Media

Part II: Changing the Country, One Book at a Time

The second of our two-part roundtable discussion tackles the difficulties of getting progressive books reviewed during Bush II.
(Editor's Note: This is the second of two parts of our Roundtable Discussion on progressive publishing. You can download the audio of this talk from AlterNet in two parts: Part Three, Part Four. The first half of the discussion was published on Thursday and is available in text and audio formats.)

We resume our conversation on the future and potential of the progressive book-publishing industry. Included in this conversation are:

AlterNet Executive Editor Don Hazen moderated the discussion, which picks up on the topic of indie versus corporate publishing and the challenge of getting progressive and radical political books reviewed during Bush II.

Dan Simon: I loved something that Colin said a moment ago. He said, "The people are much better than the societies they live in."

Anthony Arnove: Absolutely.

DS: I think it's all in that. I think that what happened after 9/11 was a wonderful year or year and a half of an open window, with the quality of communication between our authors and our readers through us was pure and actually beyond ideology, and it was a beautiful thing. And it was books published by Yale University Press of all places and the progressive publishers, and we would get frequently emails from people saying, "I'm a lifelong conservative, thank you for publishing Noam Chomsky's '9/11'." And I know what they meant. There was a pure moment of communication.

That moment got poisoned somewhat by people trying to cash in on it, but I believe that our whole mission collectively has to be in a sense to keep pace with our readership. People are better than the societies they live in. This is the whole thing. I think that AlterNet is to be credited for publishing that piece by Jennifer Nix in terms of opening up the publishing conversation. I don't agree with Jennifer, but I think that there's a certain amount of …

Don Hazen: Let's say what that conversation was about.

DS: She was saying that star progressive authors should all publish with independent houses. To me, personally, that would be great. [laughter] But I don't agree with it, because there is a complex ecology. I love what Sara does. Sara's a great publisher. We learn from each other. The notion that anyone should do anything that specific is a little bit absurd. However, as an independent publisher, I know that Seven Stories exists and has survived, because several years ago Howard Zinn and Anthony decided to publish a book with us that we then sold vast quantities of, and Kurt Vonnegut, who could publish with anybody, decided to publish with us, and had they not, we wouldn't exist. I could find something else to do if we didn't exist, but we do exist, because they decided to do that.

Now, I wouldn't fault either of them if they decided they wanted to do this book with HarperCollins, which can be a good publisher sometimes, and I certainly wouldn't fault them if they wanted to publish it with Sara. But I think the complex ecology exists partly because people make interesting decisions in that regard. We in America are searching for an oppositional ideology of some kind that will in a sense include this question and partly answer this question. And it cannot be simply anti-corporate, because too much of the landscape is corporatized and too many good people work in corporate settings, and too much good work is done in corporate settings.

But there has to be an attempt to articulate an oppositional ideology that is particularly difficult in this country, because we're all implicated so much as consumers, and we all spend a fair amount of our existence in a kind of corporatized world. So, how can we strike a balance?

DH: Let's stick with this question. Jennifer wrote in March '05, coming off the Lakoff-Elephant book, challenging progressive authors including Amy Goodman, Michael Moore and Al Franken to publish with indies. She offered that a big advance does not make a bestseller. It should be about how many people buy your books. She connected her critique to the notion of media reform and saving democracy. If this were to happen, if everyone were to publish with independent presses, would we have a better democracy?

AA: I think the problem is that we don't want to cede the terrain of corporate publishing to the Right, and that's, in effect, what we would be doing if we followed this strategy. If we said we're only going to publish radical and progressive voices with smaller independent houses, the effect would be to self-marginalize to a certain extent. We need to contest, in the mainstream, the politics of the mainstream. I welcome the opportunity for a Noam Chomsky to be available in an airport bookstore, I welcome the fact that Michael Moore had such a breakthrough success with a commercial publisher that was able to leverage his books in a way that even the best of the independent publishers couldn't have leveraged.

To be honest, I think there's a thrust to what Nix is saying, which I think is important, which is, I'd love to see a Michael Moore having had that success to then give a book to the New Press, give a book to South End Press, give a book to Seven Stories. And he's in a position where he could do that, so that it shouldn't become an only "either/or" proposition, but I think either side of that equation is wrong. It would be wrong to only publish with commercial publishers; it would be wrong for us to give up the ground of trying to get radical, progressive voices into the mainstream.

DS: I like what Anthony was saying but I want to respond to it. An independent press like us, and this would be true of Norton, of Grove, we are in the airport stores. We do work with Barnes and Noble, we're on their tables, and we pay for that privilege -- we're at the front of the store. We budget for that probably not so differently from how Sara does at a corporate house.

