of writing, "The Situation of Writing," that some other faculty members and I have taught was popularly known as the "Doom and Gloom" unit. Though we faculty members strove to give our students a wide array of views on publishing's state in the US and across the globe, though there were many buoyant notes amidst the often nostalgic critiques and dire prognostications, and though I personally aimed to convey a broader and more holistic view of the subject, based on my personal experience, I too sometimes wondered where the mainstream publishing industry as it had developed--as I knew it--up through the mid 2000s, was heading, and if it was going to destroy itself or be destroyed by the raft of technological innovations, the financial and technical challenges, the shifts and alleged declines in reading, and other problems it was facing. Doom and gloom.
I noticed after winter's class, however, that many students in the large class told me they felt quite "positive" and "hopeful" about the future of publishing, mainstream, independent, large, small, and otherwise. I too felt the same way after reading the many articles assembled for that portion of the course, and they reframed books like Jason Epstein's The Book Business: Past, Present and Future in positive terms. In today's New York Times, Julie Bosman, in her article "Publishing Gives Hints of Revival, Data Show," reports that this morning's BookStats, "a comprehensive survey conducted by two major trade groups," the Association of American Publishers and the Book Industry Study Group, showed that publishers' net income rose 5.6% from 2008 to 2009, for a net revenue of $27.9 billion, and that in 2010, publishers sold 2.57 billion books, an increase of 4.1 percent over 2008.

The two trade groups surveyed 1,963 publishers, including the 6 largest trade publishers, encompassed 5 major categories of books--
"trade, K-12 school, higher education, professional and scholarly"--and also expanded the categories of what qualified as books, including not only print and softcover codex books and e-books, but "professional and scholarly journals and databases, multimedia teaching materials and mobile apps." Sales of books in all five categories rose, with the largest gains, according to the article, in the higher education area, of 18.7% in three years. Tina Jordan, Vice President of the Association of American Publishers, pointed to the expansion of higher education and increased enrollment as a result of the weakening economy. (I would add that for-profit universities may also be playing a role in this jump.)

As heartening to me were other figures: adult fiction rose by 8.8% over the 3-year period, while scholarly books, once considered a shaky area among not only the trade publishers but even academic publishers, rose by 4.4%. One of the questions that arose repeatedly in articles we looked at in the "Situation of Writing" was whether e-books would depress the overall market for books, or expand it. Early signs from this survey suggest that the latter is occurring, as e-books continue to take off. Though only 0.6% of the trade market in 2008, they were 6.4% in 2010, and Bosman points out that overall sales for e-books in 2010 came to 114 million. That is still a small portion of the larger book sales figure, but the article notes that in 2011 e-book sales continue to rise, and eventually, I think, they will constitute the majority, as more and more younger readers grow accustomed to reading using digital devices such as laptops and desktop computers, cellular phones, e-readers like Barnes & Noble's Nook, Amazon's Kindle, various tablet computers like Apple's iPad, as well as devices not yet perfected, invented or imagined.  Books themselves continue to change too; what is possible with e-books and apps, as the digital The Waste Land proves, offer quite a different book-immersion (because it goes beyond but still encompasses reading) experience.
Barnes & Noble's Nook e-reader
Unsurprisingly as e-books continue to gain, sales of adult hardcover and paper books remained flat, growing only about 1% over the 3-year period, while mass-market paperbacks have declined 16% over the same period. Economically this may signal that publishers will be making far less per book (say $25-$30 now for hardcovers, $12-17 for trade paperbacks, but $5-12 for e-book, less for mobile apps), but could be making up for that financial loss through a larger volume of sales. Certainly their overall and specific costs decline with e-book production, but the terms with and for authors are changing as well. Authors face fewer barriers self-publishing and distributing e-books, and can set more favorable terms for themselves, though gaining attention for these new texts remains an issue as the old gatekeepers remain. This is true too for smaller publishers who don't have media contacts or links to the marketing budgets of the larger publishers. But they too are poised to reward authors better than the old system did, and can earn more for themselves as well.

This is only one article out of many written daily (I do scan Publishers Weekly's daily, dizzying waterfall of tweets to see what the publishing news of the day is, and also glance at other publishing sites when I can), and it thankfully is anything but "doom and gloom." There are readers, they are reading all kinds of books, and while reading may have seemed at risk a few years ago, things appear, at least for now, to have swung back in the other direction.


Philip Levine
The new Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress of the United States of America, for 2011-12 (and possibly a second year thereafter) will be Philip Levine. Born in Detroit, Michigan in 1928, Levine has been a steady chronicler, in often memorable free verse narratives and monologues, of the lives of working-class Americans. A graduate of Wayne State College (now Wayne State University) and the University of Iowa's Writers Workshop, in 1995 he received the Pulitzer Prize for his collection The Simple Truth, but his best-known volume perhaps is What Work Is (1992), which contains the poignant title poem, and which received the 1991 National Book Award. He has also received the American Book Award and twice been honored with National Book Critics Circle Award and Guggenheim Fellowships. For many years Levine taught at the California State University-Fresno, and later was Poet in Residence at NYU.

When I was in graduate school and he was a visiting poet, he would sit in on at least one graduate literature class I took, taught by Harold Bloom, who seemed both amenable and impervious to having a major poet listening in on his soliloquies on the "Major American Poets"; Levine always appeared to take Bloom's pronouncements with a good deal of respect and humor in return.  Levine is 83 and continues to write and publish his work, though like the previous Poet Laureate, W. S. Merwin, also highly lauded and an octogenarian, it's unclear how much traveling and proselytizing he'll be able to do.  I think he's a fine enough choice, but I really wish that the Librarian of Congress would make more of an effort to regularly appoint more women poets, and to diversify the choices.

I hate always to have to point such things out, but among the last 10 Poet Laureate Consultants in Poetry of these very diverse United States, only 3 have been women--Rita Dove, who held the post from 1993-95; Louise Glück, from 2003-4; and Kay Ryan, from 2008-10.  Since 1986, when Gwendolyn Brooks held the original post of Consultant in Poetry, only one poet laureate has not been white: Dove, and over the entire history of the position, Brooks, Dove and the late Robert Hayden have been the only laureates of color. No Asian American or Pacific Islander, no Latino, no Native-American, no Arab American, no non-black mixed-race poet has ever held the post. Really, the folks in charge can and must do better. We are in the 21st century, in a country more diverse than it has ever been (and it has always been diverse). Though mostly ceremonial, the Poet Laureate is the major face, especially outside of the literary world, of poetry and its chief public advocate.  I can recall how excited I and many others were, especially young people in the nation's capital and across the country, when Dove, a superb poet and lovely person, as well as dynamic figure and excellent teacher, served in this post.

One additional point: it would also be great to have more aesthetic diversity among the Poet Laureates, and this goes in all directions. Having a poet coming from the spoken word direction, a poet also primarily working as a musician, a poet known for more formally innovative work, would all be great ways to go.  This is not to knock mainstream poets, but there are many poetries within the larger American house, and selecting poets representing some of these other traditions and trends would be a great step for the Librarian of Congress to take, because the Poet Laureate should be poetry's chief public, governmental advocate, and many kinds of poets can and would be willing to do that. So congratulations to Philip Levine, but going forward, let's really see some change we can believe in.

On Philip Levine (from Modern American Poetry)
Poems by Philip Levine (from The Poetry Foundation)

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