Changing the Country, One Book at a Time

[Editor's Note: This is the first of two parts of our Roundtable Discussion on Progressive Publishing. You can download the audio of this talk from AlterNet in two parts: Part One, Part Two. The second half of the discussion was published on Friday.]


In our world of fast-changing technologies, information overload, instant pundits and a relentless global 24/7 news cycle, books are, perhaps surprisingly, still vitally important. Yes, in the era of the Internet and media convergence on the web, Gutenberg's invention is still holding its ground, even though there is some decline in the number of books being sold, in a business sector that has its ups and downs.

There are many reasons why books remain a central part of many of our lives. One heartening reason is books represent deeper thinking than what we get in our day-to-day news scanning, and, happily, many people still want to dig and know more to make sense of our crazy and disconcerting world. And in some cases, book authors get enough respect and attention to jumpstart a national conversation.

Nevertheless, the trends in book publishing reflect media consolidation in other areas -- there are the big conglomerates and the little guys. As much as 80 percent of trade publishing is controlled by large publishing houses. Still, book sales are big business: Barnes and Noble, Borders and Amazon are all battling for market share. The Internet is helping to make many more books available than the brick and mortar stores can contain -- the so-called "long tail" that is supposed to strengthen small, independent publishers.

One might think that the smaller independent progressive book publishers would be thriving, especially in the face of the Bush administration's rampant unpopularity. But, surprisingly, political publishing is in the doldrums. The publishing boom of post-9/11 and the earlier Bush years have faded, along with the effectiveness of progressive activism. Is there a connection with books and the state of political engagement?

AlterNet invited four stalwarts of the progressive publishing universe to Mo Pitkin's in New York City to chat about the state of all things book publishing on January 11, 2006. Anthony Arnove is an author and editor at Haymarket Books as well as the literary agent for progressive heavies Arundhati Roy and Noam Chomsky. Dan Simon is the founder and publisher of Seven Stories Press, who has had some notable publishing successes -- currently with Kurt Vonnegut's "A Man Without A Country." (Seven Stories, in partnership with Akashic Books, published AlterNet's "The Five Biggest Lies Bush Told Us About Iraq" by Christopher Scheer, Robert Scheer and Lakshmi Chaudhry.)

Sarah Bershtel is the longtime associate publisher of Metropolitan Books, an imprint of Henry Holt and Co., where she has been the force behind notable political publishing including Barbara Ehrenreich's "Nickel and Dimed" and her newest "Bait and Switch"; also on Metropolitan's roster is Thomas Frank's "What's the Matter With Kansas?" and many others.

The fourth participant was Colin Robinson, a dynamic Brit, who had major success at Verso Books before moving over to the New York City-based nonprofit New Press in 2001. New Press is considered the heavyweight of independent political publishing, given the number of books it publishes, and its creative titles and fundraising prowess. Robinson, as chief editorial operative, was seen as a compelling fit by many at the New Press. But, much to the shock of some of his fellow publishers, Robinson left at the end of the year do to editorial differences. In Editor and Publisher, Diane Wachtell, executive director of the New Press, acknowledged the differences over running the non-profit publishing houses. "The New Press is an interesting hybrid and there's nothing written down on just how you go about making it work. We all care about it, but we don't all have the same vision on how to make it work," Wachtell said.

Robinson went into more detail. He cited differences on the nature of the New Press list -- "I want to do more radical, edgy books on politics and culture." Wachtell, Robinson said, is more interested in "progressive books. Books on public interest and on education." And he questioned the New Press's dependence on grants and foundation money. "Foundation support can affect the books. You can end up trying to please foundations and their support is unreliable." Many are looking to see where Robinson lands, as well as hoping that the New Press continues to play a powerful role in progressive and edgy publishing.

The roundtable was moderated by AlterNet's Executive Editor, Don Hazen. AlterNet has a long commitment to independent progressive books, regularly publishing excerpts, author interviews and reviews.

Don Hazen: Let's start by checking in on the big picture regarding the state of independent publishing. Where have we come, say since 9/11 and the success of the mini-Chomsky book? What's the trend line showing us? What are some of the big successes of the past couple years as well as disappointments? Colin, can you get us started?

