By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 18, 2006
Four o'clock tomorrow afternoon will find book publishing's annual promotional schmoozefest, BookExpo America, in full swing. Thousands of booksellers will swarm endless aisles of publishers' displays at the Washington Convention Center. Publicists, agents and editors will gossip, network, fret about the Googleized future and anticipate the evening's dissipations.
Meanwhile, inside Room 204A, a group of (choose one) bold visionaries or deluded utopians will explain how they're trying to change the literary landscape they think a book bazaar like BEA represents.
The Literary Ventures Fund is a tiny nonprofit, founded last year with offices in Boston and New York, that "seeks to challenge the status quo of literary publishing," as its Web site boldly proclaims. LVF hopes to help exceptional works of fiction, literary nonfiction and poetry find the readership they deserve -- by using an economic model more frequently associated with Silicon Valley.
"It's a wonderful idea," says Jonathan Karp, a veteran editor now running the Warner Twelve imprint of Warner Books who agreed to serve on LVF's board. "Basically they're trying to take the idea of venture capital and apply it to literary publishing -- to view books as individual enterprises that would benefit from special attention."
"It's a courageous venture and we'll see how it goes," says publisher Jonathan Galassi of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, which recently negotiated LVF investments in two of its upcoming titles. "I don't really know of any other projects quite like it."
Here's how it's supposed to work:
LVF invests in books it believes to have both literary merit and commercial potential that might go unrealized without an added push. So far, its investments (there have been fewer than 10 to date) have been made in partnership with the books' publishers, though it plans to work directly with authors as well. The extra money, along with LVF's connections and expertise, can be employed in many ways, with the most obvious being increased marketing to help a book cut through the noise of a crowded marketplace.
If its investment pays off, LVF will take a cut of the book's profits. If it doesn't -- like a venture capitalist funding a high-tech start-up -- it will swallow the loss.
"Publishing is a ridiculous model and we're trying to fix it," says the fund's executive director, Jeffrey Lependorf. "Not that we think we can single-handedly change the way all publishing works."
Well, no. But you have to give LVF credit for chutzpah.
Its initial investment pool is $250,000. With this, it is trying to influence a blockbuster-obsessed enterprise willing to throw that much cash at a single crock of chick lit by a teenage Harvard plagiarist -- not to mention 34 times as much at a book by Alan Greenspan, that well known Washington literatteur .
* * *
"Everyone who I talked to felt passionate about what they're doing," Jim Bildner says. "Everyone who I talked to felt despair over the economic world around them and what was happening to literature."
Bildner, the chairman and founder of LVF, is also the source, so far, of 100 percent of its cash. Over sandwiches at his office on Boston's Rowes Wharf, he recalled the conversations he had with people in publishing as he was doing his "due diligence" before launching his new enterprise.
The idea for LVF, he says, grew out of a midlife shift fueled by tragedy.
Bildner grew up in a family that owned a New Jersey-based chain of supermarkets and went on to build a couple of businesses of his own. A few years ago, he discovered that his college-age son, Peter, had a heroin addiction that eventually would kill him.
Shaken, Bildner decided that "the last thing the world needs is another person who's spending all their time and energy creating new widgets." He enrolled in a creative writing program at Cambridge's Lesley University, where he was told: "Write from your heart." Out poured the story of Peter and his family's failed efforts to help him.
It was a difficult time, obviously, yet Bildner found himself moved by the talent and passion of the writers he was meeting. Then Lesley convened a publishing panel to offer words of industry wisdom -- and he found himself listening to "five of the most arrogant folks I'd ever met" explain to him and his fellow students that they'd be lucky if an editor at a major publishing house ever so much as looked at their stuff.
Appalled, he began talking about starting an independent publishing company that would treat writers differently. A little research convinced him that the world had too many struggling independents already. He'd be better off investing in individual projects, he decided, catalyzing literary efforts without replicating the infrastructure that was already in place.
The goal would be to "help more things faster, with lower dollars." But the venture-capital model was important to him for another reason as well. If the fund worked, it would be "sustainable." Not every investment would pay off, but enough would so that its pool of capital would replenish itself -- and LVF wouldn't have to deal with "donor fatigue."
One of the first people Bildner talked to was Lependorf, who headed the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses, a nonprofit that offers technical assistance to independent publishers. Lependorf was excited enough that eventually his organization merged with Bildner's. Ande Zellman, a magazine editor turned consultant, came aboard as editorial director to complete the LVF team.
