Holt Uncensored

Holt Uncensored


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by Pat Holt

Thursday, August 1, 2002


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Perhaps the lesson to be learned from the Three Big Purges of this week is how dangerous it is *to literature* when we get used to corporate ownership of publishers.

Immediately upon hearing of Thomas Middelhoff's termination at Bertelsmann, for example, business analysts reminded us that a Middelhoff ouster wasn't unexpected for three reasons:

  1. Of course the old-guard Mohn family at Bertelsmann would never relinquish control to the extent that Middelhoff wanted.
  2. Naturally Middelhoff's display of megalomania during his Radio City Music Hall appearance offended the conservative stay-at-home Mohns.
  3. We all knew Middelhoff's purchase of the bankrupt Napster, as well as his attempt to bolster the dying BOL.com, would be his demise.

In other words, we knew it was coming; get used to it; corporate ownership giveth and taketh away (mostly the latter, it seems to me).

And all along, while Middelhoff signed more contracts and got more money - millions and millions of dollars in bonuses, not to mention his gigantic salary - Random House felt it had to make deeper, more disastrous cutbacks than any other publisher in the business.

Laying off editors and decreasing budgets were all we saw from the outside. Inside, one shudders at the pressures endured by the editors who remained at Random House and all its many imprints.

No matter how defensive publishers may be, cutbacks *always* affect what is considered a "safe" book in publishing (do more of 'em! see below) and what is considered "risky" (do fewer!). Among other things, this makes the environment so unhealthy for authors we might as well have entered the Dark Ages in our own time.

Then there was the "billion dollar buying spree" at Vivendi Universal in which Houghton Mifflin got scooped up before CEO Jean-Marie Messier got thrown out.

Anyone looking at the difference in profitability between Houghton's text and trade divisions would (as it's been feared for decades) toss out the latter. But as of Tuesday the Wall Street Journal was saying the entire company will probably be divested. If you were an author, how attractive would Houghton Mifflin look to you?

As for Robert Pittman's departure from AOL Time Warner, who knows what the effect will be on Little, Brown and Warner Books? The fact is that we now assess the status of book publishers by watching for yet another purge at the top. Whether Little, Brown and Warner Books are good publishers is beside the point.

What we do know is that corporate ownership of publishing today, especially after the Three Purges, has created a chilling, unwelcome and jaded environment for authors.

Needed most at times like this is an open and free exchange of ideas and a publishing program that nurtures many different authors writing many different books. Instead, fewer and fewer authors succeed, and when they do, we call these authors "brands."

Here again, we adjust to the corporate ownership by adopting its language, even seeking "brand extensions," as Linton Weeks writes this week in the Washington Post. There he explains that in the world of product marketing, a "brand extension" is a new product that builds on the fame of the original, like Pepsi Twist or GapKids.

In the book industry, when the publisher believes an audience for, say, Tom Clancy or Clive Cussler or James Patterson is insatiable, the author is encouraged to simply think up ideas and let other authors write the books as a way of "extending" the brand.

Thus we get novels - with Tom Clancy's name plastered across the cover - that are really written by people Clancy has hired. Dale Brown is another example. He started his bestselling "Dreamland" series, but the latest novels are written by Jim DeFelice.

Let's not even get into digging up the dead, as has happened with Robert Ludlum and Lawrence Sanders, or pretending they still churn out one bestseller after another. After all, publishing from the grave is a fine old publishing tradition that's been going on for generations, as I believe that wild young hotshot Margaret Truman can attest.

But back to the Three Purges. I wish some kind of personal pledge or statement could be made by publishing heads like Peter Olson of Random House to their staffs, to the public and most of all, to potential authors.

This announcement might say that the more autonomous the publishing house is editorially, the better competitor it is in the marketplace - and the better fiscal subsidiary it is under the parent umbrella.

In other words, the health of the house should never depend on the largesse of the parent. If the corporate owner wants the publisher to be fiscally responsible, the smart move is to give the publisher freedom to explore all avenues of revenue (another term for responsibly published books). Let the house take its own risks, take the time to nurture writers and manage its own publishing program over the long haul - with the usual monitoring system the parent employs for all its subsidiaries and the usual profits expected every year (or heads will roll, and so forth).