Colin Robinson: For this discussion we need to make a distinction between independent and progressive publishing. There are a lot of independents, probably tens of thousands of independents who don't have anything to do with political publishing.

But if we're talking about progressive publishing, I think there was a period in the wake of 9/11 where a lot progressive publishers had a pretty good time of it. And that was for a couple of reasons; one, was that that they were much more fortunate in terms of being able to respond to the new politics of the situation. And obviously what Dan [Simon] did at Seven Stories with the little Chomsky pamphlet was a fantastic thing. I mean, how long did it take you to get that out, Dan?

Dan Simon: Greg Ruggiero and Noam worked about 22 drafts between late September and late October. And then we had the books out by the middle of November. It was astonishingly fast, and because the book was short, it was at a very high quality of production and completion. There was nothing rushed about it because of the shortness of the book.

CR: So I think the flexibility of the small independent progressive publishers was a factor there, The fact that they were able to realize so quickly what was important and to get it out there. And then following up on that was the fact that 9/11 did open up public discussion about the state of the world in a way that was very useful for progressive publishers. There was the whole question of why it had happened, and mainstream American politics never really addressed that. And that meant that there was a big gap that independent publishers were able to move into.

And I think particularly, say of Pluto [Press] in London, who had a couple of books, one on Afghanistan and another on the Taliban, which had been sitting on their backlist for a couple of years … they're the sort of books that would never have gotten published by a mainstream publisher. They just wouldn't have taken them on because they were too "marginal." But Pluto thought that they were important politically so they had them on their list, and when 9/11 came on, they absolutely took off. They sold fifty or sixty thousand copies of those books within a year of 9/11 happening. So that was a very good year for Pluto.

Sara Bershtel: And if I could add just one thing to that. I think it isn't just the new books that people came up with, but the books that a couple of us who were publishing political books, had on our lists. For us, the amazing story was Chalmers Johnson's "Blowback," which we had published, perhaps a year before. Within a week of 9/11, the sales of the book went skyrocketing for the reason that Colin said, that people perceived: Here was some effort at trying to understand what had happened in some way.

DS: And just to connect the sales and publishing side to the larger public conversation that was going on, and I'm paraphrasing the author and playwright Barbara Garson here: If today the majority of Americans believe that Bush misled us into going to war, if the majority of Americans believe that we made a mistake in going to war, etc., etc., it's largely to do with the efforts of the progressive book publishing and other parts of the alternative media in the fall of 2001 and in 2002, when the public opinions of the country were ostensibly pro-war.

When we were publishing [Chomsky's] 9/11, we came back from the Frankfurt Book Fair and everyone said, "Don't do it," because the country was so pro-war, and Bush's approval ratings were through the roof. And the progressive publishers -- Pluto is a great example -- because we're not marketing-driven, were publishing against the current. And did it for years and years and years. As other parts of the alternative media did. We did it throughout 2001, 2002, and part of the fruit of that is there being a kind of greater awareness out there today. It's something to be very proud of.

CR: The trajectory that I would trace is there was a period where there where a number of books that the progressive independent publishers were putting out, e.g., Tariq Ali's book "Clash of Fundamentalisms," which Verso published, sold in very large numbers. A lot of the books that were looking at Middle East politics generally suddenly got a big lift.

Then, and it's rather schematic picture, I would say that we moved into a phase where quite a lot of the independent publishers were doing very well with books that in shorthand you could call "Bush-bashing" books; and the fact that Bush polarized the country so much in the period after 9/11 was a good reflection of the left. I think if you look at The Nation, it went up from 90,000 to 150,000 in circulation. So the polarization of the administration did create new waves of support for progressive publishing. I think a lot of people jumped onto the bandwagon ... perhaps that's the wrong way of putting it. "Saw the market opportunity" and took it.

SB: Saw the market opportunity particularly for Bush-bashing.

CR: Right. A lot of books came out on Bush, and we're all ... I think everyone's a bit sort of sneering and fed up about all that, because it seems very easy. But at the time, it didn't seem like a bad thing to do. [Laughter]

DS: Spoken as a true Brit.

CR: We didn't do any at Verso or the New Press, and neither did any of you. But I don't feel that the people who did do those sorts of books were doing anything wrong. It was just that they got a bit same-y.

