The Corporatization of Publishing
The mighty heads of America's conglomerate publishers, as well as a group of the small independent editors, converged on Paris in late March at the invitation of the French government. The United States was the theme of the Paris Book Fair, and it was clear that the invitations had been arranged as if for a Feydeau bedroom farce. As the major players left from one salon door, the small independent publishers were ushered into another; the possibility of confrontation, discussion or debate was carefully avoided. The polarized U.S. publishing scene was represented accurately, but its extremes remained as separate as ever.For the French, this polarization was no doubt a difficult concept to grasp. While the conglomerates there control some 60 per cent of the publishing industry as a whole, the intellectual scene is still dominated by the traditional, family-owned and serious publishers. Even the conglomerates find they have to vie for sales and respectability by keeping to a program that includes books many an American university press would envy.For the rest of the continent, publishing is still close to what we had in the United States twenty years ago. The large media companies have not yet taken over all the major houses; the profits expected from books are not yet those expected from film or television; and the bookstores are still filled with a wide variety of books, political and literary, that have long disappeared from most of ours. How has U.S. publishing come to resemble the mass media in so short a time? The changes that have taken place in our media culture during my professional life are so vast that it is hard to comprehend fully how extensive they have been.I started out in publishing in the late fifties working for a mass paperback house with the ungainly name of the New American Library of World Literature. Its slogan was "Good Reading for the Millions." Although N.A.L. published Forever Amber and other pulp fiction of its time, and its executives were certainly concerned with sales and profit, it still made available some of the best contemporary writing at the lowest price. Books were distributed throughout the country not simply through bookstores but through cigar stores, drug stores and the like, where for 25 cents (then the price of a pack of cigarettes) Americans had access to Faulkner, Kerouac, Pratolini or the young Mailer; to Margaret Mead's Coming of Age in Samoa and to Marquis Childs's Sweden: The Middle Way on Trial.While the Forever Ambers were necessary to pay the bills, N.A.L. was determined to make available a very wide choice. The ideology, and it was an ideology, was that the general population should have access to the best of the world's culture. This policy began in the heady days of the thirties, when the New Deal was dominant, and carried on through World War II, when free copies of many of these books were given to U.S. servicemen. Publishing "good reading for the millions" was a conscious, deliberate effort.Today, if you visit any airport newsstand, you will see that the books featured are the top best sellers, plus a few other titles by popular authors. The titles I've mentioned -Ñ or their contemporary equivalents -Ñ are for the most part unavailable in those outlets, and they are available elsewhere only because some university press or small alternative publisher has re-published them, often at a high price.We have seen in recent years the application of market theory to the dissemination of culture. Spurred by the Thatcher/Reagan changes in politics, the owners of publishing houses rationalize their policies by invoking the market. It is not up to elites to impose their values on readers, they claim; it is up to the public to choose what it wants -Ñ and if what it wants is bad, so be it. Houses with histories as distinguished as Knopf have not hesitated to take on books so perverse and violent, like American Psycho, that they have been turned away by other conglomerates. The question is which books will make the most money, not which ones will fulfill the publisher's traditional cultural mission.The development of the market ideology has been accompanied by legislation that has increasingly changed the nature of book publishing. In both the United States and Britain, funding for libraries has been drastically cut. There was a time in both countries when library purchases were large enough to cover much of the costs of serious fiction and nonfiction.The editorial process has also been skewed by the fact that at large companies, decisions about what to publish are made not by editors but by so-called publishing committees, in which the financial and marketing people play a pivotal role. If a book does not look as if it will sell a certain number -Ñ and that number increases with every year -Ñ these people argue that the company cannot "afford" to take it on, especially when it is a new novel or a work of serious nonfiction. What the Spanish newspaper El Pais perceptively called "market censorship" is increasingly in force in a decision-making process that is based on whether there is a pre-existing audience for any book. The obvious success and the well-known author are the books now sought; new authors and new, critical viewpoints are increasingly finding it difficult to be published in the major houses.Obviously, new ideologies do not develop out of thin air. They are part of the Zeitgeist, but they are also part of a new structure, in this case the rise of the large international