The publishing world sells its soul

November 25, 1997|By Marlene Nadle

BIG MONEY is causing almost as much harm in publishing as it is in politics.

In both cases, those being hurt are the readers and writers whose interests are being ignored by the eight media conglomerates that control trade publishing. These giants value books primarily for what they add to the bottom line; they expect profits of 10 or 12 percent. Thus, they publish increasing numbers of celebrity and lowest-common-denominator books that can earn at least that much money. This results in a decreasing emphasis on quality fiction and non-fiction that could help people make sense of the confusing post-Cold War world.

Profits above all

Readers rarely encounter among the conglomerates books like "The Lonely Crowd" by David Riesman or "The Organization Man" by William H. Whyte, books that, even in the quiescent 1950s, hit a public nerve and showed society to itself. Books as part of the dynamics and ideas of an age -- as an influence in shaping culture, politics and lives -- no longer seem to be part of the calculation for the big publishers.

"Every time we have to publish a public affairs book, we cringe," Random House CEO Alberto Vitale said recently. One reason he cited for his lack of enthusiam was low sales; Random House sold only 30,000 copies of Boris Yeltsin's diary.

Once 30,000 books sold would have been respectable. The publishing company would have been proud of the contribution to the country's understanding; a spill-over benefit would have occurred as the book's ideas filtered down to the public through newspaper articles, television shows, talk-radio, and politicians' debates. Now, without the knowledge that serious public affairs books can bring, many people are left stunned and damaged by domestic policy changes that are fast-tracked through Congress on a wave of simplified slogans.

The situation is more dire where foreign affairs are concerned. The reduced number of books and the preventive understanding they supply can make it easier for soldiers to lose their lives in needless wars.

Last summer, Harper Collins canceled the writers' contracts for 106 books, many of them important non-fiction and fiction works that don't rake in profits. The company has also closed its Basic Books imprint that published mainly books of ideas. Pearson PLC did the same with the New York trade division of Addison Wesley Longman. Simon & Schuster reduced the scope of its Free Press imprint, dedicated to books about important historical and contemporary issues.

One of the few to speak for the culturally and socially responsible tradition of publishing was Phyllis Grann, president of Penguin Putnam. She said best-sellers were once used to subsidize the small, wonderful books editors wanted to publish, even at a loss. They were not financial ends in themselves. She doubted that the conglomerates' expectation of double-digit profits was feasible in the book industry, and noted, "A company can do very well even with 3 or 4 percent growth."

The incident that defines the shift to the profits-above-all mentality occured in March 1990. At Pantheon, an imprint of Random House, the editorial staff rebelled against attempts to pressure them into earning greater profits by sacrificing quality. Editor-in-chief Andre Schiffrin quit, other editors walked out with him, and many writers refused to publish with Pantheon. It was an early warning of the way trade publishing was moving, and, ultimately, a futile gesture.

Millions for O.J.'s girlfriend?

Writers, too, are being harmed by the focus on higher profits and numbers of copies. Cynthia Ozick, a National Book Award nominee, said, "Behind all the numbers is bleeding flesh." Fine authors can no longer get big publishers to print their work. The new small presses do not have the capacity to pick up a great many of these books. Authors who want to do quality fiction and non-fiction are asking whether it makes sense to write anymore.

Ms. Ozick had other questions for publishers. "I know you must make a profit, but must you give astronomical advances to O.J.'s girlfriend? Must you have a huge ad for a book by Whoopi Goldberg? Where is the responsibility to what we call culture?"

This lack of concern for the public interest in pursuit of private gain is the hallmark of the eight conglomerates that control trade publishing. As in politics, big money is running and often ruining the country.

Marlene Nadle is a journalist and associate in the East and Central Europe Program of the New School for Social Research.

Pub Date: 11/25/97

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