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Letter from America

20 December 2015

From a 1980 BBC radio broadcast featuring Alistair Cook:

[A] story in the New York Times . . . brought back, as if it were last night, a cocktail party, ooh it must be 20, 25 years ago. It was a party given here for a visiting delegation of British book publishers, a party intended to start them off meeting their American opposite numbers.

I went there with an old wise American, one of those incomparable immigrant types who appear to have been born a Rabbi, a man who came here as a boy with two sisters and a mother in a shawl and who, 40 years later at the most, was at the very top of his profession as a public relations adviser, a roly-poly man with two chins and a mandarin moustache, he moved in every kind of society with unflappable ease.

He and I were standing off in a corner of this party when a bright young Englishman came up and the old PR man said, ‘Well, young man, are you enjoying yourself?’ ‘Oh, very much,’ said the Englishman but his brow crinkled and he said, ‘The only trouble is I simply don’t know where everybody belongs, among your people. I don’t know which of the Americans publishes poetry and which publishes pulp detective stories.’ ‘For instance?’ asked the old man.

‘Well,’ said the Englishman, ‘how about the group in that corner and the group in the other one?’ ‘My dear fella,’ said the old man, ‘it’s very simple. If you look over there at the man with the mutton-chop whiskers, the one who looks like the Emperor Franz Joseph, he is Alfred Knopf, he is a publisher. In the other corner, the man with the glasses and the pipe, he’s in the book business.’ It seemed, at the time, to be a cynical remark but a wise one.

For even then, bright young men on the make were going into publishing not because they were consumed with a passion for literature, but because they had ingenuous ideas about how to spot, in a new writer, the making of a thumping bestseller. The word ‘bestseller’ hasn’t been in the language very long. I should have guessed about 50 years, but the Oxford Dictionary just informs me it was coined or first appeared in print in 1912. Well, in the long, long history of the making of books that’s practically yesterday, but since the Second War, especially, bestseller lists have not only reported the books that a lot of people find most fascinating; the lists do more than report. Like many another form of advertising, they can actually create the appetite they’re pretending to take notice of.

Now this can lead to methods, tricks of marketing, which are far removed from the original desire to put out and advertise good books. For instance, there are two main forms of agreement between the publisher and the retailer. In the United States, a bookshop may order 200 copies of a new book but if it sells only 50, it can send back the other 150.

In some European countries, what the bookseller orders is what he has to keep and that makes for a much more accurate count, his count, of how well a book is selling. But, by the same token, it can also tempt a bookseller to report a better sale than he’s enjoying, in this way: the booksellers report to the newspapers that compile bestseller lists which books are doing particularly well. Now if you ordered 200 copies and are struggling to sell only 50, I should think there’s a very strong temptation to report that the book’s doing wonderfully well, in the hope it will get on to the bestseller lists and then you’ll get the sale you’d hoped for.

In the United States, the New York Times reports every Sunday the sales from something like, I think it’s 1200 bookshops and stores, what they call ‘retail outlets’. Because the retailer can return what he doesn’t sell, he’s under no obligation, no temptation, to fake the report of who’s doing well and who isn’t, but I’ve been told, on impeccable authority, that in Europe in some countries a book can hit the bestseller list because it’s not doing half so well as the publisher had hoped. The report that it is actually gives a fillip to the sales and, after a while, the hoped-for bestseller actually becomes one.

. . . .

The conglomerates saw the marketing of books as not business, but big business. And so, in the past dozen years or so, publishing houses have come to be owned by companies who were, in the first place, steel companies, say, and who had then taken over breweries and ball-bearing factories and Lord knows what else. Simpletons like me cannot shake the belief that if you buy a carton of orange juice, it’s grown and packaged and sold by a company whose main interest in life is orange groves.

. . . .

Well, the effect of all this has been to remove the author farther and farther away from the publisher as we use to define him, that is, a man whose main interest is literature and whose ambition is to promote the sale of better books over worse books.

The bookmaking process has gone even beyond this new relationship between the author and the beer baron who owns him by remote control. Any work of fiction stimulates in the movie and television companies the rosy prospect of a bonanza. So, whereas once upon a time, a simple time, literary agents used to wave the manuscripts of novels in front of the noses of movie moguls in the hope that they would like what they smelled.

By now this is a naive, almost a clumsy, procedure. Movie companies or businessmen with spare money don’t wait for the novel to be written. They pick out an author who once hit the jackpot and they go to him and suggest there might be one heck of a movie or a television special in a story about, say, a President of the United States who was seduced by a fashion model.

. . . .

The whole process is basically a financial contrivance – the marketing of a piece of fiction as if it were a dishwasher or a new car. Well, these stratagems are leaving the regular publishing houses in Britain as well as America in dire trouble and it has turned good, young writers, not to mention poets and historians and essayists into outcasts or anachronisms as quaint as minstrels or strolling actors.

Link to the rest at BBC and thanks to Dusk for the tip.

Big Publishing

15 Comments to “Letter from America”

  1. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

    Nothing new to see here. Move along.

  2. As one would expect, just an excellent insight from Alistair Cooke about the changes that had appeared in American publishing.

    Especially notable is when this statement took place (1980). That was just following the financial earthquake of the 1979 Thor Power Tools ruling from the US Supreme Court that found inventory was taxable. That ruling triggered arguably the greatest change in publishing in history.

