Keepers of the Word
O Marvel, that one can give to another what one does not possess. O Miracle of our empty hands.
–George Bernanos, Diary of a Country Priest
The integrity of book publishing in the past half-century often relied on the outsized personalities at the helms of the independent houses. The very diminutiveness of their operations helped empower these small businessmen and -women to place the imagination first and shape their companies around literature, social issues and ideas. The “profit incentive” among them had more to do with survival and pleasure than money-making. When they survived and–more rarely–made money, it was with a sense of surprise, even embarrassment, which endeared them to their authors, since it was clearly not what they were in business for. They were talent magnets, because the publishing life is colorful and the work meaningful. Perhaps most important, the best among them sought out and encouraged the humanity and intelligence in those around them–writers, editors, salespeople. That humanism is a rare quality but a necessary one for publishers.
One thinks of George Braziller, publisher of Australian novelist Janet Frame and Matisse’s cutouts, and hundreds of other important books; Barney Rosset, formerly of Grove, successful defendant of free speech in court cases involving Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Tropic of Cancer, publisher and friend of Samuel Beckett and Kenzaburo Oe; Stanley Moss, poet and owner of the Sheep Meadow Press, where he publishes Stanley Kunitz, Yehuda Amichai, David Ignatow and many others; Marion Boyars, the eponymous British publisher (who died this year) of Julian Green, Ivan Illich, Ken Kesey and other lights; Glenn Thompson of Writers and Readers, publisher of the “For Beginners” series, which recasts the most difficult subjects into documentary comic books; Florence Howe of the Feminist Press, with its signature anthologies and reprints of womanist classics like The Yellow Wallpaper; and André Schiffrin of Pantheon, and now the New Press, publisher of Studs Terkel, Matt Groening and Art Spiegelman’s Maus; to name just a few–soldiers from the publishing wars, and innovators all.
There was James Laughlin, publisher of New Directions, where Delmore Schwartz, Ezra Pound and H.D., not to mention extraordinary translations by Louise Varèse and others of Baudelaire and Rimbaud, found shelter; Nicolás Kanellos of Arté Publico in the Southwest, publisher of a whole generation of Latino authors whose voices might otherwise not have been heard; John Martin of Black Sparrow, who managed a stationery store when he came across Charles Bukowski in the early 1960s and decided he would publish him, since Bukowski “didn’t hide behind metaphor” and he could print the books on the store’s offset press; of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, poet and publisher, at City Lights, of Ginsberg’s Howl and other masterpieces.
On the shelves we find works from Curbstone, the Permanent Press, Coffee House, Copper Canyon, Graywolf, Walker, Soho, Steerforth, my own Seven Stories, Verso, Overlook, Arcade, Seal, Sun and Moon; there are probably dozens of worthy, committed houses you could name. And even this would be a sampling; the entire list would be not endless, but surprisingly long, suggesting that these smaller houses are a kind of grassroots force, without which America might have suffocated in the dust of the long march of the fifty-five years since the end of the Second World War.
Lives spent in book publishing don’t tend to turn out men and women of perfect virtue. Years fighting on the battlefield between art and commerce make for wily, poker-faced, hard-boiled characters. If those I name above are to me worthy heroes nonetheless, it may be because, almost like dancers whose every performance is life and death, they are people for whom each book is utterly important, for whom words are paramount, who are creations, as much as creators, of their lives as publishers–and who became better human beings for having spent their adult lives reading and fighting for shelf space for the books they published. In the end, they are seekers following a light. “We’re fools,” Thompson says, “or we wouldn’t be doing what we do.” But what human being battling for something isn’t part fool?
Then there is the other side of the book publishing business, the corporate sector, mostly based in midtown Manhattan, which accounts for the overwhelming majority of the vast number of books–over 120,000 titles–published each year in the United States. And it is here that the pace of change is like a runaway train, not only with merger upon merger but with a not-so-gradual shift from editorial (with complementary sales-centered) philosophies to financial-growth and marketing-centered ones. At times in recent decades the struggle between the editorial-minded and the fiscal-minded has seemed like trench warfare.
In the period just past, the battle reached, one hopes, its bloodiest point. One after another, following an accelerating consolidation of publishing houses into fewer than a handful of conglomerate entities, wonderful imprints closed or were blended into the corporate edifice in ways that left their unique character forever lost (Dial, Schocken, Atheneum, the Free Press, Owl, Morrow…). Hundreds of independent bookstores across the country failed as well (in Manhattan alone, this included Endicott, Books & Co., Spring Street Books, Verso Bookstore, Eighth Street Books, Paperback Booksmith’s, Brentano’s). Repackaged actors-turned-authors (who rarely wrote their own books) were emblematic of the historical moment, with first printings of their “works” sometimes approaching a million copies, while those of Nobel Prize-winners or future Nobel Prize-winners could be published nearly invisibly. Esteemed and gifted editors (Elisabeth Sifton, David Stanford, Tom Engelhardt, Allen Peacock,Mark Chimsky, Mary Cunnane, to name just a few) were pushed out by the “new thinking” or simply walked away in disgust.
