Skip to main content

Works of Art or Power Tools?


ISSUE:  Winter 1981

“I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” This brave and challenging motto is carved around the Jefferson Memorial in Washington. Not even Thomas Jefferson could have foreseen a form of tyranny that today threatens the printed word. It grows out of short-term commercialism and the attempt by the federal government to tax out of existence even that survival by benign neglect that has been the fate of much American writing.

To try to find out what has caused the crisis in American publishing is to enter a maze of fear, inefficiency, and mutual recrimination. The publishers blame the distribution system; the chain stores blame the publishers; the independent book stores blame both of them; they all blame the government. But the responsibility for the situation falls on the whole industry—and the victims are book-lovers and writers.

Everyone seems to forget that in the long run the vast industry rests on the backs of writers, alone in rooms, facing, day after day, “the white silence of the blank page.”

I speak primarily of fiction. Most nonfiction books are assured a built-in audience based on subject, and the writer is concerned with facts. It is, in Conrad’s words, “otherwise” with the novelist. “He must descend within himself … and in that lonely region of stress and strife … find the terms of his appeal.”

The novelist requires, in order to work, an atmosphere of possibility. Novels have been written in spite of noise, poverty, and constant demands on time, which are the prime enemies of writers. But to write without a hope of reaching the reader is destructive to conception itself. Mark Rothko said that a painting died from not being looked at. A novel can die of hopelessness in the brain of its creator.

There is, and always has been, a perceptive audience for good novels. In the long run, it is the most dependable market. Serious readers have kept books alive, not for a year, but for centuries. Finally, it is that long road from the single writer to the single reader that is fraught with almost insurmountable obstacles today. All too often, these obstacles are set up at management level in the large publishing houses.

The obvious threat is to the young writer who is trying to find his readers. But the insidious threat is to known novelists who, although they may be critically successful, command slow sales. Their books have not been “blockbusters,” nor are they formula novels aimed at commercial success. They have gradually built their own readership, a long and patient process. Any writer who is innovative—and even without stylistic innovation, a different eye sees a different vision—must, by these terms, teach the reader to see in a new way. It takes time, just as innovation in music can at first sound dissonant.

What happens to such a writer today?

The first step in the process of publishing is to submit the novel to an editor in a hard-cover publishing house. The term “editor” no longer means what it did in the past. Except in two or three cases in a huge industry, the idea of Max Perkins is as dead as the old Packard car. The days are long gone when editors went on “scouting tours” to seek out new writers. (Both Eudora Welty and Margaret Mitchell were discovered in this way.)

Modern editors are divided by function—classic editors, who work on books, and managers (the trade calls them belly editors), who buy and sell and promote. The modern working editor, certainly in the majority of publishing houses owned by large conglomerate corporations, is ground between two pressures. One is the classic task of reading, editing, and guiding the manuscript through copy-editing, overseeing the production, and trying, often without help, to launch the book.

The other pressure is from what in a factory would be called management. It is a growing one which cuts radically into the classic process, in time, in choice, and, most importantly, in intention. In most publishing houses there is a profit quota which is expected to rise each year. This is the basic reason for the South Sea Bubble of frantic gambling on what are designed to be “blockbusters,” to the detriment of quality, or patience about sales, or the reading public.

In order to meet this quota, demand—the reading public— is efficiently controlled, or thought to be. Here is the same parochialism, hardheadedness, and refusal to change until almost too late that has brought the automobile industry to the crisis point. It, too, thought it knew the public. But seven years after the first shocks of the oil shortage, and long after the amoral policy of built-in obsolescence had caused a public outcry, the industry still clung to the manufacture of big cars designed for quick trade-in: they yielded a greater short-term profit per car. As a result, it is only now trying to gear production to smaller, longer-lasting cars when the market has been lost to more fuel-efficient, better-built foreign cars. The failure, and widespread remaindering, of blockbuster books should be a similar warning to the publishing industry in New York, that most parochial of cities.

In the case of books, the race for fast profits has resulted in the censorship of slow-moving books. Decisions to advertise, to budget paid promotion for a book, are based almost entirely upon the advance that has to be earned back by the house, often on books bought before they are written. Most managers in publishing houses are businessmen who farm out the classic tasks of editing within their organization. They are concerned with acquisitions, contracts, and “the bottom line” of profits. In other words, they are the buyers and sellers of commodities called books. The working editor is low on the totem pole of decision in a large publishing house today.