conglomerates. Increasing concentration has brought with it a drive for dramatic increases in profits. Since the twenties, through prosperity and depression, the average profit for all publishing houses has been around 4 percent after taxes. This includes both the houses that were intensely commercial and sought (even then) to publish only those books they felt to be eminently profitable, as well as the important houses that we all recall as forming the culture of our time, houses that sought to balance profitability with responsibility. The owners of these latter houses, the Alfred A. Knopfs and others, did not retire in poverty. But they were happy to have the value of their house grow gradually from year to year; they did not bleed it each year of the capital necessary for the maintenance of its list.It is instructive to look at the current figures for those European houses that have not yet been corporatized. In France, the most prestigious of the traditional publishing houses, Gallimard, makes an annual profit of a little over 3 percent, despite what is probably the strongest backlist in Europe and a flourishing and imaginative children's book section. Le Seuil, probably the second most impressive of the French houses, came up last year with a profit of just over 1 percent. At this moment, both houses are still owned by the founding families and their allies.In the United States and Britain, where more and more in-dependent houses are being taken over by conglomerates, the new owners have insisted that the profitability of the book publishing arm should be similar to the high returns they demand from other subsidiaries like newspapers, cable television and film. New profit targets have therefore been established in the range of 12 to 15 percent.To meet these new expectations, publishers have drastically changed the nature of what they publish. The "smaller books" -Ñ serious fiction, art history, criticism -Ñ have all but disappeared from the lists of the major houses. The emphasis has been shifted to pay huge advances for what are hoped to be huge best sellers. But since every other major house has been following the same policy, advances increasingly go beyond what is reasonable to expect a book will earn. These huge advances are written off, vast losses are incurred and the publisher must cut back even more, eliminating the "midlist" and taking away from the smaller books what is left for marketing and advertising in order to try once again with a Jeffrey Archer or a Danielle Steele. Indeed, recent layoffs at HarperCollins in London have been reported in the British press as being a direct result of the enormous (and unearned) £32 million advance (close to $50 million) paid to Archer.Needless to say, not all the houses are able to make their profit targets. Indeed, there are reports that some of the large corporations are far less profitable than they were five years ago, when they were pursuing their traditional and diversified policy. But if one house succeeds, all the others are told they must try harder. If someone does make 15 percent in a year, the others are expected to do the same, and the unfortunate front-runner is then expected to make 16 percent. One of the most interesting lessons, yet one of the hardest to learn, is that there is no such thing as enough when such unrealistic profit targets are set. Newhouse, for instance, bought the Random House empire for some $60 million. Ten years later, his holdings had increased in value to over $1 billion. But this did not suffice. Greater annual profits were expected of each of the publishing units, so each of the houses changed its list accordingly, until the group as a whole had altered its character completely.The story of the Reed Elsevier group, which owns, in addition to trade publishing houses, Publishers Weekly, reference book publishers and other media properties, is typical. Some of its units make as much as 30 percent a year, and they too are required to show plans for the annual increase of their profits. After buying up some of England's most distinguished publishing houses -Ñ Methuen, Heinemann, Secker & Warburg -Ñ Reed announced in August 1995 that it intended to sell them off because they simply could not make their targets. Generally, when such companies are bought, their assets are stripped, their backlist merged into a common paperback list, their editors dismissed, many of their authors urged to depart. What is left to sell after this process is relatively little, and confirms in the minds of the new owners that publishing is not the investment they once thought it to be. The other week, Reed announced that it had found no takers and would continue its trade publishing program. The price that its staff and authors have paid for months of uncertainty and despair can easily be imagined. In the end, profitability of the Reed publishing entity was reported that it had found no takers and would continue its trade publishing program. The price that its staff and authors have paid for months of uncertainty and despair can easily be imagined. In the end, profitability of the Reed publishing entity was reported to be 12 percent. A double irony then -Ñ the profit that many houses in the United States and England are pursuing without success is deemed to be insufficient to those who have even more profitable investments.Reed executives decided that instead of investing in traditional publishing ("consumer publishing," as they elegantly called it), they would concentrate on the new field of