Pictured: two dudes who could afford to be pushed down a bit. / Illustration by Alfred Bryan
From The Archive
Joanna Coles
No. 6  December 1994

$$$$$$$: That’s Publishing!

  

Pictured: two dudes who could afford to be pushed down a bit. / Illustration by Alfred Bryan
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At the Four Seasons restaurant in mid-town Manhattan, New York’s social and literary elite are mingling gently. There in the corner is Carl Bernstein and over there is Gloria Vanderbilt, Ivana Trump, Joan Didion, Robert Altman, Diane von Furstenberg, Gay Talese, and Bret Easton Ellis. Ellis’ companion, a luminous brunette with a bracelet tattooed around her left wrist, is whining about the lack of champagne; but if the atmosphere seems a trifle muted then perhaps the guests are reserving their energies. For this is the first of four parties to celebrate the publication of Dominick Dunne’s new novel.

“Hey Nick,” hollers a large white-haired man in the author’s direction. “Hey NICK! I loved your book. I loved it.”

“Did you read it?” Dunne calls back, deftly avoiding collision with a vast tray of smoked salmon gliding across the floor at shoulder height, apparently unaided.

“Did I read it?” shrugs the admirer above the hubbub. “I didn’t read it, but I loved it. I’m telling ya, I loved it.”

It is not unusual for people who mix in publishing circles to love books without troubling to read them. Take Alberto Vitale, the stocky chairman of Random House, America’s most prominent publisher, who remains voraciously unread. No time, he explained to the staff when he took over three years ago. He was much too busy making money.

And why not? Random House has made a lot of money since it was bought by Vitale’s boss, the American billionaire S. I. Newhouse, in 1980 for $70 million. Today, though the privately-owned company provides precious little financial detail, it is estimated to be worth around $920 million. No one could read that amount of books.

In his freshly refurbished office on the eleventh floor in mid-town Manhattan, Harry Evans, once editor of the Sunday London Times, and now president of Random House, has made a lot of money too. So has his wife, Tina Brown, who edits The New Yorker, also owned by Newhouse and therefore rather handy for RH revlews.

“This is how it works. Every book has to contribute 13 percent of its budget to corporate overheads.”

“Two million, that’s as high as I’ll go,” he hisses into the phone, before skipping across the office and nearly knocking over a vase of radiant sunflowers in his haste to produce documentary evidence that he has now had sixteen titles in the New York Times best-seller list for the past 173 weeks. Harry’s salary does not quite match the generous offer he just made, but rumours that he receives around a quarter of that sum—unthinkably high for a publisher even five years ago—are not thought to be wildly exaggerated.

“Look,” he says, hauling out another set of documents and pointing to a bewildering column of figures. “This is how it works. Every book has to contribute 13 percent of its budget to corporate overheads.”

When Bennett Cerf and Donald Klopfer founded RH back in 1925, it was an emblem of the way American publishing—and to some extent America itself—liked to see itself. Overheads were restricted to the occasional Olivetti and blue crayon. There were no exclusive ranges of ergonomically-sound office furniture, and the salaries were street rather than telephone numbers. Publishers earned modest sums and paid themselves in books, happy to know it was a gentleman’s profession. Happy to display a commitment to literature and works of social relevance. Happy to use the profits from best-selling trash to subsidize the important stuff.

And so RH continued, swelling every so often as another imprint was welcomed aboard. Alfred A. Knopf, Pantheon, Vintage, Crown and the Modern Library. And then something happened: the eighties—fizzing with acquisition fervor and bursting with money. Within five years, mirroring what was happening in the UK only on a far greater scale, publishing had changed forever, as one after another house was swallowed by huge conglomerates. RH was folded into Newhouse’s corporate bosom; Bertelsmann took over Doubleday; Paramount, Simon and Schuster; Pearson, Penguin and Dutton; Murdoch, Harper and Row; MCA, Putnam (then sold last year to the Japanese group Matsushita). Within a decade, the entire profession had been transformed into an industry no longer answerable to eccentric, moustachioed editors but a line of corporate accountants. An industry no longer bothered about books but obsessed by a new creed: the greater glory of the bottom line.

