Guest Commentary: ERIC OBENAUF



One of the best things that 2008 brought into my life was the opportunity to collaborate with Two Dollar Radio (via hotshot publicist Kimberly Burns), a new publisher that I’ve since had the pleasure of working with twice– to help get the word out about The Drop Edge of Yonder by Rudolph Wurlitzer and Crust by Lawrence Shainberg. On Wednesday I was delighted to put my rainboots on and trek across town to see co-founders Eric and Eliza in person and hear Amy Koppelman read from her stunning new novel, I Smile Back, of which Robert Birnbaum at The Morning News says, “Amy Koppleman (A Mouthful of Air) can write, and if you like stories about smart, disaffected, and disconnected middle-class women struggling with family issues and such, I Smile Back (Two Dollar Radio) is for you.”

Anyway, of course I told Eric he had to write something for us here and he was like yeah, maybe when I’m not busy being a punk rock revolutionary which is every second of my life and then he sent me something like, not even twelve hours later. Because this is exciting! Who can resist? Herewith:

Stupidly Optimistic

I started Two Dollar Radio with my wife, Eliza, not knowing or understanding much of the functionalities of the publishing industry, so peering in on the widely-acknowledged clusterfuck of this recent age has been a bewildering experience. I always imagined books, in general, to be a selfish, countercultural pursuit. As a reader and a writer, you’re forsaking society, friends, and family for hours and days at a time in order to sit by yourself in the corner of a room and indulge in a book.

It was shocking this past spring to stumble upon an article by Mokoto Rich called “Book Unit to Skip Advances and Share Profits,” that appeared in the April 3 Business section of The New York Times. The article read like a press release for HarperCollins’ newly-formed “HarperStudio” and permitted the interviewee to refer to their project as “experimental,” and included laughable quotes. Here, for your knee-slapping pleasure, is one: “Let’s take all the things that we think are wrong with this business and try to change them.”

The most blaring omission was the obvious and telling truth that HarperCollins, in an effort to appear revolutionary and news-worthy, was following directly in the footsteps of a business model that had already been in place for many years by the vast majority of independent publishers. What continues to appall me is that this view of the “Studio” as the future publishing model continues to be upheld. (The first and only article that I’ve come across that acknowledged its imitation of independent presses was Jason Boog’s “Read It and Weep” in Salon.)

I’m all for trying to figure out how to lower returns (which was touched on fleetingly in Rich’s Times article), but how, exactly, is publishing a book co-written by 50 Cent changing the industry? (Apart from negatively affecting my sinuses.) It’s like the microwave: It looks sleek and purrs like a Miata on the highway, but it all tastes like glue.

Where the present impending sense of doom seems to have originated, is with major publishers maintaining offices in midtown and considering themselves to be on par with record companies and movie studios rather than as purveyors of culture. It isn’t surprising that they are looking to new technologies to occupy their agenda since they are trying to approach as broad of a market as possible.

However, as Patrick Brown points out on the Vroman’s bookstore blog, “Books have more or less remained the same for 550 years. [This] tells me that the book is a durable technology, and one that’s difficult to improve upon.”

The large houses direct the industry by sheer size. By flooding the market with books that have the shelf-life of a bruised tomato, mainstream publishers impact how all books are received and treated by booksellers (or, at least, chain bookstores).

You, or The Invention of Memory
was published in hardcover, which probably didn’t allow the book much time to find an audience. Being somewhat familiar with Jonathan Baumbach’s work, I feel comfortable attesting to his startlingly original vision and style. I’m fairly certain that this is not something that a sales representative would like to hear and would more than likely never repeat aloud.

While in college I interned at The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. There was a quote taped to the wall at the time in the intern office that said something along the lines of cable television being based upon the premise that regular programming sucks so bad that viewers are willing to pay extra.

I’ve spent some time equating this to independent publishing, although the big difference is that you don’t have to pay extra for our books. A short attention span by large presses has allowed houses like our own to sprout from literally nothing. I used to insist that a great deal of terrific writing was slipping through the cracks. Now I don’t have to insist. And they aren’t just cracks.

What I’m impressed with are houses like Europa, Akashic, Soft Skull, and many other indie presses, who seem content to appeal to an audience of ten to twenty thousand readers. That, to me, ensures their station and confirms their cultural relevance. I’m eagerly awaiting the HarperCollins press release on their “revolutionary” new imprint that aims to mimic this model.

The current economy has already impacted the number of forthcoming titles from mainstream publishers, which will force bookstores – whether they want to or not – to stock titles for a longer period of time and hopefully allow interesting or challenging titles a little more of a window to find their audience. I imagine the focus of the large houses will shift away from books and toward more technologically adaptable projects, so the sooner they’re able to apply a less belligerent business practice and allow for the general fiction aisles in stores and the review columns in the media to be repopulated by less conventional and predictable work, the better, in my opinion. It will make a trip to the bookstore or the reading of a review that much more enjoyable for serious readers. But as long as the large houses are producing tangible books, no matter how hard they try not to be, they are engaged in a countercultural enterprise.

P.S. As if I need to reiterate, Lauren is a unicorn-level genius.”

Um, nooooo… YOU! Check Two Dollar Radio out, and have the weekend of your dreams! I’ll be back Monday.

Oh, and, speaking of independent, Bluestockings, a fantastic bookstore on the Lower East Side in New York, is going to have YOU in stock starting tomorrow!



2 Responses to “Guest Commentary: ERIC OBENAUF”

  1. Eric,

    Great post. I had a similar discussion last year about this time with John Freeman, then of the NBCC. You can read it here (in the comments…ignore the weird Chinese spam that I don’t have time to get rid of)

    He was arguing that it’s a shame that a book like Tree of Smoke, that took years to write, has to be read, digested, and understood in a matter of weeks so that we can all move on to the next big thing. He was (and is) right. The whole process is too fast.

    The New You project is really interesting to me as a bookseller and a blogger because it might just offer a little reprieve from the endless, relentless hype machine. Maybe.

    Again, great post, and keep up the good work.

  2. 2 laurencerand

    Thanks for the kind words, Patrick. And I’ll take “Maybe” — we can do a lot with that!

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