Anyway, *some* kind of statement - and some kind of strong leadership role on the part of publishing chiefs - could return a sense of vision and purpose to the very hard work of publishing books that staffs accomplish in the first place. This statement could also alleviate the chilling effect that authors feel when they contemplate submitting a book proposal to the jaded, corporation-dominated mainstream publishing industry we so love today.

Instead we hear namby-pamby announcements such Peter Olson's statement after Middelhoff was fired:

"In this time of transition," Olson said, "I believe we can best show our support for our parent company's new leadership by continuing to focus on publishing our books as well as ever."

Right, let's all support "our parent company," however dastardly it behaves. Let's change the pledge of allegiance to "one nation, under our parent company..." and let's be glad our parent company decides what it means to publish books "as well as ever." It's not that the parent company knows anything about publishing. It's rather that the parent company signs the checks. That, until the next purge, is what rules publishing.



I don't think it's a coincidence that librarian Zoia Horn has been given this year's Jackie Eubanks Memorial Award for outstanding advocacy and social responsibility.

A former member of the ALA Intellectual Freedom Committee in 1977, she helped found the Coalition for the Right to Know in 1980 and "became an activist in attacking barriers to information from library fees to the consolidation of publishing houses," according to the ALA's Marie Jones.

But Horn is famous among librarians for another reason - her refusal, at age 54, to testify against Fathers Philip and Dan Berrigan, for their activities as activists against the war in Vietnam as part of the legendary "Harrisburg Seven" in 1971.

According to ALA Councilor at Large Mark Rosenzweig, the Berrigans and others "had been indicted in a fabricated conspiracy case cooked up by the FBI's J. Edgar Hoover. In refusing to testify against them, Horn went to jail.

"The late Eqbal Ahmed, a renowned Pakistani scholar, who was among the indicted, asked her in the court hallway, 'Why are you doing this? You don't need to!' Zoia believed differently. She HAD to do it because she believed as a librarian and citizen in freedom of thought, freedom of association and freedom of speech."

Horn attempted to say as much to the judge, according to Rosenzweig, when she stood up and announced, "Your Honor - it is because I respect the function of the court to protect the rights of the individual that I must refuse to testify. I cannot in my conscience lend myself to such a black charade."

The judge interrupted her with an abrupt "Take her away!" and threw her in the clink for 20 days.

Horn's "actions helped keep library collections open, facilitating the way for getting material from alternative presses into libraries," said Byron Anderson of the committee that gave Horn the award.

About the timing of the award compared to the announcement above by Peter Olson of Random House after Middelhoff's firing:

I realize that libraries are funded in an entirely different way than for-profit publishing houses, and that the charge of protecting free speech is so engrained in library science that the actions of Zoia Horn, while heroic, are part of a long tradition.

Nevertheless, in the face of the anti-free speech environment created by the USA PATRIOT Act and the specter of a Department of Justice that may well punish librarians for protecting patrons' privacy, it seems to me that librarians have found a way to reassure the American public that libraries are going to continue doing their job, no matter what.

They send out this message by restating the librarians' "imperative" - that all libraries must "guard against impediments to open inquiry," when they chose this year to give the ALA's highest intellectual freedom award to Zoia Horn.

They sent out the same message last month when the ALA Council reiterated its "statement on privacy" (without ever mentioning FBI agents at their door): This is that "privacy is essential to the exercise of free speech, free thought, and free association," and that "protecting user privacy and confidentiality" is central to the mission of libraries.

These are ways to take a leadership position and express autonomy without getting your head kicked in. Independent booksellers have been standing up to police invasions and attempts at censorship in their own way right up to the present. Independent book publishers do the same in a forbidding economic climate that makes you wonder how they get through the day.

How I would love to hear a mainstream book publisher remind us all that publishers are the great caretakers of American literature and, as such, want to welcome, nurture and protect authors of every stripe, whether "risky" or "safe," at any time.


SUMMER SCHEDULE - just a reminder we're on a once-a-week schedule until vacation the end of August. See you next week.



