The New Publishing Rules: Panel Discussion, Anguilla Lit Fest

“Writing Is Just The Beginning: The New Publishing Rules”

 Anguilla Lit Fest Panel Discussion, Friday, May 25, 2012

Moderator: Stephanie Stokes Oliver (Author/ Editor; USA/Anguilla) Panelists: Malaika Adero (Vice President, Senior Editor, Atria Books/Simon & Schuster, USA), Marva Allen (Hue-Man Bookstore/USA), Marie-Elena John, Author (Antigua/USA), Lasana Sekou (Author, Founder of House of Nehesi Publishers, St. Martin), Mary W. Walters (Writer/Editor, Toronto, Canada)

Left to right on panel: Stephanie Stokes Oliver, Lasana Sekou, Malaika Adero, Marva Allen, Mary W. Walters, Marie-Elena John. (Photo: Gerry Riskin)

How do you get three publishers, six writers, five editors, and a bookseller onto a panel when there are only six chairs on the platform?

Well, welcome to the world of writing and publishing ­– as it always has been, and as it always will be. For centuries, many, many writers have turned their attentions away from what they were creating and contributed at least some of their time to the editing, printing, promotion, marketing, and distribution of books – theirs and others: sometimes because they needed work (although the pay has never been that great), sometimes to get themselves and their friends into print (a lot of fine publishing houses were started this way), but mostly because they cared about books and wanted to make sure that the best found their intended audiences.

Stephanie Stokes Oliver, Moderator

Over the past hundred years or so, as the publishing process became more refined and some people began to suffer from the illusion that there could be money in the books business, some publishing houses became larger and larger, and the bigger those companies became, the fewer the number of writers who were involved, especially at the top. This made good business sense. We all know that serious writers are lousy at business. Many would rather read a “good” book than one that sells a million copies overnight. (Do not start in on me again, I am not dissing all the vampire novels or all the romance novels or even all the vampire romance novels: just the poorly written ones. No matter what the genre, there is no excuse for bad writing, and even less excuse for reading bad writing.)

However, as I have maintained all along (even in my very first Militant Writer post, “The Talent Killers,” which really was intended to be partly tongue- in-cheek), those who love great writing have always continued to infiltrate the publishing business. These literature aficionados are especially visible in the smaller presses, but we still find them occasionally at the larger ones as well, particularly in the role of editor.

Finding A Platform

One of the most difficult aspects of the impact of the new technology on the books business, in which the publishing model as we have come to know it is dissolving before our eyes, is how writers and other people who love great writing can continue to talk to one another. There is a tremendous temptation among those of us who have begun to self-publish to be defensive and self-righteous, and a similar impulse among those of us who have not.

There are, however, a number of issues on which we can agree:

1)    the manuscripts of self-published authors have not been vetted and preselected by independent, experienced editors before they become books: there is no quality control. As a result, a majority of the books that are self-published are junk;

2)    most self-published authors cannot afford to (or choose not to) invest in top-notch substantive and copy editors or book designers and layout artists. Therefore the majority of self-published books are not only junk, they are badly edited and poorly laid-out junk with crappy covers;

3)    for many, many years the established publishing system has – despite its inherent flaws – offered the only truly workable system for weeding out the good writing from the crap and getting it to readers;

4)    in recent years the traditional publishing system, because it is profit-based, has become unworkable not only commercially but from a literary perspective as well;

5)    some truly outstanding writers, with strong track records in the established publishing business, are discovering that self-publishing offers them an opportunity to control their destinies for very little cost, and to increase their profits;

6)    the new possibilities offered by technology have created not only self-published authors but also e-books, which have been adopted by readers en masse, and which are taking down independent booksellers one at a heartbreaking time.

So where does that leave a panel of intelligent, dedicated committed writers, readers, publishers, and one of the most well respected independent booksellers in the USA? Well, it is a testimony to the perspective and vision of the participants of the panel discussion that was held at Anguilla’s first LitFest on the morning of May 25, and its moderator, Stephanie Stokes Oliver, that we were able to engage in a lively discussion and find our common ground rather than increasing the size of the fissures that currently threaten to separate us.

Publishers

Lasana Sekou of House of Nehesi, panelist

The three publishers on the panel were Lasana Sekou, founder of the House of Nehesi,  Malaika Adero, vice president and senior editor at Atria Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, and Marva Allen, a director of the new independent publishing house Akashic Books. In answer to the opening question, they explained the traditional publishing model: how a manuscript is selected for publication, edited, designed, laid out, released and then promoted. They described the challenges  – historical and new – that face publishers: not only the big-picture issues (most notably economic ones) but the day-to-day frustrations.

From them we heard that: senior editors at major houses have to deal with marketing divisions that veto excellent manuscripts because they will not sell; publishers face such avalanches of unsolicited manuscripts that they are unable to even look at unagented material; publishing houses must sometimes turn away promising writers because they are so pig-headed and misguidedly arrogant that they will not allow their work to be edited; the new technologies mean that already overburdened senior editors need to get all of their authors’ books into e-book format – and not only the new releases, but the backlists, too. We learned that they are saddened when good books must be turned away, that they feel a responsibility to ensure that fine stories continue to be told, and that they respect and want to sustain the voices that tell the stories they admire, and the ones that move them.