The statement of one of the Simon and Shuster subsidiary managers (P.J. Fennel, head of a “romance” subsidiary) in The New York Times, sums up the attitude of too many publishers today. “This is not a publishing venture. We’re in the packaged goods business.” Most of his training was as a marketing executive of General Foods and Pepsico, and his comment ranks with, “What’s good for General Motors is good for the nation.” Simon and Shuster and its paperback subsidiaries are owned by Gulf and Western.

But managers, too, are part of a chain of command that has grown as rigid as any military hierarchy. They hold their jobs at the mercy of bosses in the conglomerates who care only about the profits of the subsidiaries—and care little whether they come from widgets, oil wells, baseball teams, television empires, motion pictures, newspaper chains, canned baked beans, sanitary napkins, or books. And the managers know only too well that, if they do not make the expected profits, the conglomerate can fire them, cut its losses, and invest in an expanding widget market. In public, most managers are compelled to deny that there is any conglomerate pressure; privately, they admit and fear it. As in the automobile industry, these managers hold their jobs by the myth that they know the public taste. They don’t know it. They try to control it by “hyping” a few books that they think will sell, long before the public has a chance to choose. (Does “hype” come from “hyperventilate”?) Books with low advances have small chance of success, unless they are so well reviewed that they generate a demand independently and quickly. Even this hope is being killed by the distribution process.

II

In January 1980 a symposium was sponsored by PEN American Center (the national organization of poets, playwrights, editors, and novelists) and the Arthur Garfield Hayes Center for Civil Liberties at NYU. A leading editor who asked for anonymity wrote: “One of my sales reps confided to me that I can’t hope to get an order from the chains on any novel unless we print at least 15,000 copies of it. Most novels without guaranteed subsidiary rights sales have printings more on the order of 5,000 copies. I wonder where writers like Bellow or Mailer or Styron might be now if the chains had been so powerful when their first books came out.”

There is another myth that if there are good reviews the book can break out of the vicious circle of advance-advertising-distribution and win its own public. There is enough truth in this only to feed the myth. What actually happens today?

Seventy to 80 percent of all books in this country are bought by either chain bookstores (such as Waldenbooks, Dalton, Brentano’s) or by regional wholesalers (such as Ingram or Baker and Taylor). Their orders are placed far in advance of any reviews. They may buy the whole list of a publisher, but the numbers of individual book titles depend entirely on advertising and promises of promotion.

Trade ads for books speak a language as private as the ads in the back of magazines that read, “Aggressive male seeks friendship with sensitive intelligent woman.” First, space; then, the number of copies in print, and the promotional plans. These decisions are made in the publishing house by managers on the basis of name and advance—which, in the frantic auctioning of hoped-for bestsellers can be a million dollars or more.

These ads appear in Publishers Weekly, and they are the first signal to the distributors that management, not necessarily the working editor, who is often unknown, is backing the books. A page in Publishers Weekly costs $1,350, and it usually contains three or four of these “top of the list” announcements at an average cost to the publisher of $400, very little when you consider even a $5000 advance.

This is also where and when the overworked and much-maligned “rep,” or publisher’s representative, enters the game. Months ahead of time, armed with the publisher’s lists, the PW ads, and publicity releases, he or she has about a minute per book, according to an article in The New York Times Book Review, to sell a book that, no matter how worthy, has not received the backing of management. On this one minute, and on this frail Atlas, the fate of all books outside the few blockbusters depends for the majority of advance sales, long before even the trade reviews.

What is the working editor left with, who is trying, against odds within the publishing house itself, to launch other novels? Here is one of the ironies of the industry today. The next move, usually too late to affect advance sales, is to send out uncorrected galley proofs, all too often to the same critically praised writers who have not received advance backing from management, for free comments on the book in order to catch the eye of reviewers. As many as 50 copies of a novel which is strongly backed by its working editor may be spread throughout the literary world, at an estimated cost of $20 per set of galley proofs, or more than the cost of a half-page advance ad in Publishers Weekly. The editor works against time, too late for advance sales in any volume to the wholesalers and the chains, in an economic cloud cuckoo-land. So an avalanche of galleys is being sent out by desperate editors dependent on the mercy of hard-working writers. Some writers receive a galley per week. It would be impossible to honor them all. One editor said, “It has become so embarrassing that sometimes it is all I can do-to do it.”

