Pilfering From Publishers

Love your small publisher? You'd better look out for him/her in what's shaping up to be a very bad year.

"I'm being mugged by a bank," wrote Greg Bates' last month to his colleagues and authors (of which this writer is one). His Maine-based Common Courage Press was one of 85 small publishers targeted by an April 1 seizure of $1.2 million by Bank One (and its subsidiary, American National Bank). And on April 23, the bank made an additional demand -- for the same amount.

It turns out that their common distributor, LPC Group, had a loan from Bank One with about $2.7 million outstanding. As Bates explained: "No publisher had signed onto the loan. Most, if not all, were unaware that LPC had obtained it. The bank acknowledges that LPC was not behind in loan payments. It recalled the loan after deciding LPC was a bad credit risk, essentially asking publishers to pony up for its own bad business choices. I'm not even a customer of the bank," Bates exclaimed. "They knew the money didn't belong to them when they took it. The bank is relying on forcing small publishers with shallow pockets to surrender rights to the money."

And now yet another corporate giant is trying to pilfer from publishers. Borders Group Inc., the country's second-largest book retailer, has told book publishers that they have to attend expensive "marketing seminars" if they want to see themselves on store shelves. Moreover, they're putting the foxes of the publishing world in charge of the book store farm.

According to a story in the San Francisco Chronicle, Borders' new plan is modelled on one that's used by grocers. The chain will choose publishers to co-manage each of 250 categories in their stores. These "captains" will be involved in determining which titles will be carried, displayed, and marketed, says Borders. Random House, for example, has been made "captain" of books for younger readers.

Random House is a subsidiary of Bertelsmann, the world's third-largest media and entertainment conglomerate, which owns not only Bantam Doubleday Dell but Arista Records, RCA Records, and a significant stake in AOL. Will "category captains" favor their own authors and corporate siblings unfairly? Not a chance, the big publishers tell the Chronicle, they'll keep eachother in check. Read: The seven (or is it five?) remaining macropublishers will split up the territory amongst themselves.

In return, they will help pay for market research, focus groups, exit interviews and polls. Borders is charging publishers about $5,000 per employee "to explain how the process works" and another $110,000 annually to help offset initial costs. Dozens of publishing employees have apparently already paid up and flown to Borders headquarters in Ann Arbor, Mich., to learn about the new sales program.

Does this sound to you like a game that anyone but the biggest of the big guys can play? Exactly. Five thousand is about what an indie or academic press can advance its authors - if that. The new sales program will work to cut yet more publishers and 'pesky' writers out of the sales picture.

Borders wants to survey readers? There's no better time to make yourself - and your support for the independent publisher - heard. Don't just buy elsewhere, tell those pollsters why. Then take a small-fry publisher or the next great struggling author out for lunch.

Journalist Laura Flanders is the host of Working Assets Radio and author of "Real Majority, Media Minority: The Cost of Sidelining Women in Reporting."

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