Because, wimpy work aside, literature is as vital now as it ever has been. Its expression is essential to the life of a culture. It is part of our collective soul, and without the vision of our artists, we fail to see who we are and who we might become.
Because the voices that are most important in that context are those on the edges, those willing to serve as a society’s advance scouts, to venture into a culture’s uncharted territory and report back on what they see and experience. We are in a time where those advance scouts are dangerously undervalued and unappreciated. Swank Books is one small effort to cultivate those voices, to distribute the reports of some of those scouts.
Because it seems extra important now to take a step against the consolidation of publishing power in the hands of only a few people who are more interested – and better versed – in business than in literature.
Because literature is important enough to us that it’s worth the effort, however small, to prevent its voice and scope from being defined exclusively by people who are more concerned with sales figures than with extending an art form.
Jason Epstein has spent half a century as one of the leading lights in literary publishing. In the 1950s he created Anchor Books, the first American series of quality paperbacks. In the 1960s he helped found the New York Review of Books. In the 1980s he created the Library of America. He is the first recipient of the National Book Award for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. Listen to what he says about the state of publishing, and about its best hope:
“Book publishing has deviated from its true nature by assuming the posture of a conventional business,” Epstein says. “Book publishing is not a conventional business. It is a cottage industry, which more closely resembles a vocation or an amateur sport in which the primary goal is the activity itself, and not its financial outcome. But a cottage industry within an industrial conglomerate makes no sense.”
“General book publishing in the United States is currently dominated by five empires,” Epstein continues. “Industrial conglomerates. Conglomerate budgets require efficiencies and create structures that are incompatible with the notorious vagaries of literary production. How, for instance, does a corporation budget for [Barbara Kingsolver’s] next novel, or determine the cash value of writers such as William Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy, whose novels languished for years before they became valuable ‘assets’ on the Random House backlist? Meanwhile, the retail market for books is now dominated by a few large bookstore chains whose high operating costs demand high rates of turnover and therefore a constant supply of ever more uniform products.”
The vitality of publishing, Epstein says, lies in small presses which reclaim its nature as a cottage industry. Epstein sees seeds of this in online magazines and tiny publishing outfits which use the democratic power of the Internet to build an audience by affinity. “On this point,” Epstein says, “there are strong grounds for optimism. Human beings have a genius for finding their way. Book publishing may become once more a cottage industry of diverse, creative, autonomous units, [which is compatible] with the long, slow, and often erratic lives of important books.”
That’s why Swank Books.