My feeling is that in the wake of that period, as you got into the last election, that political activism took quite a big hit in the United States. And actually in Britain, too. And if you look around at the sort of main loci of where political action might be taking place, you saw the anti-globalization movement, which everyone had said from Seattle onwards had this bright future, really losing its way. I don't think we need to have a discussion about why that was. But my own personal opinion was that it all became very activist-orientated. It was question of "getting out there" and demonstrating; the state was so ferocious in countering demonstrations that young people going on those demonstrations really had to get into their heads: "How do we avoid getting the living daylights beaten out of us, and how do we stop ourselves from getting arrested?" There seemed to be less discussion about what was the movement that was actually being built by these demonstrations. And I think that made it a problem to get an ongoing organization within the anti-globalization movement.

And then the anti-war movement, after the war had started and after those fantastic demonstrations in the spring of 2003, which were the largest demonstrations that had ever taken place in the world, the war went ahead anyway. People got a bit demoralized by that. And the demonstrations started tailing off. The union movement … well, you know the AFL-CIO fractured along very complicated lines and I think people are very unclear about that; the black movement is really, I would say, in crisis. So it was very hard to see where any kind of activism was going to come from in the United States in the last two or three years, and I think that has affected progressive publishing.

Progressive publishing has a very close relationship with political activism, and maybe that's a really obvious thing to say, but it seems to me to be true. And the fact that the left broadly was in crisis organizationally, couldn't help but have an impact on radical publishing. I think the two books that really stand out as contributions from progressive publishing in the wake of the elections of 2004 were both attempts to explain how it was that in such a polarized country the Republicans could succeed: and they were the book that Sara published, Tom Frank's "What's the Matter With Kansas?," which I think was a fantastic book and prompted a really, really interesting debate, and sold a huge number of copies. And the other one was the Chelsea Green book, George Lakoff's book, "Don't Think of an Elephant!" which I thought was a less interesting argument, really, it's argument that was very comforting for sections of the Democratic Party because it suggested that really there was nothing terribly wrong with the message they were putting over, but only the way that they framed it which I think … and it's just my view, is a facile and mistaken analysis.

DH: [laughs] George certainly wouldn't agree with that, and since I wrote the introduction to the book, neither would I. Framing is a far more serious undertaking than you describe, but let's save that for another discussion.

CR: Yes, he wouldn't, but the book did very well. I think that with the exception of those two books, that very much through 2004 and 2005, not very much was going on with independent publishing.

SB: I think it's exactly right what you say. Right after the election, actually, is when you could see a fall. I have no idea where it ends, but suddenly the conventional wisdom, that is what you hear in the hallways, what you'd hear from the chains, what you'd see in the reviews was that "political books are over, people aren't as interested." The orders for them were smaller … I don't know, does that have to do with the presence of political activism, or was the publishing of political books a kind of fad that everybody go into? During those years, suddenly the bookstores were ordering huge amounts of copies of books that they would never had ordered before. I mean, Noam Chomsky, a hundred thousand in hard cover, a hundred thousand in paperback? It was really something.

Anthony Arnove: Though the Chomsky sold through.

SB: It absolutely sold through.

AA: A lot of other books didn't.

SB: A lot of other books didn't, but it was after the election that you felt that the bookstores weren't going to be ordering. I don't know where this begins, who makes the first decision, but similarly, my sense now is that you look at the New York Times Book Review and all the other review media, very few political books are now getting reviewed. It's now absolutely common for books that we publish, which are political books, to get no reviews.

AA: Or to be reviewed by the right wing.

SB: If that. But I think two years ago that would not have happened. Political books would have been perceived as "important interventions" in some kind of national debate; but I think now there's a kind of quiescence, and I think it's a problem, and it's something we have to talk about and to figure out what to do about it.

DH: Is that your sense, Anthony?

AA: Well, I think Colin's analysis is absolutely right. What I would add to it is I think that there was, in a sense, overproduction in the book industry that the first Bush-bashing book was quickly followed by 12, 15, 20 others.

