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The Rattle of Pebbles

Their presence was an inspiration to newcomers like myself. To topple them as they had toppled their own predecessors was unthinkable. They were to be emulated. But how? Ulysses and The Waste Land were not experiments to be perfected by later generations. They were monuments, to be studied but never surpassed. So we and our writers did our best with what we had. Yeats’s brave reply to Matthew Arnold’s valetudinarian “Dover Beach” lodged in my mind in those days: “Though the great song return no more/There’s keen delight in what we have:/The rattle of pebbles on the shore,/Under the receding wave.”

2.

Soon Random House will move from Third Avenue to a new corporate headquarters to be erected on Broadway by its current owner, an international media conglomerate which embraces several well-known publishing imprints—including, in addition to Random House and Knopf, Doubleday, Bantam, Pantheon, Dell, Crown, and Ballantine, as well as a number of British imprints. General book publishing in the United States is currently dominated by five empires. Two are based in Germany—Bertelsmann, which owns the Random House group, and Holtzbrinck, which owns Henry Holt, St. Martin’s, and Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Longmans, Pearson, based in London, owns the Viking, Penguin, Putnam, Dutton group, and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation owns HarperCollins and William Morrow. Simon and Schuster, Scribner, and Pocket Books belong to Viacom, which owns Paramount Pictures among other media properties. By liquidating redundant overheads these corporate owners hope to improve the low profit margins typical of the industry. But this strategy may be wrong. Because publishers now face severe structural problems arising from an overconcentrated retail marketplace, the new owners may find the business less profitable than ever. Moreover, technological innovations likely to revolutionize the industry may soon render the traditional functions of the conglomerates themselves redundant.

Today the telephone directory of the Random House group measures eight-and-a-half by eleven inches, occupies 116 pages, and includes the names of more than forty-five hundred employees, nearly all of them, I assume, unknown to one another. Nevertheless, the essential tasks at Random House and other publishers are still performed as they always have been, by individual editors and publicists working in small groups with a few writers at a time, though the conditions under which this work is now done differ greatly from those at the old Villard mansion. Conglomerate budgets require efficiencies and create structures that are incompatible with the notorious vagaries of literary production, work whose outcome can only be intuited. How, for instance, does a corporation budget for Norman Mailer’s next novel or determine the cash value of such writers as William Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy, whose novels languished for years before they became valuable assets on the Random House backlist? Meanwhile, the retail market for books is now dominated by a few large bookstore chains whose high operating costs demand high rates of turnover and therefore a constant supply of best sellers, an impossible goal but one to which publishers have become perforce committed.

The dissonance I felt when we moved to Third Avenue was premonitory. Our industry was becoming alienated from its natural diversity by an increasingly homogeneous suburban marketplace, demanding ever more uniform products. Books are written everywhere but they need the complex cultures of great cities in which to reverberate. My publishing years coincided with the great postwar dispersal of city populations and the attrition therefore of city bookstores as suburban malls increasingly became the centers of commerce, so that even the well-stocked chain-bookstore branches located in cities today evoke the undifferentiated culture of shopping malls rather than the cosmopolitanism of the cities in which they happen to have been transplanted.

Many valuable books—most in fact—are not meant to be best sellers, and these tend to be slighted in the triage of contemporary publishing and bookselling. I don’t mean that fewer books of this sort are being published. Many publishers and their staffs, including the Random House editors today, are still as determined as we were in our old building to find and promote unconventional titles of permanent or even passing value, a commitment manifest in the excellent books chosen by the major review media for their year-end lists. It is my impression that more such books are being published than ever before and more people are reading them, thanks in part to the chains and the on-line booksellers who have helped make book buying a stimulating part of everyday life. But the life expectancy of many valuable books has declined as chain-store retailers are forced to seek ever higher rates of turnover, and morale in the industry suffers accordingly. When this phenomenon first became apparent some thirty years ago, the industry joke was that the shelf life of a book had fallen to somewhere between that of milk and yogurt. Since then the situation has worsened and the joke is no longer heard.

In the spring of 1999 Random House published the monumental life of J.P. Morgan,* on which the distinguished biographer Jean Strouse had worked for fifteen years. Her plan had been to finish in four or five years, but Morgan was a surprisingly elusive subject and Strouse is a meticulous scholar. Reviewers called Morgan a major contribution to American economic and social history and a vivid portrait of the shy, cyclonic, misunderstood figure who created the modern financial system. Though Morgan will interest historians, bankers, and economists as well as art historians and collectors, there is nothing recondite about Strouse’s book. It appeared on several best-seller lists.

