FROM THE START the thinking behind our zeens was to create a better literary product. We’ve done that by incorporating color and design into the inside pages, not just the covers. Big Four publishers– as well as some boutique outfits– do this to a minimal extent, usually for non-fiction offerings (on diet and fashion particularly). Seldom for novels or short story collections.
The idea no doubt in not doing it– besides inertia– is to keep the reader focused on the text. Our approach is to enhance the text by incorporating design into the narrative. Use of colors– pages or text– or changes of font, or font size, to emphasize conflict or emotion. Breaking all accepted publishing rules in so doing.
Being from Detroit, we’re influenced as much by car design– emphasis on sleekness and efficiency– as by standard graphic design.
In addition to innovative design, we also use different types of printing paper to enhance the visual effect of our zeens. The goal: to have words, colors, and art “pop” off the page. Effects which can never be achieved on an electronic screen.
Our first zeen, Extreme Zeen, released in April 2020 during the first surge of the pandemic, is fairly crude by the standards of those we’ve produced since, but does contain striking visuals, including a blown-up photo of a rose to illustrate a poem about same, and psychedelic centerpiece art, “Lucy in the Sky,” by our own Kathleen M. Crane.
Our latest, Extreme Zeen 2, goes further in utilizing design– not solely to enhance the individual stories and poems, but predominantly to project a consistent aesthetic theme throughout the issue. The overall impact is both apparent and subliminal.
Among our models are upstart record companies of the past like Motown and Subpop, but also the many new EV motor companies of now who are challenging the giants. We consider Extreme Zeen 2 a prototype pointing the way toward further innovation in creating the Ultimate Literary Publication.
Our zeens, especially Extreme Zeen 2, for best use require special handling to retain their unique characteristics which place them above every other literary journal on the planet.
-DON’T smear the cover or pages with grimy or greasy hands. For example, it’s not recommended to read EZ2 directly after a.) frying and eating hamburgers, or b.) working on a car or other machinery. (If your car is an electric vehicle using no gasoline or crankcase oil, an exception may be allowed.)
-DON’T place glasses of cold beer, soda, or other beverages upon your copy of Extreme Zeen 2.
-DON’T toss EZ2 willy-nilly across a room, or at someone.
-DO NOT use EZ2 to strike a person. Or even an animal. Animals have feelings also. Or to kill insects. (It is however allowable to strike an intruder entering through a window with EZ2, if the miscreant interrupts your reading pleasure.)
-KEEP your copy of EZ2 OUT of the bathroom. The toilet paper shortage is over.
-REMEMBER, Extreme Zeen 2 is not a generic book, and must not be treated like one. It is, rather, a rare collectible.
-BEST PRACTICE. Best policy of course is to purchase two copies of Extreme Zeen 2: one for reading and admiring, the other to retain in its sealed sleeve to be placed into a safety deposit box, or a vault.
-FINAL CAUTION. Be wary of loaning your copy of Extreme Zeen 2 to any other person. Not only may they not exercise proper care and handling of it, but you may never get the issue back!
On-line seller Amazon has a current market value of $1.59 trillion and climbing. It’s the largest e-commerce company in the world and no one else is close. At the beginning of 2020 Amazon had over 30,000 delivery trucks and has put in an order with electric vehicle manufacturer Rivian for 100,000 more. Amazon currently has 175 enormous fulfillment centers in operation– 150 million square feet of space. If present trends continue, these numbers will increase. Quickly.
A CURRENT-DAY OCTOPUS
The Octopus is a 1901 novel by Frank Norris describing a railroad monopoly which was ruthlessly putting anyone who stood in its way of expansion and growing profits out of business. Sound familiar? In the novel (based upon actual events) a group of ranchers– self-employed businessmen– are utterly destroyed by the unfeeling monolith.
The good news is that 1901 was a sort of peak for the railroad monsters. A fledgling technology created and pushed by upstart entrepreneurs soon enough displaced the older technology with a more flexible alternative: the automobile.
Which means that even Amazon can be competed with– but it will take new ideas. A variety of them. We’ve come up with some of our own.
