What I fear is that 18 years from now, in the year 2025, while browsing through the stacks of her local bookstore, a young creative nonfiction writer will come across this ancient issue of Creative Nonfiction, flip to my page and roll her eyes at my predictions of the publishing world:
- To boost sales, books will be printed on a tasty compound
known as book jerky that can be eaten after reading. Teriyaki
will be the most widely read flavor.
- A race of despotic winged alligators that love to read will
descend upon the earth and institute mandatory, daily Study
Hall for all humans.
- Donald Trump, at the age of 79, will become the Greatest
Love Poet Who Ever Lived after publishing a book of
Petrarchan sonnets titled “Trump!”1
It’s always this way with predictions. At best, we look at the trends of today and project them onto tomorrow, but, of course, the problem with this method is that we have no idea what’s next. Twenty years ago, I had no concept of an Internet that would allow Me to read my news onscreen whenever I chose. With this in mind, I might risk venturing the prediction that newspapers as we know then will probably barely exist within the next two dozen years. Many, if not most, are already in trouble, cutting staffs, cutting pay for contributors and trying to make the inevitable transition from an old technology to a new one, just as slightly over 100 years ago, the worlds many wagon makers tried to make the transition to the automobile age. Out of hundreds of wagon makers, only Studebaker made the transition, and then it vanished eventually, too. Newspapers have hung on gamely, and I still like to read them, but you know they’re in trouble when they start handing them out for free at college campuses nationwide to instill the habit in kids who have more efficient ways of gathering information.
Of course, it’s easiest to be a pessimist when it comes to predictions, especially where publishing is concerned. My father, Cecil Hemley, was a publisher in New York in the 1950s, the founder of one of the pre-eminent presses of its time: The Noonday Press. His problem, if you could call it a problem, was that he was more interested in other writers than himself. His greatest claim as a publisher was editing and translating the work of future Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer. He was also Susan Sontag’s first editor and brought to the attention of the American public such writers as Boris Pasternak, Machado de Assis and Jean Paul Sartre. When I look back at the world of publishing that existed in my father’s day, I admit I’m a bit envious. Certainly, there was more loyalty between publisher and writer in the ‘50s. Publishers such as my father nurtured authors over time—Singers work was not immediately profitable. Editors did not move from house to house in the same way they do now.
Of New York publishers, only Norton remains independent. The others have been swallowed by multimedia and multinational conglomerates. Noonday was bought by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in the early ‘60s, and my father moved to FSG as an editor. Eventually, Noonday became the paperback line of FSG, and its logo of interlocking fish was co-opted by FSG—the start of the big fish publishers eating the little fish. In 2003, almost at the instant when one of my books was published by FSG, the publisher dropped the Noonday line completely. I couldn’t help feeling the two events were connected: my wish to be published under the imprint of my fathers old house and the imprint’s complete annihilation.
Most likely, the consolidation of these publishers has reached its peak by now, unless, eventually, they all become one company, owned by Rupert Murdoch or future Love Poet Donald Trump.
That’s fine by me. Literature as we know it will always be around, and people devoted to literature will always be around. My two daughters, Isabel and Olivia, age 12 and 15, spend most of their days reading, as does my 24-year-old niece, Adina, who’s been living with my wife and me for several months. She works at Iowa City’s wonderful independent bookstore, Prairie Lights, and brings home stacks of advance reading copies, which she shares with Izzy and Olivia.
But let’s be pessimistic for a moment. Let’s say my two daughters and my niece will be the Last Remaining Readers in 2025. That’s fine. I can live with that. At least they’re obsessive about it. There will probably still be enough used bookstores around for them to read for several lifetimes if the remaining publisher—Trump Jerky Books!— decides that it’s not worth continuing to produce edible editions for the three Hemley women.
Still, I think we have more reason to be optimistic than pessimistic about the future of publishing. Let’s consider the scale and the expectations of authors, publishers and serious readers alike. We live in a country obsessed with fame on a grand scale, and this desire for deification infects even the most literary of authors. We probably have as many readers now as we’ve ever had, maybe more, but the world is bigger, expectations grander, and competition with other media fiercer. So it seems sometimes that no one is reading when maybe the real problem is that no one is reading us. Or not enough people. Can we ever have enough readers? I doubt it. Bring them on.
If there is a canary in the coalmine here, maybe it’s the literary agent. I’ve had five agents, three of whom have left the business entirely. One became an environmental writer. One seemed to drop off the planet. Another became an editor of a city magazine in Florida. All gave the same reason for leaving: The publishing business was becoming more and more depressing; it was harder for serious works of literature to make it in the marketplace. I suppose an agent still in the biz and reading this might counter, “Eh, they’re a bunch of babies. They just couldn’t take the heat, is all!”