information retrieval. More and more publishers are talking about concentrating on the profitable tip of the information pyramid, making available on computers and through other electronic media the information that used to be available simply by consulting a book. We have no idea what kind of money will be charged for access to information in the future. But it is a danger signal that many of those planning this shift see it as one of great profit potential. There is growing concern that public libraries and other free, open institutions will have less and less access to information, and will be charged for information that used to be available without charge.Another pressure on publishing is rising overheads. Publishing used to pay relatively low salaries. Editors earned roughly what a professor would, assistant editors roughly what a lecturer would and so on. Now publishers have raised their salaries to phenomenal heights, reaching into the millions. A recent PW survey shows the head of McGraw-Hill to be making more than $1.5 million a year, more than the head of Exxon or Philip Morris.One of the side-effects of corporatization is the increasing intent of book publishers to mimic the lifestyles of their colleagues in Hollywood. Publishers' offices become more and more showy, resembling banks rather than the offices of their predecessors; salaries and expense accounts have risen accordingly. The sales conferences at Random House were costing a million dollars each -Ñ twice a year -Ñ by the time I left. These overheads must be paid for even before the annual profits are declared. The reason so many publishers claim they cannot afford to publish a book that will sell fewer than 15,000 or 20,000 copies is not that the book cannot break even at those numbers. The reason is that each book must throw off a certain contribution to overhead, often $100,000 or more, to justify its place on the list.These internal demands are part of the transformation of the ideology of publishing. When people can no longer be proud of the books they publish, and justify their own careers by the books they have brought into the world, the cruder rewards of money and status are needed to fill the moral gap.The third basic change is a political one. It can best be illustrated by a recent event. Basic Books, the prestigious social science publisher now owned by HarperCollins, published a biography of Deng Xiaoping, by his daughter. It is badly written, full of excuses and lacking information -Ñ the kind of book that no Western publisher would look at twice under normal circumstances. But not only was the book published by Basic, it was launched with a massive publicity campaign, reported to have cost at least $100,000, in which the author was brought from China and presented to the press and public. Why was so much effort devoted to this book? For one thing, Rupert Murdoch, who owns HarperCollins, was eager to obtain from the Chinese government permission for his Sky cable network to broadcast in China. He had already agreed to censor the network so that the BBC News would be blocked, but those assurances, apparently, were not sufficient to get the contract for him. A little additional persuasion was neededÑvoila, the publication of this embarrassing volume.To Murdoch, the use of publishing to obtain greater ends is simply part of business as usual. A great deal of press attention was paid to the initial proposal by HarperCollins to pay Newt Gingrich an advance of $4.5 million. The book's sales now look as if they will earn, at the very most, a third of that. Even with the promise of a paperback sale and a second book, it is clear that the amount first offered the Representative exceeded any reasonable expectation of what sales might be. Under the circumstances, Murdoch's eagerness to consult Gingrich on the fate of his immensely valuable TV franchises, even before the contract had been signed, becomes even more telling.In the United States, the political nature of books has changed drastically since the conglomerates acquired so many houses. Harper, Random House and Simon & Schuster were once bastions of New Deal liberalism. Yet the current output of U.S. publishing is markedly to the right. The editors involved are still basically the same people; one must assume that they are responding to new pressures. Indeed, one of the major reasons my colleagues and I left Pantheon after all those years was the clear directive from the new Random House management that we should move away from the kind of political publishing for which Pantheon had been known, that we should consider books from the right instead. Random House, of course, denied afterward that it had made any such statements. But one has only to look at the Random House lists five years later to see the degree to which it has abandoned critical political and social commentary, and instead publishes authors from the right.The same thing is happening throughout the publishing industry. In a recent survey of new political books, Publishers Weekly listed some forty titles, all essentially from the right with the exception of two -Ñ one from The New Press and one from the Brookings Institution, both nonprofit publishers. Left-of-center books are now primarily published by small independent and alternative houses, such as Beacon, South End and others.Now of course the larger houses will say that these decisions are market-driven. But it is hard to argue that there are no readers open to alternative views. Indeed, the marked success of