The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2010

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SEPT 2010 Issue
Books In Conversation

Declan Spring with Finn Harvor

Declan Spring is with New Directions, one of the most venerable publishers of experimental writing in English, where he serves as Senior Editor. The press was founded in 1936 by James Laughlin, and began by publishing anthologies of modernist writers such as Wallace Stevens, Delmore Schwartz, Dylan Thomas, and James Agee, among others. Soon after releasing its first anthology, however, New Directions also began publishing novels, plays, and poetry collections. Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams were New Directions authors at a time when they had difficulty getting their work published elsewhere.
Since then, the press has produced books by a long list of canonical modernists, as well as a backlist of works by more traditional writers such as E.M. Forster, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Evelyn Waugh. It also has published several foreign writers in translation, often in bilingual editions.

The New Directions roster includes Nobel Prize laureates and winners of the Pulitzer, the PEN/Faulkner Award, and the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship. Despite the relatively small size of the press, its influence on modernist literary culture has been enormous.

I interviewed Spring by email in early 2010. This interview is part of a larger project that aims to identify some of the stressors which currently affect literary publishers, and, hopefully identify avenues publishers might consider as they cope with a recessionary economy, technological change, and changing reading habits.

Finn Harvor (Rail): Literature is in trouble—that is, more trouble than usual. Why do you think this is? The increasing prevalence of TV? The distractions of increasingly narcotic subcultures such as video games? 9/11? The market crash of 2008? Or is talk of the “death of literature” simple exaggeration?

Declan Spring: There is still a huge audience for literature and a large market for books. However, I do think the Internet is having a damaging effect on reading. Your average college-educated adult who might have read a book in the evening to relax is now spending much of that time emailing friends and surfing the web. There is a growing expectation that art and information is “downloadable” and storable on computers and computer-friendly devices and this, I think, threatens the marketability of books. Book reviews are in decline since people are more and more looking for information on the web and booksellers are having to compete with online bookstores such as Amazon.

Rail: Reports of declines in book sales have become widespread. How bad are the declines? And do you think they are only a cyclical phenomenon, or do they represent a permanent, negative change for print book sales?

Spring: I would say that overall they do represent a permanent, negative change for print book sales. Much of the decline is related to the economy, but it can, in part, be blamed on other forces. Luckily, New Directions publishes lasting literature with an audience of devoted book buyers and college students who are required to adopt the texts in their college courses. We saw a huge dip in sales (related to huge returns from the chain bookstores) in the first half of 2009. Then sales picked up and returned to a much more healthy state at the end of the summer.

Rail: What area of book publishing is suffering most? More specifically, are novel sales suffering more than other kinds of books?

Spring: I wouldn’t know. I do know that basic literary fiction is suffering. Agents I talk to say that publishers just aren’t buying fiction anymore and they have to come up with new ways to stay in business.

Rail: Are the declines linked to woes in the brick-and-mortar retail sector—for example, bankrupt/near-bankrupt independents and teetering chains like America’s Borders—or are troubles in the retail trade the result, not the cause, of declining book sales?

Spring: I would say it’s hard to say which, but the woes of the retail sector are certainly related to some of the causes I stated above.

Rail: Are online retailers like Amazon taking over so much market share that they are driving brick-and-mortar bookstores out of business? Or does Amazon, with its discounts, simply create more book sales for itself, and are the brick-and-mortar stores suffering from their own structural deficiencies?

Spring: I don’t think you can blame the structural deficiencies of the independent stores. We’ve seen incredible agility and resources being mobilized at the very resilient independent bookstores which have survived so long against such odds. People are getting more and more used to getting what they want quickly and not having to travel to a retailer for their merchandise. I’ve always thought that visiting a bookstore isn’t only an opportunity to buy books, but to browse and learn about authors. Bookstores, especially independent ones, are sources for the dissemination of art and knowledge. They serve a valuable function in society, but unfortunately, our society is changing and people have less and less time for browsing in a bookstore.

Rail: The publishing industry suffers from retailers’ ability to return unsold books. In the current environment, is reversing this policy possible?

Spring: The notion of returns is pretty entrenched as far as I know. Every so often publishers discuss possibilities of addressing this Depression-era practice, but now—in the midst of a recession—I think everyone feels this wouldn’t be the time to try.

Rail: In your opinion, do e-books—with their lack of printing costs and ease of distribution—represent a golden opportunity for publishers to reverse the trend of declining sales?

Spring: This remains to be seen. It’s extremely important that publishers are entitled to e-book rights. They’re the ones that took the risk and went through the effort of publishing the book and any e-book threatens to undermine the print sales. So it is very important the publishers tie up e-book rights—paying a fair split to their authors—and have a strategy for making e-books available.

Rail: Or are e-books—with their vulnerability to piracy and untested popularity with the bulk of the reading public—overrated?

Spring: I don’t think they’re overrated. The reading devices right now haven’t caught on as dramatically as they eventually will. Once there is a device comparable to the iPod in music that everyone has in their homes and carries around with them, print books will be in trouble. That’s my opinion.

Rail: Does the Google settlement, which allows Google to scan books as it wishes, represent a form of piracy? Or, as Google argues, will its planned scanning of the world’s books strengthen book sales and reading culture?

Spring: It represents a form of piracy in that they went ahead and just started doing it without a collaborative plan. The settlement is a compromise. Where I think it really represents a form of piracy are those “orphaned books” where the rights holder hasn’t stepped forward.

Rail: Is the Kindle model of fixed prices for e-books but a relatively piracy-free sales/distribution system (and, sometimes, sound profits for publishers) one that you are happy with? Or does it lend Amazon too much control over pricing?

