Interview with Unbridled Books Publisher Fred Ramey

The changing face of publishing.

Posted Nov 03, 2011

Bigger isn't always better according to Fred Ramey, co-publisher of Unbridled Books, one of the country's most prestigious independent publishing houses. Ramey and co-founder/co-publisher Greg Michalson have a reputation for supporting literary writers, and a talent for publishing high-quality fiction and narrative nonfiction. Previous to launching Unbridled books in 2003, Ramey was one of the founding editors of BlueHen Books, Putnam's former literary imprint -- and throughout the 1990s he was Publisher and Executive Editor of MacMurray & Beck, an award-winning independent press in Denver. Here's more from this industry maverick and leader:

Jennifer Haupt: How has the independent publishing arena changed since you founded Arden Press back in 1982?

Fred Ramey: Bookselling was dominated by independent booksellers in 1982. There were no superstores. And every major newspaper had a book review editor on staff; most newspapers had regular book pages, and some had pull-out sections. Readers were not all reading one of three recognizable books at any given time (because the media had not conglomerated to the point that publishing could bank on celebrity-related books). Indeed, there were fewer celebrities. There was no internet. The Book-of-the-Month Club notwithstanding, there was no single dominant recommending source (I'm thinking of Oprah's influence here). And, of course, there were no e-books.

As I read back over that answer, it sounds like complaint. I don't mean it to. I mean to say only that it was a different industry completely in 1982, with different practices for finding readers and for promoting books. The competition was more open than it was at the end of the century.

Today, I believe it's becoming competitive again, and we're all learning the new rules. It seems to me that conversations about books are happily expanding again as the cooperative relationship between New York publishing, mainstream media and the superstore chains is losing its grip on readers. It's harder now than it was in the celebrity-publishing heyday for the largest houses to bring readers to the anointed, headline books. Some aspects of this industry are, I think, returning to what they had always been-not least, aren't we seeing the return of an intractable and independent readership and a wide range of reviewing voices?

Now we have digital ways of speaking with those readers, disseminating those reviews, and delivering the books themselves. It's a rich and promising time to be publishing again -- rich and promising if your bottom line doesn't demand that you turn away from good books and focus on a few blockbusting authors.

JH: Why did you and Greg Michalson decide to launch another independent publishing venture in 2003?

FR: When we left Putnam it was at least in part because the kind of books we're interested in publishing -- rich, voice-driven books with heartfelt stories -- do not mesh well with the three-season corporate structure in which books are so often quickly abandoned by sales and marketing. Novels in that publishing model are asked to perform well in the first few weeks after publication.

We do work hard at the front end in support of our new releases, but we also recognize that they may take months to find their readers. Indeed, novelists might take several books to find their real base of admirers among booksellers, reviewers and readers. We are proud of all of our authors, proud that they've entrusted their books to us. They and their books deserve our patience and our long-term efforts. We can do that in an independent environment. "Patience" and "long-term" are not corporate values.

JH: A number of writers and editors seem to be throwing their hats into the indie publishing arena. Is the growth of publishing as a cottage industry a good thing for authors? For publishing?

FR: We're all, I think, beginning to realize that the age of mega-wealthy authors may have ended. Perhaps that was only a brief period in the history of reading anyway. Did it begin with Grace Metalious? James Michener? I don't know. Corporate publishers have, it seems, more tightly focused their list on the most commercial titles in order to address the changes in consumer behaviors. Separately, we're all recognizing that no matter what route authors take to their readers, the widespread conviction that the content should be cheap if not free presents a wide range of challenges to every writer's career. (Not to mention its effect on publishers.)

As I said earlier, I believe that the iron grip that large publishers and their marketing partners have had on readers' attention since the 1990s has slipped quite a bit with the arrival of online retailers and opinion-makers. Obviously patrons of online booksellers can see the breadth of reading options-"Others who bought this item also bought...." Patrons of independent bookstores know of those options, too, and depend on the recommendations of their booksellers. The few "designated" titles from the big house are still dominant, of course, even in independent stores. But if you are an author in one of those corporations whose book has not been "designated" your reality can become pretty stark.

Independent presses can offer a real chance to a talented writer who might not fit the formulas of the big house. Yes, I know that each conglomerate has a few imprints and a good many editors dedicated to the best of books -- to maintaining the course of American letters. Those are the prestigious imprints that aren't always required to pretend the sales of a prior book predict the performance of the next book. (I'm often astounded at how willing the industry is to act as though it believes that. We all know it isn't true.) But independent presses are all dedicated to finding and presenting the best of books, dedicated to the books in and of themselves and to the promise of the authors.

Obviously, I think the answer is yes: Independent publishing delivers authors and readers from the tyrannies that the conglomerated publishing industry often exerts over new and growing talent. Aren't all decentralizing forces good for an industry (any industry) and good for the community -- in this case the community of readers? Certainly decentralization is good in a world as artful as ours.

JH: About what percentage of queries you receive are from agents and what percent directly from authors? About what percentage of books you accept are directly from authors?

Oh the vast, vast majority of queries we receive come over the transom-perhaps 85% or more. More to the point, for years, fully half the books that Greg and I published independently were unagented. For the past few years, however -- as a result of our growing reputation, but also in part because of those same corporate tyrannies -- agents have been bringing some of their best authors to us. I believe this is because they know that when we take on a book, we will dedicate ourselves to creating its best chance and will even look toward the author's career as a whole, as far as we can see it. And so the number of agented titles in our list overall has risen to perhaps 7 in 10.

But I think another development may be arriving. Recently, it seems we've seen an uptick in unagented manuscripts that are catching our attention-and an increase in the number of authors who bring manuscripts to us directly even though they have agents. I suspect this is a result of the real difficulties that agents are facing as a result of the industry changes we're discussing here.

JH: According to F. Scott Fitzgerald, a novel is never really finished but only abandoned. True? If so, when is it time to bury a manuscript in the backyard and move on?

FR: Aren't those two separate questions? Every author I know is inclined to revise during the final proofreading. And I know of one author who may still be unsure about the end of a novel we published at MacMurray & Beck in 1996. I imagine this was Fitzgerald's point -- a written line can always be cleaner, a character might be more nuanced, an image could perhaps be made to burn brighter. But there are also changes without difference, and an author needs to learn to recognize when that's the stage revision has entered.

Your second question is different, I think. Some authors burn manuscripts when they know they've failed. I admire that strength and wisdom, the depth of understanding involved in knowing when the project has failed. But it's a rare commitment that can enable such action. Putting the unpublished manuscript in the drawer is more common, isn't it? It's certainly more fully understandable. The task in either case is to look forward. An author must be able to do that, even if writing itself is a looking backward.

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