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How Raw Capitalism Is Devouring American Culture

The publishing industry is teetering again as Random House and Penguin plan to merge. It's time for a government policy to protect the arts

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More tangibly, these publishers racked up significant legal fees fighting a losing battle against the Seattle behemoth; two are still fighting. (Insiders say that Simon & Schuster’s tussle with Amazon contributed to the of loss of Free Press.) In a business with a small profit margin, that money has to come from somewhere. Why not out of the hides of employees?

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But publishing – after all — is just full of a bunch of English majors in overpriced suits taking three martini lunches, right? And in a day in which self-publishing is the rage — and the rhetorical war on gatekeepers, experts and other supposed “elitists” increases — what, really, does a publisher do?

“I firmly believe in the role of the gatekeeper,” says Silverberg, who adds that we’re in a cultural and technological shift that leaves us with several things happening at once. “Readers are picking up self-published work and saying, ‘That’s it!’ Editors are going through a pile of manuscripts sent by agents and saying, ‘That’s it!’ There’s a simultaneity.”

Generally, publishers do three things. They serve as banks for writers – offering advances in exchange for the promise of a copyrighted creative work. They aggregate services – offering editing, printing and distribution, book design, marketing and publicity, and so on, all at once. And they mitigate risk.

Of these things, says “Free Ride” author Levine, a former Billboard executive editor now living in Berlin, the most important is spreading risk. “For all the talk about new models, nobody has found a way to identify winners and losers,” he says. “You have to do a mix – you place a number of bets.”

And as with albums, most books lose money. The hits – especially the mega-sellers like the Harry Potter books or “Fifty Shades of Grey” – pay for a lot of others, if the author advances were not too enormous. (Skeptics wonder whether Random House’s $3.5 million advance for “Girls” creator Lena Dunham’s memoir will even pay for itself, and  muse about how that money could have been spread among, say, 10 or 20 writers.) “The only thing you make a lot of money with is a surprise hit,” Levine says. “And there are not that many surprises.”

If you put your book in the hands of a traditional publisher, you keep only a small portion of what the book makes. But if it loses money, which is likely, it’s not your mortgage or grocery bill that goes up in smoke – the publisher eats it, and tries again with another book, by you or somebody else. And if they get the math right, they end up making a small profit overall. (The odds on any given book making money are not good; the traditional publishing wisdom is that seven out of 10 lose money.)

Publishers are not unique in this – the culture business in general is built around the probability of failure. “’The Avengers’ didn’t have to make enough money to be profitable; it had to pay for the money Disney lost on ‘John Carter’,” Levine says. “‘Game of Thrones’ has to make back the money HBO lost on ‘John From Cincinnati.’ ” (Digital pirates, unlike producers, don’t have to take these risks – they only duplicate and rip off the popular stuff.)

On the creative side, perhaps the most important thing a publisher does is edit a book. And whatever the trouble with publishers, there are plenty of well-regarded editors left at the major houses. Galassi at FSG, Gerald Howard at Doubleday Books, Alice Mayhew at Simon and Schuster, Bob Weil at Norton, and Ann Godoff at Penguin (who was fired when Bertelsmann swallowed Random House in ‘98 and could now go before a firing squad of bean counters again) all have at least cult followings among those who know the business.

 
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