Originally published in Bookslut – April 2016.
“The emergence of large publishing corporations is the third factor that has shaped the evolution of English-language trade publishing in recent decades,” writes John Thompson in Merchants of Culture, an even-handed, comprehensive account of the business of publishing — where it is and how it got there. Thompson goes through the various factors, which also include the growth of retail outlets and chains, the rise of literary agents, and the digital revolution. But, at the top, I wanted to focus on the corporatization of publishing as it highlights many of the key issues not only in publishing but also in our culture at large. Whether it be the aftermath of the 2008 financial collapse, the rise of the Occupy Wall Street movement, the austerity cuts moving across Europe, to the current US election season, we have reached a crossroads, a true point of reflection to understand the forces at work in our daily lives and the balance of powers between individuals, institutions, and corporations.
Now as I’ll let Thompson explain, corporatization in and of itself is not necessarily a scourge on the publishing industry. “The aim of the [corporate] merger was to achieve certain economies of scale by providing centralized warehousing, distribution and infrastructural services, while maintaining the distinctiveness and editorial autonomy of each house.” As anyone who is even off-handedly familiar with literature and the publishing industry will know, this is not a business of fast money and big profits. And through mergers, many publishing houses have found ways to streamline their organization, raise the level of professionalism, and insure they survive into the next generation (as many houses have been known to quickly decline after their founders retire). So in many ways, mergers and corporatization of the industry has been about preservation and maintaining the invaluable backlists of some of publishing’s trailblazers from the late 1800s into the 1900s.
One can scrunch their noses and point fingers at the bottom-line driven managers, or sigh in disgust or frustration as we become increasingly familiar with the practices of many corporations driven by greed and maintaining their ever-increasing profit forecasts. Just look at recent comments made by the CEO and executive chairman of CBS (owner of Simon & Schuster), Les Moonves, when discussing the 2016 Republican primary campaign: “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS. […] The money’s rolling in and this is fun. I’ve never seen anything like this, and this is going to be a very good year for us. Sorry, it’s terrible to say. But, bring it on, Donald.”
Or if we go back just a few years, we will recall CNN president Jeff Zucker boasting about his network’s high ratings despite the error-filled coverage of the 2012 shooting at the Washington Navy Yard and the Boston Marathon bombing. As Jon Stewart of The Daily Show recognized, “All of yesterday’s confusion in the reporting, it’s not a mistake […] this is deliberate. The chaos they vomit onto the screen, the very thing we thought news organizations were created to clarify, is a feature, not a bug.” Such fraught, speculative coverage, where they falsely reported an arrest that never occurred in Boston, or where, during the developing story of the Washington Navy Yard shooting, one anchor wondered aloud whether any motive could be gleaned from the suspect’s all-black outfit, did and does not help to distill information or educate the viewers, but instead spreads suspicion, fear, and panic. And the response of the President of CNN: “So we made that mistake on a Wednesday of the Boston coverage, two days later as the drama unfolded in Boston, we had our biggest audience in 10 years. You know who understood we made a mistake and acknowledged it: the audience.”
This is cringe-worthy at best, though more realistically, it is gut wrenching. When we watch the news or listen to our political leaders, we expect a certain level of accuracy, forthrightness, and meticulousness. It is a betrayal when the opposite is revealed. And this is where we begin to see the cracks in the corporate model. When we raise the stakes to the nth degree, a certain level of quality and discretion can be lost to the market, stockholders, and demands to reach the widest (if not the basest) possible audience.
So goes the perception of corporate publishers: seeking to move from one bestseller to the next, oblivious to any literary content or value, as disposable as any old thing so long as it makes money. As of 2008, based on Thompson’s table, the sales from the five largest publishers in the US were nearly 50 percent of the entire market (and a little over 50 percent in the UK) — a number that has undoubtedly increased with the consolidation of the industry at the corporate level. And when we can instantly connect the face and international identity of a corporation to their outspoken CEO or president, it makes it all the harder to find in the demands for fast-moving commodities the room and space for the cultivation and promotion of art. But, you will see, as Thompson attests,
[Q]uality books can sell well if you get the right ones. They can also sell for much longer than many of the more commercial books, which means that they can help to offset the reliance of the large corporations on frontlist publishing. […] Second, most of the publishing corporations seek to develop a balanced list, where commercial fiction and popular nonfiction are complemented by books of a more serious kind.
And it is reasonable to think that a publisher, any publisher, would want to publish the bestselling books, but since not every book can reach every market, to fill in those gaps, it makes sense to have a diversified catalog. But the issue, I see, is the considerable attention put on the expectations of the book namely relating to its financial projection (or its profit and loss [P&L] sheet), with little to balance out this heavily finance-based decision. Once a certain quality is presumed or assigned to a book, every other decision is made based on the financial prospects and ways of reaching the largest audience. There is little consideration of how the book fits into the individual publisher’s catalog. The context becomes an afterthought (if it is ever thought of at all), further weakening the publisher’s identity and the value of their decisions, as well as the understanding of books as conduits of ideas and connections (as it is hardly treated any differently from some other commodity).