Editors

After the panel: Malaika Adero (r) and me

The editors on the panel were (in addition to Lasana, Malaika and Marva, who were also all editors as well as publishers), Stephanie Stokes Oliver, editor of Unity Books and former editor of Essence magazine) and me, freelance Book Charmer and manuscript editor.

All of us (and all of us as writers as well as editors) agreed that even the best-written manuscripts need strong editors. Writers need substantive editors who will tell them where their manuscripts are working and where they are not, what characters need to be developed more and which ones less, what isn’t clear to readers and what needs to be omitted.

These editors need to be people who can help the writer say what the writer wants to say in the way the writer wants to say it: and who are willing to listen to what the writer says in response to editorial suggestions. The editor lets the writer do all of the necessary edits and revisions. A good editor never does the rewrite.

We all also agreed that books need to be well copy-edited before they are published (and winced at what we’ve seen out there in some self-published books, but also in some books from well established presses.)

I expressed the opinion that I have stated before on The Militant Writer, that the era is coming when some editors’ private imprints will have cachet – independent of publishing houses (as translators have done in the past). If you are self-publishing and have attracted a certain well-respected editor to work with you on your book, you will put his or her name on the cover as your editor, and that will alert readers to its quality. Top editors will be able to hang out their own shingles and make some real money for a change. And they’ll be able to pick and choose the manuscripts they work on. (Some will say they cannot afford to hire editors. If you put aside $5/week for the two years or more when you would be waiting for a publisher to make a decision  on your manuscript, put it in the publishing queue, edit it, typeset it, print it, and release it, you will have no trouble saving up enough money to pay an editor – and a book designer.)

Bookselling

Marva Allen, panelist (l), and me – after the panel

To my mind, booksellers, particularly independents, are the innocent victims in the transition to new publishing models. This has less to do with the proliferation of self-publishers than with the growing popularity of e-books. Marva Allen, whose Hue-Man Bookstore in Harlem has an international reputation, is recognized for her contributions not only to fine writing in general and the writing of African-Americans in particular (“A SKU for every hue”) but to the building of the reputations of a number of important individual writers.

She told us that the economic reality of bookselling has reached the point where she is not sure if she will renew her lease.

Writers

Marie-Elena John, Panelist

All of us who were on the panel are writers. A couple of us – Marie-Elena John most notably (whose novel, Unburnable, I am eagerly looking forward to reading), but also including Lasana Sekou, Stephanie Stokes Oliver and I – are writers first and foremost, in our self-perception and our lives.  Malaika Adero and Marva Allen are writers too, and all of us on the panel shared concerns as writers and lovers of good writing about the traditional publishing industry – its slowness to respond, its inability to change (Malaika compared it to an ocean liner trying to steer its way into a tributary), its poor track record in promoting and distributing the books it does publish, and its increasing tendency to overlook quality fiction in favour of what a friend of mine calls “mental junk food.” (The name of Paris Hilton, “author,” came up in this context several times.)

Publishers used to argue that it was the books by non-writer celebrities that allowed them the financial stability to publish less economically viable literary works. No more: there is no financial stability in the business anywhere. As writers we understand this, and as readers and writers we’re in despair over what we’ve lost – even as new doors open for us.

The New Gatekeepers
As I have also said before, the readers are the new arbiters of what will sell and what will not. In recent months, we have seen a significant example in Fifty Shades of Grey – a book that not only found a kazillion readers for its author, but opened up a whole new genre of writing. Within weeks, imitators were putting out their erotic novels by the hundreds. And it wasn’t only other self-published writers who were proving that when you are trying to make a buck, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery: it was the established publishers as well. (Most of the rest of us just stood around turning Fifty Shades of Green.)

To my mind, the ability of a writer to reach directly out to readers – eliminating the middle people – and the ability of readers to respond – by throwing rotten eggs at us or by welcoming what we’ve written and spreading the word to other readers – are some of the most exciting aspects of this evolving, truly democratic world of publishing. But the evolution also has produced so much garbage that it is hard to find the glints of precious metal that are surely in it somewhere.

To find the best books, we are going to continue to need great book reviewers who establish reputations for themselves – often in specific genres. Their stamps of approval will mean as much in future as does a review in the New York Times today. Unfortunately, given what’s happening to newspapers and magazines (which pay almost nothing to reviewers anyway), most of these future king- and queen-makers will consist of unpaid bloggers. (Oh, and Oprah: whose book club, I have heard, is back.)

The publishing panel discussion at the Anguilla LitFest was invigorating, with the love of literature and great writing forming a common bond among panelists and audience members. In addition to our conviction of the importance of continuing to write, find and promote good writing, we were also all in agreement that electronic books and self-publishing are here to stay. We are going to have to learn to live with them – and with one another – in this rapidly changing world.

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(Note: Thanks to Gerry Riskin for most of the photos on this page.)

