by Sonya Chung
In the fall of 2012, the New York Review of Books launched a new e-book series, NYRB Lit. Officially launching the series in a letter to readers, editor Sue Halpern wrote that the idea for NYRB Lit evolved from a hope to champion “contemporary authors, writers of depth and insight whose work was being bypassed by traditional American publishing because the economics did not favor them.” Halpern, an author herself and longtime contributor to the NYRB, had been researching and writing about technology and the Internet, and had raised concerns about privacy, the corporatization of culture, and the reinforcement of echo chamber ideologies. “The paradox of personalization and the self-expression promoted by the Internet through [social networking] is that it simultaneously diminishes the value of personhood and individuality,” she wrote in a 2011 NYRB piece entitled “Mind Control & the Internet.”
Many writers and editors have shared Halpern’s concerns, and still do: technology in the form of digitization and online content brings many kinds of progress, but at what cost to literary life and literature itself? I myself have at times been tempted to bury my head in the sand in the face of “the death of the book.” But with NYRB Lit, it seemed that an eminent keeper of literary seriousness—the NYRB continues to print some of the most rigorous and thoughtful long-form book reviews, for example—was launching a kind of offensive. “By using the less-expensive e-book platform to introduce readers to writers they would not otherwise encounter,” Halpern wrote, “the digital ‘revolution,’ as it was being called, could be harnessed to promote literary culture rather than undermine it.”
When I read this, I both applauded and breathed a sigh of relief: if NYRB publishing was going digital, that meant something for the future of literature—something good and hopeful and substantive. (Our own Lisa Peet was also excited about NYRB Lit when it launched, praising in particular Ian Durovic Stewart’s gorgeous digital covers.) In a recent correspondence I had with Halpern, she reiterated this meaningful hopefulness:
If you spend any time around writers, as I do, you’ll often hear how publishers aren’t keen to publish midlist authors any more, or second or third time novelists, or literary fiction. And, in fact, the economics of publishing make it difficult to take chances on authors who are not likely to contribute to the bottom line. My thought was to find some of those books and publish them electronically since the cost of doing business is lower.
Not only are NYRB Lit titles intriguing and distinctly literary—they tell us “something about the world we don’t know,” as Halpern put it—but a number of their authors are Bloomers. Lindsay Clarke, author of The Water Theatre (hailed by Francine Prose as a novel that “reminds us that fiction, like life, is capacious enough not only to contain everything but to make us see how and why the personal, the political, the moral, the spiritual, the economic and historical—and the mythical—fits so seamlessly together”), published his first novel Sunday Whiteman at age 48; Swiss-German author Markus Werner published his bestselling debut novel Zünder’s Departure at age 40; Eli Amir published Scapegoat at age 47; and Kiran Nagarkar bloomed internationally at age 52, when his novel Saat Sakkam Trechalis, written originally in Marathi in 1974, was translated into English 20 years after its original publication.
And then there is NYRB Lit’s “breakout,” bloomer Ruchama King Feuerman’s In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist—the first of NYRB Lit’s titles to be followed up with a paperback (forthcoming, March 2014). While all of the books have received critical acclaim—if not here in the U.S., then internationally—In the Courtyard has received, says Halpern, “not only a bounty of reviews, it has gotten uniformly phenomenal reviews.” It was a finalist for the Jewish Book Awards, was named one of the Best Books of 2013 by the Wall Street Journal, and Jonathan Kirsch, in his review in The Jewish Journal, called Feuerman “a Jewish Graham Greene.”
You can “meet” Feuerman on Wednesday, when we’ll be featuring a Q&A with her about In the Courtyard and other writerly topics here at Bloom. In the meantime, I did ask Feuerman by email about her experience publishing with NYRB Lit. She wrote:
Normally, the idea of a digital book would’ve been a big let-down. An e-book? I didn’t own a Kindle and didn’t want to. I was coming from a more traditional model—my first novel, Seven Blessings, had been published by St. Martin’s Press in hard cover.
But my husband subscribes to the New York Review of Books magazine, and over the years I’d become an avid reader [ . . .] I was tickled that this new imprint of theirs would publish me, especially when I saw their other authors – extraordinary writers, all of them. I fell in love with Sue Halpern who I found to be an intellectual giant and I saw that there was a wonderful “cause” behind NYRB that wasn’t liberal in the narrow sense, but soulful, intellectual, intoxicatingly so, in the broadest sense [. . .]
When my novel was first getting sent out to possible reviewers, I definitely felt a prejudice against e-books. It felt like the mark of Cain. “Oh, an e-book,” as in, it can’t be serious or any good or even legitimate. Reviewers kept saying, “Send us a copy when it goes paperback. Then we’ll review it.” Luckily, not every paper or magazine responded like that. In fact, in a strange way, the book received more attention because it was an e-book, not less. People were pleasantly surprised when the book turned out to be—how do I put it without sounding obnoxious?—a good read [. . .]
One thing I love about Kindle is that people are more reluctant to lend out their e-readers than they are to loan books. That’s good news for authors. If everyone who had read my first book (and really liked it) had actually gone out and bought a copy, I would’ve been in a very secure place as a writer. With Kindle, there’s a greater chance people will pay (a little something) for what a writer has labored to create.
Halpern has told the story of how The Water Theatre came to her attention and became NYRB Lit’s inaugural title: a veteran editor at a major corporate publishing house handed it to her and said, “I love this book, but we are not going to be able to publish it here.” Presumably, Halpern thought, Well, NYRB Lit can publish it. But, in truth, it hasn’t been so simple, or easy:
It turns out that while it definitely costs less to produce an electronic book, it doesn’t necessarily cost that much less. There are still production costs–they are just different production costs. But there is still editing and promotion, still proofreading and cover design. Meanwhile, it also turns out that it’s really difficult to sell a book that does not have a physical analog. A lot of literary books are “hand sold” in bookstores. Our books can’t be hand sold in this way, so it has been a struggle to get the word out about these phenomenal books.
She also mentioned that many of the most successful e-book publishers focus on genre fiction. And while NYRB Lit doesn’t do that, per se, Barbara Hoffert of Library Journal seemed to suggest, in her profile of Halpern and NYRB Lit back in 2012, that literary fiction might very well be able to position itself as a genre as well—with its own self-identified, deeply invested group of book-buying readers.
Eighteen months in, Halpern does seem more sober, perhaps more modest, regarding her goals and vision for NYRB Lit. “I doubt we’ll be trend-setters,” she says. “On the other hand, we have brought phenomenal books to American readers—book that would not have a life here.” Here at Bloom, we’re pleased to shine a light on both Halpern’s original vision and her current struggles, reminding our readers that, as consumers, we have the power to affect the trajectory of the literary life we value; and we do hope to feature other NYRB Lit titles and authors in the future.
In the meantime, don’t forget to check back on Wednesday for Ruchama King Feuerman’s Q&A.