Friday, October 23, 2009

Thoughts on Literature and the Publishing Business

I've been taking a class to maintain my teacher certification in the state of PA, and it has been so interesting. It's on children's literature and looks at all the cultural and social factors in books for children. This week we're focusing on commercialization and what it does to the content of children's books. And you know, it's something I've always known, but to be hit with it so explicitly has been somewhat startling. How much of what is "sold" as children's literature is merely advertising for other things (like movies)? How many books are based purely on what will sell or will encourage sales of other things instead of on ideas that are good for children to think about? Some people in education circles call these commercialized books "twaddle," but to my mind that's not half a strong enough word to describe the insipid diet of consumerism we feed our children through licensed characters and inane stories.

One of the articles I read this week traced the history of book publishing and it's track to "fast" capitalism. It explains why publishing houses no longer keep rich backlists, why some of the best books for children are out of print and most likely to stay that way: they have no cross product potential. The 5 largest children's book publishers are now owned by huge media conglomerates who no longer have the "Idea" as the main criteria for whether a book gets published, but the dollar value instead. No longer is literature held aloft from the market and so able to pursue and debate ideas. The market now rules literature and naturally this has limited what gets published. (Of course there are still some great books being published, but look at any bookstore and you'll see what's really being promoted.) I heard that publishers must attend expensive conferences put on by one of the big bookstores chains just to get books on their shelves. A small, very small, publisher like me doesn't stand a chance in a system like that.

This has made me reflect seriously on what we are doing at Hillside. We began just publishing study guides for different time periods in history. But when I couldn't find books for particular historical periods in print, I decided to jump into publishing out-of-print novels. It has been an incredibly creative and exciting process. I love every single one of the books we have published. They are all great stories . . . and they are not part of some multinational corporation's scheme to make money by any and every means conceivable. They have great ideas for kids to think about and leave open the possibility for hope. And yet, I can hardly stay in business; 2009 was a particularly difficult year.

Nevertheless, stupid though it may be, or certainly outside of conventional business sense, I have 3 novels scanned and almost ready to print, and I'm reading 3 others that I hope to prepare as well. What is the matter with me? Am I crazy? How can I possible stay in business much less compete with Sponge Bob Squarepants or everything Harry Potter? How can I get a business loan when my business plan shows that huge sales are not likely? And yet, how can I walk away from these truly great books that have been discarded by the market?

My only hope is that other people out there are looking for something other than the diet the mega-publishers put out. And if I can't compete in a crazy market, at least in my little corner of the publishing world, we'll still have great things to talk about.