Finn Harbor, a writer currently working at a university in South Korea, has been posting a series of Q+A’s with a bunch of agents, editors, and publishers — they’re interviews, rather than conversations but they make for interesting reading. Recently he interviewed Gavin and recently posted the results — excerpt below:
1. 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? Sept. 11? Or is talk of the “death of literature” simple exaggeration?
Don’t agree with the premise so I’ll go with the exaggeration. We’re all going to have TV and the net wired into our brains as in innumerable science fiction novels (and M.T. Anderson’s excellent Feed) so why would anyone need to read? Putting that aside, until the cable company comes to (ahem) jack me in there are so many advocates for reading, for books, books in translation, magazines in print and online, that I am somewhat sanguine about at least the near future. Some of the publishers I respect will fail (maybe including us!), some of the authors I love will stop writing or selling books. But new publishers will appear, new authors, new ways for the authors I love, to get their work out.
2. And what is literature, anyway? Should the traditional novel be considered the prime example of it?
Literature is the printed version of the ever-popular narrative dream state induced by such primary sources as storytellers, poets, Hyde Park orators, (some) TV, film, and video game writers, the Interblognet, the couple fighting quietly behind you on the bus, and so forth.
4. 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?
The really big deals for new authors dropped off after the 1990s. Sales figures are harder and harder to get around — the ubiquitous peek at Bookscan is part of the consideration of any ms now.
Publishers can afford to take some chances, but it’s harder with the accountants looking over your shoulder. If a book costs ~$25,000 to do decently then it had better sell more than 1,000 copies. Finding a way to make it sell more: that’s the challenge!
Art and commerce are intertwined and nowhere does it say that art is something anyone should be paid for. The writer should ask themselves what they want to do: amuse a reader? Puzzle them? Confuse? Inspire? Having answered that question they can then consider who will be willing to pay them what amount for the job of sending that work out into the world.