The air in the corridors of corporate publishing houses developed a pall, slightly stagnant, that was not just people’s fear of losing their jobs but also a fear of new ideas and new kinds of voices. And while the editors named above would find work as writers, contributing editors and freelancers, and while a good number of great independent bookstores survived (Three Lives, Shakespeare & Co., Coliseum, St. Mark’s, among the Manhattan establishments) and new ones were born (Labyrinth), the axis of power in book publishing nonetheless shifted toward devotees of a pure business model that has never been shown to apply to books, causing a new and now fundamental instability that has not been good for readers or writers.
And what will be the effect in years to come of Bertelsmann’s ownership of Random House and Doubleday? Or of the just-announced acquisition of Harcourt Brace by Reed Elsevier? Are Holt, Farrar, Straus & Giroux and St. Martin’s marginally better off for being among the eighty or so companies owned by Verlagsgruppe Georg von Holtzbrinck, a massive publishing conglomerate, rather than by an entertainment or information empire? Perhaps. But to think that Norton, the smaller Grove/Atlantic and the up-and-coming, larger, Perseus Group may be the only remaining American independent houses with critical mass is disturbing. Is the American future to be that we are in effect recolonized, an increasingly important market for culture but less and less creators of culture?
In the middle of this stew, one of our worthy heroes has brought us a book that demands we acknowledge what has happened: reduced to crude basics, that a world built upon respect for the written word has been replaced by one dominated by a bottom-line sensibility (which may be an oxymoron, but I prefer it to the even less descriptive bottom-line “reality”). André Schiffrin asks, Has the torch that is our literature and our collective intellectual output been taken out of our hands?
That the publishing profession is under siege has of course been the stuff of panels and lunches and some newspaper reporting; but not, ironically, of books. So the appearance of the pioneering independent publisher Schiffrin’s The Business of Books is newsworthy and important, to be followed close on its heels by a similarly titled work (Book Business) due out in January by Random House editor Jason Epstein (still working, and still working there), a volume expanded from an initial essay last April in The New York Review of Books and a more recent follow-up in those same pages.
America can be an extremely hostile environment for serious cultural endeavor. There seems an overriding confusion and ignorance regarding the tremendous significance of our First Amendment freedoms, the necessity of literature to national life (except perhaps as entertainment) and why we should care in the first place. Fame and fortune we understand, but literature? The funny thing is, hostile environment or not, it has also been a splendidly rich environment for culture producers in all the arts, especially in literature. Is that now changing?
One result of our cultural myopia–it borders on blindness–is that instead of operating with an implicit national consensus about the importance of literature, say, or even the role of investigative reporting in protecting our civic rights, the independent press community often stands as the sole advocate of those causes. As the pervasiveness of corporate culture grows daily, being a good publisher, in either an independent or a conglomerate setting, means learning how to survive while at the same time resisting, even defying, standard business-model values.
The apparent naïveté of the corporate sector when faced with our First Amendment responsibilities has been striking. Large publishing houses have sometimes been quick to call on their corporate prerogative, saying, in effect, We’re just a business. They can try it, but we should not let them get away with it so glibly. Remember how lightly HarperCollins let go of former Governor of Hong Kong Chris Patten’s book because, up the corporate ladder, Rupert Murdoch wanted to protect his satellite TV deal with China; or when Penguin/Putnam declined to publish Carol Felsenthal’s S.I. Newhouse biography; or how St. Martin’s turned against its author (the imprint’s editor resigned in the controversy) when it canceled its biography of George W.
The last two titles were picked up by independent houses, Seven Stories and Soft Skull. But the actual cancellation of publishable, contracted manuscripts for reasons of corporate comfort suggests that executives often fail to acknowledge any responsibilities to the Word beyond packaging it and selling it for profit.
Smart people are doing good and important work within corporate structures–this too must be said. But the challenges facing those individuals are imposing when they work for parent companies that may be primarily concerned with other types of businesses, be it music (Bertelsmann), television and movies (TimeWarner and Viacom) or textbooks and professional publishing (Pearson and Reed Elsevier), and may be beholden to shareholder concerns over and above other considerations. Independent publishers represent as little as 5 percent of overall book sales in this country, but we are responsible for a disproportionately large share of our country’s cultural life, First Amendment responsibilities and writers’ hopes.