Whatever joy there once was in the otherwise frightening process of publishing a book—nurturing by concerned editors, ceremonies of publication day, a sense of celebration at the end of a long and arduous task—is gone today. In the words of another editor, “Publishing is no fun any more.”

It certainly is little pleasure to the writer. At least in the old days publication was like a Moslem circumcision—the act was painful, but the party was good. Now there is only more pressure on the writers, for in the last resort the onus of seeing that a novel gets over the obstacles to the public rests on them. In this, much help and guidance can come from the publicity department which contacts reviewers, sends out favorable comments, and handles all unpaid publicity. It can be a dignified and profitable procedure—serious reviews, interviews where the interviewer has taste and takes the job seriously. (And where the interviewer has read the book.)

But there is another and more sinister element in publicity—the “hype” that subjects the writer to the ills of personality-mongering. To sell the book, sell the writer. It is a debilitating process, physically and psychically, is often humiliating, and lasts for months. A celebrity has been defined as a person who is well-known for being well-known. Some writers feel that they must subject themselves to this exposure. But the sad fact is that for books that don’t have large advance sales, its only value is to stimulate interest among the paperback houses, since the bookstores, at least 70 to 80 percent of them, will have so few copies that the book must be ordered, a process that can take from four days from the wholesaler to a month from many of the publishers. It is a strong-minded reader who will care enough to wait.

III

Even the redeeming backlist, which has been the mainstay of the serious novelist who sells slowly and for a long time, as readers spread the word, is threatened by a tax on all books that remain in the publisher’s warehouse for over a year. In January 1979 a tax case reached the U.S. Supreme Court. The court’s decision, in Thor Power Tool Company v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue, involving the taxation of hitherto untaxed tool inventories, was favorable to the Internal Revenue Service. At once zealous IRS accountants applied the ruling to the publishers’ backlist of books. It required that all books which have been in print for more than a year either be sold below cost or destroyed unless a crippling tax is paid. Unless Congress acts favorably on bills now pending to reverse the ruling, the result will be no less than a gigantic book burning.

Justice John Marshall said, as long ago as 1819, “The power to tax involves the power to destroy.” The IRS ruling can mean the destruction of all backlist titles, including scholarly, scientific, and technical works—and slow-selling novels. Inadvertently, the decision means an even greater speeding up of sales, an even smaller acceptance of any books but guaranteed best-sellers.

At the American Booksellers Association conference this year the failure of short-term overprinting, huge advances, and hype was recognized, if not stated, in the admission that, to a large extent, the industry is making its most dependable profits on its backlists. Of course this includes classics, non-fiction, textbooks, and novels. What would have happened to Walden, Leaves of Grass, Moby Dick, The Red Badge of Courage, or The Scarlet Letter in such a situation? All are books that took years to find their readers.

For 30 years, undeterred by the carping of interest groups, coteries, or economic pressures, the Association of American Publishers backed the most prestigious prizes given to American writers, the National Book Awards. They had an honorable record, unlike many other prizes, of noninterference with the judging. In the case of fiction, the judges were novelists and short-story writers of critical reputation, with a critic or editor occasionally on the panel. They read widely. Every eligible novel was considered by the judges. Their record through the years speaks for itself: out of 33 books chosen, all but two are still in print, or were before the IRS ruling. Writers of the reputation of William Faulkner, Katherine Anne Porter, and Thornton Wilder were honored. So were writers who were virtually unknown to the public at the time of their awards—John Updike, Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, Walker Percy, Bernard Malamud, to name some of them. The winners were chosen on the basis of the books alone, regardless of the prior reputation of the writers, by a jury of their peers.

But commercial pressure, criticism from publishers whose books had not been nominated and from reviewers who were caught not having read the books chosen by the judges (there was a month between the nominations and the announcement of the winners), finally led to the killing of the National Book Awards.

They were killed by a committee including representatives from six of the conglomerate-owned publishers and two independent publishers. Five of the committee members were managers, two represented publicity, one a sales department. Four of the committee members were from major paperback publishers. There were no writers, no critics, no working editors.