Spring: The $9.99 low price offered for most e-books will certainly undermine print book sales at a higher price. That was Tina Brown’s gripe at BEA (BookExpo America), although it now looks like that fixed price is something that’s definitely going to change.

Rail: Is the “agency model” of, for example, Apple’s iBooks better?

Spring: I’d say it’s a more viable model.

Rail: How much potential do e-book sales directly from a publisher’s own site have?

Spring: That’s not something we’ve considered at this point, but we haven’t ruled it out.

Rail: Do you think the e-book, being a digital form, will eventually evolve into a new form of narrative, incorporating audio and visual elements?

Spring: It certainly has that potential, but I think literature is inherently basically text oriented, rather than primarily visually oriented. Great writers like Laurence Sterne and W. G. Sebald have experimented using visual elements and it will always be interesting to witness books with these elements incorporated. Many years ago, people had high hopes for the CD-ROM thinking it would be able to offer additional visual and audio elements providing context for literary texts. This was an intriguing idea that never really took off, but it would be interesting to see if this can work again with e-books.

Rail: Will a movement toward e-books drive a separate-but-linked movement toward audio-books, more than exists now?

Spring: I think we’re already seeing that starting to happen with the success of As far as I know, that’s a pretty successful venture.

Rail: Are book trailers a valuable marketing tool or a waste of money and time?

Spring: I know they’ve proven successful with books like that novel The Average American Male. We haven’t really tried it ourselves, although we do some web marketing using videos of readings and performances by our authors.

Rail: In South Korea, books incorporating pictures and text are massively popular. In North America, graphic novel sales remain comparatively healthy. Will the print book move more and more in the direction of an objet d’art, appealing to book buyers as much with images as text?

Spring: I don’t think the popularity of graphic novels necessarily has anything to do with the demise of print books. I think it’s more about rising interest in this genre.

Rail: Prizes and awards are playing an increasing role in determining an author’s career-trajectory. In short, winning a major literary prize can win a writer a large audience overnight (not to mention, considerable fame and financial remuneration). But, as British critic Jason Cowley has observed, what is lost is the ability for readers to think in a critically complex fashion.

Spring: I don’t think you can argue that literary prizes are bad for literature, that they don’t enable readers to think critically for themselves. If anything, they increase readership which increases general awareness and appreciation for good books. Some prizes are more “mainstream” than others. For instance, some of the Pulitzer Prize winners I’ve read seem pretty mediocre, while I’ve always thought the Nobel is the stamp of approval that a writer is world-class. Interestingly, while we’re always happy when our authors win big awards like the National Book Award or the Nobel, it always means you have to over-print. For an experimental author, a big award can sometimes mean that you receive huge orders that need to be filled, then you receive a ton of returns.

Rail: Literary publishing has always been a marriage of art and commerce. But in recent years, the Cult of the Deal has become more influential, with agents demanding larger advances and marketing people paying especially close attention to sales figures. Is the “art” side of the business being pushed out?

Spring: The ever more corporate nature of the book trade has had a negative impact on the ability of small and large presses to publish and market important writers. New Directions has always published, and continues to publish works of high literary quality and that’s our first and foremost consideration. While we always need to consider things from a financial standpoint—we are a for-profit business—we have always emphasized the “art side” first.

Rail: Many major publishers now refuse to accept “unsolicited” work; that is, they will not even consider work unless it is agented. Is this a sound policy from the point of view of finding the best new literary voices? Isn’t there a chance good writing will be squeezed out?

Spring: In my almost 20 years working for New Directions, I think we’ve discovered three writers in the unsolicited pile—John Keene, Peter Dale Scott, and a writer named James Munves. I can understand why major publishers refuse to accept unsolicited manuscripts. The “slush pile” creates much work, and you’ll really find that the best authors come recommended from other authors or publisher friends, or you read about them in journals or magazines.

Rail: Alternatively, for small presses that do accept unsolicited work, is the problem that the majors are squeezing the small houses at the distribution/retail marketing end? In other words, even when good writers get published by small houses, do they have a fair chance of winning an audience? Or are the major houses introducing an overly corporate, overly aggressive mentality to the book trade?

Spring: There are some cases where small publishers have had great success. I’m thinking of, most recently, Europa Editions’ success with the Hedgehog book (The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery). Interestingly, some really great small presses are distributed by the big guys. I do believe that the chains systematically favor the larger, more commercial presses. But even they have special deals and incentives in which small presses can participate.

Rail: Are agents too powerful? If so, in what ways? Or are they a largely beneficial and necessary element of contemporary publishing?

Spring: It depends who you’re talking about. New Directions is lucky to have longstanding relationships with agents who represent the estates of some of the great authors of the 20th century, people like Georges Borchardt, who understand our parameters and appreciate our efforts. The ones who are in it for the money, the power, and the prestige are the ones that are more difficult to deal with.

Rail: Does America have too many publishers? Or too few?

Spring: I don’t think you can have too many publishers.

Rail: And what role can traditional, venerable institutions such as libraries and English departments play in reversing the decline in sales of literary fiction?

Spring: If, like New Directions, you take a long-term view, not always aiming for a tremendous initial sale but for a steady backlist sale over time, college departments and libraries are some of your targets. ND is distributed by W.W. Norton and one of the reasons this has been such a fruitful relationship is because Norton has a major college focus. We do a lot to market our books in language and literature departments. If a book is adopted by a professor, you can count on 30 copies being adopted every semester. That adds up over the breadth of your list and gives it relevance and lasting literary value.


Finn Harvor


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2010

All Issues