So I think there's a mythology that dates back to a time 30 or 40 years ago that, to be really published, you have to be with Harper or with Random House, and not with an independent house. That is not true today. Barnes and Noble doesn't care, frankly, whether the new Kurt Vonnegut is published by Seven Stories or published by Random House. They will ask Random House for a certain dollar amount to profile the book appropriately, and they'll ask us for the same thing. And Random House will do it because it makes sense for the book, and we will as well.

Sara is a terrific publisher, and her books like "Nickel and Dimed" are bestsellers because they're damned good, and we're not on equal playing field exactly, but it's much closer to equal than people are discussing. Anthony is right, but not because there are such advantages of muscle at the big house, I think he's right because we're in a kind of a larger ecology. I don't think Barnes and Noble today are giving privileges for larger houses over an independent like us, or like Norton or like Grove at all.

DH: What about Amazon, what about buying books online? What about the notion of the "Long Tail?"

DS: Well, the "Long Tail" is a beautiful term that I haven't heard before actually. [laughter]

DH: The Long Tail suggests that because online booksellers [for example] have the ability to sell just about every book you could possibly want, that the public then has the opportunity to have a much broader choice.

Sara Bershtel: Only if they know about it.

DH: It suggests that independent publishers are strengthened by the notion of the internet. Is that your sense of it?

SB: I think progressive publishers are strengthened. I'm not sure that reviewers decide "I'm going to ignore independent books." I think it's more likely that they ignore books in terms of politics. I think in that regard we're all pretty equal. [laughter] But I think that the problem is that how do you let people know? How do you get to your readers when you can't get the stuff in review media? Yes, we can buy the space in Barnes and Noble, all of us can, and everybody does.

So ultimately, that equalizes the field, too. I don't think people ought be challenged to publish all their books with independents or whatever, but I think Anthony is right, that people should do what Kurt Vonnegut does. They should do it once. They should find the press that they love and that they want to support. The New Press always had that, and Verso always had that, and I think why not? Instead,

DS: What needs to be pointed out is what really happens is that authors make personal decisions for very personal reasons. Noam is a true anarchist, and this has to be respected. I've come to learn this. What he does is he treats everything at face value. He works with Sara and Tom Engelhardt who works with Sara because he knows them from way back, Pantheon days, and if Tom comes to him and says, "I have an idea" and Noam likes the idea, he publishes the book. And if I come to him and I say, "I have an idea" and he likes the idea, he publishes the book. And if an English-language publisher in Japan goes to him and he likes it, he does that. Our second-biggest-selling book with Noam came to us through an English-language publisher in Japan.

It's purely anarchistic, and this is something that I deeply respect. And Howard Zinn is my godfather and has a wonderful relationship with a guy named Hugh van Dusen at Harper, who is a lovely human being, and Howard publishes with both of us. The whole notion of being a kind of conflictual situation around this is kind of Fox News garbage. It's a personal system that's kind of working for the most part.

SB: You have to say, it's rather unusual, we have several authors between us.

DS: Barbara Ehrenreich has worked with Sara. Barbara Ehrenreich didn't sell "Nickel and Dimed" to Sara as a corporate publisher. Barbara Ehrenreich worked with Sara 15 years ago at Pantheon. "Nickel and Dimed" began as a project initiated by Lewis Lapham, who is a brilliant editor as a magazine editor, and he was desperate trying to find someone to go be a waitress and a house maid for three months, and Barbara was willing to do it. So it started with a magazine idea of Lewis', Sara and Barbara has long-running relationship, maybe one of her oldest friends in publishing. It all happens in kind of an organic way.

AA: I'm surprised that there haven't been more people trying to imitate the success that Sara has had with the Metropolitan imprint.

SB: They might still.

DH: You mean more corporate publishers trying the model?

AA: Right. There have been a few people, a few corporate publishers who realized they can capitalize on this, that they can sell books that might have traditionally been done by a New Press, or a Seven Stories, or a South End or someone else.

SB: But they buy them book by book.

AA: It's true. They buy them book by book. They don't have any kind of commitment to them.

DS: But this is a very important point. You have to realize that one of the things that has happened since 9/11 is that there has been … if you accept that basically left-wing and right-wing books both had a lot of success in those years, you would expect that there would a kind of efflorescence of right-wing and left-wing imprints at corporate publishing houses. What you find is that they started Sentinel at Penguin, which is a right-wing imprint staffed by formerly right-wing editors. We find that there's Crown Forum, which is a right-wing imprint. These are places that basically they publish books, they get no reviews, they're covered heavily by right-wing talk radio, and they jump onto the bestseller list. So you have this pretty systematic and purposeful corporate effort that creates right-wing imprints, and you have no left-wing imprints created.

