by Pat Holt
Friday, February 2, 2001
NO 'GOLDEN ERA,' PLEASE
I'm glad to see the thoughtful essays that continue to appear about books from publishing veterans Andre Schiffrin and Jason Epstein.
But gad, it's strange to see so many references to traditional publishing as -- well, not terribly efficient but lovable in its way. Something like an ol' codger that had its problems but, when it worked, worked pretty well.
That's true in part, and heaven knows one feels tremendous affection and nostalgia for the kind of publishing we've all sought as a goal.
But surely I'm not alone in thinking there has never been a golden era in American publishing - not in Max Perkins' day, not in Bennett Cerf's day, not in the day of Andre Schiffrin or his father, and not in Jason Epstein's day, either.
American publishing has been as messy and problematic as American history -- great books have come from it, of course, but as an industry it's not something to be particularly proud of.
How could it be? Even in the much heralded "gentlemen's profession" era, publishers were so insulated that only a handful of books from African American, Asian American or Latino American writers got published.
Books from women ran into the prejudices of such an exclusive industry. Oh, I know that Betty Friedan's "The Feminist Mystique" is seen as a breakthrough, as THE book that launched the women's movement. But why is that? Do we think there weren't any women writing feminist books beforehand? Or were they just not accepted for publication?
The one thing I loved (everybody loved) about the "gentlemen's profession" was that it meant standards existed.
It meant that a handshake was all anyone needed to honor an agreement.
It meant that authors never bolted from house to house for the money (there was no money) - they stayed with the editor who discovered and nurtured them, and that editor stayed at the same house, too.
It meant that agents weren't the greedy sharks portrayed today. And it meant that Marketing respected Editorial to choose the books, while Editorial respected Marketing for selling the books, and neither got in the other's way.
The big problem with the Gentlemen's Profession, of course was that it was only for gentlemen. The ones who decided what made a person qualify as a gentleman were . . . other gentlemen.
Naturally one wanted to believe someone like Don Klopfer (Bennett Cerf's partner at Random House), who liked to say that racism and sexism (not terms he used) didn't exist in literature, that books were chosen for their merits alone.
This was true when people like Klopfer SAW THE MANUSCRIPT. But so many publishing houses were run in that clubby uptown atmosphere of the privately wealthy that when someone at the top said there was nothing exclusionary about choosing a book on its merits, he was usually speaking from a vacuum.
I'm not saying the electronic book and print-on-demand revolution is going to fix any of this or usher in something better (heaven knows we're only in for more chaos).
In fact, we can take a lesson about the future from what happened in the past: There never was a "golden era" in publishing and probably never will be.
JOEL KLEIN WORKING FOR BERTELSMANN?
The thing that bothers me most about big business is not its arrogance (this we expect) but its cynicism.
Of course we're always supposed to pretend that cynicism is not at work when the business press reports on a smart business move.
Take this week's news about Joel Klein, the former U.S. assistant attorney general who was "considered by many to be an activist anti-trust chief during his four years under Attorney General Janet Reno," according to the New York Daily News.
Klein is the trust-buster credited with breaking up Microsoft, blocking Lockheed Martin from acquiring Northrup Grunman, and stopping WorldCom from buying Sprint.
So what in heaven's name is Klein doing taking a job as chairman and CEO of the German conglomerate Bertelsmann Inc., except to quite cynically package up the very deals he used to break up at the Department of Justice?
"He brings a prodigious set of connections at a time when the concern [Bertelsmann] is poised for acquisitions," writes David Kirkpatrick in the New York Times.
What a nice way to put it. For one thing, Klein arrives just at the time the European Commission is opposing Bertelsmann's attempt to buy the British music company, EMI.
Bertelsmann already owns the huge and competiting label, BMG, so the EC worries that one company owning the two music labels "would stifle competition," suggests the New York Daily News. That's hardly a big leap.
And now that Bertelsmann is loaded with $12 bilion after selling its America Online shares (following the AOL-Time Warner merger) and aggressively seeking new acquisitions, Klein will "likely prove a boon to the company's government relations campaign," says the News.
