An early mentor of mine once said, "Focus on what YOU are doing, and don't worry about the rest of the world." What he was saying was: Look for good manuscripts and publish them. Everything proceeds from that.
He was mostly right, of course. But I don't think we can be good editors/publishers if we're not aware of what's out there, what's selling, what isn't, and so forth. Many of us take this too far: When acquiring books, we're so fixated on what's selling NOW - how do we find the next Harry Potter? the next Hunger Games? - that we are dismissive of new, interesting, different works. At least, that's how it had become when I left corporate publishing a while ago; and the situation hasn't improved over the last decade.
This is where independent publishers come in. Like everyone else who toils in this business, I walk a line between worrying about our future and thinking, "Of course we have a strong future: WE are what publishing is all about. WE don't have to go in front of editorial boards and get a dozen people to sign off on our multi-million-dollar acquisitions. WE are part of a rich intellectual history."
So I am always delighted when I am reminded that other publishers (besides myself!) are doing brave publishing. I was made aware of Diana Wagman's The Care and Feeding of Exotic Pets several months ago, prior to publication, by a Library Journal piece. And I should say right here (and I hope the good people at LJ are reading this) that LJ is a wonderful advocate for independent publishers. They read and review the books of independent publishers, in furtherance of their mission to bring information about great books to libraries. I'd not heard of Wagman's publisher, Ig, which is an independent house based in Brooklyn, New York. After reading Care and Feeding, however, I'm adding Ig to my list of publishers whose personnel I'd love to meet.
Care and Feeding is the type of the book that would have received instantaneous rejection from agents and the big houses. Why? I think it might be classified in a category that scares the bejesus out of most publishers: strange. Plot in a nutshell: Deeply disturbed carpet salesman, who grew up in a traveling circus, keeps a 7-foot, 180-pound iguana named Cookie in his house, falls in love via the Internet with a lying girl (shades of Manti T'eo, here), and decides to kidnap her mother to teach her a lesson. As the plot unfolds, Diana Wagman explores the inner lives of the cast, deconstructs Los Angeles, and offers a heroine who isn't willing to just sit back and be kidnapped without fighting back. In that way, this is a feminist book. And it is certainly nice to see a female character who isn't about to let herself get killed without exploiting every chance she gets to escape.
Is it mainstream? No. Is it predictable, with a foregone conclusion that is telegraphed from the first chapter? No. Is it brave, interesting, different, provocative, clever? Yes. And I believe that there are plenty of readers out there who don't want pablum, who like a challenge... The Care and Feeding of Exotic Pets is for these brave souls, who don't need Hollywood-style action, who appreciate good writing, who like like to be shaken up instead of reading formula. And, as is the case with many off-the-beaten-path books, I suspect that half the people who decide to read it as a result of seeing this post will like or love it, while the other half will want my head on a platter. To me, that is the very essence of good publishing.
Of course, I'm a critic as much as I am a publisher, so I cannot argue that the book is perfect. The biggest problem for me was structural. For much of the book, Wagman is careful with her structure: one chapter, one person's point of view, with POV changing from chapter to chapter as the author explores the different characters. But things get muddy in the second half of the book, with POV shifting within chapters, which makes for a disconcerting read. There's also a tendency to interpolate events from the past that derail the action of the present, but I can live with that.
Ig's done a nice job with the book, from acquisitions through publishing and marketing. They managed to get a New York Times review (perhaps by offering sacrifices at Stonehenge, or tapping deep into that arcane network of connections that lead to NYT reviews and wedding announcements) and have been in the right places at the right times. My one complaint is that the typesetting is a little sloppy, here and there. This is a problem throughout the industry; I'm seeing typos everywhere these days, and the size of the house doesn't matter. I'm a traditionalist when it comes to typesetting, though, and I believe we independents need to be absolutely uncompromising in our standards for setting type and publishing a printed book. There's the old saying that a woman has to be twice as accomplished as a man to be perceived as half as good; I think independent publishers have to create printed works of quality that exceeds that of our corporate cousins. It's the only way we'll get people to take us seriously.
Read the first chapter on Amazon and see if it's the right book for you. Keep in mind, though, that the first couple of chapters don't quite exhibit the strength of the overall writing, which is overall very strong but takes a few chapters to kick into gear.