Independent vs. Corporate Publisher? The Question is Moot, Argues Agent Ira Silverberg

In Feature Articles by Guest Contributor

By Chris Artis

In the US, the conventional wisdom has always been that a writer must make his career either with a large corporate publisher or with one of the dozens of smaller independent houses. The thinking was that since the corporate and indie publishing worlds are so different in terms of priorities and styles an author and his collective work could only belong in only one. Today that notion is changing.

Ira Silverberg, an agent at Sterling Lord Literistic in New York City and co-president of the board of The Council of Literary Magazines and Presses, a US service organization for small publishers that facilitates connections between small presses and larger houses as well as between literary journals and agents, has spotted a growing trend in which authors are publishing with indie and corporate publishers simultaneously, and all parties are benefiting. “It’s fantastic that small and larger presses are working together,” says Silverberg. “As larger publishers become more focused in tending to bigger frontlist titles, small publishers are increasingly able to pick up the slack in terms of publishing backlist, midlist and literary titles.”

In this way, the publishing industry is moving closer to the Hollywood model, where actors and filmmakers often work simultaneously on small indy art films and big-budget studio films. In Frankfurt, Silverberg is offering international rights to the works of several authors who are examples of this phenomenon. A case in point is Ben Greenman, an editor at The New Yorker who writes fiction, essays, and journalism for publications that range from The New York Times and The Washington Post to Zoetrope, McSweeney’s and Opium. His first five books were published by independent houses with his most recent collection of stories, Correspondences, issued as a letterpress limited edition by Hotel St. George Press. HarperCollins just inked a three-book deal with Greenman which will include a reissue of Correspondences.

Novelist and story writer Sam Lipsyte maintains an on-going relationship with Open City, the publisher of his first story collection, Venus Drive. While Lipsyte’s latest novel, The Ask, will be published by Macmillan’s FSG division in March 2010, Silverberg is representing Open City in the deal to license a reprint of Venus Drive to FSG; the house also continues to support the author’s frontlist career, excerpting The Ask in the Winter 2010 issue of Open City Magazine.

After a long history with Grove Atlantic, novelist, short story writer and poet Dennis Cooper signed a three-book deal with HarperCollins. On leaving the independent for a large house, Cooper took a cue from indie music: “If Sonic Youth did it, I figured I could do it!” he told the New York Observer, referring to the cult band’s 1990 move to Geffen Records. Cooper maintains his cred with indie houses, though. His poetry collection, The Weaklings, was published in a letterpress limited edition by the small press Fanzine, and he edits “Little House on the Bowery,” which publisher Akashic calls its “line of fiction books in the tradition of the young New Directions and Grove Press.”

“There’s an exciting cycle of discovery and rediscovery of the works of many talented writers,” says Silverberg. “And it’s happening in large part due to a spirit of cooperation between indie and mainstream presses.”

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Guest contributors to Publishing Perspectives have diverse backgrounds in publishing, media and technology. They live across the globe and bring unique, first-hand experience to their writing.