And you could pick other topics where you could see look-alike books, the kind of same-y-ness that Colin was referring to. And I think, understandably, going into a Barnes and Noble, and seeing those book tables where there was a range of not only Bush-bashing books, but a range of the left-bashing, liberal-bashing books, it created a kind of jaded feeling among book buyers. I think it encouraged a kind of cynicism around politics. That cynicism was reinforced by the pathetic nature of the political discussion during the election cycle. The narrowness of the debate around the war and occupation in Iraq, which the Democrats I think have a great deal of responsibility for. So given particularly the moment that Kerry became the front-runner for the Democratic Party, and you saw the anti-war movement give up its independence, give up its strength, give up the kind of potential that it had, and instead to mobilize for a pro-war candidate whose politics were so far removed from the kinds of politics that I think could have advanced the anti-war movement.

I think in that moment, the political debate narrowed and, therefore, there was a weakening in the discussion and interest in history and ideas and politics that Colin was talking about that had existed in this period after 9/11. So, there was both this overproduction of political books, the movement towards electoralism which I think in a way kind of dumbed down the discussion; it certainly narrowed the discussion. And then to be honest, there was some cynical publishing as well. I think some books that were published, you can question the political motivation for publishing them.

SB: People were trying to capitalize on the political situation.

AA: Yeah. People were trying to make a quick buck and it backfired. I think there was also a kind of desire for instant publishing. There's one kind of instant publishing, which was the example of the Chomsky book, "9/11," which was a political intervention. But that kind of book has a life -- people are going to be reading that book 20, 40, 50 years from now. You have to really look at the number of books that were published in the last year or two and ask, six months from now, a year from now, is anyone going to be reading this book? Does it have any kind of sustained relevance, critique, analysis, or is it just trying to chase a fad, chase a trend?

I think one of the strengths of the New Press, where Colin has been the last several years, is that a number of the books that the New Press published, and also a number of the books that Seven Stories and Metropolitan have published, are books that make a sustained contribution that's going to outlast this particular political moment, and aren't bound to the immediate fad or trend in publishing.

DH: This is a good point now to step back a little bit and talk about the mission. Dan, maybe you can start that. What is Seven Stories in this business for? What are you trying to accomplish? Do you see your goals as consistent with your other fellow publishers?

DS: I think that our mission is primarily social and cultural. It is primarily for social justice and to do what we can to keep the cultural conversation alive. We're very aware of marketplace, but we essentially believe that we pay too much attention to the marketplace; it'll make us stupid. [laughter] Still, we pay a lot of attention to the marketplace, and we try to make our books succeed. But there's always the percentage of the list that has the potential to thrive in the marketplace, and we want to work that as much as possible, and that's certainly less than half the list. More than half the list is going to succeed less well initially in the marketplace yet, and we feel it's our mission to love all our children equally.

Anthony's absolutely right in that the great concern of publishers must be always to take the long path because publishing is kind of a cumulative business. And as much as publishers are concerned exclusively with blockbusters, then we're denying the future. Howard Zinn's "People's History of the United States," which was not published by an independent house but which is a great contribution by an author who is very supportive of independent publishing. It sold a few thousand copies in its first year, and it was not noticeable for a decade or so. And now it's a blockbuster.

But the great books tend to start slowly. The great books tend to surprise and confuse people initially. And it's not for a decade or two decades or more that they establish themselves. "Leaves of Grass" by Walt Whitman … almost any great book you would choose to name started out making almost no impression whatsoever. I can't think of a single book that had lasting importance that began as a blockbuster.

DH: Can you say a little bit about how pursuing the marketplace makes you stupid in the context of the Vonnegut book ["A Man Without A Country"] that you published that's a big success story?

DS: We certainly embrace the marketplace, and there are extremely smart and savvy people at, for example, Barnes and Noble, or Amazon; the book trade is not something to dismiss. There's a lot of knowledgeable, caring people there. And of course the great independent booksellers are still often trailblazers -- St. Mark's, Prairie Lights, City Lights, etc. still doing important work. But when you get a book just right, the book marketplace will serve well as a conduit to readers who care a great deal and are looking for fresh ideas. So what we're all trying to do is get books just right, and there's very much a marketplace component. But none of us. I can't imagine a single example with Sara with [Tom] Frank's or us with Vonnegut or Colin who made a bestseller out of the "Communist Manifesto" of all titles. None of us sat down and said, "What can I do that's going to sell?" [laughter at Colin]

DS: Jokes aside, I think that, in terms of the mission, we're committed to being publishers. Which is to say to enter into the conversation of social justice and cultural importance, and then to do with as much as possible a savvy marketplace instinct. But the marketplace doesn't pull us by the nose, ever.

