The Muse’s Town Hall: Benjamin Samuel on Literature’s Future

In What's the Buzz by Porter Anderson

29 April 2014 iStock_000004947526Small photog aptrick

Table of Contents

  1. The Muse Town Hall Live Stream Friday
  2. “The Future of Literature Is Writers”

The Muse Town Hall Live Stream Friday

On Friday at 1:30 p.m. ET / 6:30 p.m. BST / 7:30 p.m. CEST, Publishing Perspectives will offer a live video stream from Boston of The Muse and the Marketplace Town Hall event discussed here.

In addition, Publishing Perspectives Editor in Chief Edward Nawotka and I will host our usual live Twitter chat on this week’s Ether topic(s) on Wednesday at 11 a.m. ET / 8 a.m. PT—and that’s 4 p.m. BST in London. We’ll use the hashtag #EtherIssue as we do weekly. Join us and watch for @PubPerspectives and @Porter_Anderson on Twitter.

“The Future of Literature Is Writers”

By Porter Anderson

The only thing I know for sure about the future of publishing is that no one really knows what’s coming or where we’re headed.

Benjamin Samuel

Benjamin Samuel

That refreshingly candid comment from Benjamin Samuel is reflective of the fact that predictions are, perforce, predicated on the past. As Samuel puts it:

Sure there are great predictions and plenty of exciting prospects, but ultimately we’re either guessing or championing the ideas and models we’ve already invested in. So when people discuss the future of publishing, it’s often a good idea to step back while the bullshit flies.

Ben Samuel is co-founder of Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, a fiction magazine launched in May 2012 and billed as “part salon, part digest, and part journal.” A subscription to Recommended Reading gets you a human-curated (not algorithm-generated) work of fiction and a note explicating its choice.

The overall creation of ElectricLit, as it’s known, was three years earlier. While created originally a quarterly journal, it has gone on to establish itself as one of the most reputable of the online-lit sites, having been the first outfit to launch a fiction magazine on the iPhone and iPad, It also was the first to use Twitter to tweet out long-form work (with Rick Moody’s “Some Contemporary Characters”).

And despite Samuel’s realistic appraisal of those prediction-fests you find occurring between so many folks in publishing, he says in notes provided to us for this article, “These debates are still important, insightful, and well-intentioned, and I’m happy to listen and throw ideas around whenever I can.”

As an invited panelist in Friday’s What Every Literary Writer Needs To Know About the Digital Disruption: A Town Hall, Samuel will join some 100 industry players and Grub Street conference-goers in considering where literary fiction stands in the digital dynamic.

Related stories on this include The Muse’s Town Hall: Jane Friedman on Literary in Digital Times and The Muse’s Town Hall: Looking for Literary in Digital Places.

“As someone once asked at a panel, ‘Is the future of literature zombies or vampires?’ For the record, the answer, I’ve been told, is mermaids.”

As Publishing Perspective’s live stream of the event (1:30 p.m. ET Friday) approaches, we asked Samuel to give us some of his thoughts on the debate to come and on the prospects for literary work as the digital disruption moves forward.

“The most sensible statement I’ve heard on the topic,” he says, “is simply: the future of literature is writers. That is, before the industry can respond to readers (sales) and before a trend can start, someone, a writer, has to take that first step. It’s these creative pioneers that will determine the future of literature.

“And I don’t just mean, as someone once asked at a panel, “Is the future of literature zombies or vampires?” For the record, the answer, I’ve been told, is mermaids.”

There’s a correlation there, perhaps, to a comment from Grub Street executive director (and Town Hall panelist) Eve Bridburg. In her comments to us, she says, “The writers have to care and they have to be bold and experiment and band together to make the case.”

For his part, Samuel agrees with Friedman on the potential development of more digitally enabled products and interpretations. He says:

I think we may start seeing more unconventional formats, literature in spaces that are mostly unexplored. Digital publishing has more potential than just an animated page-turn on your iPhone. In other words, digital publishing is much more than just ebooks. As writers experiment more with apps and other platforms (Shelley Jackson’s Instagram story, “Snow,” made me grateful for all the snowstorms this winter), they encourage readers to accept new modes of media consumption. The way we read is changing, and writers will have more and more opportunities for expression.

Grub Street's The Muse and the Marketplace Conference, expected to draw more than 800 people in Boston, is set for Friday through Sunday (May 2-4).

Grub Street’s The Muse and the Marketplace Conference, expected to draw more than 800 people in Boston, is set for Friday through Sunday (May 2-4).

Samuel wisely, however, raises the financial flag as soon as he thinks about the kind of digital development he’s considering. The modes may change, but the practicalities of remuneration? — not so much. Samuel:

Authors still have to have to get paid, and you can’t cash-in your Instagram likes to pay the bills (at least not yet anyway). And teaching certainly isn’t paying what it used to, if you can even find a position. Certainly, some intrepid writers have found a way to self-publish with fantastic returns. But not all writers have the business acumen or interest in that side of the process. So unless we want all our writers to move to Iceland, where some novelists are salaried, we all need to start (or continue, or restart) paying our writers.

I’ll forward my address in Reykjavik.

Samuel will be bringing to the panel Friday the kind of serious, thoughtful reality check any good evaluation of the situation deserves:

I don’t like to join the doom-and-gloom crowd of publishing futurists, but I will say that if writers can’t survive then the future of literature looks bleak. If we want to know about the future of literature and publishing, let’s see where our writers are headed and support them on their way.


The Muse’s Town Hall features a large panel including Grub Street’s Eve Bridburg; Amazon’s Jon Fine; Kobo’s Christine Munroe; Tumblr’s Rachel Fershleiser; author Steve Almond; Scratch Magazine publisher Jane Friedman; literary agent April Eberhardt; Electric Lit’s Ben Samuel; Vook’s Matt Cavnar; and Bublish’s Kathy MeisPorter Anderson will moderate. Publishing Perspectives is Media Partner with Grub Street for the event.

Image – iStockphoto: aptrick

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's 2019 International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for trade and indie authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson also has worked as a senior producer, editor, and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA, and as an arts critic (National Critics Institute) with The Village Voice and Dallas Times Herald.