• Time was when the writer who published his own book was by definition an amateur and, more often than not, a crank. Vanity-publishing outfits like Vantage Press existed to divert the life savings of literary innocents into the printing of unreadable, amateurishly designed volumes that promptly vanished without trace, leaving their hapless authors thousands of dollars poorer. A visit to Vantage’s website is guaranteed to make the hardest of hearts sink (“We believe that you and all other authors have the right to express your ideas in print . . . if funds are needed for basic living expenses, this program may not be for you”).
But times have changed, and so has the book business. Nowadays most major publishers are less and less willing to take a chance on promising manuscripts that are deemed unlikely to sell in reasonably large numbers. At the same time, the simultaneous emergence of online booksellers and computerized print-on-demand technology (which allows books to be printed, bound, and shipped to buyers one copy at a time) has made self-publishing economically feasible for professional authors who know how to market their own books.
This new style of self-publishing is already having an effect on the availability of out-of-print titles. Two weeks ago, I wrote about a paperback edition of Mary McCarthy’s Theatre Chronicles published by the Authors Guild Back-in-Print Bookstore, a service of iUniverse, the biggest and most influential print-on-demand service in America. Will living authors be equally quick to embrace self-publishing—or is it destined to remain as marginal and disreputable as vanity publishing? For what it’s worth, I suspect that in the short run, we’re more likely to see the adoption of print-on-demand technology by new, independent publishing houses that will use it to slash their overhead, thus making it possible for them to gamble on worthy but hard-to-market manuscripts that the major houses are no longer willing to consider.
In the meantime, though, there are still a few smaller-than-small houses that are continuing to take chances on off-center books. A case in point is Doug Ramsey’s Poodie James (Libros Libertad, 151 pp., $19.95 paper). Jazz aficionados know Ramsey as a distinguished critic, whose previous books include Take Five, the definitive biography of Paul Desmond. In recent years, though, Ramsey has also embraced the possibilities of new media, launching a blog called “Rifftides” that lets him write as he pleases, instead of being restricted to the fast-shrinking roster of print publications whose editors care about jazz. Now Ramsey has written his first novel, which was brought out not by a mainstream house but by a new, independent Canadian publisher who puts out serious, well-designed books, whose authors were unable to place them elsewhere. You probably won’t find Poodie James at your local brick-and-mortar bookstore, but you can order it easily from Amazon or directly from Libros Libertad. You’ll find that the cover and typography are as elegant-looking as anything published by Knopf in its salad days.
Why did Ramsey go to Libros Libertad? Undoubtedly because no major publisher would take a chance on a Gatsby-length novella by a first-time novelist who is no longer young. Worse yet, Poodie James is about a small-town deaf-mute, and it’s written in an old-fashioned, determinedly non-experimental style not unlike that of Jon Hassler. What could be less sexy?
No doubt you already know where I’m going, so I’ll cut to the chase: Poodie James is a very good book. Not only is it handsomely and lyrically written, but Ramsey’s snapshots of small-town life circa 1948 are altogether convincing, and he has even brought off the immensely difficult trick of worming his way into the consciousness of a deaf person without betraying the slightest sense of strain. I especially like the scene in which he tells us how it feels for the title character to “listen” to Woody Herman’s big band at a local dance:
A man with a big smile walked out holding a clarinet. The musicians sat up and brought their horns to their mouths. The man raised his hand and brought it down. The force of the sound hit Poodie and traveled through his chest as a tingle…. Poodie wondered if the dancers got the same sensation from hearing the music that he did from feeling it, radiance in the belly, warmth around the heart.
I wish I’d written that.
Ramsey is no less adept at sketching the constant tension between tolerance and suspicion that is part and parcel of the communal life of every small town. I grew up in a place not unlike the Washington town where Poodie James is set, and so can testify to the knowing skill with which it is portrayed here.
A quarter-century ago, Poodie James would have had no trouble finding an East Coast publisher, and it might even have made its way into the hands of a Hollywood producer, since it could easily be turned into a very nice little movie along the lines of The Spitfire Grill. That Ramsey had to travel another route to get his first novel into print says more about the postmodern culture of publishing than it does about his gifts as a writer of fiction. I commend it to your attention, and I hope its author has another novel or two—or three—up his sleeve.