HOW THE MONSTER OPERATES
Amazon achieved its monopoly status, beginning with books, based on two basic ideas.
1.) Offer more choices than anyone else– ultimately, to offer every book ever published.
2.) Offer the products at a lower price than anyone else. Lower than anyone could possibly match.
The result has been a boon for the compulsive reader, but damaging to publishers– and devastating to writers.
Because in these conditions it’s all but impossible for any new writer to stand out. For any single book to stand out.
At Barnes & Noble, the author was one out of 50,000. On Amazon, he’s one of millions.
Contrast this with a cultural entity at the beginning of its cycle. In the early days of hip-hop music in the late 70’s, how many prominent hip-hop recording artists were there? A handful?
Or take the rock n’ roll explosion in 1956. Again, fueled by a mere handful of stars who could create acceptable versions of the hybrid genre: Chuck Berry, Bill Haley, Little Richard, Elvis Presley– few others.
When the Beatles arrived in America in February 1964, they were the only British rock act in the vicinity, and stood out. Five years later, after every possible put-together group of mop-top Brits who could hold a guitar– in tune or not– had entered these shores, the value was not so much. It makes a huge difference if you’re one of one, or one of five– or one of 500,000.
In MFA programs across the U.S.A., students learn to craft fiction or poetry as well as– and indistinguishable from– that of ten thousand others. What, then, is the point?
THE GREAT LEVELLER
For books, Amazon has been like McDonald’s with hamburgers: The Great Leveller. Small-d democratic. Everyone can afford to eat hamburgers– and everyone now can afford to read any book. We’re all the same. In the process– with the commodification of the product– that product has been cheapened. Anyone now can read books but few are reading them. Books have lost their importance, their uniqueness, their value. They’re part of Amazon’s discount bin, rejects nobody wants.
DOING THE OPPOSITE
If Amazon’s strategy was to flood the market with books at rock-bottom prices, the antidote is to do the opposite, with a proviso.
Doing the opposite means offering a small number of authors, at a limited number of outlets. The proviso is the authors will need to have hyper-appealing personas– able to be “stars”– and the writing as well as the presentation will need to be notably different from anything else on offer. Attention-getting. The writing will need to be in a new style and genre, while the literary vehicles– books, if you will– will need to look like something other than a book. The literary upstart will need to offer–
THE SHOCK OF THE NEW
Which is why we put so much emphasis on innovation. Innovation of the art and the vehicle of the art.
A difficult task, with enormous potential payoff.
Our plan stands upon three basic ideas.
1.) Offer authentic artistic experience.
2.) Rebound away from the cheap.
3.) Make our products unique.
In his quest to corner the market on books, Jeff Bezos cheapened the contents of those volumes: literature. Instead of a valued expression of the highest sentiments and ideals of mankind, literature became a bargain basement commodity, sold at discounts or given away. A race to the bottom. Our mission is to restore value to the literary art. To accomplish that will mean revamping the art, the way it’s presented, packaged, and marketed. All will need to be opposite to Amazon’s glorified bargain-basement discount shop.
The printed analog products– which we call zeens– we’ve created so far, three in number, are templates for those to follow. In the three zeens we express a variety of artistic ideas, attempt numerous effects, some partially successful, others more so. What we’re learning with our artistic and literary experiments will pay dividends in the future– on the road toward creating truly amazing literary journals.
To see those experiments, click on ourPOP SHOP. You may choose to order one or more of them– then open them when they arrive and fully see what we’re about.
A NEW NOVEL has appeared from one of mainstream publishing’s best authors– TheQueen of Tuesday by Darin Strauss. Strauss is a traditional novelist who specializes in imaginative historical fiction about celebrities or curiosities from past eras. His newest book covers the rise and life of classic television personality Lucille Ball– with an intermittent relationship between Ms. Ball and Strauss’s grandfather(!)– part real and part imagined– mixed in.
How capable a writer is Darin Strauss? His last book, a memoir, won a National Book Critics Circle award. The Queen of Tuesday has received rave reviews from the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, Publishers Weekly, and many other outlets.