This one of the important things to know about publishing is it's never just about business. On the publishing side, there's always a kind of political and politicized aspect to it. In this last historical moment, when you would have expected a kind of equally divided right-wing and left-wing surge, what you had is a right-wing surge in the corporate environment and no left-wing answer except, with the exception of Sara, on the corporate -- with the exception of Sara, it was purely on the independent side.

SB: And university presses.

DS: So, if one is saying, "marketplace aside, we want to make sure we're having a political conversation in the future in this country," then certainly the independent publishing sector, which I include Sara in, is terribly important, and this is a moment when the marketplace has gotten a bit more severe, a bit more blockbuster-driven, so one should be concerned in the future that the conversation continues. And there certainly has been a right-wing swing; the New York Times Book Review has certainly swung to the right. There are books now that in the past, that wouldn't have been taken seriously, that are right-wing titles that are getting full-page treatment in the New York Times Book Review. That's new.

DH: Is that a product of these books selling more?

DS: No, that's a product of a new editor [Sam Tanenhaus], who is an excellent editor, and a serious editor but is more open to right-wing ideology than past editors. At the same time at the L.A. Times Book Review you have a distinctly progressive editor. David Ulin is a wonderful editor. David Ulin is every bit as strong in his own way, but certainly the New York Times Book Review, which has a unique importance, is excellent in many ways, but it has certainly swung to the right and has featured long essays that again are looking very seriously at books that in the past would not have ever been considered. So there's a general trend to the right, and the progressive publishing community is terribly important. Again, as is AlterNet, as is IPA; the mainstream media doesn't give people a lot of news, and people look to books and to certain other alternative media for information. The corporate sector has swung to the right since 2001.

DH: Colin, do you agree with the analysis of the corporate swing, and if so, what circumstances might change that? What could bring the radical-progressive publishing world into a better position in your mind?

Colin Robinson: I do broadly agree with what Dan's saying. I would say that there are problems overall with books as a form in this culture. Book sales are going down overall. And the same time as that's happening, if you look at the distribution of sales, more and more people are reading the same few books. People who are defending diversity in publishing are pointing to the number of titles coming out, and it's 170,000 this year, but it's the spread of readership across those publications which is interesting. And that is being concentrated ever more on a few titles. So the culture is narrowing in that way.

But I would say that it's easy to critique the mainstream houses and we should, I think, as I said, they serve their readership very badly. But I also think we do need to look at ourselves a bit. Independent publishing, yes it's a very difficult situation -- but we do some things very badly. The Left has always had a very suspicious attitude towards marketing. [laughter] The idea with a lot of people on the Left is that if you have to sell something to someone, that probably means that they don't want it, and there's something sort of unethical about it. The idea is that you should plant your standards and wait for people to rally around it. Well, that's just not good enough, and I think that what's interesting is it is possible to bring radical approaches to marketing just as it is to any other area of human activity, and you really have to start thinking in ways that are different from the marketing courses at the Harvard Business School.

There are ways of doing radical marketing, guerrilla marketing. I do think that, going back to your discussion about Amazon and the internet, I'm not so sure about the impact of Amazon. I mean, Amazon these days, if you want to get a book on an opening page of Amazon, you have to pay a lot of money for that. They're using the same technique as the chain stores. I do think the internet does open up massive opportunities for progressive and radical publishers because the people who read our books are a community. And the reality of the situation is, unlike say, Random House, the majority of our readers are going to be interested in the majority of our books. So I think that there's a real possibility of beginning to develop, electronically, networks of people who we can promote and sell to.

Certainly when I was at the New Press, I was arguing that we should spend a lot of our resources on trying to build up email databases, on making our website attractive to people to come to, and also talking to people like AlterNet, who were doing things that were sympathetic to what we were doing that we could piggy back on. I really do think that we could draw together people electronically in a way that hasn't been possible.

SB: I would say also that yes we should do this, but make no mistake about it, it's what everybody is doing. The word of the year is "internet" ...

DH: The conservatives are doing it really well.


SB: Everybody is doing it. The conservatives have a huge headstart, but every major publisher is doing internet everyone. Everyone is aware that the book industry is way behind on it; the film industry is way ahead. But everyone is going to do it. The thing we have to rely on is that we, at least if we can identify a sort of coherent cluster of books -- it is true is that our readers who read one or two of our books might really be interested in the others. But how to do it ?