Now while not every publisher is motivated solely by profit, there is rarely the opportunity to balance out this perception. Few publishers have an easily recognizable face or a brand. This point was much maligned by the publisher and founder of Adelphi Edizioni, Roberto Calasso, in The Art of the Publisher:
In the first ten years of the twenty-first century, […] we have witnessed a progressive blurring of differences among publishers. Today, as shrewder agents well know, everyone competes for the same books and those who win distinguish themselves only because, by winning, they have bought a title that will prove in the end to be a moneymaker or a disaster.
Which is not to say that different houses should not compete to publish the same titles, but, if and when it is done, it should be done with discretion, not solely for the potential profit margins but also with regards to the character and the legacy of the publishing house. Every title published is yet another opportunity to tell the story of the house, a mark of their character connecting previous titles to its visions for the future.
So, where have the visionaries gone, those committed to the finest literary achievements that will enrich our culture for years to come, regardless of today’s potential profit lines? We can begin to find the answers in Literary Publishing in the Twenty-First Century, a collection of essays that act as the perfect complement to the Merchants of Culture, where the latter offers insight into the mechanics of the industry, the former brings us face to face with many of the industry’s wide and varied array of personalities. We meet journal editors and editorial directors, founders of small presses and literary institutions, not to mention the literary agent, a strategist, and a handful of writers. The supposed crisis of the industry has little to do with the viability of the book. Corporatization is not the only path to survival as the industry tries to find an equilibrium amidst technological and cultural shifts. From the essay collection, strategist Richard Nash sees potential abound for the book:
Books, like the tables and chairs, have receded into the backdrop of human life. This has nothing to do with the assertion that the book is counter-technology, but that the book is a technology so pervasive, so frequently iterated and innovated upon, so worn and polished by centuries of human contact, that it reaches the status of Nature.
He goes on to compare worrying about the book to something like worrying about the chair because we have also invented stools, couches, benches, and recliners. No, the problem and instability lies in the mechanism of how literature is spread and shared amongst the public. The evolution of publishing is not a challenge to the usability or practicality of books but the system itself. Nash explains:
Book culture is not print fetishism; it is the swirl and gurgle of idea and style in the expression of stories and concepts — the conversation, polemic, narrative force that goes on within and between texts, within and between people as they write, revise, discover and respond to those texts.
The corporatization of publishing in its current form is a short-term solution, a stopgap. It does not address what is essential to books, stories, and literary culture. While there is certainly a need for a well-managed editorial and design staff (and, of course, the economies of scale help in printing and distribution), Matthew Stadler, founder of Publication Studios, explains, “Publication, the creation of a public shaped by reading, is not time-pressured,” and suggests the future of literature finds more in common with the “Slow Food” movement, where again we find steps taken away from overly mechanized, isolated systems. When we read stories, however, and wherever we do, we internalize them, take them into our bodies and then want to see that connection reflected outside of ourselves, to see the conversation alive, moving across spheres. To treat books as if they had expiration dates, promoting them heavily for a couple of months before being altogether forgotten (unless they catch on with a substantial audience), does a disservice to the author, the culture, and the web of ideas that will not have the opportunity to fully realize its reach.
Books are vehicles for ideas, but ideas have no purpose until they are forced into contact with minds and bodies and experiences. Critics can put ideas into action, through the juxtaposition of idea and world. And books are deeply personal things. Wept over, treasured, passed along. Not external objects, their function is to become internal.
Yes, and yes, and I will go one step further to say that this is not only the job of critics but also booksellers and publishers. It is fundamental to the stories we tell and the role of critics, booksellers, and publishers alike to give books a context, to share, challenge, and juxtapose their ideas, to analyze, reflect, and connect them to our times and ourselves. The publishing industry, from the bookshops and libraries to agents and managers, the whole of it, our greater literary culture is a giant community, interconnected, and we are all bridges and tunnels.
EDITOR’S NOTE [courtesy of John Oakes, 12 March 2019]: Merchants of Culture is a well-reasoned account of the publishing industry in many respects. But John Thompson has a massive blind spot when it comes to post-war American publishing: his hefty tome does not so much as mention one of the most significant American publishers of the 20th century—arguably, the most significant one, if changing American cultural mores is a metric—Barney Rosset, the publisher of Grove Press and The Evergreen Review. Rosset almost singlehandedly forced the American government to repeal its extensive censorship laws. Pre-Rosset, a publisher could very easily wind up in jail for releasing a book such as Lady Chatterley's Lover or Tropic of Cancer (both of which Rosset published). Rosset devoted the entirety of his not-inconsiderable personal fortune to fighting dozens of legal battles around the country against the government, and besides Henry Miller's Tropics, he was the first U.S. publisher of authors such as Samuel Beckett, Jack Kerouac, Eugène Ionesco, Kenzaburo Oe, Jean Genet, Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard, Kathy Acker, and many more. He deserves to be remembered in any cultural history of book publishing.— J.O.