What the writer’s role is in society, and what constitutes good writing, are two underlying questions that hang in the balance. Today, the notions of writer as voice of conscience, writer as critic, writer as visionary are understood to be part of the covenant between author and reader. But it is not hard to imagine a future in which the balance is tipped differently, and writers are routinely seen more as prettifiers and apologists for the status quo. A trend in that direction is implicit in the whole idea of the celebrity author, as books depend more on television tie-ins or exposure to sell them.
Well into Schiffrin’s eloquent and anguished account of the book biz, you’ll read about a recent meeting of the Freedom to Read Committee of the American Association of Publishers. Addressing the group were a number of top attorneys in the publishing field. Juries are starting to be less sympathetic to publishers than they once were, the attorneys advised: Judgments against publishers are on the rise, and it needs to be made more apparent that publishers are defenders of the First Amendment. About forty book-publishing executives were present, representing, according to Schiffrin, most of the major New York houses. When the attorneys asked, “Can we assure jurors in the future that if an important book comes along you will publish it?” Schiffrin writes, “Not a hand was raised. No one seemed aware of the irony that the publishing industry’s own anti-censorship committee was itself part of the new market censorship.”
It is just such obeisance to market values, Schiffrin suggests convincingly, that has led corporate owners to strip down publishing imprints on the grounds that they weren’t profitable enough, only to replace them with bland and bloodless versions that are no more able to generate the desired profits than were their predecessors. In the late 1990s, HarperCollins folded Basic Books, its serious nonfiction imprint, into its trade division, although Basic had never lost money. Later, HarperCollins made news headlines when it canceled more than a hundred contracts in an attempt to stem the flow of red ink. Apparently, Basic had not been the big problem! Likewise, Simon & Schuster eviscerated its serious nonfiction imprint, the Free Press, keeping its name alive but skewing it toward finance-related titles. Today, S&S is rumored to be on the block. The Free Press may not have been its biggest problem either, though it was the one that management chose to fix.
Most movingly, Schiffrin describes–for the first time, I believe, and in intricate detail–some of what went on at his own former imprint, Pantheon, when its overseers at Random House decided it was too left-leaning, too independent, oh and yes, not profitable enough. In the end Schiffrin and his staff had to choose between overseeing what they saw as the house’s destruction or leaving, which practically all of them did. Was Pantheon a cash cow after Schiffrin and his colleagues were gotten rid of? Hardly. It became and still is a shell of its former self, doing some good books, some less good, but beyond that just another name in the galaxy of names under what is now a German-owned multimedia conglomerate.
Writing about the purchase of Random House (America’s premier book-publishing venture) by Bertelsmann two years ago, Schiffrin reminds us how, just one year earlier, Random had written off $80 million in unearned advances, which he interprets as proof that “the policy of risking more and more money on [large advances for] books had been an enormous failure.” And how, when the New York Times reported Random’s profit margin of 0.1 percent, the figure was so low that many thought it a typographical error. And further, that soon after the takeover, Bertelsmann “issued a press release saying they expected Random House to make a 15% profit in the next few years. That [would have] meant a change in profit from $1 million to $150 million (on their annual sales of a billion or so).” Schiffrin sees that as a laughably implausible goal. (Historically, return in book publishing runs around 5 percent.)
What is the alternative? I believe the best among us expect to lose money on at least some of the books we publish. This allows other sets of values to cohabit with more commercial ones, as would be true also at magazines like The Nation and Harper’s. At Seven Stories, for example, we look to have profit on one-third of the list to cover losses on the other two-thirds. If, at the large corporate houses, the expectation is for virtually every title to turn a profit, then their “bottom-line sensibility” is indeed a threat to any literary aspirations they may have, since I believe that literature simply requires a longer look.
Missing from the merger fever of recent years has been the sense of a publishing mission to go with the obvious corporate one (it’s cheaper to buy a backlist than to build one). One notable exception to this may be the Perseus Group, which appears to have a purposeful plan in place to buy serious nonfiction imprints in order to restore them to the project of publishing serious nonfiction. Fancy that.
Jason Epstein suggests that it may well come to pass that the newest wave of corporate owners will lose interest in book publishing just as previous ones did, once they learn that it “is not a conventional business…[but] more closely resembles… an amateur sport in which the primary goal is the activity itself, not its financial outcome.” (Lest the reader come away with the impression that Epstein is just a snob, he also says this: “Guerrilla armies live amid the people who sustain them and for whom they fight. So do book publishers.”)