My, what a campaign that has been. In April of last year, Bertelsmann combined its broadcasting division with that of British publisher Pearson and the Belgian group Audiofina to form a $3.68 billion "international media concern" with designs on the U.S. broadcasting industry.
That deal brought a little terror into the hearts of many observers, designed as it was to circumnavigate U.S. laws limiting foreign ownership of television stations - laws Rupert Murdoch has been trying to penetrate for a decade or two (see #144).
But gee, it's been almost a whole year and no BOL-TV has hit American screens, so Bertelsmann needs an insider kind of guy, someone who has "worked closely with European antitrust regulators," says the Times, someone who can tap dance around laws and regulations - someone who, "I am very confident," says Bertelsmann CEO Thomas Middelhoff, "will fit in with Bertelsmann's corporate culture."
How prescient. "I don't view myself as going over to the other side," Klein confidently told the News. "I think business and government have a congruent interest in allowing those things that are pro-consumer and preventing those that are anti-competitive."
Aw. Nothing cynical about Mr. Klein. He's so "pro-consumer!" (All of a sudden.) I know I'll want him in my corner as Bertelsmann makes even more inroads in American and European media.
ACK! AMAZON PROMISES 'PROFITABILITY'
Well, you don't need me to say that Amazon.com's promise of profitability, which the company made more than a dozen times in its 4th-quarter report Wednesday, is a lot of hooey.
That's because everybody else is saying it.
"The fact that Amazon has to lay off 1,300, or 15% of its employees, [and close down] one of its distribution centers and the Seattle customer-service operation," observes Forbes, "in order to try to get to operating profits, which of course are not the same as actual profits, is a frank admission that the basic premise behind Amazon isn't working."
Talk of profitability - always a joke at Amazon.com - now gets murkier and murkier. "[Amazon.com] expects ... fourth-quarter operating profits on a pro forma basis," says Motley Fool. "The net profit, mind you, will likely be slim to nothing this year . . . Can't we find something better?"
That tone of impatience and exasperation creeps into all news coverage of Amazon.com these days, and no wonder: One wants to say to the company: Just do one thing right. Just sell books, as you promised way back in 1995.
Quit going off half-cocked buying all those product lines, starting up fizzling auctions or throwing away money on hugely expensive distribution centers.
Just find a way to sell books profitably, like the independent bookstore down the block. Now there's a model you might want to adopt.
MJ Rose writes to clear up a few issues in my interview with her in #212:
" 'In Fidelity' was not written as my second novel and not rejected by anyone.
" 'Lip Service' was my second novel and 'In Fidelity' is my third - written just last year - and wonderfully accepted right away by Pocket Books.
"Also I didn't print 3000 copies of 'Lip Service' as POD books - that process was not available way back in 1998. I self-published using a traditional printer.
"I don't mean to nitpick - just don't want anyone reading the column to be confused if they've read other versions of this saga and notice it's not jibing."
Absolutely right, MJ! The dozen years it took to become an "overnight sensation" deserve the most accurate telling possible.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Re your article about MJ Rose, an author in my town of Greenwich, Conn. If I got as much press and exposure as she does, I could probably retire. I would ask who her publicist is, but I'm pretty sure she does it all herself. It might be of interest to you that of the five locally featured books on our website (www:justbooks.org under "local interest"), two were published by a mainstream houses (Rose's "In Fidelity" and the very funny "New Millionaire's Handbook" by Chris Fountain); one was self-published traditionally by an individual ("A Century of Contentment: The Last Working Farm in Greenwich"); one by an organization ("Greenwich Before 2000"); and one by Xlibris in print-on-demand with Ingram carrying both cloth and paper editions ("At Fault").
