The BOOKPRESS April 1999

Endangered Species?

Jason Cons

It is no secret that both independent publishers and independent booksellers are under duress from the ongoing conglomeration of both publishing houses and bookstores. Despite pressure from their larger competitors, and the market focus on blockbusters, a small number of establishments continue to produce and sell high-quality and challenging books. Two publishing houses that consistently produce important progressive work are Verso and The New Press.

Verso, which grew out of the British left-wing journal The New Left Review in the late ’60s and early ’70s has made a bid, over the last few years, to publish more trade-oriented titles. While Verso continues to publish works by such esteemed thinkers as Walter Benjamin, Louis Althusser, Jacques Derrida, and Fredric Jameson, it has recently achieved more popular success with titles like Doug Henwood’s Wall Street, a critique of the stock market, and their new edition of The Communist Manifesto (see The Bookpress, May, 1998 for an overview of Verso’s marketing of the Manifesto.)

The New Press, founded in 1990 after director André Schiffrin's now-famous walkout from Random House, is a non-profit publishing house dedicated to important books that would be overlooked by larger, profit-minded houses. In recent years The New Press has published new work by such authors as Studs Terkel, Michel Foucault, and Howard Zinn. The New Press has also engaged in projects with the National Security Archive to produce such books as The Bay of Pigs Declassified and The Kissinger Transcripts.

Recently, The Bookpress spoke with Verso managing director Colin Robinson and The New Press director André Schiffrin about changes in the publishing industry and the role of the independent press in today's cultural environment.

Bookpress: What do you see as the major changes in the publishing industry in the last 10 years?

Colin Robinson: Well, what’s changed most is the consolidation of companies throughout the ’80s and ’90s. The conglomeration in publishing was mirrored by a conglomeration in retail in the mid-’90s. Barnes and Noble and Borders didn’t exist in their current states in the early ’90s. That’s largely happened in the last five years. The key point here is that this is part of a process which induces more people to read the same books.

Marketing figures show that there has been no decline in the number of books published and no decline in the number of readers. But behind these figures is a major shift in the distribution of readers across the publishing range. Now readership is largely concentrated in the top end, the books that have the most money in advances and promotion behind them.

This is a phenomenon across all cultural production and includes movies as well as books. Consumers are focused on the blockbusters. The seven largest publishing companies concentrate on their best sellers. They offer larger and larger advances to their writers and put more money into promotion to get their advances back.

André Schiffrin: I think the big change in publishing is this ownership issue. You can see by looking at the catalogues of the trade houses that while they’re still producing many valuable books, many types of equally valuable books that used to be published no longer appear. They are limiting themselves to entertainment titles rather than the full range they used to do.

BP: How does this affect the overall quality of what is being published?

CR: My feeling is that this reduces cultural diversity. The arguments for cultural diversity are similar to the arguments for biological diversity, which hold that preserving a species is valuable even if it has no immediate use. It may be important in the future.

Its the same in the publishing world. Take, for example, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. While it’s not a book that I’m a big fan of, it has become a widely adopted text in British schools. Faber and Faber were the original publishers, but they were the 13th house that Golding approached. He was turned down 12 times before that. If that happened today, there wouldn’t be twelve houses to send it to.

Another argument borrowed from biological diversity is that if you remove one species it may have an effect on all the others. By thinning out the middle end, publishing houses have an overall impact on the quality, rigor, and intellectual richness of their entire list. Diminishing cultural diversity in the publishing industry is bad now and it’s going to get worse.

AS: It’s been noted widely in recent years that the large commercial publishers are now integral parts of vast international entertainment conglomerates, and thus under pressure to come up with profits commensurate with those of the television and movie interests of their owners. As a look at the catalogues from commercial presses will show, they are still producing a great many valuable books. But, as in the movie business, it is their "fringe" offerings that will continue to provide the most-interesting fare. Moreover, smaller independent and university presses simply don’t seem to have the wherewithal to commission major new works, books that take years of research and thought. Nor do the smaller presses have the funds or staffs to select and translate major works from abroad—books that have increasingly disappeared from American life. Dozens of important books that appear in European languages every year will never find their way into English. Both the university presses and the independents can and do publish excellent work that has been completed, and then has been rejected by the commercial houses. It is much harder—if not impossible—for them to finance the promising proposal or long-range project that might result in an important but non-commercial title.

