Now that we have passed, painfully perhaps, what Zonker Harris calls "this kidney stone of a decade," here we go taking the inevitable quick look back for an instant replay. Not for us the historian's ruminative absorption, the slow linking of individual facts into a chain of logic. No, we Americans seem to insist on immediate gratification, like those self-developing photographs, wherein we see ourselves caught like flies in the amber of the moment, only the color's off. The end of every year brings with it lists of the Ten Best and the Ten Worst; how much more tempting then is the end of a decade! While the ink is still wet on the final transactions of the 1970s, let's see if we can put the last 10 years into perspective without getting too many smudges on our thumbs.
I have enlisted the help of a group of people whose lives are and have been bound up with book publishing over more than the last 10 years, people with differing points of view based on their differing positons in the marketplace. I asked them what they saw as the most significant changes in the business in the 1970s, which of those changes they saw as negative, which as positive. And what they predicted for the decades to come. Not surprisingly, most of them talked about the same issues -- the drying up of the "middle-range" books, conglomerate takeovers, problems of distribution, the giant deals in which very much goes to very few. There was a general air of pessimism and some of the people I talked to felt it so keenly that they asked not to be quoted at all. The Vanishing Middle
The death of middle-range publishing -- the book that is neither a blockbuster nor a small advance, small budget hopeful -- ran like a [WORD ILLEGIBLE] through their gloomy words.
As president of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Roger Straus is one of the last independent publishers left in the world. Straus, who is almost never gloomy, laid out, in his usual crisp style, 10 salient points marking the 1970s: "Takeovers of small and medium-sized independent publishers by conglomerates and the mergers of some independents; ownership of almost all major mass market paperback houses by corporations that also own hardcover publishers -- partly because of this, the beginning of government interest, from an antitrust point of view, in book publishing; the proliferation of personal imprint publishers; the great increase in the number of bookshops, largely through new outlets created by the chains, and price discounting and the many more units sold of big commercial titles and a decline in the number of small personal shops and the sale of so-called 'lesser' books; the mass market paperback boom, most dramatically illustrated by hugely increased advances for the 'big books' -- and, unfortunately, by lessening interest among the reprints in 'secondary' titles; steadily rising retail prices, reflecting inflationary cost increases; the increasing importance of author tours and TV and radio appearances. In the '70s federal money for library purchases -- which had created a bonanza, particularly in the juvenile and the scholarly reprint markets -- dried up, sending profits down in those and allied areas. Last, the arrival of serious foreign money in U.S. publishing."
The "big book boom" was talked about by nearly everybody. "The most visible trend in publishing in the '70s was the big increase in money being shelled out by publishers to secure authors - much of it on pure speculation for books as yet unwritten," said Lawrence Huges president of William Morrow. "This may be good for a handful of superstar sellers and even economically justified in a few cases. On the negative side it places an emphasis on the size of a publisher's bank account and the ability to hype sales rather than on editiorial good taste and solid publishing expertise."
"The middle ground has vanished," agrees Owen Laster, head of the literary department of the William Morris Agency, one of the largest talent agencies in the world. Laster, who numbers among his clients Gore Vidal and James Michener, says that in the '70s the book business became "suddenly glamorous, getting attention like the movie business. Enormous sums of money went to very, very few people, and these books became 'properties,' highly promoted, glamorous, much talked-about, similar to the film world. And it was very much hit or miss." Everything's In the Name
"Publishers," said Laster, "will take a bigger risk than they did years ago to get in on the ground floor with an author, even though these days there's less chance of an author's staying with one house. There's a lot of jumping around, and no guarantee you'll get to keep the author's second book. For that matter, there's less stability among editors, too. More job-hopping and less permanence."
Leona Nevler, who heads up Fawcett World Library, agrees somewhat reluctantly about the diminishing middle ground. "Pessimism brings everything down, but I think the good old days were better. . . . What is distressing to me today is that I find it less possible to build authors in the same way, gradually. It's bad for the continuity of a publisher and, I think, bad for the author. A few authors are an awful lot richer, but fewer authors are truly rising in the business. So many of us are competing for lead titles. In the old days, your lead title carried your list. Nowadays you're lucky if your lead title carries your lead title."