Ordinarily I am loathe to carry self-published books. There is no benchmark for quality that a publishing house ordinarily imposes on a writer's work. This is not to say that an awful lot of dreck doesn't get published by many mainstream houses. However, I think I would rather take a chance on works coming from traditional publishers rather than from authors whose literary qualifications may take a back seat to their ability to pay the printer--or in this brave new techno world, to pay the e-publisher.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I really enjoyed your interview with M.J. Rose and found many of her opinions right on as well as workable. I have to take issue w/ one, though. Rose says "Look at this whole matter of encryption of ebooks. It's getting crazy. If you price things right, people won't steal them. They only steal things when they're too expensive." Unfortunately, that doesn't seem to be the case, as proved by none other than Stephen King. Despite the fact that the first chapter of his e-novel was priced free on several sites, hackers spent considerable time breaking into the sites where it was for sale just to show they could do it and get the chapter for free there. Encryption is very necessary if the author and publisher are to make any money; "crazy" would be to ignore the hacking problem.
Patricia Gardner Evans
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Enjoyed your talk with MJ Rose; she has great insight into a possible future. But I couldn't disagree with her more than when says, to paraphrase: "CDs just cost a quarter to make," and "Napster exists because CDs are too expensive." Again, the actual plastic of the CD might be 25 cents, but I don't think that includes the salaries of studio musicians, the package designer, the marketing team, etc. etc.
I know MJ wasn't defending Napster, but the "it's only a quarter to make" thinking directly allows a college kid to say "screw Sting; he's got enough money." I for one want to see everyone involved with making a record get paid for their work, the artist AND the team behind it, and yes, to move to the book world, the writer AND the editor and all those who bring a book to the reader.
Napster is a success because a whole generation has been brought up to not think through the consequences of not paying for anything (also known as stealing), that the gimme mentality of the web leads to extremely selfish and shortsighted behavior (can we say techstock crash?).....and I'm sounding like my father, so shoot me now. Back to downloading pictures of the D.C. pandas for my daughter.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
In your review of "Eat First," with regard to the bookshop's suggestions that they'd like the cover and title changed, you made a comment to the effect that that's the beauty of POD books--you can change it next time. That is not practically true, at least as far as Xlibris, my publisher, is concerned. Once the book has gone to print, a change of this type would run me a couple of hundred dollars as I recall. Furthermore, the book has received so much publicity as "Eat First" and is on so many websites by that name, I don't believe that would be feasible.
Sonia Pressman Fuentes
Dear Holt Uncensored:
[Regarding letters about media coverage, or lack of it, about protesters at the Bush inaugural]: I had the amazing experience of watching the inaugural parade on CNN (or was it C-span?) after midnight when they tend to let the cameras roll on meetings and things of 'no interest' like Nader speaking and the like. I was amazed to see Bush and Cheney in their funereal black car, black glass windows, with four security men huffing at each corner of the car. For MILES the crowd groaned and booed, called "shame," chanted slogans like "Al was robbed." It was one long negative roar.
A few cheers and handwaves among a predominantly mature, white, determined but not rowdy crowd. The car did speed up when it became clear it was a hostile scene. The security men were forced to run to keep up with the car, not easy for some of them, but obviously no one in the car noticed. 'Not my president' 'hail to the cheat' hail to the thief' on signs along the way.
When they reached the ticketed section, a window in the car was cracked to acknowledge the first friendly waves. But even then boos could be heard and Cheney who could be seen smiling inside abruptly rolled the window up again. The more friendly audience at the end seemed lukewarm, perhaps sobered by the sounds from the earlier part of the "parade." It turned out to be a demonstration against the "unfriendly takeover" of our government. Not surprising, the whole event was ignored by all forms of media.
A friend who went to the parade was amazed to hear how it had really been. "We never stopped booing where I was, but we couldn't tell what was happening in other parts of the parade." On a talking heads show the next night the "liberal" spokesperson said that it had been quite a negative parade. "Oh, that was 'orchestrated'." (From the "moderate" spokesperson). The "liberal" replied, "Well, Bush was 'orchestrating' too; why weren't they out there?" That was only worth a a shrug from the "centrist." I saw no other footage of that part of the parade. Only of the fans with tickets at the end of the parade. We have a right to know what happened at OUR inaugural parade. It belongs to the American people, and we need to know it ALL.
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