The Queen of Tuesday is about the creation of celebrity. Darin Strauss well captures the personality of the type. More, in the novel he’s tuned-in to celebrity culture, its glitz and hype– and by extension, to America itself. Celebrity is America.
An early scene–
THE BIRDS ABOVE Ocean Beach see the drum-shaped premiere lights slide glamour beams along the clouds. The birds see—with a clapped paper bag sound of wings passing—a giant steel-and-glass pavilion, all a-sparkle. The birds see Ziegfeld girls, restaurateurs, a late-arriving Broadway impresario exiting his pleasure sedan. That wind picks up, goosebumping eight hundred arms. The birds see pinups, radio luminaries, heartthrob clarinetists. They see the covetous attractive charmers who take root in the soil around celebrities. (These are the career fawners—the money-takers.) They see Bing Crosby in the flesh. And Ted Mack. And Mary Martin holding Vic Damone’s thick arm. They see clothes as a standard and elegant repression. They see the boardwalk as a splinter that pokes the beach in the eye.
1950’s glamour jumps from the page.
Lucille Ball’s career from failed Hollywood starlet to television phenom and production company owner is the quintessential American success story, more remarkable because Lucy did it in an era when women weren’t supposed to be in charge of a major company. When women were seldom seen at all in upper levels of the aggressively sexist three-martini corporate world of that era.
Strauss portrays the relentless hype of those times (with a Trump thrown in) and he captures the period’s Technicolor vibe.
It’s a fine novel. Darin Strauss is one of a cohort of hyper-competent authors deployed by publishing’s Big Five. Those who represent not mere temporary Sally Rooney trendiness, but the ability to produce well-crafted fiction seemingly at whim. Beautifully-crafted novels with gorgeous covers. Fit for display at the front of bookstores, so that publishers, editors, agents, the entire panoply of New York publishing can look at them and be well pleased with what they’re producing. Like a General Motors viewing an array of models at a dealership lot. No one could possibly produce a better literary product. No one could write a better book. On their own terms, these statements are completely true.
AND YET– ?
And yet– what’s wrong with this picture? If Darin Strauss isn’t the best contemporary American novelist, he’s near the top. His new novel is colorful and lively compared to those of his peers (from a Sally Rooney to a Jonathan Franzen). It displays every talent– yet, that Darin Strauss himself isn’t a celebrity, on a level which a Herman Wouk or Irwin Shaw reached in their day, says a lot not about Darin Strauss so much as the current literary system itself, and its place in society.
IN the 1950’s, the decade when Lucille Ball was achieving her fame, hyper-competent novelists like a Wouk or Shaw, a Gore Vidal or Norman Mailer or Ayn Rand or John Steinbeck (not to mention Hemingway) were themselves celebrities. Well-known public figures with large cultural footprints.
Today, for the greater American public, not even a Jonathan Franzen or Sally Rooney is a recognizable name– much less a face that would be recognized on the street.
One could write a book on what happened and be wrong in the analysis. But at some point it’s a failure of PR and marketing– has to be. Strauss’s publisher, Random House– the best out there– does everything by the book. It might be the same book from the 1950’s, and even if it’s not it’s time to change it.
(Though like General Motors with their internal combustion vehicles, the products all look wonderful on display, and run/read well, so why change anything?)
THE NEED FOR CHANGE
Another factor, in this commentator’s opinion, is the need in any business, art, or cultural activity for change. To offer something new. There hasn’t been anything new in the literary realm since the Beats– who came to prominence at the same time Lucille Ball dominated the TV airwaves.
The template for the novel currently in use might be the best possible. No one using it would dream of smashing it for something way more unpredictable, crude, and unwieldy. Yet like 19th century artists destroying the status quo template of the painting, such destruction might be the only way to offer a fresh artistic experience– a different way of viewing the world– than currently available.
