Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Underdog

While writing my new novel after FLESH, I came across Gap Creek (Robert Morgan, Algonquin Books) and read it with much admiration. Published by a small press, it became the Oprah Book Club Selection in 2000, perhaps boosting the initial press run from 5000 to 500000 copies. Then last Monday, news came about the 2010 Pulitzer Prize fiction winner: Tinkers (Paul Harding, Bellevue Literary Press). Both Algonquin Books and Bellevue Literary Press are small. The BLP is so small The New York Times said, “Up in a tiny office on the sixth floor of Bellevue Hospital Center sits the most unlikely tenant in this 271-year-old public institution: a fledgling publishing imprint. . . .”

Well, what most realistic chance does a small press have against the New York publishing behemoths when it tries to vie for the nation’s top literary prizes? Read this: “A book by an unknown author, from a new and nearly unknown press, lands on a reviewer’s desk. What are the chances it will command her attention?” —Hartford Courant, January 4, 2009

Both novels above were published by small literary presses. I thought about this fact. Then I recalled the 1999 Kiriyama Prize awarded to a fellow Vietnamese writer I know, Andrew Pham, for his first work of non-fiction Catfish and Mandala. I always have this thought: Can the judges be unbiased when they read the work by a first-time author, published perhaps by a small literary press, alongside those works by veteran authors, e.g., Philip Roth, Ha Jin, from the submissions for the award? Well, in 1999, Andrew Pham beat out the other finalist, John Dower, who won The Pulitzer Prize, The National Book Award and The Bancroft Prize for his work Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II, which was on the Kiriyama’s short list that year.

Is it true that small literary presses publish more superior works than the mainstream publishers? Well, many small presses are labors of love, according to Charlie Hughes, publisher of Wind Publications. Therefore, they are extremely selective in what they publish. As such, “chances of acceptance are statistically low. Most small presses have more books waiting to be published than their time or financial resources will allow.” This does not surprise me. My novel, FLESH, was accepted by the award-winning Black Heron Press in August 2009. Yet it’s slated for the publisher’s 2011 publishing list.

Considering the doldrums of our publishing business, one has to wonder why readership has been declining. Is the quality of books being fed to readers the main culprit?

Yet there is fairness in the process of selecting a winning title for a literary prize.

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