DS: This is partly where we get back to the independent versus corporate question. I think in a way that's maybe the wrong articulation of it because I want Sara on our side.

SB: I am on your side. [laughs]

DS: And she is, but I do think that the way they do it is marketing, marketing, marketing, and the way we do it is by maintaining our integrity, maintaining our seriousness of purpose, maintaining our search for an oppositional ideology, which is the great question in America. And exercising and being true to all the ways in which we're different. I think that's really how we reach our readers. It's what Sara was describing earlier with Barbara Ehrenreich, with people saying, "Barbara Ehrenreich, why is it so, why are people so interested in this?" And I've gotten the same things with Kurt Vonnegut. "How can you account for the great success of 'Man Without A Country?'"

They're doing what people have a right to deserve. It's what Colin said earlier. The people are better than the societies in which they live in. And "A Man Without a Country" and "Nickel and Dimed" are examples of authors and publishers being true to that. It's about real people, it's about real concerns, it's funny, it's straight-forwardly being in sync with the ways in which people are better than the societies which they live in.

DH: I want to be a little bit provocative here in terms of looking at the future because in ten years or a litttle more, it's likely that we won't have Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, Kurt Vonnegut, and who's going to take their place? Because these are prodigious producers. Dan, Howard's your "godfather," Noam has kept alive a number of publishing houses, Barbara Ehrenreich has sold a million-plus copies of "Nickel and Dimed." It's extraordinary. Where are the next stars?

AA: I think we have to come back to where Colin started, which is the strength of radical and progressive publishing is the strength of the movement. There can't be a gap between the two. The extent to which we have an audience, the extent to which the ideas are being percolated, the extent to which the books are being written is a reflection to the strength of social movements, activism, struggle on the ground. I think it's a sign of the weakness of the Left right now that a few individuals have such disproportionate name recognition, impact, influence, weight, in the movement. If we were a truly effective movement, Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Kurt Vonnegut, Barbara Ehrenreich, Tariq Ali wouldn't be the kind of "stars" in a way.

DH: Superstars, actually.

AA: Superstars that they are. There's such an enormous gap between a few individuals, and then other people who are writing, who are commenting, who are speaking, who are organizing in the movement. And that's unhealthy.

DS: And the reason that Noam and Howard, for example, are such superstars has as much to do with the fact that they are sort of "regular people." Howard responded to the historical events that were all around him as the head of the history department at Spellman College, and things like that. They sort of acted like regular people in the most wonderful way. Noam answers all his goddamned emails, and if you ask Noam about this or that or whatever sports celebrities, he doesn't know who they are. He's never heard of them because he's busy all day answering his emails from junior high school students. My point is that part of the celebrity of Howard and Noam is that, ironically, has to with them having very common-sense values that they express every day.

DH: What have I left out, what else needs to be said? Any other thoughts about the future and who are the stars that might be emerging? Is it Naomi Klein? Is it Tom Frank? Are they going to be the next Howard and Noam? Maybe we don't know them yet?

SB: We have real challenges ahead of us, and I think the conservative movement and the Right has been very good at doing grassroots organizing and publicizing and direct mail. We haven't done that, or we haven't done it as well, and this is the year we have to think about it seriously. We have to think about the internet, we have to think about what Colin has said. I think you're exactly right; we do have to market -- it's not a bad word. It's the word that describes how you get the books that you're publishing to the audience who wants to have them.

DH: Future question, Anthony. Who are the next stars, how are we going to break out of this moment we are in?

AA: It's the case where the independents have a very important role to play. Independents are more likely, because of political commitments and connections to various issues and struggles, to identify those new voices that might not get a contract at one the larger houses, and don't have an agent, and don't have a kind of track record, which means that they're going to get picked up or promoted by a larger house. We see some of those voices emerging, and that's something certainly that AlterNet is contributing to, and the web is contributing to.

In our own case at Haymarket Books, a year or two years ago, not many people had heard about Dave Zirin, and he was someone we thought was brilliantly connecting discussions of sports and culture with politics -- in fact, radical political analysis, which is a tradition that used to exist in this country but hasn't existed for a long time. We wanted to push him and promote that vision and, as a result of publishing his book and other efforts, people really connecting with what he has to say, He's an emerging voice right now. We're really proud to have published him, and we're having great success having published him. Which shows how independent presses can be an incubator for new voices and incubator for radical ideas.

SB: As they have traditionally been.

AA: But I want to be in a situation where, if you look about at the '60s and '70s, you look at Pantheon, you look at Sometimes you go back into an old bookstore, a used bookstore, and you see radical, I mean truly radical revolutionary books being published by Pantheon, Random House, Knopf. I mean, Malcolm X revolutionary books that reached millions and millions and millions of people. And I want to get back to that kind of period again. But there are no shortcuts to getting there.