BE READY! July 21st we introduce a new form of literary publication unlike anything seen. (Except our own Extreme Zeen.) Faster, sharper, sleeker– with lines, looks, and colors throughout intended to dazzle the eye. Meant to kick off a new era in art, presentation, and writing. Includes eight terrific writers who create in a variety of styles. Inspired by classic print zines but of higher aspirations and palpable quality. A fusion of the best of zine and literary journal, throwing out everything stale and unnecessary. We call this historic new creation–
-Be prepared to purchase your copy of ZEENITH at ourPOP SHOP beginning 9 a.m. TUESDAY.-
In so doing you will enter a new world of art and amazement.
THE BIG NEWS in the publishing world this week is the cancellation (in both meanings of the term) of Barnes & Noble’s “Diverse Editions” series– someone’s ill-advised marketing strategy for Black History Month, which consisted of putting black faces on the covers of classic novels like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Critics argue that instead of such superficial gestures, big-time publishers should be signing more authors of color– to celebrate actual literary diversity. (A recent Lee and Low survey indicates that 79% of those who work in the publishing and book review industries are white. The same survey states that 78% of those in the field are women, but no one seems too concerned about that!)
Yes, by all means the Big Five publishing world based in New York City needs more diversity. There’s one super-huge problem in obtaining it– the over-reliance by these publishers on staffers with an Ivy League pedigree. (With a smattering of Stanford grads and upper-class Brits thrown in.)
The universities publishers recruit from sit at the top level of the most hierarchical and regressive industry in America: higher education.
What, you say? How could this be possible?
Universities are designed to be exclusionary. That’s, er, their whole point– to create artificial monopolies in field after field, industry after industry. Most pronounced the higher the prestige– and endowment– of the particular institution. A guild mentality, where if you’re a Member of the Club you get all the benefits. If not, tough luck. Gotta have that certificate, folks. Credentialism. “Meritocracy”– where as we’ve seen with recent scandals, the wealthy and powerful have better access to obtain the benefits for their ostensible merits.
THIS IS MOST PRONOUNCED with Ivy League schools. Especially with Harvard and Yale. We recently went through a stretch where every U.S. President from 1988 up to 2016 was a graduate of either Harvard or Yale. Or both.
Is that what democracy looks like?
It might be that not until the “Big Five” lose their monopolistic position in the publishing world will true diversity arrive regarding the books that are published and promoted in America right now.
(Which is one reason we exist as a literary project.)
It frankly doesn’t matter if “The Yellow Wallpaper” is taught in high schools instead of The Great Gatsby (which is too deep and well-structured a book for high schoolers anyway). Raising the question is asking which texts students will be bored by.
THIS is a quote of mine in a review about a new book by Dana Schwartz about white male writers and the Western Canon. My own view has long been that to be a living art, that art needs to survive and thrive outside institutional settings. Categorizations such as the so-called literary canon say more about the mindset of the supporters and curators of such places than they do about the art form being preserved and celebrated. (One need look only at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with its curious list of omissions and entrants.)
IF I cared more about the literary canon, I’d mention several writers who should be in it, or ranked higher within it– beginning with the American novelists Frank Norris and James Gould Cozzens, masters at that particular art.
(p.s. For what it’s worth, F. Scott Fitzgerald‘s The Great Gatsby is a far superior, more complex work of fiction than “The Yellow Wallpaper,” a short story by Charlotte Perkins Stetson— one of those overwritten, obsessive inside-the-head tales of the kind often done by overrated canonical author HenryJames, and later popularized by Mary Roberts Rinehart, who no one is rushing to put into any canon. Outside that of mystery writers.)
The chart gives only part of the story. The real clout of these New York City-based conglomerates with their many imprints is their influence over Manhattan media– the scores of publications both print and internet, from the New York Times and The NewYorker on down, which determine which books– which voices– are allowed to be heard in this extremely noisy society.
Threat to democracy?
In some ways, the Big Five and their many appendages and fellow travelers are the biggest threat to democracy. The most pernicious, most influential concentration of power. All congregated on a single island.
(Matt Stoller, looking smug.)
Matt Stoller well knows of course how dominant, how influential they are. Which is why he chose to publish his book with them– and not with one of the many alternative publishers out there.