Coming around signifying

Over the course of the last week we’ve received several emails with wonderful responses to three of our forthcoming novels. Each one has borne all the compliments I hope all our books will elicit—about the writing, the characters, the story. And I’ve been pleased (and relieved) to hear early opinions from outside the company that jibe with my own. But three of those responses also included another familiar and still (to me) surprising assertion. It felt like the 100th (and 101st and 102nd) time I’d read a note like this about one of our books: “It didn’t sound like something I’d be into, but I loved it.”

Sometimes the comment arrives in this form: “I didn’t know what to expect…but….”

And often, it’s said in this way: “This is not a book that’s easy to pigeonhole.”

Such comments always re-clarify the task we face. I mean, every time I hear such things I realize again how tricky the work is of publishing fiction that doesn’t fit into a so-called genre.

I read books—and manuscripts—for the thrill of all that I don’t know. That is, as a publisher I’m in constant search of the story I haven’t heard before, following some previously unmet characters I can care about, and listening to a voice that is at once real and unfamiliar. (I know I’ve said all this before.)

So I need to be reminded repeatedly that what I call "commercial literature" isn’t what all readers look for first when they shop for the next book. Many readers, maybe most readers, really do want to know before they put their money down more than a little something about what to expect of a novel. I understand this. And I know that it leaves in the second browsing position (at most) the sort of narrative trying-out (experiment?) that all good literary fiction ultimately is.

(Yes, I’m aware that there are established literary fiction formulae—but they interest me not at all, and the books I edit don’t often conform to those either.)

This powerful need to know a bit about what’s coming is, I think, the reason that anyone who has to pitch a novel must eventually answer this question: “What’s it like?”

Which gives us creative invocations like: “It’s Tom Perrotta at an afterparty with Michael Chabon doing a comic imitation of Nick Hornby.” (This sort of line up, by the way, is almost always a linking of unpredictable writers—which I think only makes things worse.)

As an editor, I finally choose the books I publish for reasons different from comparison and expectation. I almost always buy the well-written manuscript that is unlike anything I’ve ever read.

As a result, the marketing work of this independent publisher often can’t depend on the sweet structural definables of genre any more than we can rely very often on the franchise of a well-known author. Instead, we—via the company name and that faceless horse colophon of ours—have to come together as a recognizable brand, an emblem of a certain level of assumed quality, just as the name and logo of a car company or a sportswear corporation must.

And we have to do it in the shh-shh (sometimes silent) atmosphere of the reading marketplace. That’s the endless slow-roar process in a house like ours—the process of signifying one thing, again and again, season after season.

If we succeed, what I’ll be most proud of is the consistent quality of the books that bear that headless-horse colophon. Hi-yo [and] Away.

(I’d like some credit here for avoiding—almost to the end—any references to old Fred Ford Motor Company slogans.--I considered that job one.)


Joni Rodgers said…
I think this is why pushing the small press subscription services makes so much sense. I know from experience that I'm going to like/love just about everything pubbed by Unbridled, so I signed up, knowing my money would be well spent. (I felt the same way about Shaye Areheart fiction and was sad to see that imprint go away.)

As much as I hate the narrow idea of branding, it seems to be the new order of things -- for both publishers and authors.
This comment has been removed by the author.
I do wonder how the advent of epublishing/The Kindle, etc. will affect independent and smaller presses. A friend of mine thinks it actually may be a good thing, but I'm not sure. I wonder what you think of that, Fred?

I also hate the whole pigeonholing aspect of publishing, but more because categories bleed than anything else. There are times I want to read something that is a specific genre, but most often, I'm looking for a fresh voice and original story (or original take on an old story) as well. And where do you place someone like Alice Sebold or Joyce Carol Oates? Some would call them "literary," but others might use other terms.
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