BP: How does all this effect an independent radical publisher like Verso or a non-profit house like The New Press?

CR: One of the difficulties brought on by conglomerate focus at the top end of the market is that it weakens the middle of the market. You’ll always have small, special-interest niche markets, such as academic publishing. But Verso is trying to break out of its academic niche and focus on the middle market.

Chains do have a kind of responsibility for carrying radical publishing. These people aren’t philistines, they’re businessmen, but they have very schematic views of the radical market. Verso is fortunate enough to be a recognized representative of radical publishing. Barnes and Noble supported our recent edition of the Communist Manifesto, got behind it, marketed it, and it sold quite well.

So all of this isn’t disastrous for us, but if you are a smaller radical publisher than we are, such as Monthly Review or Southend Press, it can be quite difficult to get carried in the chains.

AS: Well, there’s a whole range of non-profit publishing houses, including lots of university presses. Our role is to publish the books we feel are no longer appearing in the commercial houses.

We’re not a university press even though we’re housed at City University. Our aim is not to address the university audience as such. Some of our books could be published by university presses, but most of our books are aimed at different readers. And in fact, we’ve made a point of trying to reach some of the readers that university presses aren’t at all concerned with, such as high-school readers.

BP: How does an independent or left-leaning press go about marketing their books in today's publishing environment?

CR: We obviously don’t have the resources to buy a lot of advertising or expensive display materials. It’s necessary for us to find other ways of attracting attention to our books. I believe radical publishing involves more than simply publishing radical books. You have to engage in creative ways of publishing and marketing them as well.

We displayed the Manifesto in the window of Barney’s in New York, got a big display on Wall Street and were quite successful.

We’ve actually entered it for the "Best Publicity Campaign of 1998" for the Literary Market Place awards. Just to give you an idea of the market, this category is subdivided into two sections: campaigns over $300,000 and campaigns under $300,000. We came in at about $3,000 dollars on that one, so if there is any justice in the world, they’ll at least mention us.

We’ve also been quite successful with negative blurbing on the backs of our books. The New York Times actually wrote us up on it. We’ve used Alan Ableson on the back of Doug Henwood’s Wall Street, for example, saying, "You are scum.... It’s tragic you exist." Or on the back of Michael Sorkin’s book, Exquisite Corpse where the architecture critic from the LA Times wrote, "Michael Sorkin is to architectural criticism what the Ayatollah Khomeini was to religious freedom."

AS: Like all publishers we try to have a strong marketing division. We send out lots of review copies, we try to get displays in bookstores wherever we can. The difference with our approach is that we also have a large series of public events around the books. We had over 100 last year ranging from a small meeting of black teachers in a southern town to discuss our oral history of black teachers, to several thousand people turning up to listen to Studs Terkel in Berkeley. At the moment we’re doing a series on self-censorship in the press at the Law school at NYU. Next month we have a conference on what’s happening in Chiapas. So we have a very extensive outreach program that tries to reach a whole range of readers.

BP: What effect does the Internet market have on publishing and do you see any hope for independent bookstores to cooperate on the Net?

CR: In the future a lot more books are going to be sold on the Net, but ultimately I think the principles of the marketplace will just translate onto the Net. If you look at it, publishers already have to pay to get spots on and B&N. So what will happen is that where people are currently paying for physical space in bookstores, they’ll be paying for electronic space on the Net.

As far as independent cooperation, I don’t know. I’d think not, though. How would it work? It’s much more likely that City Lights in San Francisco, say, could organize their own very groovy Web site and have people shop from that. Customers would know that the editorial sensibilities of the staff at City Lights are such that the books of interest to them would be presented in an accessible way and they would feel strongly that they should support City Lights. So I think that you will see good bookstores develop their own individual Web sites. Cooperation efforts and any kind of centralization are very difficult to achieve for a bunch of people with the sort of personalities that independent booksellers have. I’m not saying this in a pejorative sense. I think the fact that they have passionate and individual beliefs is one of the great things about independent booksellers. But trying to organize them? I think someone said it was like trying to herd cats.

