HIGHTOWER: Monopolizing Our Book World

The great journalist A.J. Liebling wrote that "freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one."

Alas, newspapers are not the only outlet for the printed word that's being locked up by a handful of corporate giants. The book world, too, is succumbing to the global tidal wave of conglomeration and consolidation, and this is steadily shrinking the variety and depth of thought available in the mass media.

Six global giants now have their tentacles around most of the books that get published. Such noted publishers as Random House, Doubleday, Bantam, and Dell are now under the single roof of the German-based powerhouse, Bertelsmann. Likewise, HarperCollins, William Morrow, and Avon are all part of Rupert Murdoch's far-flung media empire, while Simon & Schuster, Little Brown, and even the venerable Book-of-the-Month Club are now sublimated to the media colossus of AOL Time Warner.

The grab for total corporatization of the book world also is reaching beyond publishing, as Barnes & Noble, Borders, and a couple of other deep-pocket retail chains work to squeeze out the last bastion of true commitment to the written word: independent bookstores. The independents are extraordinary jewels in the often-crass world of commerce they're the very opposite of cookie-cutter corporatization, each one with its own special personality.

The giants are out to crush them with deep-discount pricing and massive advertizing. But the independents -- with names like Tattered Cover, Politics & Prose, Book People, Ruminator, and Midnight Special -- are a scrappy bunch, fighting back with competitive prices, a broader range of book choices, and personalized service, and their own cooperative Web site for getting any book you want: www.booksense.com.

This is Jim Hightower saying ... In commerce, as in politics, independence and choice are not given to us -- rather, we the people have to insist on them. Independent bookstores will be there for us only if we use them. It's a matter of what kind of community we want to have.

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