Anguilla Lit Fest: Day One, Breakfast Presentation by Lasana Sekou, Hill Harper and Sheryl Lee Ralph

Okay, so it’s not really Day One any more. I admit it. The whole conference is over. But since Anguilla’s first lit fest really got underway on Friday morning at the magnificent Paradise Cove Resort, I’ve been going, going, going – which left no time for blogging, blogging, blogging. On both Friday and Saturday, I had a couple of hours off each afternoon, and I came back to my room planning to take a nap before dinner because I was too tired to move. But I could not nap: my mind was going a thousand miles a minute. That’s the sign of a great literary festival and conference.

I’m going to tell you about all the sessions and receptions I attended (and show you pictures) but it’s probably going to take me all week or even longer, mostly because if I write about more than one session at a time, the post will be too long. Plus there were a few people who weren’t even on the agenda who knocked me flat, and I want to tell you about them, too. I feel like this festival has changed something deep inside me and I hope I can convey some of the magic to you: one session at a time. (You can subscribe to this blog if you want an email when the next posts are up.)

Friday morning’s Rise and Shine breakfast session featured three readers: Lasana Sekou, Hill Harper and Sheryl Lee Ralph.

Lasana Sekou is a poet and prose writer from St. Martin who I hope will come and read in Toronto  (and elsewhere in Canada) someday (he’s been on reading lists at York and Keyano College, so he is almost a Canadian already). Lasana has published ten books of poetry, monologues and short stories, and he is a performance poet par excellence. He has been translated into Spanish, Dutch and German and has won numerous awards – including a knighthood from the Dutch Kingdom. Clearly indefatigable, he is also the driving force behind the St. Martin House of Nehesi Publishers and an advocate for St. Martin independence.

First, Lasana read a short piece of prose (claiming that it was too early in the morning to be a poet) but then he launched into the poem that is also featured in this YouTube video; entitled “Visit and Fellowship II” (“i&i in eternal seeding time”), it is  from his book The Salt Reaper: Songs from the Flats:

After that reading, everybody was not only wide awake but had fires in their bellies, as I am sure you can imagine. (Lasana told me later that the YouTube performance had been at a literary festival in Colombia – the Festival Internacional de Poesía de Medellín – which brought out such huge crowds that it blew away the minds of the presenters as it must have also done the attendees.)

Hill Harper was up next. He talked about what drove him to write Letters to a Young Brother: Manifest Your Destiny, which was inspired by Ranier Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet (which I agree that everyone who is the least bit interested in writing anything – or just living a full life – should read). Hill Harper is not just another pretty face. He is a very bright man – he attended Harvard Law School with a guy named Barack Obama. He found that when he was doing talks as a part of his CSI:NY work, young black men would come up to him afterwards and tell him they were inspired by him, and they would tell him some of their challenges and ask him for advice. He also got thousands of emails from black youth. He began to realize that the questions were falling into categories, and that is when he began to create the outline for his first book.

Hill’s book might have been written for young black men, but it will inspire people of all ages, colours and creeds. After listening to his first chapter, which was about believing in yourself but learning from your forebears (“You are the perfect product of 15 billion years of evolution …. I respect that and you should too. Let go of those other people’s voices in your head … anybody who ever said your dreams were not possible”), which I was mentally applying to the writing process, I wanted nothing more than to find a pen and paper and get to work on my next book.

Sheryl Lee Ralph added a tasty and compelling garnish to this literary power breakfast when she spoke to the inner diva in all of us and read from her memoir, Redefining Diva: Life Lessons From The Original Dream Girl. An actor, singer and activist as well as a writer (and an avid tweeter with 20,500 followers), Sheryl Lee was the original Deena Jones in Broadway’s production of Dreamgirls, where her performance earned her a Tony for Best Actress. The Kirkus Review calls her book “an engrossing story of a woman who challenged Hollywood and its limited roles for black women.”

Sheryl Lee explained that to her, DIVA is an acronym for “Divine, Inspired, Victorious and Anointed,” and she believes that we should use our diva power for good instead of evil. She is an honorary member of Delta Sigma Theta sorority and creator of The Diva Foundation for AIDS/HIV Awareness.

Here’s one passage from her funny and moving reading: “My kind of Diva is woman enough to love herself to the very core of her being… She respects herself and those around her. She is a role model. My kind of Diva is changing the world in big and small ways. And yes, she looks good doing it!

Sheryl Lee is a firecracker, and after her reading, we were ready to rip into the first session of the festival, “Writing is Just the Beginning: The New Publishing Rules.” Which I will tell you about in the next post. :)

Right now (Sunday noon), I am going to the beach.

The Day before Day 1: Anguilla’s First Ever Literary Arts Festival

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

I have arrived on the beautiful island of Anguilla, where I have been staying with friends for a few days – getting some work done for clients while enjoying the tropical breezes.

The first session of the Anguilla Lit Fest: A Jollification is tonight — a reception/meet and greet for the presenters/authors and the organizing committee. I am looking forward to meeting all of the people who have spent so many months putting this together on behalf of the Anguilla Tourist Board, and to chatting with my fellow presenters, who include:

Stay tuned… I’ll keep you updated when I can!