Both Schiffrin and Epstein seem to believe that the publishing behemoths that have emerged are fundamentally unsound creations. Schiffrin takes it a step further in suggesting that structural instability has enormous social implications: “We cannot speak of open competition or a free market in American publishing today. We are faced with a classic situation of oligopoly, approaching monopoly.” Others, like Soho publisher Juris Jurjevics, believe that Bertelsmann has built “a juggernaut” whose very size will sustain it. Whether or not the financial-return-led model is workable, I’m troubled by what appears to happen to authentic voices in the corporate environment, be they authors or editors or managers: Too often they seem to lose their way as it becomes clear that their employers don’t necessarily place a high value on what they have to offer.
Schiffrin’s indictment is impassioned and filled with righteous, if quiet, indignation. He has gone to the trouble of studying the catalogues of the major houses for the past forty years, finding that in the sixties and seventies there was still an unspoken understanding that books deemed important were to be published regardless of their commercial prospects. Publishers recognized, in other words, that theirs was a balancing act with cultural and political, not just financial, imperatives. Did such a Golden Age really exist? Yes, certainly, although many would point out that it was also characterized by an asphyxiating elitism–that it created little space for African-American titles, say, or Latino or overtly gay and lesbian works.
Here’s how financial pressures can distort the publishing process at the large houses: Minimum projected sales thresholds frequently prevent editors from signing up the “little” books that would include many of the most important books ever published. At some of the larger paperback imprints, that threshold number is 20,000 copies; few serious new works will generate that level of sales. So a misbegotten rule holds sway: Serious works need not apply. But the less serious books that are acquired in their place don’t necessarily meet the 20,000-copy quota with numbing regularity either. Dumbing down can work, but it tends to be a very short-term approach; in the long term it actually destroys the two most valuable assets of any publishing house, the intellectual curiosity and commitment of the people working there and the good will of writers and readers for whom you’re producing books.
Not just across the country but around the world, colorful personalities at the established corporate houses have left or been replaced by management professionals better equipped to head divisions within huge entertainment conglomerates. In Europe they call this “centralization.” Last year at this time, at the Frankfurt Book Fair, I met with a legendary German head of a wonderful publishing house. “I’ll be here until January,” he said. And indeed, his house is now an imprint of a larger corporate entity, still with his name on it, in unintended mockery.
Far from feeding on crumbs that fall from the tables of the larger houses, we at the independent houses find ourselves approaching the whole process of publishing differently from the way they do. University presses do as well, though often they operate with a specific institutional mandate to publish regional titles or to focus on specific academic areas. And publishers of conscience such as Beacon, South End and Common Courage represent in some ways the most impressive alternative model when it comes to nonfiction.
The decision-making process at independent houses involves the author and the book more closely; the promotion curve is usually a much longer one than at the larger houses; and books tend to grow and change more during their development time, as a manuscript is read by several people, the author is introduced into our community and a conversation ensues. And there are often more people in decision-making positions, creating a genuine community of voices in-house, generating and putting into effect fresh ideas. Perhaps most important, authors influence us and can be influenced by us, as would be true in any relationship.
In the corporate publishing sector, with the big houses now so much bigger than ever, editors are expected to produce three or four times the sales volume and number of new titles as in the past. It is not unusual for a book to have four editors at a large house, not all of whom may have actually read the book, as people leave or are reshuffled. The differences between the corporate houses and the independent publishing community have never been this stark.
Two recent exceptions to that rule are Metropolitan Books (at Holt) and Riverhead (at Penguin), where an independent-press model is nested inside a corporate parent. In each case the imprint’s first-generation leadership, Michael Naumann (who left to become Germany’s Minister of Culture) at Metropolitan and Susan Petersen at Riverhead, passed on the reins to editorial-minded successors, Sara Bershtel at Metropolitan and Julie Grau and Cindy Spiegel at Riverhead. The number of titles the editors take on is far smaller than elsewhere, a most promising sign (since volume of “product” is probably our greatest nemesis in the fight for quality publishing), and editors seem to stay put.
Oprah’s Book Club has been hugely positive in this environment, too–and not just because she sells hundreds of thousands of copies of any title selected. Winfrey is a smart reader with a profound respect for literature. She understands that books exist to challenge and teach, provoke and disturb, and consistently chooses works that live up to that.
Companies such as Schiffrin’s publisher, Verso, and its compatriots are able to be far more competitive now than in the past. In the eight years since founding the New Press, Schiffrin has created a list at his not-for-profit house that ranges from bestsellers to publishing for teachers in the schools; his house is recognized throughout Europe as an important US repository for culture and one that has been a pioneer in bringing minorities into publishing.
