Bullseye! Corporate Funding for Books

Corporate funding for the arts is ubiquitous. Go to the opera or symphony in any U.S. city, and -- no matter how crummy the performance -- you'll find lots of proud corporate donors acknowledged in the program or announcements. Ditto for museum shows, edgy theatrical troupes, modern dance, ballet and public television. Good or bad, the bucks roll in.

But not literature. Why not? Don't captains of industry crack books?

I've been stewing over this ever since I opened Norwegian author Per Petterson's newly published novel, "To Siberia," which Ron Charles reviewed with, shall we say, limited enthusiasm in last Sunday's Book World, and I hit a bullseye.

Not just any bullseye. The Target corporate logo is prominently displayed on the novel's copyright page. With it is the kind of acknowledgement I'm more used to hearing on PBS ("Publication of this volume is made possible in part by .....") followed by a long list of donors, including (among others) the Minnesota State Arts Board, the Wells Fargo Foundation Minnesota, the National Endowment for the Arts, and Target.

I called up the publisher, Graywolf Press, a non-profit organization in St. Paul, Minn. Development director Melanie Figg told me that Graywolf publishes about 26 volumes a year of poetry, fiction and creative non-fiction, and they're all supported by philanthropy. "Our annual budget is $1.5 million, and about half of that is contributed revenue from individuals, government and private foundations," she said.

Figg said Graywolf is fortunate to be based in St. Paul, headquarters to about 20 major corporations, including Target, which has become a major promoter of literacy projects and a big supporter of the National Book Festival here in Washington. She said Target is one of several companies that contribute from $5,000 to $50,000 a year to the non-profit publisher.

But she also said corporate funding is still pretty hard to come by.

"Lots of places fund the arts but there aren't that many that fund publishing or literature. Why I don't really know," Figg said. "That's what I ask every time I get a rejection letter."

Of course, Graywolf is not the only small, non-profit publishing house that relies on public funding and private donations. Copper Canyon Press in Port Townsend, Wa., also gets some contributions from local companies, though not from any large, national corporations, according to publicist Denise Banker.

If you "fund arts like a ballet or visual arts or music, that's instantaneous -- you are being broadcast to an immediate audience," Banker said. "When you're funding a book, that's an imaginary audience. You have to hope that the book will sell and that people will read the acknowledgement. I think marketing departments are interested in a guaranteed audience."

Is that it? Maybe. Are corporations too chicken to support the publication of good books, which almost by definition are going to provoke strong emotions and annoy some people, and may or may not find a large audience?

And what if that changed? What if corporations DID start supporting authors and publishers, in return for (initially discreet) advertising, of course? Is it a slippery slope from the Target logo on a small Norwegian novel to trade publishing houses printing ads inside blockbuster fiction, or even to popular authors selling "product placements" in their stories?

Have you seen cases in which you suspect that it's already happening?
Maybe we should let well enough alone.

By Alan Cooperman |  October 3, 2008; 11:24 AM ET Alan Cooperman
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