Monday, May 17, 2010

Concord of Interest

It’s now my week to blog. I’m going to begin by discussing one of the basic tenets of this website, well-established among us reviewers, but not yet explicitly stated here. Namely, I’m going to talk about conflict of interest, and what it’s like to produce a site of book reviews when you work in publishing.

I think I speak for all of us at [tk] when I say that we love our jobs, we love books, and that working with the printed (and digital) word is an essential part of our lives. But an attachment to the literary can also make working in publishing genuinely draining. We here at [tk] spend our days in publicity, editorial, managing editorial, and academic marketing, but we spend our nights and our weekends attempting to maintain other identities. We’re fiction writers, critics, bloggers, and budding journalists who also often work late, and who always have a manuscript or a proposal tucked under our arms. We’re people who love words so much that our jobs—jobs that allow us to do some of the things we enjoy most—aren’t quite enough of an outlet. We need creative expression for that passion too.

And as I say above, maintaining these two identities as publisher and creator can be difficult. Maybe that’s why you see considerable turnover among assistants in publishing. Maybe they decide that other identity—the writer, the scholar—is their true, central one. But I’ve found that sustaining my creative self is difficult for another, more pragmatic reason: conflict of interest.

Working in editorial has given me an entirely new perspective on books, an invaluable one. Maybe books have lost a little of their mystery, a little of their miraculousness—but they’re so much richer now that I’m aware of how many people and conversations lie behind each one. And being one of those people has been great. But I’m not finished relating to books in another way. Three years after graduating from college, I’m not done thinking and learning about literature critically, and I’m not done writing about it in that context either. There are few outlets for me, however. I’m fortunate enough to work for a company that reimburses its employees for tuition, and in my time here I’ve been able to return to the classroom. I’ve written a couple of papers, presented at a few small conferences. I’ve kept my hand in the game. But reviews seem like the best way of producing critical writing frequently and consistently, and conflict of interest—due to my job—has prevented me from reviewing for the few publications at which I’ve inquired.

That was my personal reason for wanting this website to exist, and I think my fellow reviewers had similar compulsions. And it meant that when we first discussed the possibility of [tk] reviews, we were keenly aware of conflict of interest. We decided at that first meeting that we would review only books not published by our house—not just our imprint, but by our entire company. It was a decision that caused some agony. What, some asked, about our imprint’s books, books that we very much want to succeed? And our house is large—wouldn’t avoiding their books drastically limit what we could review?

Well, yes, I respond to the latter question. This policy does limit what we can review. But thanks to other large trade publishers, the academic presses, and the many fantastic small independent presses, no one can say there aren’t enough books available. And in fact, this policy has proven a luxury and a boon. In our first month we were able to review several books that perhaps wouldn’t get as much press coverage as those published by other, larger companies—and in upcoming months, we’ll also be reviewing books that might not be reviewed outside academic journals. Because we’re each writing only one review a month, we also have the luxury of choosing longer books, or books that are more difficult to find, or books whose rewards require a little more digging.

And, we decided, although we felt that we shouldn’t review our imprint’s books, this blog might be an appropriate venue to mention them in the future. Because we here at [tk] are genuinely excited about the books we publish. We want to share them with you—we want you to know about events, we want you to eagerly anticipate what we’ve been working on for months or even years.

Ultimately, though, the website is [tk] reviews: it’s the reviews that are our focus. And I think that by reviewing—whether our own books or not—we can do only good. If we positively review a book and someone buys it, it’s not a win for that publisher—whether Penguin or Oxford University Press or Archipelago—and a loss for us. Even as large houses struggle and small ones vanish, book publishing can’t afford to be a zero-sum game. A book bought rewards everyone—because hopefully behind that book lies a happy reader, a new ally to every publisher, who will return repeatedly to the bookstore.

As an editorial assistant by day and a critic by night, I’m grateful to have the opportunity to write for [tk]—to know that my creative work might do some good for my industry. We’ll write the reviews, you buy the books, and maybe, together, we’ll save publishing.

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