Publishing important books well requires enormous energy and commitment and a long attention span; large corporations, with their bulky overheads and profit pressures, deliver those commodities only through special exertions. So, increasingly, books of great import are falling to the independent houses to do. We’re helped by the Internet, by excellent independent distribution, by the large companies’ common failure to read around, and by the serious interest of book-review editors, reviewers, college professors and the bookselling community (both independent and chain stores), who recognize the significance of what we do.
The electronic book may change publishing forever, though, and soon, with e-books that are not just convenient but beautiful to look at and enjoyable to read. A few months ago, I met a novelist whose last book had been brought out by a good independent house, but her new novel is being released by a British e-publisher, Online Originals, which she tells me reviews hundreds of manuscripts for every one it accepts, and which really edits their books, too. Perhaps this time she simply couldn’t find the right traditional publishing house; but the time may come when the choice to go with an online publisher instead of a traditional one mirrors what is now the writer’s decision to go with an independent rather than a corporate house.
But here again, knowledgeable insiders disagree, with a good number already likening e-books to 8-track tapes–a momentary blip that may not be sustained. I find it hard to imagine a future in which electronic transmission isn’t a fundamental and transformative factor in how we read, and hence how we publish. This sort of repositioning has not occurred in many lifetimes, perhaps not since Gutenberg, as Epstein suggested in his New York Review articles.
Will the nature of storytelling itself change? And if so, will it be technology that will have made whatever transformation occurs possible? Some, including the novelist Stephen King, are entering the new areas in a spirit of wonderment and openness, motivated by curiosity as much as anything, not to find quick answers but just to travel along the road wherever it leads. (Success and failure–he’s had a lot of both–seem secondary to the main project of being at the forefront of change; King calls his efforts “goofin’.”) As ever, the technocrats and financiers will follow people of imagination, not vice versa.
Will the new technologies also provide opportunities to undo some retrograde publishing tendencies? Can we imagine a future in which copyright law is as concerned with rights of speech as it is of ownership of speech? Or where authorship is about the freedom and responsibility to write as much as it is about the privilege to write?
On the retail side, the stock of the brick-and-mortar giants Barnes and Noble and Borders has wilted over the past few years, and the rate at which Barnes and Noble opens new stores has slowed from 1997 levels. This means that growth now has to come from actual robust sales, in a retail environment where Internet retailers like Amazon.com are appealing to many book buyers–the independent-bookseller version, BookSense, will soon open and stands to appeal to many more. The stubbornness of the book trade to resist standard business practices must be maddening to the largest corporate owners. A mood of mutual antagonism can sometimes surface among the retailers, distributors and wholesalers, and publishers–each trying to find its elusive profit at the expense of the others. At the same time, the retail sector overall may be learning new respect for more traditional bookselling approaches. Recently, both the major chains and Internet retailers eliminated their heavy discounting policies. This is a positive development, since it levels the playing field for small independent booksellers and may encourage publishers to maintain somewhat lower pricing on their titles to begin with.
Schiffrin’s book and Epstein’s pronouncements share a certain tone of voice, patrician and authoritative. But there are no authorities right now. And these two, if asked, might be among the first to confess, in Socratic fashion, their ignorance in the face of what is happening. Is the sorry state of affairs they describe already behind us? It may be. Certainly, the future for publishing has never been so filled with possibilities and opportunities as now.
I once bumped into George Braziller near Union Square in Manhattan. He asked me, excitedly, if I had read that morning’s paper. There was some good writing in it that had gotten him started at around 8 am. Six hours later he was still going on about it, and able to get me going. I went back and reread the piece he mentioned, and he was right, there was something marvelous there. George was being a publisher–seeing, perhaps before anyone else, that someone is thinking, feeling, saying something important. And then he looked to find a way to make sure others found out about it. Shareholder value notwithstanding. Electronic whatzit notwithstanding, too.
At the other extreme, my friend Glenn Thompson spoke to me not long ago about fearing for his “publishing soul” in the current climate. Without bespectacled outlaws like Schiffrin, Braziller and Thompson, there is the real risk that the publishing process will operate only too smoothly. As Schiffrin writes, “If the domain of ideas is surrendered to those who want to make the most money, then the debate that is so essential for a functioning democracy will not take place.”
I believe it was with this danger in mind that Schiffrin wrote The Business of Books–with some bitterness, out of deep concern, with robust faith in his own restorative powers and that of the kinds of books he knows best, and a need to tell what he knows. The book is smart, thoughtful and well presented. News told truthfully and with loving care always brings some hope.