When I sought an internship with Ice Cube Press, no one asked me outright, “So, Lance, why publishing?” I suppose the answer seems self-explanatory to those who know me. Now, I’m a second-year graduate student seeking an M.A. in English at Iowa State University, and publishing likely appears to be the most direct professional route for the application of my academic training. It’s either that or, as many of my professors point out, earn a PhD in English and become a professor at such-and-such university. While I’m not opposed to joining the ranks of academic critics, I do not agree that Dr. English Literature has no place in the publishing world. Quite the contrary, I believe experts in written art need experience in the publishing field just as the publishing field needs highly trained critics to help facilitate the publication of “good” art.
And the publication of good art–that is, art that entertains, confounds, incites, reveals, explains, explores, laments, disparages, intuits, and explodes perceptions of Life–attracts me to the publishing world. The author needs someone to take their art, put it on a page, bind those pages into a volume, cover that volume with more artwork, and then persuade as many people as possible to become readers, consumers, critical thinkers, and risk-takers. Publishers, especially those like my boss, are not the purely economics-centric individuals portrayed in movies or television. Instead, these publishers assume the mantle of herald for an author. They care about trumpeting, endorsing, and distributing an author’s work. The author’s work, if a publisher found it worth publishing, should supplement our various perspectives with even more, deeper, complex perspectives on life and the world we live in. In other words, publishers enrich culture by disseminating art. The cost you pay for the book helps feed the author so the author can continue creating more art that enriches our lives. Keeping that process alive is not merely worthwhile, it’s necessary.
Picking the art that possesses cultural value is the tricky part, and this part concerns me the most as an academic and a critic. Certainly, every one deserves the right to have their thoughts published, but I think some artwork deserves more showcasing–because frankly, it’s a good piece of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, etc.–and others not so much. In the past decade big publishing houses blessed us with wonderful wizard fantasy that provided positive, strong images of female protagonists, environmental stewardship, bravery, and friendship, and big publishing also cursed us with shiny vampires engaging in positive portrayals of domestic abuse. Maybe that sounds a little snarky, but we can certainly see how much good publishing can do in the case of Harry Potter and how vapid and useless publishing can be with Twilight. Both scenarios required numerous experts to sign off on large investments in disseminating two completely different pieces of art. I can’t help but feel that Little, Brown lacked in the critics department when they published Twilight, and it’s for precisely this reason that I think publishing needs more academics, more critics, more people like me.
Finally, when a publisher finds a piece of art for publication, the publisher must find a way to package and disseminate the book without altering the art inside of it. When consumers look at books they are likely drawn to a visual approximation of the contents of a book. Books’ are more than their visual approximation, their packaging, and somehow publishers need to find a way to capture an entire abstract universe in a substantive, physical form without changing the context of the story. I do not think many people consider how herculean that task may be, but such a complex process fascinates me. To assemble a book of essays and stories with watercolor illustrations (such as Truth in the Rivers) must be entirely different than publishing a magical realism novel (like River of Ghosts), and several different separate yet related pieces of graphic art and illustrations must accompany each text. In this fashion, art gives rise to more art, and whereas both pieces may be appealing separately, together they become more enticing then they ever were on their own. If books and art must teach us about life, then publishing provides books with the savoir-faire to appear ready to provide new perspectives on how to live.
Really, publishing is an art of itself, and as an academic, scholar, and critic of art, publishing deserves my attention, curiosity, and study.