In came aggressive “techniques,” out went handshaken agreements. Authors were pinched from under their editors’ pince-nez. Advances grew wilder and wilder as companies outbid each other in competitive frenzy for non-writing celebrities such as Muhammad Ali ($3 million) or Marlon Brando ($5 million). Simon and Schuster led the bidding, winning the lion’s share of million-dollar advances for Ronald Reagan’s autobiography and novels by Jackie Collins and Jack Higgins. As Dan Green, former head of the trade division at S&S, remarked in 1984 to the Wall Street Journal: “There is no level below which we will not go.”

Forget political, from now on books had to be commercially correct.

Literature, as Jacob Weisberg observed in an essay in The New Republic, had become an afterthought; a garnishing of literary prestige to soothe the corporate conscience. Meanwhile, books themselves had become shoddier. Editors, he argued, had abandoned the task of discovering the sculpture in the raw stone and were increasingly desperate to discover new authors that would sell. Unwieldy manuscripts were passed in the belief that fatter books would sell well and be taken more seriously.

Copy-editing declined: Weisberg carried out a spot-the-mistake campaign along his own windowshelf and discovered the protagonist’s name spelled two different ways in A. S. Byatt’s Possession; five lines missing from Lou Cannon’s President Reagan: The Role Of A Lifetime, and the acknowledgements misspelt in E. J. Dionee’s Why Americans Hate Politics.

As Vitale proclaimed, publishers did indeed want to be judged on their profits. Forget political, from now on books had to be commercially correct.

“The actual writing is the least important part.” says Tama Janowitz, who swept to acclaim four years ago after the publication of Slaves of New York. “It’s all about money,” nods Bret Easton Ellis, who complains there is nothing for young people to read these days. “Publishing is very safe and very timid. The more editors I meet, the more books I read, the more my enthusiasm dims.”

Twenty-one stories up, the view from Ellis’s editor, Sonny Mehta, head of Knopf, is equally simple. “Why should I publish books if they are not going to make money?” Why indeed? After all, if you can flog 250,000 copies of Josephine Hart’s Damage—last year’s sensation—on the strength of publicity promising “the most shocking, haunting and erotic novel,” why bother with the real thing? Publishing is a gulp and devour business, and the public needs feeding.

So what if Mehta himself is rumored to have found it a hollow little book? Despite his celebrity status and the nine-page profiles in glossy magazines, this charming mournful Indian makes no claim for himself other than as a marketing man. And there is little doubt he is a maestro at that. He smiles, still fresh from shifting 250,000 copies of this year’s sensation, The Secret History, a first novel by an unknown writer called Donna Tartt.

“It was crap, we didn’t even bid for it,” roars Roger Straus from behind a vase of weary dahlias. “There are few people who know about literature in publishing now. These days it’s all hype.”

Schiffrin is the one that no one at RH ever mentions; his twenty-nine years as head of the Pantheon imprint is erased from corporate memory.

There is little evidence of visits from a corporate florist at Farrar Straus Giroux, home of Tom Wolfe, Calvin Trillin, and Seamus Heaney, and one of the last independent publishers in New York. The nobbly tweed chaise lounge suggests the office furniture has not been changed since the seventies: the Bakelite telephone hints at an even earlier date. But Straus does not care, he publishes literature and that’s what matters. He nurtures authors because it may, one day, pay off. Look at Joseph Brodsky and Derek Walcott, who have both won Nobels. Keeper of the literary tradition, he stays in business by distributing European publishers and stumbling across the odd best-seller. Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent sold more than 750,000 copies and eventually subsidized this season’s most exciting first novelist, Jeff Eugenides. Straus bridles at the news that HarperCollins has just paid $450,000 for Vikram Seth’s epic A Suitable Boy. “I’ll be surprised if it sells 40,000.”

He was also surprised when Chatto, which falls under the RH umbrella in London, published the English edition of one of his books and changed the title from Martin And John to Fucking Martin. “They told everybody that was the original title and that we were too prudish to publish. Can you imagine? Us? Too prudish? It was all hype. Martin And John was the title of the book.”

None of this is news to Andre Schiffrin, who provides the most inspiring two-fingers yet to the insidious spread of the Newhouse empire. Schiffrin is the one that no one at RH ever mentions; his twenty-nine years as head of the Pantheon imprint is erased from corporate memory. Little wonder. L’Affaire Schiffrin was the biggest upset in American publishing since Salman Rushdie.

