A Letter the the New York Times

From Christine Schutt's Editor

schuttfloridaIn 2004, Christine Schutt's novel Florida, published by Northwestern University Press, was selecetd as a finalist for the National Book Awards. On October 17, 2004, the Times published a piece criticizing the judges for selecting less well-known titles from smaller literary and university presses. Schutt's editor penned an eloquent refutation.

Here's another response to your article on finalists for the National Book Award (E. Wyatt, "New Novels, Big Awards, No Readers," New York Times, 10/17/04). I'm the editor who acquired Christine Schutt's book [Florida] for Northwestern University Press, cited for low sales in the opening line of the piece.

I don't think anyone would argue that the worth of a work of art or even a product can be determined by its sales. It's pretty much a given that high revenue from books, TV shows, movies, even food, don't indicate anything about quality. So the value of Christine's work is not up for debate. It's a wonderful book, and she is a gifted writer who deserves wide recognition.

The issue seems to be whether recognition of a work published by a small press—with its low print runs and minimal advertising budget—somehow hurts the publishing industry as a whole, "closing [us] off from the culture at large" and "not helping the book business."
These comments left me perplexed. Yes, we are a small nonprofit press. We have only one acquisitions editor and one acquisitions assistant handling sixty titles per year; our budget is limited; and our print runs are usually around two thousand.

But none of that affects the quality of our books or their appeal. People do have to find their own way to our fiction, poetry, and theater books, unaided by directives in the New York Times, The New Yorker, and other venues that large houses rely on for advertising. Many of our sales are to libraries, to universities for course adoption, or directly to the reader through conferences. Our fiction and poetry lists depend on readers and reviewers who can evaluate a work without the benefit of an ad campaign or, often, even a press release.

The great thing is that even though in the corporate world success seems impossible without a huge budget, sometimes talent and dedication do pay off, at least in terms of recognition. We have other award winners on our list (see our Web site at www.nupress.northwestern.edu), from Imre Kertesz (Nobel Prize) and William Meredith (National Book Award) to Robert Rosenstone (Barnes and Noble Discover New Writers) and prize-winning translators. It is appropriate that the playwright Mary Zimmerman publishes with our small press. Her play Metamorphoses had its roots here at Northwestern University and of its own power moved from venue to venue, ultimately winning her a Tony Award for best director. But no one would argue that when the play premiered at Lookingglass Theatre in Chicago for a local audience it wasn't a brilliant work, beneficial to theater as a whole. (For other university press award winners, see the AAUP Web site at http://aaupnet.org/news/prizes.html.)

Generally, when a worthy and previously unrecognized artist of any sort receives attention, it encourages everyone who feels overwhelmed by the odds. So Christine Schutt's nomination should have a positive, rather than a negative, impact on the publishing industry. Many readers have already benefited by finding out about a work they might not have otherwise read. New writers benefit because they will feel there is hope, and there might be future award winners among them. And the publishing industry overall will benefit, because the nominations show readers that we have their interests, not just our profits, at heart. And best of all for me as an editor, Northwestern University Press will be encouraged to continue publishing fiction and poetry.

Congratulations to Christine for a well-deserved nomination!

Susan Bradanini Betz
Northwestern University Press