Reasons to keep publishing: 3 Questions for our new blogmate, Fred Ramey of Unbridled Books

Fifteen years ago, my first novel was plucked from the slush pile by Fred Ramey at MacMurray & Beck (which later morphed into MacAdam-Cage), and I'm not overstating when I say that he saved my life. I was fresh out of chemo and profoundly depressed. The manuscript, which was about 8,000 pages long (only a slight exaggeration), had predictably been rejected almost 100 times (no exaggeration required.) It would be years before I knew enough about this business to appreciate how astonishing it was for an editor to take the time and patience required to make a book out of that mess and a professional writer out of that thrashing wannabe. Now I get it.

An agent in New York recently told to me, "Changes in the industry have made the job of editors more about acquisitions and marketing than actual editing, developing projects, helping authors build a body of work. Editors like Fred Ramey are the Spartans at Thermopylae - only they get up and do it every day. They're the only hope for the future of American fiction."

Fred's taught me a lot over the years, and much of what I've learned has come from reading the books he brings to the light of day as co-publisher at Unbridled Books. We're jazzed to be adding his literary sensibility and industry insights to the mix.

Fred, your authors have been consistently appearing high on the Indie Next lists for almost twenty years. (I was so glad to see Emily St. John Mandel's The Singer's Gun score the #1 slot for May!) So what is this legendary literary divining rod? How do you know when the chemistry is right?
Chemistry? We’ve no recipes, but thanks for noticing. The Singer’s Gun is our fourth #1 Indie Next (née Booksense) pick since we started Unbridled six years ago. And we’re publishing only 10 to 12 books a year. I’m proud of that good notice from booksellers. The titles that Greg Michalson and I pick are, I suppose, not much alike, but they do have a few things in common. We try each season to pick books that are true to modern emotions and that portray life in the most clear, unblinking, and therefore beautiful of terms. Writers bring an approachable art to us in the only form of expression that can actually be true of the whole. And we try to honor that, first by editing the work with the author, then by packaging the work well, and finally by pushing our support for the book (and the author) for as long as we possibly can. I’m convinced that readers who spend time within the books we publish recommend them again and again. And I say this today, the self-revelatory skim-and-dismiss practices of so many current reviewers notwithstanding.

As a publisher and the dad of twenty-somethings, what do you think of the Harry Potter generation of readers now that they've gained grownup buying power?
My kids are working 18-hour days and I still don’t think they have sufficient buying power. But that’s another discussion. My son (who is variously in the restaurant industry) is constantly reading books that are recommended to him by his friends (who are variously in the restaurant industry). And from what I can tell, they’re discussing those books in bars and restaurants. I (of course) find this heartening because it seems they see books as something more than consumables. My daughter examines what she reads with the hope of one day filming the right small book. The last novel I read out loud to her was Portrait of a Lady. I know of many young readers who want—maybe need—their novels to be available digitally. I understand that—it’s a new form of portability. What I take from it is that they want their books to be part of their daily experience—stolen moments to enter a novel. This reminds me of those paperbacks that were bent to fit the pockets of folks in my generation. I think of that copy of The Last Unicorn in Townes Van Zandt’s coat pocket on the cover of Delta Momma Blues. Two things about the reading experience seem to me cross-generational. The first is that narrative is hardwired into the way we make sense of life. The second is that the physical traces of our emotional and intellectual experiences (heirlooms and mementos) are at once the madeleines of our reflection and the marks of our connection to each other. If that’s anywhere near right, then the new literacies in young readers are also primal. And that’s reason enough to keep publishing.

We're rolling with a lot of changes in the book industry these days, and despite a chronic spew of too much information, we don't seem to be communicating about a few things that really matter. Given the opportunity to frame the conversation, what are some of the issues you'd like to get people talking about?
So much of the conversation in the past year — I mean, besides that about the price of e-books — has been about engaging the reader in various sorts of expanded-book experience. The thoughts are wide in this discussion: hypertextualizing the book, adding other-media elements, creating the open-access, universal, online digital library, sampling—building books by juxtaposing passages from earlier books — which some folks think is creativity by juxtaposition (Walter Benjamin thought the same thing, you know), or actually involving the reader in the process of composition via editorial feedback with the author and decision-making by reader consensus. All of these are fascinating topics, but when I begin to think about the future of the book world, I think two things. The first is that we must begin all of our thinking with the author. We must understand what the authors’ motivation is for creating and releasing their books in any given book environment, and we must take care to serve that motivation. Moreover, we have to think about how to support and thank them for doing so. The second is that I believe what is published is becoming increasingly important. Despite the wagon circling in the mainstream media and conglomerated publishing — and despite the fact that Steve Jobs is setting new terms by thinking only about the lists and corporate structures of the Big Houses — each social-media-informed development in the delivery of narrative has the potential to raise the profile of the best works. As we go forward, I say, we need to talk first about authors and we need to keep our ears open to what enriches and rewards as well as what entertains.

Comments

I love this, Fred, particularly your answer to the last question. I actually love experimenting in new media, but the few examples of hypertext novels have been very pioneer and not well received. At one point I proposed doing something like that at UH, but was quickly shot down, because how would it go in the library? ;) But your point about listening to the author in all these discussions is very well taken.

Something else to think about is who will create these expanded experiences? Will this, too, fall to the author? Or will other people with more tech savvy (but less knowledge about the book) be involved? As part of my thinking process for my book, I've thought of how my characters would create facebook pages, and I've considered making an interactive map of the world of the novel, but then I think about how much time that will take, and am I really the best person to do it (although I'm really jazzed about the idea of the map!). And all of this (tweeting, blogging, facebooking, etc) takes time away from the actual process of writing a book.

Interesting thoughts!
Oh, and welcome! It's sort of weird finally "meeting" you here because I feel I already know you from reading Bald in the Land of Big Hair. I know I don't, but you really are sort of a "character" in that book.
Anonymous said…
Fred,
I'm delighted you're here and can't wait to here some more of your thoughts on the state of the industry (and the writer) in the coming months.

Welcome to the fray!

Colleen, who can't log onto Blogger from this terminal for some reason
Mylène said…
Welcome, Fred! The following sentences warmed my author's heart:

"The first is that we must begin all of our thinking with the author. We must understand what the authors’ motivation is for creating and releasing their books in any given book environment, and we must take care to serve that motivation. Moreover, we have to think about how to support and thank them for doing so."

What a delight to be reminded that editors like you and Greg are not, in fact, mythical creatures, but still walk the earth.

Welcome again!

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