As the due-diligence phase continued, Bildner and company went to see Amanda Urban of International Creative Management, one of the best-known agents in publishing. Zellman saw this as a reality check: If someone like Urban thought LVF's plan was silly, they'd know they were in trouble.
Urban didn't. "Promotional dollars are really tight," she says, and for many books, $10,000 or $20,000 in additional marketing money can make a significant difference. So "anybody who wants to come along and amplify dollars is fine by me."
Not everyone jumped at the LVF scheme. Some publishers told Bildner in essence: Nice idea, but we won't be doing deals with you. Enough responded positively, however, for him to recruit a varied list of publishing names to the LVF board. Among them were Karp, National Book Foundation Executive Director Harold Augenbraum and novelist Heidi Julavits, who edits the literary magazine the Believer. Others, including authors Susan Orlean and Tobias Wolff, signed on less formally as advisers.
In February, the fund announced its first round of investments. Sums of $10,000 or so (LVF did not release specific amounts) went to support small-press books such as Elias Khoury's much lauded Palestinian novel "Gates of the Sun," published in translation by Archipelago Books; Sam Savage's "Firmin, Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife," from Coffee House Press; and Lynne Tillman's fifth novel, "American Genius: A Comedy," which Soft Skull Press will publish in October.
How the money will be applied gets decided jointly on a case-by-case basis.
Tillman is "a perfect person for us," Zellman says. She's a writer highly regarded by her peers ("Lynne Tillman has always been a hero of mine," novelist Jonathan Safran Foer writes) who remains little known to the reading public and in whom major publishers appear to have lost interest.
She isn't complaining, Tillman herself says. Everything she's ever written has been published somewhere, and she has no illusions about turning into the kind of writer millions of Dan Brown readers might adopt. Still, she wishes more readers who would like her knew she existed.
And she's grateful to LVF for trying to make that connection on her behalf.
* * *
But wait. There's something funny going on here. What the Literary Ventures Fund seems to be all about is selecting worthwhile books, then trying to make a profit by calling them to readers' attention.
Isn't that what publishers are supposed to be doing?
"That's exactly what we do," says Soft Skull publisher Richard Nash -- except that tiny presses like his, which care about the Lynne Tillmans of the world, often lack the resources to publish them right. "It's not always about the marketing budget, but money being money, it can do certain things," Nash says.
What about the big boys, the ones who do have resources? Short answer: They're after bestsellers, and they can't be bothered. (Alternate short answer: They're too busy suing Google for copyright infringement.)
Most major publishers are now owned by multimedia companies, Urban explains, which bought them on the assumption that "synergy between the publishing arm and everything else" would lead to double-digit profit margins. Much unhappiness resulted when these companies discovered that "single digits is pretty much what publishing does." Every year brings more pressure on the publishing subsidiaries to increase profitability.
Placing bets on modest, risky literary projects is not usually the way they respond.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux is a bit of an exception. Owned by the giant German holding company Holtzbrinck, it nonetheless remains one of the major publishers most committed to literature. The two FSG books that LVF is backing are "The Savage Detectives," a prize-winning novel in translation by the late Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño, and Gregoire Bouillier's memoir "The Mystery Guest," translated from the French by FSG editor Lorin Stein.
"The idea is that we will try some innovative techniques" in marketing the Bouillier, FSG publisher Galassi says. He doesn't actually need LVF -- unlike a smaller press, he's got access to capital if he really wants it -- but he's happy to share the risk. Translated works are almost always a hard sell to American readers and he'd have been reluctant to commit $10,000 of FSG's own dollars to that effort.
The gently skeptical bottom line? LVF has taken "an optimist's approach to a very realistic business," Galassi says.
So is Jim Bildner just a crackpot idealist, throwing his money away on the kind of books nobody really wants and hard-nosed businesspeople won't go near? Doesn't everybody know by now that literature doesn't sell?
Not so fast, George Gendron says. Bildner is an entrepreneur -- and entrepreneurs think differently from you and me.
Gendron, a longtime editor of Inc. magazine who now heads the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Center at Clark University, joined the LVF board at Bildner's request. To an entrepreneur, he says, what might appear to others to be "inefficient and ineffective parts of the market look like opportunities."
What if you found 15,000 readers for a book expected to have only 5,000? What if you did that over and over again? What if others in publishing started following your lead?
"I wish there were 10 more organizations like the Literary Ventures Fund," says Warner's Karp. "It's a complete win-win situation if this thing works."