The Los Angeles Times, in its year-end list of the best books of 1999, called Morgan “a riveting detective story and a masterpiece.” Morgan was short-listed by The New York Times Book Review, The New Yorker, Time, Business Week, and other general-interest publications as one of the best works of nonfiction of 1999. But when these lists appeared nine months after Morgan was published, fewer than one thousand copies were on hand in the 528 superstores of the Barnes and Noble chain which, together with Borders Books, the second-largest chain, dominates the retail book trade. With Christmas a month away Barnes and Noble had apparently decided that in a year when millions of Americans were obsessed with the stock mar-ket, Morgan was nevertheless an unlikely Christmas gift. On the day the New York Times list appeared, copies of Morgan were no longer on dis-play in Barnes and Noble’s branch four blocks north of the Random House building on Third Avenue. It was Strouse’s literary agent who visited the Third Avenue store that day, noticed the omission, and called it to the attention of the store manager, who ordered fifty copies. Thereafter, the chain as a whole restocked Morgan.

Meanwhile Strouse’s book was selling briskly in the independent stores, whose clerks knew their customers’ interests and understood Morgan‘s appeal. In some of these independent stores Morgan was a best seller. But the book chains, offering steep discounts on popular titles, have driven hundreds of independent stores out of business, a process accelerated by Internet retailers, so that only about seventy-five major independents employing sophisticated sales staffs and stocking 100,000 or more titles survive. Morgan and some of the other “best books” of the year will withstand the bloody triage that is now commonplace in the publishing industry, but many hundreds, even thousands, of other worthy new titles will have vanished by the time next year’s best books are chosen. In 1999 some 90,000 books—many worthless, many others valuable—went out of print, according to the vice chairman of Barnes and Noble.

Traditionally Random House and other publishers cultivated their backlists as their major asset, choosing titles for their permanent value as much as for their immediate appeal, so that even firms grown somnolent with age and neglect tottered along for years on their backlist earnings long after their effective lives were over. But even the strongest publishers depended on their backlists and regarded best sellers as lucky accidents. In his mem-oirs Bennett Cerf, the co-founder and president of Random House, wrote that when Random House acquired the firm of Alfred A. Knopf in 1960 the combined companies could shut down “for the next twenty years or so and make more money than we’re making now, because our backlist is like…picking up gold from the sidewalk.” This incomparable back-list included Kafka, Proust, Camus, Faulkner, O’Neill, Dr. Seuss, James Michener, Wallace Stevens, Ralph Ellison, Thomas Mann, W.H. Auden, and many others, as well as the distinguished Knopf list of cookery books and American historians and the Random House children’s list and dictionaries.

When we worked in the Villard mansion, stumbling upon a best seller was like winning a lottery. When Act One, Moss Hart’s memoir of his life in the theater, became a best seller, we celebrated by closing the office and taking the day off. It was like having inherited a fortune to publish James Michener and John O’Hara, who produced best sellers with regularity. Every major house could count on three or four popular writers like these to produce best sellers consistently. But the solid foundation—the accumulated capital—that publishers relied on was their backlists of books that sold year after year. It was these books that proclaimed a firm’s financial strength and its cultural standing: a source of pride which more than compensated the owners and their staffs for the marginal profits and low wages typical of the industry.

For authors, it was an honor to join the glittering backlists of houses like Random House, Knopf, or Viking, or smaller firms of equal distinction, such as Farrar, Straus and Giroux and W.W. Norton. But this too has now changed as most publishing houses have become indistinct in their conglomerate settings. Though some authors remain loyal to their editors, on whose advice they depend, most now rely upon their agents to sell their books at auction. For many of these agents the only significant difference among publishers is how much they will pay for popular writers or for books of topical interest that chain-store customers are likely to buy on impulse or because they have seen their authors on television. The advantage to authors is obvious, but many writers, especially promising beginners, are likely to suffer in the long run when their sales fall short of expectations and publishers become wary of their future projects. Today if an author spent the night on my office couch he would be evicted by the security staff. Authors no longer arrive unannounced. They are screened by guards in the lobby and given name tags to wear on their lapels.

Such name-brand best-selling authors as Tom Clancy, Michael Crichton, Stephen King, Dean Koontz, and John Grisham, whose faithful readers are addicted to their formulaic melodramas, no more need publishers to edit and publicize their books than Nabisco needs Julia Child to improve and publicize Oreos. Name-brand authors need publishers only to print and advertise their books and distribute them to the chains and other mass outlets, routine tasks that all publishers manage equally well. Should publishers cease to exist—a likely possibility sooner or later if not a certainty—these functions could be performed equally well by independent contractors available for hire: production consultants, publicity agencies, and distribution services.

  1. *

    I was the editor.

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