Article — From the March 2009 issue
SIGN IN to access Harper’s Magazine
1. Sign in to Customer Care using your account number or postal address.
2. Select Email/Password Information.
3. Enter your new information and click on Save My Changes.
Subscribers can find additional help here. Not a subscriber? Subscribe today!
Article — From the March 2009 issue
The problem with publishing is the relentlessness of the apocalypse. Since the seventeenth century, catastrophe has desolated the book industry on a generational schedule, and the villains have been legion: a censorious Catholic court, Jewish moneylenders, the War of the Spanish Succession, the Gregorian calendar (which led, in its maiden year, to a disastrous misscheduling of the Frankfurt Book Fair), the railroad, the post office. Yet books, and the culture they prop up, have more or less survived, as publishing has always proven itself capable of repelling the barbarians.
The present onslaught, however, is perhaps different, having been launched not from without but from above. The barbarians have assumed positions as managers. They cut costs. Readers have no doubt heard the basic story, which is basically true as far as it goes. Publishing used to be a business of leisured gentlemen happy to make a profit of 3 or 5 percent. They came from money and often didn’t need much more of it, especially the sort that might be gained through the sale of things. What they did instead was to turn their parents’ financial capital into cultural capital. Then media consolidation arrived, and by the 1990s almost every big publisher was owned by a giant conglomerate. Knopf and Vintage are parts of Random House, which is owned by Bertelsmann (Germany); Farrar, Straus and Giroux, one of the last great holdouts, is now owned by Holtzbrinck (Germany), which also owns St. Martin’s and Henry Holt and Picador; Little, Brown and Grand Central Publishing (formerly Time Warner) are owned by Hachette, which in turn is owned by Lagardère (France); HarperCollins and its subsidiaries are owned by News Corp. (Rupert Murdoch); Penguin is owned by Pearson (U.K.); and Simon & Schuster was bought by Gulf + Western, which became Paramount, which was bought by Viacom, which was bought by CBS, which then became a different version of CBS.
These giant publicly traded companies were insulted by margins of 5 percent. CEOs pressured editors to buy big bestsellers, which developed into the form of mutual assured destruction that is the book auction, a sales device that leads to insupportable advances and thus to virtually inevitable disappointments, followed by even larger advances and larger disappointments. As publishers are squeezed from one direction by their corporate overseers, they are gouged from the other by Barnes & Noble and Amazon, whose increasing domination of the retail market means they can demand ever deeper wholesale discounts and extort additional concessions for prime bookstore and home-page placement. At the same time, book sales are down, newspaper coverage of books is diminished, people like to waste their time on the Internet, and so on. Thus it augurs total collapse when, in an economic downturn, publishers are forced to shutter whole imprints, as Random House did in December; freeze acquisitions, as Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has; or lay people off, or cancel holiday parties, or fetter expense accounts.
But the problem with this standard story is that it refuses to ask what, exactly, is at stake. It assumes that decline and loss are self-evidently defined. It takes for granted that the mid-twentieth-century good fortune of publishing, held aloft by a peculiarly luxuriant middlebrow culture (and “middlebrow” is here employed in the most appreciative way), was natural, or was even somehow a necessary condition for the book’s survival. Not long ago, New York magazine ran a competent version of this story, entitled “The End,” and it trafficked in anecdotes like the following, about the novelist Richard Ford and the souring of his relationship with Knopf, his publisher of many years:
“[Ford] never felt the money was commensurate with the work that was produced,” says [one unnamed] colleague. It couldn’t have been easy when the Lauren Weisbergers of the world were getting better deals than he was. “He’s 64, looking for that one last score in the literary world.” Knopf offered Ford roughly $750,000 per book, at which point [Knopf editor Sonny] Mehta capped the money, according to the source; Ecco offered $3 million for three books.”
That is, contemporary late-corporate publishing is a fallen world in which Lauren Weisberger, author of The Devil Wears Prada, gets really rich, while Richard Ford, one of the indisputably important novelists of our time, the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Independence Day and The Sportswriter, gets slightly less rich. None of the elegists say: What is coming to an end is the idea that Richard Ford is going to be richer than Lauren Weisberger. None of them say: What is coming to an end is the wishful insistence—for it is, ultimately, a wish, deeply felt, by a lot of people—that Richard Ford is going to be rich at all.
More from Gideon Lewis-Kraus: