Commentary Magazine


Among the Gentlemen-Publishers

Is publishing a business, or is it a gentleman’s profession? For anyone who has ever had anything to do with the production of serious books, the answer to this perennial question is simple. It is neither—neither rational nor genteel. ‘Twas, perhaps, ever thus. In the 1790′s, Georg Christof Lictenberg, the German physicist and aphorist, wrote: “There can hardly be stranger wares in the world than books: printed by people who do not understand them; sold by people who do not understand them; bound, reviewed, and read by people who do not understand them; and now even written by people who do not understand them.”

The late James Laughlin, founder and for many years principal editor of the avant-garde firm of New Directions, was once asked if it was possible to make money in publishing. “It can be done,” he replied, “if you have enough bad taste to do it.” Many people working in publishing today would no doubt agree, and with something like the same condescension. To others, the entire industry is in so precipitous a decline—no mere slippery slope but a grand slalom—that not even the most confident bad taste will suffice to reverse its fortunes.

Among such people, the talk today is about conglomerates “swallowing” once distinguished publishing firms and insisting on a profit margin of between 15 and 20 percent in a business that previously lived with profits of 4 or 5 percent. Where once it was understood that commercially popular books would “carry” more intellectually sophisticated and literary books, and publishers could await the slow accumulation of revenues from titles retained in the inventory and known as “backlist,” publishing is currently now said to be a serve-and-volley game, and if a book fails to get to the net quickly, it will not be allowed to make it at all. Good—possibly great—books are being degraded in importance, if not entirely ignored, or so it is argued.

To compound matters, there is the “corporate seizure” of independent booksellers. Fewer than a fifth of the books sold in America are marketed outside the great chains—Barnes & Noble and Borders most prominently—and the Internet, with consequences no less dire than in publishing itself. Independent bookstores once functioned as conduits for word-of-mouth sales, by which means good books not heavily promoted by their publishers still had a chance to find respectable readerships. In transactions with her customers, averred one member of the vanishing tribe of independent booksellers in a recent symposium on the future of publishing in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, “it is only the three of us, the writer, the reader and the bookseller who define value.” Elsewhere, by implication, big money is in the saddle, the values of entertainment and low-grade culture hold the reins, and literature, the intellectual life, and democracy itself are in danger of being trampled in the stampede.

People with good jobs in publishing tend to eschew such doomy prognostications. “Frankly, I’m getting a little annoyed at the assumption that it’s now ‘fairly impossible’ to publish difficult but yet important writing,” notes Robert D. Loomis, a vice president at Random House, in the Los Angeles Times symposium. “A lot has changed, most of it technical (and much of that for the better), but things remain greatly the same,” adds Robert Gottlieb, formerly of the firm of Alfred A. Knopf and editor of the New Yorker. “Conglomerates haven’t stifled individual publishing or the publishing of books of quality—in fact, both fiction and nonfiction of quality tends to sell better today than comparable books did years ago.”

According to still a third position, things are indeed falling apart, but, like the cavalry in a cowboys-and-Indians movie, help looms just over the horizon. The new technologies of book distribution, playing the role of those pony soldiers of yesteryear, will save the day. In the magical world a-borning, we shall be able to draw books from our computers as easily as we now draw cash from automatic teller machines. “We may have high-speed, in-home printing, which will enable consumers to order directly,” writes the agent Morton Janklow, “but that will expand literary sales and not diminish them, and the market will adjust and adapt to these changes as markets in free societies always have.”

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Exemplifying some of these conflicting attitudes are recent books by André Schiffrin1 and Jason Epstein,2 two longtime editor-publishers. Both men look back on their experience in the spirit not so much of searching for as of regretting times past. Both have known publishing in what they would agree were intellectually palmier days: Epstein at Random House, where for many years he served as editorial director, and Schiffrin at Pantheon, where he was managing director until a corporate shakeup in 1990. Disagreeing about many things, the two agree that much of the idealism, and with it the deep intellectual pleasure, has gone out of mainstream publishing in America.

The son of a well-known European publisher, André Schiffrin may be said to have gone into the family business. Born in 1935, he began work at the paperback firm of New American Library, for which he proposed a line of serious books known as Signet. He joined Pantheon in 1962 at the age of twenty-six, and a year later became editorial director, with complete freedom to publish what he pleased.

What Schiffrin chiefly pleased to publish were books dealing in what he delicately calls “political education”: that is to say, leftism. Educated at Cambridge, and with international connections owed to his father, he brought in European heavyweights such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Michel Foucault, E. P. Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm, and E. H. Carr, and such Americans as Noam Chomsky, Staughton Lynd, Studs Terkel, e tutti quanti. He also published the early work of the historian Eugene Genovese—though, as he writes, he subsequently became “saddened” by Genovese’s “sectarian excesses” (for which read: growing dubiety concerning left-wing ideas).

Schiffrin’s critique of the publishing business is in line with his politics: he sees it, pure and simple, as a victim of the depredations of capitalism on the loose. Once upon a time, in Schiffrin’s version, publishers could pride themselves “on their ability to balance the imperative of making money with that of issuing serious books.” Now, what has taken over is a belief in the unfettered free market, “a sort of consumer democracy” that has inevitably destroyed the industry as a genuine force in the intellectual life of the country. Worse, all too many of Schiffrin’s fellow publishers have gone along for the ride. Among those he accuses of selling out and going “downmarket” is, in particular, Random House, Pantheon’s parent company, and its allegedly highbrow division of Knopf; Alberto Vitale, the man who was brought in to take over and who presided over Schiffrin’s departure, is skewered as having “a thuggish disposition and a thoroughly anti-intellectual attitude.”

Schiffrin, who now runs the New Press, a nonprofit house largely supported by foundations, is keen for antitrust legislation to stop the conglomerates. He even believes that government itself should support publishing (forgetting, apparently, the possibilities for censorship that might thereby be unleashed). Not for him the paradox that others of us manage to live with, believing in the efficacy of market forces while sometimes, in the case of culture, lamenting their effects. In the seeming victory of “the application of the market theory to culture,” much, he writes, if not everything, stands to be lost:

[If] the domain of ideas is surrendered to those who want to make the most money, then the debate that is so essential for a functioning democracy will not take place. To a large extent it is this silence that has overtaken much of American intellectual life.

By “silence,” Schiffrin has something specific in mind: the end of the 60′s- and 70′s-style leftism that permitted him to flourish as a publisher. Contemporary leftism has of course taken a different turn from the old up-with-the-oppressed, down-with-the-capitalists sloganizing in which so many Pantheon books offered the reader a good sentimental soak. But that hardly means leftist attitudes themselves have disappeared from the “domain of ideas,” let alone from the particular portfolio of ideas carried, ironically enough, by “those who want to make the most money.” About all this, however, Schiffrin seems not to have a clue.

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Someone with more than a clue is Jason Epstein, another publishing figure who veers decidedly leftward but who has never allowed that to distract him from the pursuit of the good life or the making of money—or, as Book Business confirms, from the (suitably low-key) tooting of his own horn.

In 1950, deciding as a newly minted graduate of Columbia College that he had the vocation neither for scholarship nor for “the agonies of creation,” Epstein began a career in publishing at the firm of Doubleday. “My ambition was evangelical,” he writes. “I wanted to share with the world the literary euphoria I had enjoyed at Columbia College. In those days I thought of myself as a missionary.” But Doubleday, dominated by salesmen and deriving much of its profit from the book clubs it owned, served other gods than the one worshipped by the young missionary.

Then Jason Epstein had a great notion. At the age of twenty-two, he conceived the idea of putting out serious books in “quality” paperback editions. Thus was born Anchor Books. Thanks to rising university enrollments, and to the low prices at which such paperbacks could then be produced and marketed (between 65¢ and $1.25 per volume), they were a hit straight out of the gate. In the mid-1950′s, I first read Edmund Wilson, Lionel Trilling, and Stendhal in Anchor editions, and I remember a fellow student at the University of Chicago, a would-be writer on an F. Scott Fitzgerald plan of inspiration-through-alcohol, showing me a prose poem with the line, “In my dream the floor is covered with martinis and Anchor Books.”