The National Book Awards were replaced by The American Book Awards (TABA), Instead of seven categories of judging, there were 17—with awards for both hardcover and paperback books in most of them. (“Everybody has won, and all must have prizes,” as the Dodo said in Alice in Wonderland). Instead of the books being chosen by a jury of peers, the nominations for 1979 were made by a jury of two publishers, two reviewers, two booksellers, two librarians, one “specialist,” and two writers. The final winners were chosen by a vote of 2,000 members of an “academy,” conceived on the model of the Oscars, and representing, in equal parts, publishers, booksellers, librarians, and authors and critics.

The possibility of an unknown winning any of these new awards was effectively eliminated by the system, since with the best will in the world 2,000 people cannot read the great number of books that the NBA judges managed to read. Had hype won? Not quite. At last there was an outcry against the decision, too late to save the National Book Awards. The first TABA ceremonies in the spring of 1980 were a flop. Three of the five nominees for fiction refused their nominations—Norman Mailer, William Styron, and Philip Roth. When Styron won, he refused the award itself. Many other nominees boycotted TABA—Frances Fitzgerald, David Halberstam, Frederic Morton, Calvin Trillin.

Christopher Lasch wrote in The New York Times, “While I am naturally pleased that those who took part in the selection have found some merit in my work, I have no intention of accepting this award. The formation of The American Book Awards, which replace the judgment of an author by his peers with a new selection process that gives priority to commercial success, sanctions the worst tendencies in publishing today.” He ended with the manifesto, “Let no one be deceived by the “antielitist” claptrap that has attended the organization of The American Book Awards. Those who have boycotted these awards, according to their critics, show “contempt for the public.” The same thing used to be said of the honest artisan who insisted on the highest standards of craftsmanship, even when aware of the economic advantages of an adulturated product. It is not the craftsman who shows “contempt for the public” but the new industrialists of opinion.”

The boycott against TABA began with a letter written by Alison Lurie and signed by 40 winners and judges of the NBA. PEN American Center conducted a poll of its 1,800 members all across the country. Only 9 percent favored TABA, 56 percent voted not to participate at all, and 35 percent voted for a boycott unless the rules of judging were changed to the old NBA format. The backers of TABA term this elitism, and indeed it is—if elitism means quality and long-term public service to a minority of discerning readers instead of a quick turnover of books aimed primarily at a popular market. (These two categories are known in the publishing trade as class and mass.)

There is nothing new, and nothing wrong, in this double standard. The list of books that appeal to mass taste is long, honorable, entertaining, and often of high quality. God forbid that we should be asked to sacrifice a good detective novel for a “serious” book. Yet this is what is happening in reverse today.

The dime novel, the “penny dreadful,” has long been with us. Marie Corelli has been forgotten, except by scholars of 19th Century English literature. Yet in her time she sold more copies of her novels that any other novelist but Dickens. Would this, by the standards of modern commercial publishing and the IRS, have been reason to suppress, or to shred after one year, the works of George Eliot, Thackeray, Emily and Charlotte Brontë? Why should either be sacrificed to the other when both meet a valid public demand?

IV

Are good novels doomed to pre-planned oblivion? No. The PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction is the first American literary prize to be conceived, judged, and controlled by writers. It is sponsored by PEN American Center and PEN South, its branch headquarters in Charlottesville, Virginia, its host, the University of Virginia. The $2,000 prize, for the most distinguished work of fiction published in 1980, will be presented on April 18, 1981 in the Dome Room of Thomas Jefferson’s Rotunda at the University of Virginia, where Faulkner once was writer-in-residence. What better setting than this?

The judges for the first PEN/Faulkner Award, chosen by the Executive Board of PEN American Center and a representative of PEN South, are William Gass, Elizabeth Hardwick, and Tim O’Brien, winner of the last National Book Award for Fiction. The Board of Advisors for 1980 includes Saul Bellow (Nobel Prize winner and the only writer to win the NBA three times), William Styron, Wallace Stegner (the 1977 NBA winner), Alison Lurie, and Peter Taylor.

Essentially, the award is intended to fill a long-term need in American writing—a prize of the calibre of the Prix Goncourt in France, backed by writers and interested readers, and publicized by writers. The reaction to the announcement of the PEN/Faulkner Award last June has been one of overwhelming approval. A tax-deductible PEN/Faulkner Fund has been established at PEN American Center, 47 Fifth Avenue, New York 10003.

