Turmoil in the Book World

By Jarvik, Laurence | The World and I, March 1998 | Go to article overview

Turmoil in the Book World


Jarvik, Laurence, The World and I


"Book Publishing: Dead or Alive?" was the name of last September's gala symposium sponsored by New Yorker magazine. A glittering array of top names in publishing came to hear a panel moderated by author Ken Auletta. They included representatives of some of the biggest publishers as well as smaller fry such as Morgan Entrekin, whose Atlantic Monthly Press published the best-selling Cold Mountain. Their prognosis was dire.

The book business had been ruined, many on the stage and in the audience averred, by corporate greed. The culprits were large chain stores like Barnes and Noble. The assembled crowd pummeled Barnes and Noble President Leonard Riggio, himself a panelist, with criticism. Dropping any pose of objectivity, Auletta claimed publishers were losing money--because of stores like Barnes and Noble.

Riggio challenged this assertion. He asked whether Auletta had seen the profit-and-loss statements of, for example, the Newhouse family's publishing business, including Random House (media magnate S.I. Newhouse owns the New Yorker). Auletta admitted he had not.

Then why did Auletta believe they were losing money? If by some chance they were, replied Riggio, they would have no one to blame but themselves. Publishing houses had "published the wrong book, or too many copies." Barnes and Noble, he said, could not be expected to sell what the public would not buy.

Riggio pointed out that only 3 percent of Barnes and Noble books are best-sellers and that 20 percent of Barnes and Noble stock is from "smaller publishers."

"The midlist is selling well," said Riggio, "especially nonfiction and serious nonfiction."

Commerce vs. culture

But Riggio was in the minority at the New Yorker gathering, a conflict between culture and commerce that was broadcast in its entirety on C-SPAN. (C-SPAN is fast becoming America's book channel, with its series Booknotes and About Books. Host Brian Lamb will be the keynote speaker at this year's convention of the American Association of Publishers.)

Author Cynthia Ozick spoke for many in the room when she declared that booksellers like Riggio are "more interested in profit-and-loss statements" than in literature.

"Nobody's talking about literature and the culture," she complained. "That's what publishing used to be about. Must you give astronomical advances to O.J.'s girlfriend? Huge advances for Whoopi Goldberg? Where is the responsibility for what we call culture?"

The question of whether a "best-seller mentality" has replaced a more general interest in literature has been widely debated. John Berendt, author of the best-selling Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, says problems have been created by greed and stupidity on the part of publishing houses that pay large advances to books by celebrities, not by a literary marketplace that in fact rewards good writing.

"Editors are publishing books by celebrities without regard to quality," he explains. "When they publish books worth reading, they make money."

In the case of Midnight, which has been on the best-seller lists for almost three years, "the publisher [Random House] was terrific. That same publisher, if it had brought out a book not worth reading, it would not make money."

Berendt believes that "the celebrity author is a losing bet most of the time. The book gets name recognition and automatic television coverage, and television helps sell books--but only initially. If you have a TV personality, you have automatic TV exposure. The easy way is to pick someone who already has the exposure, who can sell books. All national television personalities have the exposure.

"Publishers make a mistake thinking that all you've got to do is get the television exposure and you'll sell [celebrity authors'] books. They're wrong," says Berendt. "You've got to deliver the goods." The success of Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier is evidence of this demand for good literature among the American public. …

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