Once Anchor Books caught on, Epstein needed to dwell no longer among the lowly vulgar in publishing. He was acclaimed the Robespierre of the paperback revolution—a title, it must be said, to which there are almost as many claimants as alleged inventors of the jumpshot in basketball. Lifted out of the stewpots of Doubleday, he was soon given a place at the head table at Random House, and his paperback days were over. (In more than a single sense: once he came into serious green, we learn here, he would purchase only hardcover books for his own library.)

Over the decades, Epstein has been responsible for other successful “start-ups,” including the Anchor Bible, which has brought out scholarly editions of the books in the biblical canon, and the Library of America, a useful collection of American writers modeled on the Pléiade editions published by the firm of Gallimard in Paris. During the New York newspaper strike of 1962, Epstein and his then wife Barbara, together with Elizabeth Hardwick and her then husband Robert Lowell, conceived the idea for the New York Review of Books. Although he claims he took no direct editorial hand, he retained voting shares in the enterprise and, when the journal was sold, “participated” (amusing word) in the profits.3

As for his analysis of the publishing scene, in Book Business Epstein provides what William Dean Howells once said every American wants in his entertainment: a tragedy with a happy ending. First the tragedy. Telling the tale of the vulgarization of publishing in his lifetime, he duly recounts the “demoralizing inversion of values” whereby the “more commercially oriented hardcover houses [have] assumed the characteristics of paperback mass marketers,” the replacement of publishers and editors by agents as the key figures in the lives of writers, the rise of the chain booksellers, and the rest. “Many valuable books,” he writes, “tend to be slighted in the triage of contemporary book publishing,” and although good or even slightly obscure books do continue to get published, finding them is no longer easy, and for the uninitiated can be all but impossible.

That is certainly so. I recently attempted to obtain one such small-audience book, The Immortal Dinner by Pamela Hughes-Hallett, which concerns a dinner party in 1817 among the Romantics at the studio of the painter Benjamin Robert Haydon. Although published by the mainstream firm of Viking, it was in stock neither at the two Barnes & Nobles nor at the one Borders I consulted, and had to be ordered from the publisher. The industry joke used to be that the shelf life of a new book was somewhere between that of milk and yogurt, a joke Epstein says is now considered too realistic to be funny. Any so-called quality paperback that sells fewer than 2,000 copies a year, it is said, is likely to be sent to the pulper, the equivalent for books of the glue factory for horses. “Publishers and booksellers did not choose this dance of death,” Epstein writes, “but neither partner can escape the other’s embrace.”

And yet, in a notable shift of tone, Book Business quickly moves from threnody to dithyramb. Citing Marx’s idea that “new technologies transform cultures”—an idea that, he says, still seems true “even if [Marx's] revolutionary fantasies” failed to pan out—Epstein proceeds to rhapsodize in the purest digibabble about the marvelous future to be brought to us by the computer and the Internet:

[T]he web will be more than a platform from which books are promoted and sold. Some books will be composed interactively on the web and others will be compiled to order from random sources and delivered electronically in a single package or in periodic recisions. Employees transferred to new locations in Seattle, Nairobi, Taipei, or Poughkeepsie can be given compilations from several sources by their companies on local conditions, history, and facilities and access to a web site that will answer additional questions as they arise. Interactive curricula can be transmitted from a single site to students in distant places. So can medical, legal, and financial advice be addressed interactively to individual users. . . .

Thanks to these and other innovations, Epstein’s closing pages report, old publishing tyrannies will be overcome, new publishing opportunities will arise, and all obstacles (rather like the state in the Marxist dialectic) will wither away.

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Not, alas, likely to happen any time soon. As David Gelernter wrote recently in COMMENTARY,4 the new technological possibilities unleashed by the endemic use of computers and talk of a global economy have fed the conviction that we are on the cusp of a new era, a conviction that is largely a fantasy. AtRandom.com, the electronic-book imprint launched to tremendous fanfare by Random House last summer, has so far proved a colossal failure, and throughout the industry the enthusiasm for this form of publishing is markedly on the wane. In the words of one disappointed author quoted in the New York Observer, “I do think there is a future for e-books. But there is no present for e-books.”

In the closing pages of his book, Andre Schiffrin brands Jason Epstein as naive in his hopes for an improvement in the conditions of publishing through the Internet. Instead of helping matters, Schiffrin writes balefully, “the Internet may well accelerate the process” of decline.

