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Guest Post: Joe David Bellamy on the Next Decade in Book Culture

By Joe David Bellamy

As we wind down the “aughts” decade, with digital books galore on the horizon (and the $195 Norton facsimile edition of C.J. Jung's objet d'art/culture The Red Book selling out around the country), the NBCC seeks the best guest posts about the future of book culture, including essays,interviews and free-range opining. The topic: How do you see book culture evolving over the next decade? Here is what Joe David Bellamy, the author of fifteen books, a former NBCC board member, and former editor and publisher of Fiction International, has to say.

If McLuhan was right half-a-century ago, then we are all just part of a dying culture and the only ones interested in us fifty years from now will be antiquarians. If that's the case, okay. I'm not going to stop writing or reading because of it. Certainly, we are in the midst of a tectonic shift that no one fully understands yet. The culture doesn't seem to value books quite as much anymore, and the various niches for calling attention to books are going away. The big publishers are in trouble–partly due to their size, their mind-set, and their expensive addresses.

Of course there are still many fine books published by the big houses. Of course. Of course. But we all know what is happening to books that are too small, and we all know that “too small” keeps getting larger and larger. We all know what is happening to mid-list authors. Mid-list has come to seem like an epitaph. Does mid-list mean middlebrow? No—just the opposite. These authors simply don't sell enough copies. What is to be done about this problem—if you happen to think it is a problem worth worrying about?


I foresee a new generation of boutique publishers who will combine the energy of the small press with the editorial acumen and marketing skill that used to be associated with big publishers. If enough members of the new generation would start new presses now to publish the books considered too small (only 10,000 copies), they might well clean up. Do the math. Oprah proved that there is still an appetite for literary fiction that is not being met. The problem for the average reader is simply finding the books. A lot of good writers I know would be delighted with 10,000 readers.


From the point of view of the boutique press, circumstances may actually be getting better now than they were a few decades ago. When I started Fiction International in the seventies, all of the small press meetings were obsessed about DISTRIBUTION. That was our word, basically, for how do we get our magazines and books into bookstores? Some of us helped to invent distribution companies like Consortium, and I remember one valiant, abortive effort where Fiction International joined with Antaeus, Paris Review, Fiction, and TriQuarterly, and we hired a young guy to drive around the country in a station wagon to make deals with bookstores to carry our five magazines as a block with simplified billing–and also possibly to carry the books that some of us had started publishing. That worked until the young guy we hired lit out for parts unknown and was never heard from again (and we never got our inventory back either). Anyway, these days, it's a lot less crucial to be in the bookstore. I hate to say it, but fewer people are going to bookstores to find books. Amazon is so much easier, and Amazon almost always has what you want. Once people become accustomed to buying their books on-line, they will buy them elsewhere (than Amazon) on-line. They do now.

Also, it is so much less expensive to publish books now. Thirty years ago, you had to invest several thousand dollars to print them and then find some place to store them. If you printed more than you could sell, you still had to store them. Now you can print them one-at-a-time and invest no more than the wholesale price per book.

As far as what model the new boutique press publisher might follow, I would say: almost everything on-line. I've been impressed recently with what some of the on-line magazines like Narrative Magazine have been doing. They entertain submissions on-line, they charge a modest reading fee (collected on-line), they reject submissions on-line, they pay contributors from the proceeds collected from all the writers submitting. Green and efficient–the software does most of the boring work and the editors spend most of their time reading and editing. Accepted writers are paid fairly well. I used to read more than 100 stories a week, every week, and if I was lucky with my fund-raising, after I had published the magazine or book and paid for it, I could afford to pay the magazine contributors maybe $25 or $50–a ridiculous amount. And I split the royalties with the writers on the books I sold, and if I was lucky I made enough back to cover the costs of production. But usually I didn't. And nobody was paying me! I was working full-time at a teaching job and trying to write in addition. In those days, my story was all-too-typical.

Okay, so here's the boutique press publisher of the future: the writer with a new manuscript to offer is asked to buy one copy of the most recent published book from the publisher plus any other book the publisher is selling on-line in order to submit. That's the price of admission. There need not be any agents involved in this process at all. Rejected writers might get an idea of the standard of excellence (or peculiarity) of this publisher from the books they buy. If the writer's book is accepted, she will know that she is likely to sell a certain number of copies automatically and that she will automatically have several literate readers for her book and that she will be paid. Other readers come to these books at the publisher's website and buy them at their leisure. Whatever buzz the books generate is probably generated on-line. The publisher does not have to start with huge capital in order to get this plan off the ground. This may never be a high volume operation, but it could be–depending upon the quality of the books selected and the prestige the publisher develops because of the quality of the books published.

What to do about e-books and sales to libraries, I don't know. Library sales used to be our bread and butter. But these days, if you sell to a library, Google comes in and steals your book and gives it away free on the internet. Google has already stolen three of my books and didn't even bother to tell me about it. In Canada, which is a far more literate country than our own, writers are paid royalties based on how many times their books are checked out of libraries. Every checkout, every year. This plan came about because writers got together and persuaded the government to do it. Such a thing is almost unimaginable here, but if literacy is to be preserved, maybe it will come to that.

If you agree with Solzhenitsyn (and me) that “Literature is the national memory,” then you might also agree that we will have to do whatever is required to keep literature alive. If that means the equivalent of passing around secret manuscripts under the cover of darkness as they once did under Communist rule in the Soviet Union, I'm prepared to do that. For me, it's less about copies sold and money made and more about keeping alive a certain necessary form of intelligence and intellectual interaction and avoiding a national lobotomy. Technologies and familiar modes of delivery may change, but that doesn't mean we have to give up what's most important.