American Salvage

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

When the National Book Critics Circle announced its finalists for the group’s best book awards in late January, among the notables’ publishers was a relatively unknown press, Wayne State University Press in Detroit, which published Bonnie Jo Campbell’s short story collection, American Salvage. The other finalists’ publishers—Penguin, Farrar Straus and Giroux, Holt, and Knopf—represented the usual cast of publishing houses on NBCC’s fiction finalists list, one that in thirty-five years has rarely been cracked by an academic press.

Not knowing what kind of marketing push Wayne State University had been able to muster for a short story collection—even one as promising as Campbell’s—or whether I could find such a small-press book at my neighborhood mega bookstore, I clicked on my Kindle and was delighted to see that in seconds I could have an electronic copy of American Salvage in my hands for the discount price of $9.99.

I pressed “buy.”

It was the first time I had ever purchased an electronic book. Yes, I’d had a Kindle for more than nine months. (It was a gift.) But I was waiting for just the right book to test out the electronic device for long-form reading. Up until then, I’d downloaded the New York Times or the Chicago Tribune on occasion, a nifty feature if you’re in a rural area and also, at 75 cents, much cheaper than the hulking Sunday editions. I’d even downloaded a few sample chapters of books, but I hadn’t quite warmed to the idea of reading an entire book electronically.

Recently, there’s been a lot of debate between Amazon and various big publishers, particularly MacMillan, about who has the right to set the price on electronic books. Big publishers seem to be garnering a lot of attention for their claim that digital versions will detract from their bestseller print runs. The Association of American Publishers estimates that sales of e-books account for only 1.5 percent of all books, but electronic book consumers take an aggressive stance toward authors and publishers who are unwilling to give them what they want. A case in point: the one-star reviews that began showing up recently on Amazon for science fiction author Douglas Preston’s latest book, Impact. The low ratings were in retaliation for Preston’s comments in the New York Times, in which he defended his publisher’s decision to delay releasing the book as an e-book.

What is missing in this big publishers’ debate is what electronic books can offer midlist authors, small presses, and even readers who might not be willing to gamble $24 for a hardcover or $14 for a paperback by an unknown author but who might risk $10 to read an electronic version.

Before the argument about charging $15 for electronic books by big publishers, I had started to think of electronic books as the next paperbacks. When I downloaded American Salvage, I knew that if I really liked the book, I’d buy the print original. People who read a lot often wait to buy the paperback version. If they discover a writer they really like, then they acquire the hardcover for their home libraries.

But if publishers get greedy and try to charge the same for electronic books as for paperbacks, when electronic publishing costs virtually nothing, then they are going to miss out on cultivating a new market of readers—people who might not otherwise visit a bookstore or who don’t have time to order online or who don’t care whether they have a print version to display on their bookshelves. We’ve all witnessed what happened when the music industry didn’t offer a deep enough discount for electronic versions of CDs. That industry has suffered irreparably.

For small and academic presses, printing a small number of books and then offering the book to a wider market electronically saves costs and may generate a larger following that would support future press runs. If the book garners a strong readership, a bigger publisher may offer to buy it. Such was the case for Campbell’s American Salvage when New York publisher Norton acquired Campbell’s book and issued its paperback version less than a month after Wayne State University offered it digitally.

There’s also the unforeseen aspect of e-books as status symbol. Because publishers aren’t offering all their titles as e-books, those that aren’t included could be viewed as not having enough mass appeal. Recently, my book Unveiled: The Hidden Lives of Nuns, published by an imprint at Penguin/Putnam, was rereleased in a second edition paperback. But when a journalist at a party specifically asked if my book was available on Kindle, I had to say no. “Oh, your publisher must not think it can generate wide enough interest,” the man said. It wasn’t enough to come out in a new edition; one’s book must be available in all formats. Two days later, checking my Amazon numbers—just for kicks—there it was: my book on Kindle. I felt relieved: my book was deemed Kindle-worthy.

But what about the experience of reading an e-book? First, a full disclosure: I like reading in print. I still get four newspapers delivered to my home every morning, and the walls of my home are lined with books. I like feeling the paper between my fingers and smelling the ink, writing in the margins. I read with a pen. (Studs Terkel said that’s the only way to read.)

I also know this admission dates me. No one I know under thirty years old reads a newspaper in print anymore. They read online. There’s a whole generation of readers for whom this debate of print versus digital doesn’t even raise an eyebrow. Refusing to read electronically is almost akin to saying that you prefer writing letters to sending email. I know this may sound apocryphal, but eventually reading on handheld readers will become the norm.

Perhaps we all just need one book to get us hooked. For me, reading Campbell’s American Salvage had its own reward, separate from the electronic experience. Each of the fourteen gritty short stories features flesh and blood characters who populate rural Michigan, a place that is as much a character as the book’s drinkers, hunters, hustlers, survivalists, addicts, scrapers, and farmers. The stories are so detailed and specific, they capture uniquely regional traits as well as the minutiae of blue-collar workers like pipe fitters and hog farmers and scrap metal strippers.

Many stories deal with their characters’ quiet desperation and painful suffering: a fourteen-year-old girl who is raped by her uncle becomes an avid hunter; a hunter, scarred by a factory fire, longs to touch the face of a young girl he’s run over with his car because he thinks she’ll heal him; a boater, who has lost the use of his legs, secretly desires a woman to love him; a salvage man’s fascination with large snakes drives away his wife; a man, who burns his leg during a routine police stop, becomes openly bigoted against those who might help him.

Campbell’s language is lyrical. She is a poet and a farmer; both inform her stories and lend an air of authority. She is masterful at capturing her characters’ inner voices. In “The Inventor, 1972,” Campbell writes: “‘The ambulance is on the way,’ the hunter says. ‘Everything will be okay.’ One of his eyes seems bigger than the other, the lower lid pulled inside out to reveal red flesh like a leech’s. The girl thinks the whites of his eyes are oil, ready to ignite [. . . ] Her freckled cheeks would be cold to the touch, the man thinks. He could press his cheek to hers, let his wound be soothed against her young skin.”

Like all good stories, Campbell’s are about more than what appears on the surface. In the short story “Winter Life” a gardener obsesses over his spring plantings, believing that beneath the frozen snow there is fertile ground, just as he waits for his own frigid marriage to thaw. In “Boar Taint,” a woman with an agricultural degree but lack of real farm experience overcomes her own “taint” as a rookie when she goes where no real farmer would venture and discovers a pig that no one could kill.

The stories are so engaging that when each one ends, it’s discombobulating to start the next. At 170 pages, American Salvage was perhaps an easier choice to read electronically. It is a collection of short stories and not a novel involving complicated plot twists that might require flipping back to reread earlier chapters. But reading on my Kindle didn’t detract from American Salvage. The Kindle features a notes mode to mark up passages that I wanted to remember—replacing my yellow stickies method that I’ve used for years to mark pages in printed books.

Reading electronically is an acquired habit, just like clicking open the computer to a newspaper site in the morning. The biggest advantage of electronic books is that publishing them doesn’t require the death of any trees. I can learn of a book and be reading it in seconds. And I can carry hundreds of books on my Kindle at a time. I still miss the tactile joy of palming through the pages, finding a unique font or appreciating the aesthetics of the cover art. Supposedly my digital copy of American Salvage will be accessible “forever.” But I’m not taking any chances. I’ve ordered the print version and plan to display it proudly on a bookshelf. For me it’s my personal campaign: See, here’s a book I read. Try it.