Whether or not Schiffrin is right about that, it is certainly true that the changes that both he and Epstein lament have been in place for some time. Their beginning can be dated, with some precision, to October 1959, when Bennett Cerf and Donald Klopfer of Random House took their privately owned firm public, selling its stock at 11¼ a share, soon to rise to 45. This enormous gain was what allowed them to buy the then-independent firm of Alfred A. Knopf and, a bit later, Pantheon.

In 1966, Random House and its satellite firms were themselves bought by RCA, and soon other publishing houses began to be taken over by larger corporations with something like the ease of Grant sweeping through Richmond: Simon & Schuster by Gulf & Western, Putnam’s by Universal-MCA, New American Library by the Times-Mirror Company, and so forth. Today, only two major houses—W. W. Norton and Houghton Mifflin—remain unowned by much bigger corporations.

At the time, these corporations believed that the publishing firms would help them flourish in the imminent “knowledge explosion” that would see more and more school children requiring more and more books. The great knowledge explosion proved a dud—which did not stop even larger media giants (Time-Warner, Disney, Rupert Murdoch, S.I. Newhouse) from the rush to purchase.

Why they were attracted to publishing remains something of a mystery. It may have been for the prestige, or for possible entertainment tie-ins, or for reasons known only to them. But it could not have been for the money. For a while, as Michael Korda remarks in Another Life (1999), his own memoir of a career in publishing, all of it at Simon & Schuster, it seemed that “the real money in books was going to be made not by writing or publishing the damn things but by buying and selling the publishing companies themselves.”

Did the conglomerates know, one wonders, about the crippling conditions of consignment under which publishers supplied their products to bookstores: returnable, like so many greeting cards, if unsold? (“Gone today,” Alfred Knopf is supposed to have remarked about books shipped under this arrangement, “here tomorrow.”) Were they aware of the intellectual drag imposed by the ethos of the prestigious houses, according to which the quality of a book was supposed to take precedence over its potential profitability?

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But despite the failure to turn a real profit, the brisk trade in publishing houses did decisively transform the tenor of the industry, and not least for those who worked in it as editors. Not much money was ever made by these editors. Nor was much money usually made by writers, with the exception of that small number who had mastered the trick of regularly producing best-sellers by formulaic scribbling. Instead, serious publishers always traveled under the banner of that peculiar cultural schizophrenia I remarked upon at the outset: gentleman’s profession, or just plain business? In some houses, the schizophrenia was carried to an extreme, and the operating credo—junkier books were the price to be paid for more serious ones—could give way to a ban on junky books altogether. Alfred Knopf is said to have refused to publish a diet book, subsequently a runaway bestseller, even though its author was his personal physician. “Does this deserve the Borzoi imprint?” he would ask portentously whenever a third-rate book was proposed.

Publishing houses of an earlier day were institutions in which a high premium was put on loyalty. Editors were willing to work their entire careers at the same firm just as professors, similarly low-paid, stayed at the same university. Editing was sometimes thought to be university teaching by other means: both jobs carried the prestige of membership in the cultural clerisy. Authors, too, even the most famous and commercially successful ones, tended to show fealty to the firm that published them when young. F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway never left Scribner, a house that stayed in the black for decades by reprinting these two writers for college courses.

Nowadays, both editors and authors change firms with an insouciance once unthinkable. When, a few years ago, I decided to leave the firm of Norton upon the retirement of my editor there, I was read a very stern sermonette on the subject of loyalty by the editor who had replaced her—and who, I was later pleased to learn, himself left for another firm within two weeks. Meanwhile, the editor who had encouraged me to move to Houghton Mifflin left that house just as the ink—and it was a ballpen—was drying on my new contract. Loyalty, in publishing as elsewhere, is no longer to institutions but only to persons, and the person in question is usually oneself.

Each of the major firms once had its own character and cachet: Random House stood for a not wholly unserious glamor as represented by such writers as John O’Hara and Truman Capote; Farrar, Straus & Giroux for international distinction (Primo Levi, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Joseph Brodsky) cum New York chic (Robert Lowell, Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag); Knopf for American history and literature, beginning with H. L. Mencken and Willa Cather and running through to Walker Percy and John Updike; Pantheon, as we have seen, for left-wing earnestness; Doubleday for thumping best-sellers of a commercial kind. But, this, too, is now on the way out, as individual firms begin to blur and each seems less distinctive.

