We'll Call It Short Attention Span Literature
The last time we talked to Gina Frangello, a little more than a year ago, she'd just finished editing a short-story anthology for a new press, Hourglass Books, operating out of suburban Lindenhurst. Falling Backwards was a collection of works by various authors on the theme of fathers and daughters, and its publisher, Bill Scheurer, was bent on revitalizing the market for the short story. Frangello (an occasional Reader contributor), who's also editor of the 21-year-old literary journal Other Voices, was all for that. Scheurer's business plan eliminated most of the up-front costs: the book would be published "on demand," authors and editors would be paid if and when it sold, and sales would be driven by newspaper reviews. There was just one thing wrong with that plan, Scheurer says now: most daily newspapers don't review anthologies. He declines to say how many copies of Falling Backwards have sold so far, but Hourglass, which has yet to bring out its second book, is revamping its marketing strategy. Frangello, meanwhile, is about to launch another short-story collection she's edited--and another new publisher. Simplify, a dozen works by Tod Goldberg, is the first release from OV Books, a brand-new book press launched by Other Voices that's dedicated to the short story.
OV is going the more traditional publishing route, with an initial run of 1,000 paperback copies and 200 limited-edition hardbacks and a distribution deal with University of Illinois Press, which will take 50 percent of the proceeds. Goldberg was picked as its first author through a national competition: Frangello says they netted 300 submissions (about a quarter of them from writers who'd been published in Other Voices), each with a $25 entry fee, which more than covered the cost of printing the book. About 20 volunteers handled the first round of blind readings, and the guest judge, Pam Houston, author of Cowboys Are My Weakness and an OV board member, selected Goldberg's tales of deadpan weirdness from the work of five finalists. According to Frangello, they got a lot of submissions "where every story was well written...but they were all alike--sort of the same story over and over again," while Goldberg's collection had variety. It also had "masculinity"--running counter to what she terms the predominantly chick-lit character of the few short-story collections that get into print these days.
"The prevailing wisdom in the publishing community is that nonfiction sells much better than fiction, genre fiction sells better than literary fiction, and literary fiction sells better than nothing but poetry," Frangello says. The literary short story is supposed to be the hardest fiction sell of all, but that strikes her as a paradox. "We're being told that short fiction doesn't sell, but at the same time we're being told that the attention span of the public has shortened, that people are used to the amount of attention they have to give to a sitcom or a video game. If that's really true, then why isn't short fiction the hot medium right now?"
Frangello's convinced it comes down to marketing: what sells is what can be spun, and short-story collections, with their brevity and variety, don't offer an easy hook. And here, she says, a small nonprofit like OV Books and Other Voices (published twice a year, with an annual budget just under $30,000) has an advantage: none of its roughly 50 workers, including Frangello (who's been there ten years), are paid. "We aren't expecting to sell a million copies," she says. "We want Tod's book to sell as well as possible, but we're not looking to be The Da Vinci Code." On the other hand, they'll need at least to sell out the first run "for us to go ahead with the press . . . because we don't want to jeopardize the success of the magazine," she says. If it works, the plan is for OV Books to put out up to three collections a year.
Frangello, whose novel Her Sister's Continent will be issued this winter by Portland-based Chiasmus Press, decries the dearth of local literary publishers. "We do have a handful of suburban presses, a couple of poetry presses, and a number of good literary magazines, but beyond that there isn't much," she says. Until someone tells her otherwise, "we're just going to call ourselves inner-city Chicago's only fiction-focused press." Goldberg lives in La Quinta, California, and his stories are set in places like Walnut Creek and Santa Monica, but Frangello says OV will also have "an inner-city focus" if it survives. And that's not guaranteed. In Chicago, she says, the publishing community is so small and scattered that "it's hard to tap into the resources." There's a community of writers, evidenced by a number of well-attended reading series and open mikes around the city, but, she says, "People keep saying to me, Who's going to come to your launch party? What is the audience? And I keep saying to them, I really don't know. I'm hoping the idea of a fiction-focused press in the city that is nonprofit and trying to put out the best books possible with no overhead in terms of salary will appeal to a lot of people, but I don't know who those people are yet."
Goldberg and Houston will be in town for the OV Books book launch, September 25 at the Cultural Center. Proceeds will help fund the press's next project, a short-story collection by Kate Blackwell, a runner-up in OV's initial contest.
The Poetry Center of Chicago announced this week that producer, writer, performer, and National Poetry Slam champ Lisa Buscani will be its new executive director. . . . A scheduling conflict was blamed for the short-notice "postponement" (no new date has been set) of the Hip-Hop Theater Festival this month at the Museum of Contemporary Art; the only surviving element is Congo Square Theatre Company's production of Deep Azure, beginning this weekend at the Duncan YMCA Chernin Center for the Arts. . . . 3030, at 3030 W. Cortland, will house a final night of performances by local writers and musicians Saturday, September 17, at their impossible-to-license venue of four years. . . . Make that One Book, Two Cities: Chicago's latest reading assignment, Pride and Prejudice, will be augmented by a stage production at Northlight Theatre, in Skokie.
OV Books launch party and benefit
WHEN: Sun 9/25, 5 PM
WHERE: Chicago Cultural Center, GAR Rotunda, 78 E. Washington
PRICE: $30, $15 for students
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.