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Can Publishing Go Global? : When international media conglomerates buy book companies, it is neither good culture nor good business.

March 20, 1994|RICHARD J. BARNET and JOHN CAVANAGH | Richard J. Barnet is the author of 11 books including (with Ronald E. Muller) "Global Reach." John Cavanagh is a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and the Transnational Institute in Washington

The beginning of the 1980s was a time of unprecedented book sales and extravagant talk in the publishing world. The business press and financial analysts burbled about the synergies that would result from combining books, book clubs, magazines, music, video and films all under a single corporate roof.

The "information revolution" had arrived, and communication, so Wall Street promoters promised, was becoming the principal human activity. Any enterprise without a powerful communications capability would not make it in "postindustrial society." Billion of dollars were raised for the merger of Warner Communications and Time Inc., which also owns Book-of-the-Month Club and Little, Brown, much of it by luring investors with the magic of synergy.

By the end of the 1980s the production of general books of fiction and nonfiction in the United States had been substantially taken over by the global entertainment and mass-media conglomerates. But putting books, movies, magazines and clubs under one corporate roof has produced few miracles. By and large, books have to make it on their own. An order from conglomerate headquarters to its film company to make a movie of one of its literary properties that would not otherwise be selected is obviously not good business. It is not a good way to keep talented people who are employed for their intuition about what will and will not sell. In the book business, synergies have been most successful in the children's market. Disney's trade-marked characters can serve equally well in books, films, T-shirts and theme parks. Of the 10 best-selling children's paperbacks of 1990, eight had "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" in the title.

Owning publishing properties in several countries is no different from owning other commercial operations in a variety of places, except that it encourages dreams of turning books into global products. Despite the difficulties, the need for translation being only one of them, a few books such as Alex Haley's "Roots," Umberto Eco's "The Name of the Rose," and books by John le Carre and Gabriel Garcia Marquez have sold in large quantities all over the world. The same could have been said for "Anna Karenina" over a century ago, but the difference now is that global distribution is greatly speeded by co-publishing arrangements and near-simultaneous launchings in a number of countries.

Danielle Steele is a prolific and successful Bertelsmann author, along with two or three other authors the closest thing to a global bestseller machine there is. But Dell, the Bertelsmann subsidiary in the United States that is her primary publisher, does not have the power to require this producer of yearly blockbusters to publish with Bertelsmann-owned presses in other countries nor to turn over the foreign rights. She herself is a global industry, and there are many agents and publishers waiting in line for a share.

The number of manuscripts that turn into global books is exceedingly small. Film and music can be easily marketed as global products because their chief attractions are action, sound and beat. A Pakistani audience can watch an action-packed Arnold Schwarzenegger film with Urdu subtitles and come away with just about everything the film has to offer. The essence of a book, on the other hand, is language. A translation is a reflection of a literary work as perceived by a translator who is usually not the author. Inevitably, a book displaying literary artistry or complex thought will be read by foreign readers as if reflected in a glass darkly. Even a brilliant translation is a different book. This reality sets limits to global marketing. Books do not travel well in their original language, unless it happens to be English, and even then only a tiny fraction of the world's Coke-guzzlers or Madonna fans is likely to pick it up. (Madonna's "Sex" was launched simultaneously in five languages, but what sold the book needed no translation.)

A few books are now conceived from the start as global products. Mostly they are slices of American life written for a huge mass audience around the world, modeled on earlier blockbusters and marketed like any Hollywood fairy tale. Indeed, such books are either inspired by a film or designed to whet appetites for the major motion picture that is soon to be. "Scarlett," the sequel to Margaret Mitchell's "Gone With the Wind," published by Time Warner's Warner Books, was released simultaneously in 40 countries in the fall of 1991, but this unprecedented global launching, which resulted in phenomenal sales, was possible only because 100 million readers had already read the original and hundreds of millions more had seen the movie.

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