The judges for 1980 started reading the eligible novels in September, and the announcement of the books nominated will be made at the beginning of February, early enough for the nationwide network of PEN members to insure that the books are available in local stores. With the public support of writers and concerned readers, this will be the first concerted effort to break the blockades of early ordering and hype selling.

Because of careful and comprehensive reading by the judges and the suggestions that the Board of Advisors may make, the PEN/Faulkner Award has an additional and important value to the literary world. This is the chance of new books being read by the jury, who otherwise might not know of their existence. This exposure is vital to young writers or to any novelists whose first printing is too low to assure the backing of the boom-or-bust publishing system. These novelists, often ignored by the reviewers, seldom advertised by the publishers, have few ways to gain the recognition that their work may merit other than this fair and open reading by a jury of peers.

A longstanding tradition in publishing is the small press. Shelley, Tom Paine, Robert Burns, and Walt Whitman all published their own books. Leonard and Virginia Woolf set up the Hogarth Press in their house in London in the early Twenties. The list of now famous writers who started with small presses is too long to name. In the last few years, as a reaction to commercial publishing, small presses have burgeoned in this country. Although the lists and the printings are small, aggressive small press publishers push their books into the stores with the verve that was once found in the independent publishing industry in New York. There are also successful cooperative ventures started by writers. In many ways, new novelists, and certainly poets, are better off publishing their first books with a cooperative or aggressive small press than being lost in the commercial maze of the New York market.

Although many of the university presses still sleep, inefficient, slow, and safe under the covers of academia, some of them have branched out and are beginning to back their books to get them reviewed and sold. Last year the Louisiana State University Press, at the behest of Walker Percy, published A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole, with an introduction by Percy. Toole committed suicide before his novel was accepted for publication; it had been refused by major New York houses as “noncommercial.” But it has sold more than 40,000 copies, is an alternate selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club, and has been sold to the movies and to the paperback division of Grove Press.

The PEN/Faulkner Award, the cooperatives, the small presses, and the university presses can help to fill the void which commercial publishers have caused. Individual readers can help too. They can back the PEN/Faulkner Award. They can investigate the small presses. They can refuse to let themselves be conned into the lazy acceptance of commercial dictatorship. They can insist on ordering books. They can follow the lead of discerning reviewers. Best-selling writers, who have earned their fame by the quality of their work, can share their early trade ads with less widely advertised writers, so that the booksellers will at least know that they exist and are supported by their publishers. All of these acts can help to restore the reader’s right to choose for himself or herself. They can create a critical, perceptive buyers’ market, which is the healthiest and in the long run the safest market for any industry. After all there is, and always has been, a redeeming strain of skepticism in the American public, wary of commercial con games and defective products, the fake and the shoddy. In the apocryphal but familiar words of Abraham Lincoln, “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.” We are, after all, a democracy, free to buy books or to choose not to buy them.

What of books in the future? Already, faintly, under the wailing of the publishing industry that books are not selling, under the noise of the television sets, under the huckstering of what is becoming the most provincial industry in the nation, under the jeremiads of the literary snobs, there can be heard the still, small voice of the constant reader. It has always been there. Because of the growing number of college-trained readers and the widespread teaching of writing by writers, it is growing stronger. And surer. The constant reader is demanding and perceptive and younger.

Constant readers make up their own minds. Falling sales show their distrust of hype. Tight money creates careful buyers, truly interested in what they read. They buy books that often do not appeal to the mass market, and even the mass market, the first to be affected by recession, is showing signs of discontent nowadays. Constant readers build book collections and haunt the libraries. They are the long-term salvation of the publishing industry, and always have been, and the wiser of the big publishers are beginning to listen to their voices. Those who are blinded by selling techniques that are returning ever-diminishing returns will go to the wall. Their places will be filled by the Hondas and Toyotas of a new world of small presses, more patient publishers, fairer production and promotion systems, and established writers who are generous to their peers. Crisis brings out both generosity and hard questions. The present crisis in American publishing may, after all, be only the end of a bad era, not the death of good books.

0 Comments

By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.

Recommended Reading