Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like

Koch is it

dollar sign
I don’t know why I’m so aggravated by this, but the daughter of one of the Koch brothers — human avatars for the word plutocrat — has founded a publishing outlet that will focus on literary fiction. She’ll have an enormous budget to work with (high six figures, it’s said) and will publish about twelve books a year.

On the face of it, this should be a good thing. Even a great thing. But it does reek of a vanity project, I’m afraid, in that a wealthy person has decided that she wants to bestow upon the world every year twelve scrumptious titles that we all simply must put on our to-read lists because simply everyone will be reading them because, why, she’s Elizabeth Koch and she has impeccable literary taste.

At least that’s the caricature version.

I’m probably being unfair casting the enterprise in that light, since I have no reason to think that a publisher who studied with George Saunders at Syracuse and whose first project from the new house is a collection of stories by the more-than-bona fide Padgett Powell is anything but earnest and erudite. There’s a strong chance that the hearty budget will give this outfit the flexibility to put out truly innovative and otherwise unpublishable books that deserve a readership. Traditional houses are infamously pussified these days. More Hunger Games, please. We’re hungry. More shades of grey, because fifty ain’t enough.

A lone voice in the darkness crying, “Try some of this excellent stuff, won’t you?” can only be a good thing, right?

And yet I have a sneaking suspicion that all is not what it seems. I wonder what the selection process will be like, who will have the best access to Elizabeth’s ear, how the twelve books will be culled from the agented pool of submissions, which agents will stand the best chance of landing a deal, what kind of overall message will be conveyed by the published works, and, most of all, what kind of difference will the house make in that largely decadent industry?

In other eras, rich folk commissioned works of art. Popes hired Michelangelo. Emperors booked Mozart and Haydn. It was called patronage, and I have a feeling it’s still going on today and that Catapult is something of a patronage scheme dressed up as a business enterprise. Hell, if Oracle and Microsoft can hire Bruce Springsteen to come and sing at their employee picnics (yes, I’m making this up, but you know what I mean), then why shouldn’t the well-heeled print their favorite writers’ books to sell at Barnes & Noble and Amazon? Maybe it’s even a throwback to the golden age of book publishing, when small, privately held houses, put out great books with little concern for profit margin.

Elizabeth Koch claims to be apolitical. And I’m not at all saying that her father and uncle will have anything to do with her editorial decisions. Only that she comes from a certain world, and that world has absolutely nothing in common with the world of 99.9% of readers. It’s hard to believe this project can succeed, but it’s not that hard to imagine Koch carrying on anyway, at a loss, if only to make her mark on American letters and to have a seat at the table where a select group of moneyed hoity-toities get to decide what we read.

12 comments on “Koch is it

  1. kingmidget
    September 22, 2015

    Hmmm… I, too, would be suspicious of any Koch-led endeavor, but if taken at face value, it seems OK. Anything to open the doors for more literary fiction and break the stranglehold of the big publishers??? Maybe.

    • Kevin Brennan
      September 22, 2015

      I do hate to be cynical, but maybe it’s benefit of the doubt time. On the other hand, Koch’s company will probably get swallowed up by one of the Big 5 eventually, and she’ll cash in.

  2. sknicholls
    September 22, 2015

    I certainly would not want to be judged on the merits of my family. It only reeks of vanity because of her name and the fact that she has money to back up her project. How does any publishing house get started? I’m grateful that she demonstrates an interest in promoting anything literary, rather than instigating some stupid gag-worthy reality show.

    • Kevin Brennan
      September 22, 2015

      I guess there are goods and bads about being born into a rich family. Boo hoo!

  3. 1WriteWay
    September 22, 2015

    Dear, dear Kevin. Surely not all of the Kochs are evil. Perhaps this is Elizabeth’s effort to make amends (in a small way, of course) for the havoc wreaked by her relations. Goodness, I recently heard that one of W’s daughters is actually working on behalf of global public health (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/26/opinion/sunday/nicholas-kristof-a-millennial-named-bush.html).

    We’ll only know by the titles that turn out. If she’s limiting to 12 books a year, maybe that’s because she (and her staff) will be selective. The sad thing is, no matter her own intentions, her name and $$ will attract a lot of the wrong people. We can only hope she will be as discriminating of them as she proposes to be of the titles she’ll publish.

    (I wonder what she thinks of The Goldfinch. If it’s a title she wishes she had published, then all bets are off!)

    • Kevin Brennan
      September 22, 2015

      I think the irony here is that Elizabeth doesn’t seem to be evil at all. She seems entirely earnest and dedicated. But seriously, what good are 12 little books a year in an ocean of junk? And what chance does an unknown literary writer have landing a deal with her?

      BTW, have you finished The Goldfinch yet? Sounds like it’s gotten under your skin!

      • 1WriteWay
        September 23, 2015

        I just have a couple of more hours to go with The Goldfinch … I’ll break out the champagne when I’m done 😉

  4. John W. Howell
    September 22, 2015

    Heck. I wish my family hadn’t blown our fortune on the Edsel dealerships. I would have loved to start a publishing company. (You would have been in the stable). I think she’ll do well.

    • Kevin Brennan
      September 22, 2015

      I’d have been honored to be in the House of Howell! Then again, I wouldn’t mind owning an Edsel, just as a conversation piece…

  5. Exile on Pain Street
    September 23, 2015

    I’ll bet you’d soften your stance if they wrote a fat check with your name on it and said, “WRITE!” You’re the suspicious type. Perfect for the urban environment you (we) prowl. I mean, someone has to call bullshit. Why not you?

    • Kevin Brennan
      September 23, 2015

      I’m probably more paranoid than suspicious.

      They say money talks and bullshit walks, but it seems like the two go hand-in-in-hand these days. They’re an item!

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This entry was posted on September 22, 2015 by in Publishing.
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