The New Press's own recent books dealing with politics confirms both the substantial nature of the audience and the need for publishers to play a countercyclical role. Books on political issues, particularly in election years, were for many years traditional fare of U.S. publishing houses. Yet in 1992, during the presidential election, there were virtually no books published for the general reader dealing with the major issues facing American citizens -Ñ NAFTA, national health insurance, the future of the welfare system -Ñ other than those taking a right-wing viewpoint, often subsidized by conservative foundations and then published by major conglomerates.The problems of publishing have been exacerbated by the rise of major bookstore chains, which to a large degree share the profit-centered ideology of the media conglomerates. The major chains focus their energies and very considerable resources on the best sellers. Bookselling has been divided by a civil war in which independent bookstores claim they are constantly threatened by the chains, which have an aggressive policy of opening new stores close to successful independents. As a result, more and more independents go out of business; in the center of New York City it is difficult to find more than a handful Ñ- that number has been diminished by three in recent months.In a series of lawsuits brought by the American Booksellers Association, the independents have charged that the large publishers favor the chains through unfair practices. These publishers pay large amounts of so-called "co-op" advertising money to be sure best sellers are advantageously placed in the stores. Smaller publishers, taking a gamble on a less accessible book, are hard put to pay the extra co-op money, and the chances of their books being stocked in any quantity diminish accordingly.What reversals of these trends are possible? The only major changes that could come would be by the strict application of antitrust laws in the United States and Great Britain -Ñ the very laws that have been waived to allow media conglomerates like Murdoch's to gain ever-increasing power. Political leaders are wary of opposing those who control the media, and have been quick to give way to the demands.It would be unrealistic at this point to expect either Clinton or the Republicans to challenge the major media conglomerates head-on. But this does not mean that no Congressional action is possible. Not many years ago Senator Paul Simon and others organized hearings on concentration in the media, supported by author groups such as PEN, then far more politically daring. Should no member of Congress be willing to run the considerable risks of taking on the media giants, citizen hearings, teach-ins and other tools are available. The most dangerous aspect of the current increase in conglomerate power is that it has gone largely unchallenged, that antitrust legislation is not even discussed, that other forms and structures of media ownership are hardly contemplated.Another opportunity is the proliferation of small, independent houses. These are growing in the United States. Though their names -Ñ Dalkey Archive, Graywolf Press, Verso Books, Thunder's Mouth, Milkweed, etc. -Ñ are still largely unknown to the public, from them come a wide variety of serious and important books. In a vast cultural desert, the combined effort of all the independent presses does succeed in making a few flowers bloom. But only a few. The share of the market of these presses is minuscule, at most 1 percent of total book sales. Moreover, they do not have the strength or resources of the major firms, and do not have anywhere near as ready an access to bookstores.The problem overall is a political and economic one. Until governments feel strong enough to challenge the power of the enormous conglomerates, the solutions that can be offered will have to be partial. Still, these new alternatives offer us the beginnings of choice. There is a new generation of young publishers willing to take on the "commercially incorrect" and, particularly in fiction and poetry, these new houses have come close to replacing their older and larger competitors.When my colleagues and I left Pantheon in 1990 rather than decimate its list and completely transform its character, I was approached by a number of people offering venture capital, or an imprint in one of the larger houses. But it seemed to me that a new kind of structure was needed to deal with this very different publishing scene Ñ a new, not-for-profit form of publishing. And so we formed The New Press, which has the structure of a university press without university ownership. It seeks to reach the broadest of audiences with serious political, social and cultural work, and in the first four years, publishing some 150 books, we have learned that the audiences are clearly there.The drive for profit that determines capitalism at the end of this century fits like an iron mask on our cultural output. Unlike Europe, we have lost most of the remnants of nineteenth - century capitalism, the family-owned firms whose owners could decide whether or not to maximize profit. If we were talking about similar changes in other industries, the results might not be as dangerous. If a few international manufacturers of clothing offer us an ever-more-limited choice of jeans, the culture is not deeply threatened. But if we have purveyors of culture who feel that one idea can fit all, then not only our future but our very ability to debate what it should be will be at risk.