DH: Sara, is your mission different than Dan's?

SB: Probably not, but my situation is different; that is, I work in a kind of small imprint that's part of a larger publishing house that's part of a larger group of publishing houses that's part of a larger multinational.

DH: Can you name all those for the audience?

SB: I run an imprint called Metropolitan, which is part of Henry Holt, which is part of Holtzbrinck USA, which includes St. Martin's Press and Farrar Straus which has Macmillan in England and various publishing houses in Germany, all of which are part of Holtzbrinck. I had worked at a place called Pantheon before, and I think Pantheon was a very similar kind of construction; it was part of Random House.

And so the experiment of Pantheon, which is one that I think I'm trying to continue, is that to be a part of a larger machine, but to be the part that brings in certain books that you might've thought are "on the margins" but are not really. And you have to make that case, that they're not on the margins. And once you make that case, then what the larger publishing house has to offer is that they can really distribute; there's a tremendous amount of force that could be put behind a book. So that's my mission, to bring these voices or these ideas and it's a press that's open to many countries and many languages; to take political ideas which are, frankly, left wing, and progressive in a whole bunch of areas, and to bring those to a larger audience than one might assume these books would have. That's the enterprise.

The thing that I'm noticing, and something we all have to concentrate on, is that there's an enormous amount of churning in the industry right now. It's very interesting that books don't stay on the bestseller list. The only books that are on the bestseller list are the books that were on the bestseller list two years ago or three years ago. All the things that the industry sort of lobbed up there this year stick for maybe like three weeks and they're gone.

And you have to understand that this represents huge investments of money. And it's a huge debacle when that happens. And I think people are seeing that. For years, people have been saying, "Oh, we see the writing on the wall, the readership is diminishing, something is happening." What I think is happening is that yes, we had larger readership after 9/11, and I think now we're actually going back to the readership we had for a long time.

I have great faith that the people that buy our books and read our books are the people that read books. Our books are not easily turned into a film or a television program, unfortunately [laughter], or anything like that, but this is our readership, We have to become ever more clever on how we get to them and not rely on the review media and not rely on -- I mean, Barnes and Noble is great, but we can't rely on them for everything, and I think that's the hard part.

AA: Sara, can I ask you a question here? Which is … you mention books that have been on the bestseller list and are coming back on, and "Nickel and Dimed" is still on the bestseller list. To my mind, the success of "Nickel and Dimed" indicates something healthy and political. Colin's absolutely right, the unions are in crisis. Here's a book about class, about workers, about what it means to be working class in this country, and month after month and week after week and now year after year, the audience for this book has grown. What does that say?

SB: I think that I told you that when this began to happen with "Nickel and Dimed" all these journalists would call up and say, "What explains this?" I would come up with some answer like, "Well, she's a good writer." [laughter] And they would say, "Yes, but what explains it?" And I would say, "Well, you know, it's because she's writing about something important," or "She's writing about people." "Well, what do you think really explains it?" And I said to someone in exasperation, "Maybe people are fucking sick and tired of reading celebrity profiles, and they want to real something real, I don't know!" I think that also shows what makes books live in this country and that's school adoption, citywide reading programs.

DH: Colin, Sara's got her niche there at Metropolitan, but overall, do you think that the commercial publishing enterprise serves the public?

CR: No, no I don't. The American public, the public in Europe as well, are incredibly badly served by the mainstream media that relays news and culture to them. It's appalling, as are our political systems. People are much, much better than the societies that they live in, in my view. I think they're extremely badly served. And I think it's getting worse; the books are getting dumber and shallower and safer, and a huge wide swathe of opinion are not represented in mainstream publishing at all.

DH: And is the radical publishing effort that you have been a leader of, is it still on the margins or is it making progress? How do you see it?

CR: I sound a bit gloomy here -- but I think that it's more on the margins than it's ever been. If you look at the structure of publishing, in the United States or again, elsewhere in Europe, but in the United States especially, what you'll see increasingly is great conglomeration at the top to the point now where six publishing corporations are responsible for about 80 percent of trade. And that's number is progressively falling, so enormous conglomeration at the top, and then at the bottom, an extraordinary panoply of tiny little publishing companies, some really good ones … some of them are small, and some of them are miniscule, but that's about the range of them.