Finally, an element of idealism was also traditionally part of publishing—especially, again, at the editors’ level. (The publishers themselves were often a different matter, men whose intellectual shortcomings were matched only by their ambitions, social and otherwise.) Every profession has its heroic figure—William Osier in medicine, Clarence Darrow in law—and in publishing that figure was Maxwell Perkins (1884-1947). Working at Scribner, Perkins was the discoverer and encourager of F. Scott Fitzgerald and, through Fitzgerald, of Ernest Hemingway, and the absolute savior of Thomas Wolfe, whose novels he cut and shaped and made publishable. Selflessness distinguished Perkins, the willingness to submerge his own ego and put all his efforts into improving the work of another in the name of something greater than both.

As a psychoanalyst is said to be a Jewish boy who cannot stand the sight of blood, so in the past half-century many a successful book editor has been a boy, Jewish or not, who could not stand the solitude of writing. David Segal, Henry Robbins, Robert Gottlieb, Michael Korda, and my own first editor Hal Scharlatt are among those who have enjoyed a certain fame in this regard, albeit of an intramural kind. Scharlatt’s brilliance with a manuscript was genuine, and he was also talented at creating excitement for books that did not yet exist except in the writer’s mind. He died, at thirty-eight, of a heart attack while playing tennis after, it is said, lunch in a French restaurant. A real book editor’s death.

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In the end, none of the changes that have overtaken the industry, nor even the analyses of them offered by Andre Schiffrin and Jason Epstein, can account for what may be the central issue facing serious publishers. In the most intelligent response in the Los Angeles Times symposium, Marian Wood, a vice president of Putnam, after eschewing the Candidean fantasy of paradise on the Internet, goes on to conclude that “the biggest problem is keeping reading alive as a passion—and finding ways to reach those passionate readers with the news of a great new writer.” This, problem, too, is hardly new, but it has been made much more challenging by the difficulties that publishers encounter in producing, and readers in obtaining, high-quality books with a respectably long life in bookstores or on backlists, and by the increased number of new diversions set out before the young.

In his Memoirs of a Superfluous Man (1943), published long before the decline I have been chronicling, the journalist Albert Jay Nock strikingly attributed what he saw as a decline in publishing to, of all things, increased literacy in America. In his own childhood, Nock argued, the quality of magazine- and book-publishing was much higher than it had become in his old age. For literacy was no guarantee of true reading—what Nock called “the use of the reflective faculty”—and in the decades since his youth the market had been watered down by editors and publishers trying to attract people who could read in the technical sense but not really think. A literary Greshamite, Nock asserted that, in those earlier days, “publishers were not under such economic pressure to block up the access to good literature with trash.”

Nock was talking about the spread of mere literacy. But we now have the spread of so-called higher education, an exercise in which something on the order of 65 percent of Americans take part. Yet anyone who has had anything to do with higher education in America knows how little it does to develop reflective readers. From my experience as a teacher of English at one of our putatively better universities, I can attest that most students manage to get through quite nicely without cultivating a taste, let alone a passion, for books.

In the meantime, while higher education turns out to have fallen a lot lower than anyone ever expected, the world has put up many additional distractions to the deeply private pleasure of reading books. Whatever our progress in medicine, engineering, communication, the number of thoughtful people is probably proportionately no greater now than it was a century ago. After the revolution, Leon Trotsky wrote in Literature and Revolution, “the average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx. And above this ridge new peaks will rise.” Perhaps they already have, but sitting atop these peaks you might find college students playing Nintendo while their parents are watching, on television, XFL football and Sex and the City.

From this perspective, the wonder may well be not that so few serious books continue to be published in this country, but so many. This is a real paradox, one that is too rich for the leaden discriminations of an André Schiffrin or even a Jason Epstein. Not that I am better equipped to explain it; but as a reader, and as a writer, I have cause to be grateful for it every day.

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About the Author

Joseph Epstein is a regular contributor to COMMENTARY.




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