I tend to agree with that fictional dyspeptic agent. Publishing has always been difficult. We all know the stories. Samuel Beckett’s first book was rejected by 42 publishers. John Kennedy Toole’s “A Confederacy of Dunces” was rejected by over two dozen publishers, and then he killed himself before the book saw its way to print. Still, I’m heartened more than depressed by the current literary landscape. This year’s National Book Award for Youth Literature went to my friend Tobin Anderson, who writes as M.T. Anderson. Tobin studied with another friend and fine writer, Michael Martone, at Syracuse. While I haven’t yet read Tobin’s latest, “The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume One: The Pox Party,” my niece Adina, who works in the children’s section at Prairie Lights, reported to me, with some amazement, that the book seemed almost too challenging and smart for its intended age group. Some adults, she thought, might find it challenging. As for Tobin’s teacher, Michael Martone, there are few writers as funny and odd. One of his most recent books, titled “Michael Martone,” is a compendium of nothing but contributor’s notes for the author, most of them contradicting one another. My students all know of Martone, and most love his work. Yet, his publisher is FC2, Fiction Collective 2, a not-so-famous press pilloried by famous author Jonathan Franzen, who absurdly derided the small publisher in print and then was later taken to task for it by Ben Marcus, writing in Harper’s. Franzen deserved such treatment and more. Despite the fact that he has the imprimatur of FSG behind him, I would venture to say he’s not the future of publishing, nor sadly is FSG2—of course, vital and important books will continue to come out from the large publishing houses, but publishers such as FC2, Graywolf and Sarabande will lead the way. These are the publishers nurturing new talents. We need more of them, and hopefully by 2025, more independent presses of vision will have sprung up. Maybe another Noonday.
Regardless, there’s always a certain amount of packaging involved in anyone’s success. Of course, all books are, in essence, packages of words. We should remember that Faulkner was more or less toiling away in obscurity in the late 1940s, his career waning, until “The Portable Faulkner” was published. This inexpensive book was perfect for classrooms across America. Ultimately, what’s important is not who sells but who’s taught. Franzen might initially sell more copies than Martone, but I bet it’s “The Portable Martone,” not “The Portable Franzen,” we’ll be reading in 2025.
By 2025, the literary magazine as we know it will have changed for the better, as heralded by such current offerings as The Believer and Ninth Letter. With libraries continually cutting the number of magazines to which they subscribe, the magazines that matter are going to be the ones that adapt to new technologies as well as the ones with distinct personalities or agendas. We might well see video lit mags or spoken-word lit mags made up entirely of recycled author readings. This, in fact, might be a good way for publishers to promote their authors—through downloadable literary digests that can be appreciated while the listener is on the treadmill or driving. Already, magazines with a serious Web presence, such as The Missouri Review and McSweeney’s, are capturing a new audience, as are magazines whose entire presence is on the Web, such as Narrative.com.
What of print on demand books? I guess I don’t see much of a future for them. I’ve bought a total of one print on demand book— and only because I was staying at the author’s house and she made me do it. if such a thing as a print on demand bookstore existed, I suppose I might consider browsing on demand through its shelves. But print on demand seems to be an ego-assuaging way to keep a book on life support when it might be more merciful simply to let it die with dignity.
Self-publishing might be the way to go for more authors in the future, though I think that in 2025, it will be as difficult as it is now to solve the problem of how to get bookstores and distributors to take a self-published author seriously. Still, there are always exceptions, as I saw recently when I gave a reading in Dallas with Will Clarke, who self-published his first book, “The Worthy,” about the ghost of a frat boy haunting his fraternity house. Only after the book caught the attention of Hollywood was it picked up by a mainstream publisher that has also recently published Clarke’s second novel, “Lord Vishnu’s Love Handles.” Need I add that this publisher was one of the many who initially turned down “The Worthy”?
I imagine blogs will continue well into the future-—but I doubt they’ll have much of an impact on publishing ultimately. Given the choice between unmediated thought and mediated thought, I believe people ultimately prefer the latter. I can’t vouch for the following information, but I’ve heard that the average audience of a blog is one person, and even the smallest press title usually has an audience bigger than that.
In C.S. Lewis’ “The Great Divorce,” about a sightseeing tour from hell to heaven, the narrator tells us that the inhabitants of hell can build the most lavish palaces simply by thinking of them. The catch is that these palaces are insubstantial and afford no protection from the persistent drizzle in hell.
In most ways, the ability to publish—on the Internet and in hard copy—will only become simpler in the future. Publication is the easy part. Finding an audience will always be difficult.
1 To Readers of 2025: Namaste to you and your alligator masters! Actually, I originally considered titling Donald Trump’s book of sonnets “Rosie!” but I figured that none of you would get the joke. Briefly, in 2006, Donald Trump and comedian Rosie O’Donnell feuded over Trump’s magnanimous gesture of giving the current Miss USA, Tara Conner, “a second chance” after she was found to have a drinking problem. Rosie derided his gesture on a popular talk show called “The View,” saying that Trump’s two divorces, multiple children and affairs didn’t really qualify him as the moral barometer for 20-year-olds. Trump retaliated angrily, calling her “ugly,” which to him was almost as severe a criticism as “poor.” But perhaps I underestimate you. Perhaps you know all this already. Perhaps in 2025, it is the stuff of legend, and “Rosie!” would have been, after all, the right choice. Predicting is a difficult business.
2 I might be suspected of having some ax to grind here with my former publisher and the employer of my late father, but that’s not the case. I had a good experience with FSG and felt that publishing with them was one of the personal highlights of my career. My new publisher, Little, Brown, is part of a German conglomerate at least as big as the German conglomerate that owns FSG, so I’m not writing from exile, as it were, in the Siberia of the Small Press World.