Dear Holt Uncensored:

Dale Peck's irritable urpings in The New Republic re Rick Moody's work(s) do Mr. [Rick] Moody no disservice at all. In fact, the review might even be the result of collusion betwixt Mr. Peck and Mr. Moody to render Mr. Moody's latest work and Mr. Peck's review the Talk of the Town.

I would never have known Rick Moody from Mick Roody. But now I do. And now I know something about Dale Peck, too. Congratulations, guys! I wish I could get Mr. Peck to review a Balona Book and thoroughly trash it! What pro publicist is able to do a better job of sparking interest in something very few people would otherwise ever read?

Balona Books

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Couldn't disagree more about the purpose of book reviews. Since when does "service to readers" (whether of a daily newspaper or a more narrowband vehicle like The New Republic) not include pointing out naked emperors and providing context for judgment (hence iconoclasm)?

Mike Stern

Holt responds: You're right - that's often the purpose of book reviews - but not when the reviewers refuse to provide evidence for their many claims. It's just not fair to ask readers to take the reviewer's word for anything. When a review doesn't back up every judgment with quotes or supportive information from the book, how do we know what the reviewer's agenda might be?

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Re Wanda Coleman/LA Times' bashing of Maya Angelou and her association with major Sixties icons: My sons and I have seen several recently televised revivals of vintage films about Muhammed Ali, and if I'm not mistaken, one contains extraordinary footage of Malcolm X, in the company of Maya Angelou, meeting the then very young Cassius Clay in Africa. Sorry to be so vague about the film title, but I was very impressed to see her in the film; I don't recollect seeing Coleman.

Christopher Kerr

Dear Holt Uncensored:

WOW! Thank you for educating me about Bob Haas and his efforts at Levi Strauss regarding AIDS. I couldn't make it through his letter without tearing up, knowing how many people he affected by his willingness to act.

Staci Backauskas

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I read with interest posting #329 where you reference the American Library Association (ALA) and ALA Council actions around the USA Patriot Act. As you probably know, the ALA mission is to provide leadership for the development, promotion and improvement of library services and the profession of librarianship in order to enhance learning and ensure access to information for all. This lofty principle demands that we take clear and strong stands on issues ranging from Internet access to copyright to the USA Patriot Act.

Thank you for your support of the ALA’s position protecting user privacy and confidentiality and your ongoing efforts to educate and share information on threats to people’s freedom to access the broadest range of materials and resources. The ALA and librarians will continue to fight for our patrons’ First Amendment right to read and receive information without government interference – and we will work to raise public awareness of these vital concerns.

With friends like you… we are fortunate and fortified. Thanks again for the kiss, hug and thoughtful commentary.

Maurice J. (Mitch) Freedman
President, ALA

Holt responds: I usually don't run thank-you notes but I couldn't help doing it this time because the letter is so formal and careful and then at the end he thanks me for the "kiss" and the "hug" sent to the ALA. Absolootles and there's more where that came from (see above).

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I was pleased to see the action alert about Ashcrafty's [Attorney General John Aschcroft's] library invasions, and gladly signed the petition you provided the link to... Then I followed the Working Assets links to the DoubleClick opt-out program - only to find that by signing the petition I have gotten myself involved in yet another source of email spam, which has tripled in quantity and sleaze in the past few months.

Never again will I sign a petition, which both calls Ashrafty's attention to myself but also invites more email spam to my mailbox...

If you can follow up with some believable information that such email petitions might actually do some good, it may have been worth my while and risk, but for now I shall fall back on my old policy of no petitions until there is some verification that they actually have a real effect on the issues they purport to support...

Thanks for the information and excellent read each week, but no more online petitions for me!

A Reader

Holt responds: I asked Becky Bond of Working Assets to respond to this query. Here is her answer:

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Sorry to hear that your readers are experiencing an upsurge in the amount of unsolicited commercial e-mail in their in boxes. Spam is going up all over. In fact, even political spam is on the rise (on the Left, some call our political spam "tofu").

