Imprints of the City


True or false: literary fiction is dead. Unknown literary writers will never be recognized without an expensive PR campaign. Celebrated writers tend to be mediocre talents with ample bank accounts and connections. Writers who sell well lose all credibility. Literary types cannot maintain artistic control over their product.

The answer appears to be false, judging by the progress of several literary mags in New York, including McSweeney’s, Open City, Fence, Tin House, and Bookforum, which publishes reviews. Over the last few years, editors at these pubs have developed their critical eye while schooling themselves in such pedestrian subjects as production, distribution, and promotion. In the age of capitalist publishing, these people deserve credit for preserving New York as a nesting ground for a handful of new writers.

The best-kept secret of the bunch is Bookforum. Launched in 1996, this handsome, funky quarterly pays a lot of attention to new fiction. Editor Andrew Hultkrans says he may have “the best magazine editorial job in Manhattan,” in terms of creative control. When choosing books to review, he says,”I try not to pay attention to industry buzz. I just follow my own taste.”

“In the past, you had to have tons of money to do this.”

In addition to assigning art and culture reviews, Hultkrans selects a guest fiction editor for each issue, who assigns a dozen or so reviews. Never mere platforms for venom or wit, these tend to be written by fiction writers with a strong voice and an understanding of the craft. Recent guest editors include Mary Gaitskill and David Gates.

Hultkrans says Bookforum is “almost breaking even.” But how? It doesn’t hurt that the mag shares staff and offices with Artforum, or that it is sent free to Artforum‘s 30,000 subscribers. It has a total circulation of 40,000, including other subs and newsstand sales, and writers love it because it’s unique, according to executive publisher Danielle McConnell. Fifty percent of its readers are under 35, and the mag is promoted aggressively with direct-mail campaigns, invitation-only readings, and ads in places like Bomb and The New York Observer.

At the louder end of the hype scale is McSweeney’s, the journal/Web site that publishes work in the so-called ironic vein. Founder Dave Eggers had a unique reason to become a book publisher: He encountered so much hassle in the course of publishing a bestseller last year that he decided to publish his second book himself, a novel “involving water” that is due out this spring.

The McSweeney’s imprint saves money by relying on a small staff and a printer in Iceland. Authors get more say in design and marketing and a larger share of the sales than they would with a standard agent and book publisher. But while the first two McSweeney’s books are handsome, they apparently haven’t sold well. (The staff was not forthcoming with sales and circulation info.) According to Tin House editor Rob Spillman, “Eggers doesn’t seem to care about profitability, but he’s doing a really good job with production and with marketing to a small audience.” Next up from the imprint is This Shape We’re In, a Jonathan Lethem novella.

Eggers has inspired others to try indie publishing. For example, the journal Open City had always published new voices and never tried to turn a profit. It now has a circulation of 5000, including 1000 subscribers. But after publishing Actual Air, a poetry collection, in 1999, they discovered that “you do get more exposure from books,” according to managing editor Joanna Yas.

They also discovered it could be done cheap: Open City designers work for a discounted rate, and the books are printed in Michigan for two dollars a pop. Yas says Actual Air turned a profit for author David Berman, as did Open City’s second book, Venus Drive, a collection of short fiction by Sam Lipsyte. After Lipsyte was reviewed in the Times and dubbed “a very strong talent” by Robert Stone, Broadway Books bought his first novel, to be published this fall.

Next up from Open City is My Misspent Youth, a collection of essays by Meghan Daum that will be published in March. Yas says that while the book is getting a lot of buzz, they’re not spending much to promote it. Two cost-cutting measures: The launch party will be held in a private residence, and the author is paying for her own reading tour. “She flies herself around with frequent-flier miles,” says Yas. Of course, it probably doesn’t hurt that Open City has a distribution deal with Grove Atlantic or that its editors, Thomas Beller and Daniel Pinchbeck, have great connections. The late Robert Bingham was the journal’s founding publisher, and his Kentucky family has helped finance the mag since his death in 1999. “They’re proud of his legacy,” says Yas.

But just because some publishers have deep pockets doesn’t mean they all do. “In the past, you had to have tons of money to do this,” says Rebecca Wolff, the editor of Fence (circulation: 5000). Fence plans to publish its first two books of poetry in November and another in spring 2002, saving money by using a designer who works “for close to free” and a Michigan printer. Wolff says the main reason lit mags are launching imprints now is “because of the availability of desktop publishing and affordable, good-quality printing.”

Tin House (circulation: 10,000) also plans to start publishing books “within the next year,” says Spillman, either independently or as an imprint of an established publisher. For now, Spillman and coeditor Elissa Schappell have their hands full promoting the latest edition, a theme issue devoted to film adaptations of literature. Spillman says Hollywood was a subject worth covering because of increasing opportunities “for literary writers to work with smart people and have decent movies come out.” But the choice of content also gave the Tin-meisters an excuse to throw a star-studded party at the Chateau Marmont on February 8. (Publisher Win McCormack paid the bill; Spillman says,”We’ll be eating lint for the rest of the year.”)

Watching all this very carefully is Karl Wenclas, the publisher of Philadelphia’s Zine Beat, who held a press conference at CBGB last week to denounce overpaid New York writers like Rick Moody for pushing out the little guys. His rhetoric didn’t go over well with the audience—George Plimpton repeatedly declared Wenclas’s assertions to be “Nonsense!” and informed him that The Paris Review will publish five pieces from the slush pile in the next issue.

Wenclas says he’s just trying to promote working-class writers like Ann Sterzinger, a pale, pretty brunette who took the stage and addressed Plimpton in husky French. But that may not have been the best approach. The next day, The Paris Review‘s Thomas Moffett said he didn’t understand why Wenclas and company were directing so much anger at The Paris Review (circulation: 10,000). He recalled that the first issue, back in 1953, included a letter from advisory editor William Styron in which he said the magazine should publish “the good writers and good poets, the non-drumbeaters and non-axegrinders. So long as they’re good.”

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on February 13, 2001

Archive Highlights