Pulitzer Prize-winning critic William McPerson, the former editor of Book World, and now working on a novel, says, "Publishing houses in their constant demand for bigger and bigger books are moving away from the slow, painful and unfortunately often profitless cultivation of authors. There are, of course, notable exceptions, like John Irving, but in the main that kind of nurturing seems to be languishing. If you look at Eighty Years of Best Sellers, you'll see that nobody now remembers most of the so-called 'blockbuster' books of the past. They won't remember today's either, by and large. The university and smaller presses are assuming part of the trade publishers' traditional responsibility. Take a look at Black Sparrow, and their beautifully printed Collected Stories of Paul Bowles, or Kenwad Elmslies's Z press, which prints mostly poetry. Some of these smaller presses, and certainly the university presses, are looking more and more like the old trade house. Probably all these trends will continue. Big Bucks in the Supermarket Racks
Joni Evans, now publisher of The Linden Press with Simon & Schuster, reviewed the decade from the viewpoint of subsidiary rights -- a field peopled today by giants making giant deals. (Until recently, Evans sold rights for S&S, and concluded numerous six-figure and seven-figure paperback auctions.) "I think the most important thing is to put the reprint auction into perspective with everything else going on in the '70s. When the decade began, gold was selling at $35 an ounce; today, it's close to $500. In that case, we're slightly flagging. The question to ask is will the auction market ever exceed the inflation rate? The good news is that the auction has become an event. The prices may seem crazy, but if they can justify sales, they're not crazy. The bad news of the '70s is that there hasn't been enough money to go around to publish all the good books or 'middle books.'"
Christopher Cerf, as his name implies, was born into publishing. The son of Bennett Cerf, one of the founders of Random House, Chris worked at RH in various capacities and is now busy with his own projects. Cerf, along with Tony Hendra and Peter Elbling, is responsible for The 80s: A Look Back at the Tumultuous Decade 1980-1989, (Workman) in which the authors prophesy that this very volume will be the last book ever printed. Cerf is not really that pessimistic. "The paperback trade has emerged in the last 10 years, and it's being treated with a little more respect than it was in 1970. . . . The scariest trend I see is publishing moving away from taking chances on new writers unless they come in with a hype already built in. Just because publishers have learned a little more about commerce in the past decade doesn't mean they should forget about the books and authors, and think only of movie properties. Now that they've learned how to promote commercial books better, they should learn how to promote noncommercial books commercially."
On the subject of publicity, I spoke with Esther Margolis, Bantam Books' vice-president for publishing projects, who was for the most of the '70s Bantam's publicity director. "The '70s can be marked as the decade when the publishing industry went public, and I mean in the publicity not the financial sense. It's now commonplace for book deals, mergers, management changes, author disputes -- in fact, the whole business of publishing -- to make Rona Barret's column or Liz Smith's as well as the wire service. In the past decade, more media attention was generated about individual books and authors than ever before. This was partly because of expanded opportunities; partly because the business of publishing and books had become a more glamorous and controversial arena; and partly because most publishers finally recognized the value of publicity as part of an overall marketing strategy.
Bantam's president and publisher, Marc Jaffe, takes on optimistic view of the decade: "The 1970s were marked by extraordinary editorial creativity in paperback publishing. After two decades of growth the original work -- fiction or nonfiction, literary or escape entertainment, burst into full impact. Important books are [TEXT OMITTED] developed by paperback publishers found their way into hardcovers (for later reprint) in greater numbers as well. It's fair to say that as we go into the '80s, we in our industry no longer need to qualify ourselves as 'paperback' publishers. We are publishers, along with hundreds of colleagues, engaged in creating, along with authors, books for the broadest possible audience."
Donald L. Fine began the decade as an independent publisher and ended it by selling Arbor House to Hearst Publications. He is still its president. "As for paperback publishing pretty much wagging the dog of book publishing generally, I think the majority of those books that enjoy prominence in sales and review attention went the more traditional hardcover-to-paperback route. On the other hand, there is no question that the merchandising techniques so important in promoting and selling paperback books have finally seeped through into the promoting and selling of hardcover books as well, and all to the benefit of publishers and authors. In short, the various parts of publishing have been teaching and contributing and reinforcing each other with their special areas of expertise, and despite the wrangling and considerable publicity to the contrary, one suspects that this is going to continue on into the next decade. At least one hopes so.
"I think there has been a very heartening diversity in publishing structures and initiatives, combining at the same time entrepreneurial activities and conglomerate takeovers. The entrepreneurial movement in the decade of the '70s was also reflected in the trend toward editor imprint arrangements with publishing houses, which finally realized that editors along with authors were the basis of this business. A variety of this arrangement was the packager, who dreamed up notions for books, approached authors, made up his own arrangements with authors and presented them to publishers whose lists were in need. So we have an interesting combination of almost exactly opposite impulses, and I think it worth pointing out that in the age of Gulf-Western's acquisition of Simon & Schuster, RAC's of Random House, Doubleday's of Dell, etc., that many other people with some ideas and a great deal of energy and know-how were striking out on their own, becoming more independent and even makin some money for themselves along the way. Which strikes me as healthy."
