Around 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.
“I read and write fast, and work six to seven days a week sometimes,” he said on Friday morning at Soho House after staying up all night working on proofs for the next issue of Granta. “Ultimately you can get a lot of reading done if you have no other job. And that’s what I did—I read books and wrote about them.”
In the process, Mr. Freeman became the ultimate generalist, writing solid if not always revelatory pieces on fiction, history, poetry and anything else he felt like.
“Each newspaper I wrote for had a slightly different idea of what my specialty was, which kind of forced me to not have one,” Mr. Freeman said. “The San Francisco Chronicle would always assign me books by writers either in translation or not from the U.S. I ended up doing a fair number of local Ohio writers for The Cleveland Plain Dealer. There was a paper I wrote for, I forget which one, where I was doing lots of sport books. I reviewed for Entertainment Weekly, where I’d do lighter fiction. I just like to read, so I didn’t mind. I think ultimately specialties are kind of dangerous.”
Review editors and book publicists alike loved him; he was versatile, reliable and, most importantly, a fan. And while the reviews Mr. Freeman wrote never added up to any particular view of what great writing should be or signaled a consistent operating aesthetic, their frequency and ubiquity—along with his irrepressible participation in New York literary life—earned him an unmistakable reputation as an open-minded, energetic reader.
“I think the thing that strikes me about John is that he really loves books!” said the literary agent Julie Barer. “Like, I didn’t know him very well and I had a breakfast with him a couple of months ago, and we spent three hours just talking about books. Literary fiction, science fiction, John Updike, contemporary young writers … I don’t know his taste well enough to know what he likes, but he’s one of those readers who is just always hungry for great work.”
What remains to be seen is whether the fact of his broad palette makes him the perfect editor for Granta—one who will cast a wide net for new writers from many disciplines—or a confused one without a clear curatorial mission.
“I could not from serving with him on the board of the NBCC formulate a particular idea of what he likes—it seemed all over the map to me,” said Salon.com book critic and former books editor Laura Miller. “He has definite likes and dislikes as far as books go, though… so maybe if he has more say over what he’s doing [now that he’s not catering to the whims of newspaper editors], his taste will emerge. It is kind of a big question mark: When he’s free to exercise his taste at will, what will Granta look like?”
Mr. Freeman’s biggest asset, Ms. Miller said, might be his manifest knack for connecting with people and attracting attention. As the freelance publicist Kimberly Burns put it, “He is everywhere!” Or, in the words of his longtime girlfriend, the literary agent Nicole Aragi, “He’s got a little bit of community organizer in him. He’s good at bringing people together, and giving them the energy to do more than complain.”
It helps that Mr. Freeman believes in the inevitability of books—even if, as he will lay out in his forthcoming manifesto for Scribner, The Tyranny of E-Mail, the Internet is engendering in the people who use it habits that distract them from reading. This is the salve he has to offer a chapped and chafing industry. As people cry doom, he’s there to hold hands and assure them that it’s not that bad.
“I couldn’t do this job or the National Book Critics Circle job or the job of the critic if I didn’t believe fundamentally that there’s a fighting chance for keeping the experience of reading at the center of human life,” he said. Nevertheless, he believes that some of the discussions that took place at Book Expo—namely the ones about how long-form narrative will disappear as readers grow more and more accustomed to absorbing information in bits and pieces—will one day seem ridiculous.
“People are always going to read,” he said. “People love to read, and there are lots and lots of readers. … They have an instinctual, perhaps even biological desire for narrative. We can corrupt or pollute or whatever verb you’d like to use that desire with our popular culture, but ultimately there will be desire for storytelling.”
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