New Granta Editor Offers Sweet Salve to Chapped Industry

c pubcrawlfreemanmug New Granta Editor Offers Sweet Salve to Chapped IndustryAround 1 o’clock last Saturday, Gotham Books president and publisher Bill Shinker was eating a sandwich in a bright, spacious hall marked “Platinum” located above the main exhibition area at the Javits Center.

This time last year, Mr. Shinker said, he’d been looking forward to a week of golf with a group of publishing buddies who had been gathering the week after BookExpo America every summer since 1998 for a friendly tournament known as the Publishers’ Cup. The plan this year was to play Maidstone in the Hamptons, but then the eight guys on the European team bailed, saying they thought flying over would be viewed as an inappropriate extravagance. Mr. Shinker was bummed. As his teammate Peter Workman explained it later, “The European team was governed by fear, so they did not show up.”

The day before, ex-HarperCollins CEO Jane Friedman was spotted wearing dark glasses and taking diligent notes at a Chris Andersen talk on “where venture capital dollars are flowing and what it means for publishers.” Ms. Friedman, who was forced out of HarperCollins a few days after last year’s BEA, said she had spent the past year thinking about how the industry will “have to reinvent itself for the future” and was “excited about something” that she was not yet ready to announce.

On the main exhibition floor, Bob Miller from HarperStudio could be heard telling someone that it was “time to make lemonade out of lemons.” David Rosenthal, the publisher of Simon & Schuster, said he’d been surprised at the “rapidity of collapse” the industry had suffered since last summer. “Even if you tend to look at the doomy side of things, you expect the ship to sink slowly and not hit an iceberg,” Mr. Rosenthal said.

BookExpo America in 2009 added up to this: The publishing industry needs a hero, and there is no shortage of activists and pundits vying for the role. Some of them self-identify as innovators, choosing cheerily to interpret the tumultuous state of the book business as a chance to have fun and come up with lots of new ideas. Others prefer to be seen as radicalized publishing veterans who have had enough, and who have undertaken new, independent ventures with the intention of playing by their own rules. Others still are consultants who sell scary visions of a future in which digital publishing defeats print and all content becomes equal in the eyes of readers scrolling through feeds on their iPhones. 

The discouraging thing is that many of these would be saviors at BookExpo seemed to believe that the whole industry must be torn down before a new future can be paved—that books as they currently exist will have to morph into some other form of “content” that is more compatible with emerging reading habits.

And then there was John Freeman, the diligent, stubborn book lover who seemed to be operating at BookExpo under the assumption that reading culture will not change as much as some excitable prophets want to believe.

Mr. Freeman isn’t exactly poised to be a hero, and he’s not a bigwig at a house or a power agent. But in his various roles—editor, prolific book critic, ardent reader, former president of the National Book Critics Circle—he provides a kind of cold comfort to the industry, a steady and measured voice arguing that maybe not everything has to change, that simply loving to read and loving books could be enough to keep book publishing as it exists going a little bit longer.

Last Thursday, Mr. Freeman was named acting editor of the British literary journal Granta, a new role for him that reflects an unexpected promotion following the abrupt exit of previous editor Alex Clark. Some might see him as an unlikely leader for a publication that began in 1889 as the student literary magazine of Cambridge University and whose mission since being revived in 1979 by Bill Buford has been to discover and propel unknown writers to literary stardom. First of all, his editing experience is limited to the time he’s clocked since December as Granta’s American editor. Second, as seemingly every other magazine and journal tries to find ways to innovate, and draw readers by Twittering and starting Facebook groups, Mr. Freeman’s approach is decidedly old school: As American editor of Granta, he has gone around the country visiting M.F.A. programs and English departments telling aspiring writers about his magazine, giving out discounted subscriptions and encouraging everyone to submit their work.

Surely all of those pundits and forecasters at BEA would chide his charmingly simple efforts to promote books and reading to the public, but Mr. Freeman has a track record of beating the odds. Before joining Granta, he spent 10 years earning a living as a freelance book critic, building himself into a well-oiled one-man business that brought reliable returns even as space for book reviews grew ever more scarce. Where other literary-minded young people ditched the freelance life for the comfier confines of grad school, or finally took that dreaded copyediting job, Mr. Freeman was managing to write as many as five book reviews and author profiles per week and placing them with six, seven, eight newspapers at a time. At one point, he says he was receiving 50 books in the mail every day and racking up regular bylines in 200 publications worldwide. In 2007 he became the president of the National Book Critics Circle and launched an expertly publicized campaign to raise awareness about the shrinking amount of space that American newspapers were devoting to book reviews. And yes, he actually got people to care about this stuff.