Sunday, November 15, 2009

Heavy "Whither" Ahead: The Changing Business Model Continued

I asked in an earlier post this week, "Whither BookExpo?" The "Whither"-led headline is the journalist's ironic rubric for the inconclusive, chin-pulling article that muses on the future of Literature, the Iraq War, Marriage, or whatever. We have seen a lot of these pieces in the publishing trade in the last couple of years and we certainly have a few more years ahead of us. Almost every aspect of the business is in flux.

One of them is the role of agents. It's hard to say who is more threatened by the prospect of "disintermediation," as it becomes ever easier for writers to sell their work to readers directly--publishers, booksellers, or agents? Right now the first two are feeling the stresses and strains of change more than the agents are, but I think it will soon become apparent that agents have no less to lose. I don't believe that any of us have become obsolete, but we're all going to have to reconfigure our roles in the literary ecosystem.
This thought is prompted today by a Mike Shatzkin blog post about a conversation he had with three agents about this very topic. If these three are representative, agents are also groping for a handle on how their business can and should change.  "Whither Agenting?" is another question in the air.

Hat Tip to Two of 2009's Top Twenty-Five

The Atlantic's December issue features Literary Editor Benjamin Schwarz's list of the 25 best books of 2009. Schwarz, whom I'm sorry to say I don't know, is a book reviewer of consistently intellectual leanings--something that's very welcome to a slightly eggheaded editor like me who has watched the coverage of serious books get slashed in almost every print venue. His top 25 of the year includes 9 titles from university presses, including Michael Burlingame's biography of Lincoln (Johns Hopkins), Gordon Wood's magisterial history of the early United States (Oxford), and Carmen M. Reinhart and Keneth Rogoff's history of financial folly, This Time It's Different (Princeton). 

I was naturally happy to see two Bloomsbury Press titles included in the Atlantic's list--both were titles that, if I say so myself, made fresh, lively contributions to their respective fields. Denis Dutton's The Art Instinct argues pugnaciously for a new approach to thinking about art, and to art criticism, with insights from evolutionary psychology. And Alison Light's Mrs. Woolf and the Servants does what seems almost impossible--finds something new to say about Woolf and Bloomsbury (the "set," not the publishing house). Light offers a revealing window, or perhaps it's a back stairs, into the lives and thoughts of Woolf and her fellow literati by exploring the experience of their domestic servants. That sanctum Woolf wrote of, "a room of ones's own," was not a sealed-off chamber: it was cleaned, heated, and attended by a series of maids, cooks, butlers and the like. Benjamin Schwarz rightly calls Light's work an  "elegant, sparkling book"  and observes that  "it probes the deeply intimate, often sordid, always fraught relationship between women servants and their female employers."  Mrs. Woolf and the Servants has probably received more, and more effusive, reviews than any other title I have ever published. (I should mention that it was acquired not by me, but my sharp-eyed former colleague Katie Henderson, now of Other Press.) 
Especially if you're a history lover--or Christmas shopping for one--the Atlantic Top 25 is worth taking on your next trip to the bookstore.