AS: Amazon and B&N are making books available in a way they weren’t before, but I don’t know how it changes the actual situation. You could always order any book from a bookseller. I think one of the adverse effects of the Web sites will be the increasing diminution of the role that independent booksellers already play. They only account for 17% of sales. They will account for much less by the time the corporations are through with them. I think that’s unfortunate. But you probably saw in The Times the other day, independent booksellers are finally coming up with their own Web site. But what the Web sites are doing is making available on a computer what you used to get by going down to a bookstore and saying, "Will you special order this for me?"

BP: Both Verso and The New Press have shown that books larger publishing houses won’t publish can be profitable. What’s the process of identifying these books?

CR: There’s a kind of intellectual milieu called the New Left that we’re connected to through the New Left Review. But I think you have to go out and search for authors. As I said, the hallmark of radical publishing is not just the content of the books, it’s also the way that you publish. I think you have to look for authors in places that other people might not expect to find them. We’re doing a book on New York taxis this spring. I came across the guy who’s writing it at a meeting of the New York Taxi Association which happened to be meeting at the Brecht Forum one night. As it turned out, he’s a very good writer and there’s no one better to describe the industry than him. He’s writing from the inside. I suspect this isn’t the kind of place that Harper Collins or Random House would ever go looking for authors. I suppose to be fair, I wasn’t looking for authors either, but I at least had my eyes and ears open.

AS: We’re not identifying books that we think will be profitable. We’re identifying books that we think matter. Some of them end up being profitable, some don’t. It’s as if we were the last university left with a scholarship fund. Books are admitted on merit and because we think they’re important. And we’ll take them whether they meet our overhead costs or not. Sometimes it turns out, like with May It Please the Court that we have a bestseller, sometimes not.

With something like our "Declassified" series, we were talking to the NSA over a long period of time. We started with the Iran Contra materials. That’s a case where none of the commercial houses were willing to take them on and we thought their books were really important. The Kissinger Transcripts is the most recent of those. That’s a book I hope people around Ithaca will be reading.

BP: How do you structure your lists?

CR: The Verso list is a combination of academic and more popular books. I think it’s very important that each of these complements the other. The popular books, which are often quite important, are underscored by the presence of academic books. On the other hand, the academic books can be projected to a wider audience on the back of the trade part of the list. So I think both our academic and our trade authors benefit. Our writers don’t necessarily have to be left-wing. But they certainly have to be unconventional. While I like the balance we have, in our own way, we are going to mirror the larger markets by publishing fewer books and trying to sell more of the books we publish. At the moment we’re publishing 40-45 books in a year. I’d like to get down to about 30. But I’d like them to be 30 books that really make an impact. Therefore we will try to sign bigger authors and do all the things that attend to that, such as bigger advances and foreign rights.

AS: The lesson we have drawn from such books as May it Please the Court and Lies My Teacher Told Me, is that, although many types of books undeniably become harder to publish with every passing year (the increasing intellectual isolationism in America makes that particularly true for foreign fiction), the audience for many topics remains untapped, simply because no one has tried to reach them. Whether for reasons of racial or elitist prejudice, many a reader has been assumed out of existence.

Needless to say, it has taken a not-for-profit structure to discover those readers. While some editors in commercial houses doubtless would be delighted to experiment as we have, they are forced to concentrate on the handful of books that may, if all goes well, allow them to meet the ever-more-unrealistic economic expectations of publishers. Editors who can remember the times of B.C. (Before Conglomerates) still regret the decimation of serious publishing. What is worrisome is that people joining the ranks of American publishing today have no such comparative vantage point. To them, the present situation is normal—"the real world"—and not something to challenge or change.

BP: Reading titles such as The New Press’s We the Media leaves anyone advocating for an open media somewhat discouraged.

AS: Right. No, I don’t think there’s any cause for optimism at all. I think what’s happened to film, what’s happened to radio, what’s happened to television, is happening to publishing at this point. It’s one thing if that happens in media that are geared towards entertainment, it’s another when media that are producing new ideas become part of the entertainment media. I think we’re in for hard times.

Jason Cons is a writer living in Ithaca and an editor at The Bookpress.

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