"With some distinct exceptions, I'd like to remainder the decade," laughed Samuel Vaughan, president of Doubleday. But he isn't serious. "Actually, I don't think very much changes. I don't think the fundamentals change. If you go through all the issues of the moment -- the splits, the hard/soft arrangements and other management decisions -- what matters beyond management is the author and the books. Nobody ever managed himself into being a publisher. And it's the middle range of publishing in which the most writing and the most reading occurs. It's also the range with the most pressure on it -- from the blockbusters above the cheaper books below. A bad mistake would to be to take your eye off the middle, although you have the distractions of the starbursts at one end and the skeletons at the other. Good publishing is selling 18,000-20,000 copies of a book that gives you satisfaction. If you get caught up in the conventional wisdom of the trade, you might believe what you're saying, and that's dangerous. Roots was published at a time when so-called 'black books' were supposed to be finished. World War II books were said to be over, played out, when The Caine Mutiny and Diary of a Young Girl were launched. And the old system of popular authors helping to underwrite the less popular still applies." And What of the Future?
What will the 1980s hold for the world of books; "More of the same," says McPherson. "Our biggest challenge for the 1980s will center around efficient sales and distribution," Jaffe answers. "The big bestsellers will find their way to the top no matter how clogged or tangled are the channels. We must restructure and reevaluate our distributive organizations and efforts in order to work effectively with the dramatic, perhaps even explosive changes taking place in wholesale and direct distribution. More than ever before our growth and even survival will depend on our ability to get the right book for the right reader to the right place at the right time."
"The great danger in the 1980s is polarization," states Evans firmly. "The all or nothing -- money spent only on big books with nothing left for the middle books. Simon & Schuster is geared to hardcover sales, buy many houses don't show figures in the black if they don't make a big paperback sale for a book; they reley too heavily on subsidiary rights. Who knows what the reprint price of a book will be in the 1980s? $5 million? It's staggering, but in our present inflationary spiral we shouldn't be that staggered."
"I'm not pessimistic," says Cerf, "but if they don't continue to develop new young fiction, they're going to kill fiction entirely. Maybe if the publishers got together and formed a First Novel Book Club . . . Oh, and I predict that Truman Capote's Answered Prayers will be published sometime in the next decade."
"I still believe in good fiction," Owen Laster declares. "I still believe that good books will find their home. But inflation is contributing greatly to the costs of publishing a book, and adding to the costs of the big 'sure deal.' In the '80s deals are going to get bigger, but what may not get written about is that paperback houses, which get burned in a really big deal, will be tightening up tremendously; hardcover houses, too. And publishing houses are going to be even more merchandise-oriented, and there will be even more celebrity books and gimmick books." "Whether the trend to the big books will continue in the 1980s will depend on whether the reading public is willing to pay ever and ever [TEXT OMITTED] retail prices for books of entertainment," says Larry Hughes. "My guess is that they won't. However, I believe price resistance will be somewhat offset by more efficient methods of book distribution for all books and not just for bestsellers."
Leona Nevler agrees. "If times are a little affluent, maybe more books will sell by more authors. And you can still have an occasional surprise -- a book you love that sells extremely well into the bargain -- and make it all worthwhile."
Straus makes a group of specific predictions for what he calls "The years of the 'shake-out': The conglomerates will regurgitate their book company purchases as they realize that book publishing can never be the kind of growth industry that allows for an annual percentage increase or rate of profit comparable to the norms of one-product businesses -- a possible exception, the purchase of one or more major imprints by one or more major motion picture studios. Either through government decree or threat, the opening up of distribution channels and therefore the proliferation of 'minor' mass market imprints; the drying up of imprint publishers; the withdrawal of the foreign presence in America as expectations for profits in America decline and possibilities for expansion from home base become brighter with local government help; the creation of better book awards and the restructuring of the Association of American Publishers; the continuing proliferation of regional publishing; the continuing proliferation of regional publishers; the continuing decline of the independent book seller and continuing growth of the chain stores."
"I'm quite sure," says Fine, "that the rather glib and facile predictions of books being turned into electronic impulses, making obsolete not only publishers but authors are total nonsense. The act of reading, like the act of writing, is still solitary, special, unique and highly personal matter. People like to get involved with authors, with people who create, not with machines that computerize. Computers are well for arranging your sales print-outs and your payroll disbursements, but not much to curl up with on a cold winter's night or to stretch out with under the blazing sun on an island of your choice."
And Sam Vaughan, tongue firmly in cheek, says: "I've got it pretty clear until 1987. Then it gets a little hazy. . . . "