DS: I think it's a societywide problem, and the publishing is kind of a corollary. At the Frankfurt Book Fair, I basically say I've got my octogenarians and my trentanarians. My octogenarians … it's a little unfair to Noam Chomsky, but it's Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, and --

AA: Yeah, he's only 73. No, 77.

DS: My trentatarians are Derrick Jensen, a terribly important, young, ecologist, very exciting on the page, as exciting as Michel Foucault on the page; Linh Dinh, who is an American of Vietnamese descent, and Peter Plate, who is a guy who writes novels about the Mission District. And they're all writers of great character and integrity. But I do think that what Anthony was saying before, that the crisis is in the movement and the heroes will emerge, and we'll publish them. There's a great kind of problem right now, which is the sense that there's not a movement, and everything that George Bush and company are doing in Washington is so obviously short-term. It's so obviously something that where you can fool people for a very short time but not for long.

And yet we have foreign visitors who come, for example, from the African continent, and they say "Why aren't people in the streets?" They say, "This is very peculiar. In my country, which is less free and not even a democracy, if the government were doing like what I read in the newspaper today, what your government did today, people would be in the streets. Why aren't people in the streets?" And I think this is where we're in great need of an oppositional ideology, and we in publishing are in a sense helpless because we can amplify that, but we can't …

DH: You can't create it.

AA: Or substitute for it.

DS: I think in a sense, since 2001, there's been a little bit substituting for it, and we've been oxygenating the society, but the great question of why people are putting up with, why people aren't even investigating or interested in investigating the 2004 election, for example …

CR: Do you have a book on that by any chance? [laughter]

DS: I do, and so does the New Press ("What Happened in Ohio: A Documentary Record of Theft and Fraud in the 2004 Election"), we have a very strong book coming out investigating the 2004 election, which I think is the most exciting thing we're doing at this moment.

DH: Which one is yours?

DS: It's called "Was The 2004 Election Stolen?" by Steven Freeman and Joel Bleifuss. It's coming out in a couple months. At the end of the day, the greatest question isn't so much whether it was stolen or not -- the greatest question is why didn't people want to know that on November 3rd and November 4th? Why did Kerry concede so quickly? It's the kind of appearance that people didn't want to know.

DH: Right, because what do you do when you know? It's a big problem.

DS: So these are all questions that people need to be asking, and we as publishers are a little bit helpless. We need a movement.

AA: One thing to add -- what's striking to me is the gap between the level of skepticism and questioning which does exist in the broader society, and the degree of organization of the conscious Left. If you look at the polls on Iraq, they're stunning. Absolutely stunning. You would think that we had a mass left opposition in this country. The fact that the polls show so much opposition to the war, so much skepticism, so much disbelief in Bush, and yet the organization of that into protest, into effective protest, the kind of protest that could bring about change, is so weak. So it's not as if we're in a situation where we're swimming against the stream politically, or ideologically, or we're swimming against the stream in the sense that we're speaking to a minority society. We're not. We have the potential to be speaking to the vast majority. But we're not.

CR: The one thing I would say to what Anthony and Dan have said is this: It is true that the fate of progressive publishing is tied to the movement, and the movement is very weak in the United States, but you also have to look at what's going on at an international level and, especially if you look at what's going on in Latin America, there are some really, really remarkable things happening. The election of Evo Morales in Bolivia, that was a completely bottom-up, grassroots taking of state. The fact that he even met the King of Spain wearing his woolly jumper was just a fabulous thing. [laughter]

AA: "Woolly jumper," do you want to translate that for the American audience? [laughter] (Ed.: A "woolly jumper" is a sweater.)

CR: He openly compared himself to Che Guevara when he was in Spain. In that respect, I'm very confident. I don't find any shortage of young radical writers. I think that getting them through the publishing ranks and getting them an audience is the challenge.

SB: Exactly.

AA: Radical publishers are much more conscious of the international dimension to the struggle. At Haymarket, a lot of what we're very proud about doing recently is publishing books in translation that would never have been published otherwise, books about the World Social Forum, books about the situation in Colombia, books about the situation in Iraq, written in other languages, translated, that reflect the kind of internationalism of the issues we confront and reflect the kind of internationalism that we want to see in the opposition.

DS: Kurt Vonnegut says that we pretend to be a two-party system. We're actually a one-party system, and the people that pretend to hold these politicians accountable pretend to disagree. What are we going to do about that?
Don Hazen is the executive editor of AlterNet.