I want to assure you that people who take action via Working Assets will not experience an increase in spam or tofu due to joining our e-mail campaigns. Working Assets only employs our users' e-mail addresses to send them messages about other political actions or about Working Assets. For example, if you use our service to e-mail John Ashcroft and tell him to halt all law enforcement incursions into library records, we may e-mail you in the future to ask your help in fighting an anti-choice Bush appointee to the Supreme Court.

Here's our exact privacy language:

"WorkingForChange/Working Assets does not sell, trade or release your e-mail address to others. We may send you information in the future about Working Assets by email or by post." http://www.workingforchange.com/about/privacy.cfm

If you read further in our privacy disclaimer, you'll find a link to the privacy policy of DoubleClick, the vendor we use to help us send out our e-mail. what this tells you is helpful information such as the fact that DoubleClick won't work with us if we send e-mail to people who have not "opted in" or voluntarily agreed to receive e-mail from us. This is in fact a helpful anti-spam policy.

What may have confused some of your privacy activists, was a clause from the DoubleClick privacy policy about how personal information is handled from clients that agree to share website data with DoubleClick. WORKING ASSETS IS NOT A COMPANY THAT HAS AGREED TO SHARE WEBSITE DATA WITH DOUBLECLICK. In fact, the contract between working assets and DoubleClick explicitly prohibits DoubleClick from using our e-mail data for any purpose other than carrying out the contract they have with us: sending our e-mails out to people who sign up for them.


(B) Websites that share information with DoubleClick that will be used to determine your preferences for future ad serving: When websites contract with DoubleClick to share anonymous website data to develop marketing scores for future ad serving across the Internet, those websites must comply with the Network Advertising Initiative guidelines (visit http://www.networkadvertising.org). Only websites in the United States share information with DoubleClick for the creation of marketing scores in this manner. DoubleClick does not develop marketing scores that indicate a user's individual health condition, detailed financial information, sexual orientation or behavior, information that appears to relate to children under 13, racial and ethnic origin, political opinions, religious or philosophical opinions, and trade union membership. http://www.doubleclick.com/us/corporate/privacy/default.asp?asp_object_1=&

I hope this clears up any misunderstanding. Privacy is important to Working Assets. That's why we're involved in issues like the fight to keep Ashcroft out of U.S. libraries.

Becky Bond
Creative Producer, Working Assets Online

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Regarding your reference to Bob Haas as my student at Mission High School:

I was a Mission High School student, but Bob Haas was not. The Haas family was - in true Levi-Strauss fashion - determined to keep their son out of fancy boarding schools, keep him in a day school in their home town, San Francisco. I have to say, in politically incorrect honesty, that anyone who attended or taught at Mission High (I did both) would have to admit that despite all efforts, the education offered (for all the usual reasons) could not, even in the 1950s, compare to that in schools with more middle-class parents hanging around and leaving books around the house, etc. Bob Haas was in my English classes and my boys' chorus at private, tuition-free (then boys-only) Lick-Wilmerding High School, which had started as a trade school in the Mission, but had become academic when the public schools started teaching shop classes.

Theoretically ANYONE could go to Lick who could qualify with good grades, etc. As we know, the fortunate middle, upper-middle, and upper classes are more likely to have the necessary verbal skills, nutrition and stability to do so. But I hand it to the Haas family that they wanted their boy to stay at home (not be exiled to some miserable, drafty prison for rich children, like Harry Potter) and go to a school where he'd have small classes and challenging teachers, yet not be apart from "lesser" folks, not too much among the "uppers."

While other Lick boys were straining for fashionable ivy league colleges, I remember Bob (then a skinny, tall kid who sat doodling in my class) telling me that it was his family tradition to go to the University of California at Berkeley. He did, and four years later gave a valedictory address there that was prescient, a warning about the gap between faculty and students that contributed to the Free Speech Movement after he graduated. Not only did Haas kids go to Cal, the family has endlessly poured money back into the San Francisco Bay Area, and residents must notice that with anything good that goes on around here, you'll find out the Haas family is backing it.

Dorothy Calvetti Ungaretti Bryant

Holt Uncensored provides this forum for the free and uncensored exchange of thoughts and ideas from writers of all callings. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of Pat Holt or the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association.

"Holt Uncensored" is an online column by Pat Holt
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