    Previous to Thor Power Tools, publishers would take back unsold books from booksellers and keep them in warehouses for eventual sale later. An author with a large print run that didn’t immediately sell out that run could still do so over time as the book gained more reviews and readers over the years.

    After Thor Power Tools, inventory at the publisher’s warehouse became a cost on the balance sheets and something to be minimized as quickly as possible. As Alistair Cooke noted, bestsellers became something other than they had previously and were to be pursued with a focus unlike anything previously seen.

    Unsuccessful books which were returned were quickly disposed of so that they would not be a tax burden. No longer could interest in an author build over time. Velocity of sales became a metric that was measured and followed closely.

  3. I think there was one change that happened around that time, and it began in the MBA programs that began to teach that, once you got an MBA, you could run any business. This, and I suspect changes in laws that made it easier for businesses to take over each other (I know in particular that there was one that allowed companies to own more than a certain number of radio stations), it allowed for accelerating consolidations into larger and larger organizations.

    The MBA-taught executives also encouraged companies to buy companies they had not experience or knowledge in, and when they applied their principles, discovered themselves in deep, deep trouble. This resulted in pain for everyone else–the workers who lost their jobs from consolidation, the reputations of once-great companies–but not the execs, who were given “golden parachutes” and stock options and bailed.

    • I wonder about this. In undergrad j-school, they advised us not to do a master’s until we’d had several years of experience.

      “You won’t get anything out of a master’s program if you haven’t done anything yet,” they said.

      Yet I consistently hear that with MBAs, this principle is not in play. That people who’ve never run anything are getting that degree, then going forth and ruining businesses with their ignorance. What I’ve never understood is *why* the MBA programs decided not to use business experience as a prerequisite to entering the program.

      That decision is costing them credibility — I’ve never heard “MBA” to mean “wise businessman,” it’s always used as an explanation for why the person makes idiotic choices that destroy the business in question.

      Looks like it’s past time to end credentialism (don’t apply without a degree!) and bring back hiring for talent / skill / experience instead.

      • I still suspect that MBAs were a Soviet plot to destroy the Western economy.

      • Yet I consistently hear that with MBAs, this principle is not in play. That people who’ve never run anything are getting that degree, then going forth and ruining businesses with their ignorance.

        Who do you hear it from? I grant personal experience isn’t a reliable sample, but in many years of business, I never saw that. Few would be dumb enough to put an inexperienced MBA in charge of anything. However, in organizations where it didn’t happen, there was indeed a folklore that it did happen.

        • Back in the late 80’s, my father did more or less exactly that. He spent his career (and his father before him) running someone else’s family business in grain milling (like a very small Continental Grain).

          His son didn’t want to go into the business, and he didn’t consider his daughter, who had been building businesses since the 70s, to be a candidate (infuriatingly), so he went shopping for an MBA to train up.

          He (and my brother and I) were Yalies, and the MBA was Harvard, so it was always with a faint sense of mocking puzzlement that he would tell us about his disappointments with the concept. The inability to spell, for example — was it Harvard’s fault, or that of the nice young man?

          Every now and then I would hear about some odd recommendation or other. In the end, the MBA was never really put in charge, and my father retired. The owners eventually sold it.

          • Terrence, Karen, thanks for the perspective. What I normally hear of MBAs is usually at business sites/blogs, where either the article or the commentators will make negative remarks about MBAs, usually to account for the state of an industry or a lousy trend etc. The tales are usually anecdotal, as opposed to case studies and whatnot.

            “MBAs are destructive” is one of those ideas I hold in my head while waiting for evidence one way or the other. I just find it interesting that “interested observers” don’t speak well of them. It even seems to be “pop culture wisdom” that the degrees are given to inexperienced people who lack the know-how to do whatever they’re supposed to be doing.

            Perhaps their reputation is just be one of those things where if all is well? No comment. One thing goes wrong? Complaints pour in. And it’s also possible that the complainers are expecting their target audience to know their comments are hyperbole, whereas outsiders like me would not.

    • If we look back at the history of the auto business, it is full of mergers and acquisitions. All before the age of the MBA.

      We can also take a look at the all biggest companies from 100 years back, and see how a network of mergers and acquisitions changing the profile of lots of industries. All before the age of the MBA.

      Today, we can observe the mergers of medical practices into larger units. That’s not the MBA, but ObamaCare.

      So when we see a phenomenon before the age of the MBA, and we see the same phenomenon after the emergence of the MBA, it’s difficult to attribute it to the MBA.

  4. P.G.

    Letter from America, with Alistair Cook is the most missed programme on the radio. His use of language was an object lesson in crisp clarity.

    Auntie has attempted to replace or provide a similar programme, but the boots are too big to fill. 1946 through 2004, remarkable. 510 episodes are available on the BBC iplayer at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00f6hbp

    Of the current crop of presenters, Kim Ghattas can occasionally be heard on the Diane Rehm show on foreign correspondents show day. Considering her history, (born in Beirut, Lebanon) her use of the language is miraculous. Never an um/ah or the dreaded high rising terminal.


  5. And this was written by Cooke in 1980 — the halcyon days of publishing compared to what it’s become today.

    But there is hope, IMHO. Indie writers/self-publishers are redefining “good literature” in a way that Trad Pub is no longer able, thanks to their mega-corporate masters, to do.

    Witness the continuing pink-slipping of editors, graphic artists, et al, who were formerly employed by Trad Pub. They, like writers, have been forced to go indie, contributing to the increasing dominance of self-pubbed books.

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