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Is Shelved Newhouse Bio a Harbinger?

April 09, 1998|PAUL D. COLFORD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Carol Felsenthal distinguished herself as a digger not easily intimidated by a mighty subject when she wrote "Power, Privilege and the Post," a biography of Washington Post owner Katharine Graham. Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons in 1993, over the expressed concerns of Graham's attorney, the 500-page book still managed to earn the respect of the Post's appointed reviewer. Ronald Steel said the book was "unlikely to please its subject" but that it painted "a persuasive portrait of a gutsy woman."

For an encore, Felsenthal signed a six-figure contract with Viking Press in 1994 to write a biography of another powerful publisher--S.I. Newhouse Jr., who has generated considerable news coverage and literary gossip since his stunning announcement last month that he is selling Random House to Bertelsmann A.G., a German media conglomerate. In this case, however, Felsenthal has had a much tougher road to publication, considering that Viking's new management took the unusual step of canceling her book in finished form.

As Felsenthal tells the story, she completed her manuscript at the end of last year, and believed it was undergoing a customary legal review. Instead, she said, her agent, Philippa Brophy, was asked to lunch in mid-January by Viking President Susan Petersen and Phyllis Grann, president of Penguin Putnam Inc., of which Viking is a part. According to Felsenthal, Grann explained that she could not publish the Newhouse biography, which had been acquired by Viking's previous management, because too many people mentioned in the book are friends of hers and Petersen's. Petersen is a former executive vice president of Random House.

"It's not a hatchet job--it's an objective and balanced look at Newhouse, and it's sympathetic in many ways," Felsenthal said. But after four years of work, including more than 500 interviews, Felsenthal now had an orphaned manuscript, one not easily placed elsewhere, given Newhouse's extensive ownership of other book publishers and leading magazines (such as Vanity Fair, the New Yorker and GQ) that publishers routinely hope will excerpt a book or profile an author as part of a publicity campaign.

"When it happened, I was completely outraged," Felsenthal said. "In this case, it was self-censorship. I make no claim or charge that Si Newhouse himself asked Phyllis Grann to pull the book. He owns so much that people censor themselves."

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As it turned out, Penguin Putnam paid Felsenthal the balance of her contract. And a small, independent house, Seven Stories Press, picked up the book and may stick with the earlier plan to publish it in the fall. Arriving four years after publication of Thomas Maier's "Newhouse" (Johnson Books), Felsenthal's new look at the publishing titan will encompass the unexpected exit in the fall of Random House Publisher Harold M. Evans and the pending sale of the company.

In the meantime, a lingering question is whether the book's cancellation by Penguin Putnam reflects merely the personal reservations of company management or the kind of impenetrable publishing power that some authors and literary agents have come to dread as consolidation puts more publishing houses, such as Random House and Putnam, into fewer hands.

At the very least, Felsenthal's experience underscores the increasing difficulty journalists will have in writing about a media topic or a media figure without fraying a tie that the subject has to one's publisher. Indeed, editor and publisher Steven Brill says that Content, the media-watching magazine he plans to launch in June, will rely on staff reporters--not free-lancers, who might be skittish about jeopardizing contacts in broadcasting and publishing that they may depend on for other assignments.

Grann, who was chairwoman of Putnam when the company published Felsenthal's Graham book, added Viking to her executive purview in December 1996. That was when the British-based Pearson Group, the owner of Penguin USA and subsidiary imprints such as Viking, closed on its purchase of Putnam and Grann became president of the newly formed Penguin Putnam Inc. Boasting annual sales estimated at $860 million, Penguin Putnam will become the world's second-largest consumer book publisher when Bertelsmann forms the new and twice-as-large Random House Inc. by merging its acquisition and its Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group at midyear.

Paul Aiken, executive director of the Authors Guild, characterized the Felsenthal cancellation as "exactly the sort of thing we're worried about. . . . In the current publishing environment, the fear of self-censorship among the four major houses is really as great as government censorship. These houses have the power to determine much of our cultural discourse and free debate. We're concerned about that, especially after the announcement that Bertelsmann will buy Random House."

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