It began in January 1990 shortly after Vitale’s arrival. For nearly fifty years, Pantheon had been unique in commercial publishing, providing an enclave of accessible, intellectual seriousness in an industry going blind as one eye strained towards Wall Street, the other towards Madison Avenue. It published E. P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class and David Wyman’s The Abandonment of The Jews. Its authors included Gunter Grass, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Marguerite Duras, Michel Foucault and Noam Chomsky as well as Monty Python, all the works of Studs Terkel and Art Spiegelman’s comic examination of the Holocaust, Maus.

New ideas rarely make money: new writers present risks, and Pantheon was not impervious to market vagaries. Sometimes the imprint went into the red by the odd million, sometimes it broke even. It was not, however, the greatest of risks for a billionaire proprietor reckoned to be among the five richest men in America. But, then, the days of civic virtue were over.

Nor was the pressure purely financial. Schiffrin was led to understand that “Random management” felt Pantheon was publishing too many left wing books. Perhaps these could be balanced by some right wing volumes? As Publishers Weekly pointed out in an editorial which incensed Vitale: “True publishers publish what they believe in. In America today, the general consensus, as reflected in the media, is one of complacent, often jingoistic, enjoyment of power. The valuable task of the critic, and the publisher of that critic, is always to question that complacency and power.” A great society, the article continued, should encourage, not seek to muffle, its critics. “No true publisher should feel he has to offer a balance to his customers.”

In the end, it was the bank balance rather than the political balance that did for Schiffrin. Vitale was insistent; Schiffrin would have to chop his list by two-thirds or else. So Schiffrin left.

If the major publishing houses won’t print less than 15,000-20,000 copies for fear of losing money, who will publish the new Chomsky, or Hobsbawm, or Terkel?

So did his authors and five senior editors. Studs Terkel and Kurt Vonnegut donned sou’westers and manned a picket line in protest. The press howled in outrage, Vitale was furious, Schiffrin determined. Armed with severance pay, he spent the following twelve months raising several million dollars from the MacArthur, Rockefeller, Aaron Diamond and Andy Warhol foundations and began setting up afresh. Last year, armed with the resources usually available only to big commercial houses, he set up The New Press. It is Schiffrin’s attempt to stop what he sees as a wider, more sinister development across America—the increasing market censorship of ideas.

If the major publishing houses won’t print less than 15,000-20,000 copies for fear of losing money, who will publish the new Chomsky, or Hobsbawm, or Terkel? True, America is dotted with hundred of small, academic presses, but are new and challenging books to be consigned to tiny print runs, limited distribution and expensive price tags?

The question is, Schiffrin says, pausing to stroke his tawny beard, “Do we want these conglomerates to control and limit our access to knowledge and information?

“I think there’s a feeling that the culture can’t afford the kind of market censorship that we’re getting in publishing … If you say that every idea has to prove beforehand that it can pay its own way, you’re not only censoring ideas but you’re by definition creating a kind of conservative output. You’re feeding into received ideas.”

That mainstream publishing feeds straight into a received publicity machine also rankles. Little wonder that RH books are regularly reviewed or their authors profiled in Vanity Fair or Vogue, for Newhouse owns them too. “RH has cornered the review space,” says Schiffrin. “It’s stultifying.”

So far The New Yorker has reviewed one of The New Press’s thirty books. The New York Times has managed a few more, but its literary editor Rebecca Sinkler admits space for books is squeezed. The Saturday review has been scrapped, resulting in six fewer reviews a week—three hundred fewer books a year. She doesn’t have to mention the tricky relationship between advertising and reviews. Or the fact that most big publishers pay a discreet “display fee” to the book chains to exhibit their tomes—which serves to knock the smaller publisher even further out of the frame.

Meanwhile back on E. 50th St. where Alfred A. Knopf refused the Scarsdale Diet Book because he felt it would demean his readers, Barbara Taylor Bradford has put aside five days to sign 5,000 copies of her latest book. And Sonny Mehta wrestles with how to promote Oprah Winfrey’s forthcoming autobiography. Normally her chat show is awash with authors promoting their books, but then she can hardly interview herself.

Or can she?

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