And between those things, you have almost nothing. There's an almost completely empty center. You could think of maybe two or three exceptions in New York -- Norton, for instance is a good, serious medium-sized publisher which happens to be owned by its staff, so it's not susceptible to being bought out. There are a couple of others. Like Bloomsbury, for example, has just come in and opened up in the U.S. But really, there's almost no medium-sized publishing companies anymore. The prospect of taking a small publishing company and making it into a large one doesn't exist any longer. That is not a viable option. Grove Atlantic would be another exception, very decent, serious, creative independent publisher which has managed to occupy that middle ground.

But there are very, very few, and that's a problem if you're running a little independent, progressive publishing company. I remember once I got the award for being "small publisher of the year" in London from the Sunday Times, and people came up to me for a year and said, "Oh, you're the small publisher of the year." [laughter] I remember thinking, "Well, I would really rather be the big publisher of the year …"

DH: What are the obstacles? Is not being able to get the books reviewed or the money for the advances? Is it just the conglomeration or are there other factors?

CR: I think it's the structure of the industry that it's very, very hard to get the distribution partly because a lot of distribution now … placement in bookstores is largely paid for.

AA: People don't understand what that means, Colin. You should say what that means.

CR: Well, if you were to take a Barnes and Noble, or a Borders store now, and Dan's right that there's plenty of very smart people working in both of those organizations, and some of them have very decent politics and have been very supportive of things that I've done. I remember talking with people in Barnes and Noble when we did the modern edition of the "Communist Manifesto," and they were very enthusiastic about it. In fact, even suggesting at one point that they could put it next to the cash register. [laughter] And they did! And it was absolutely terrific.

But if you look at a Barnes and Noble or a Borders now, it's actually what's effectively real estate, at least the front of the store is real estate, it is publishers buying little eight-inch by seven-inch blocks. They rent them for a month, and that's where they put their book, and that's how they put the book at the front of the store. If you want to promote a book in that way, it costs quite a lot of money up front. Independent publishers find it very difficult to do that. It would be worth having a discussion about the promotion of books because I think that's changing rapidly, and I think that the review pages are often very difficult to get onto for a small independents. Maybe that's less of a problem than it used to be.

AA: To perhaps throw in a controversial point, that people will understand around this table, if you look at journals that consider themselves on the left, or progressive, or liberal, their reviewing practices are very similar to the reviewing practices of the mainstream publishers. So Adam Shatz has greatly improved the Back of the Book of The Nation, but if you were to do a survey throughout the year of how many books that are reviewed in The Nation are by independent publishers, versus how many are published by mainstream or corporate houses, I think you would find overwhelmingly the same bias that you see in the New York Times.

DH: And a female reader recently pointed out that in the Fall Books Review, 19 of the 20 of the books reviewed were written by men.

AA: Yeah, only one woman in that whole fall books review. There would also be a strong correlation between the books that are being reviewed in the New York Times Book Review and what's being reviewed in The Nation. It's not just The Nation; I'm just using it as an example. So it's not as if there's a place where you can go where the radical and progressive books are being reviewed. They're just not being reviewed anywhere. Or they're being reviewed on websites and magazines like Clamor or the International Socialist Review.

SB: Do you think they have anything against independent publishers? I mean, I don't think they're looking in terms of who's publishing, are they?

AA: I think that they should be looking at that. I'm not saying that we should never review books that are published by corporate houses or mainstream houses, or that we should never have "our take" on the books that are being debated and discussed in other journals. But I think there should be a conscious attempt to highlight and feature books by independent publishers and books by radical publishers. Most of us at this table operate on the assumption now that we have to do books that will not get reviewed. And how are we going to deal with the fact that they will not get reviewed? And what do we do in place of getting reviewed? That's our starting point for the discussion.

This is the end of the first installment. On Friday, the roundtable will take up several controversial questions:
  • Should prominent progressive authors who sell a lot of books publish only with independents?
  • Are these authors selling out when they go with corporate publishers?
  • Has the New York Times Book Review section gotten much more conservative?

Be sure the read the rest of this roundtable discussion tomorrow, only on AlterNet.

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