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Will Publishing Survive?

A Symposium

February 25, 2001

Book publishing exists at the intersection of art and commerce. In recent years, according to some observers, several factors have combined to make it difficult (some say nearly impossible) for publishers to acquire and sell--at commercially viable levels--difficult yet important writing. The conglomeration of nearly everything, an obsession with the bottom-line and the pressure to reap short-term profits, the near-universal enrollment in the cults of celebrity, sensationalism and gossip, have made it harder for publishers to successfully maintain their traditional commitment to literature and the public discourse. The advent of electronic technologies also threatens to significantly transform traditional means of both production and distribution of books, and perhaps, ultimately, it is feared, reading itself.

Book Review wondered whether publishers, editors, literary agents and booksellers generally agreed with the assumptions of this gloomy view, or did their experience suggest a more optimistic appraisal of book publishing's present and future. We asked a number of them to share their thoughts with us.


It is hard to come up with a simple answer to your question. On the one hand, we now have the generally unenlightened and mismanaged conglomerates whose managers are interested in finding more businesses to swallow and not in finding new authors to add to their backlists. On the other hand, the authors who make up the valuable backlists of the firms being swallowed (and ironically the very raison d'e^tre for the swallowing) had a hard time getting published even before conglomerates came into being.

William Faulkner was turned down by the legendary Maxwell Perkins (Scribners); Elie Wiesel was turned down by the original Knopf (Mrs. K herself) who suggested he get published instead "abroad in England, or wherever"; Samuel Beckett was turned down by just about every publisher in New York. Both Wiesel and Beckett were then picked up by small publishers with little capital but good instincts, Hill & Wang and Grove Press respectively; the first of these firms is now part of the Von Holtzbrinck conglomerate; the second, first swallowed up then regurgitated, is now part of the independent Grove Atlantic.

Will the new technologies eliminate publishers altogether? Perhaps, but there were writers for many centuries before the first publishers appeared on the scene, and there will I am sure be writers for many centuries after the publishers disappear (if they actually do). More of a threat to the future of publishing as we know it are the publishers themselves: the "big boys" today all behave like Swiss bankers in the days of Voltaire. The latter said if you see a Swiss banker jump out of the window, jump after him, there must be money out there. They are all jumping a bit faster today than they used to, but perhaps not fast enough to self-destruct altogether.

So put me in the camp of the guardedly optimistic. The French press, incidentally, recently reported the case of the late head of a powerful conglomerate who asked St. Peter for privileges commensurate with his earthly achievements. He was directed to a door from which he returned quite irate: Why had he been sent to hell? We have mergers here too, he was told.


Georges Borchardt has worked for many years in publishing. The literary agency that bears his name was incorporated in 1967. He represents many authors, including such L.A. writers as T.C. Boyle, John Rechy, Jack Miles and Saul Friedlander.


The process of takeovers in publishing has been going on for many decades. But in the early 1960s, when RCA bought Random House, Bennett Cerf, its then-president, was able to promise himself and his colleagues that Random would continue to publish books that would lose money but that he instinctively knew were important in the long run and unprofitable in the short run. All this has changed dramatically in the last decade as publishing has increasingly become part of large multinational media conglomerates whose profit expectations are based on the money that can be made in television, film and in the press. Eighty percent of American trade publishing is now controlled by five of these firms; 93% of all book sales are now in the hands of the top 20 firms. The new owners are committed to making a 15%-20% profit margin, instead of the 4% or 5% that publishing had accounted for during the rest of the century.

One would have expected the federal anti-trust act to prevent some of these vast conglomerates from forming. If Rupert Murdoch wants to own more than one newspaper in a given town, the anti-trust act is vigorously enforced. But when Germany's Bertelsmann decides that it will own 40% of American trade publishing, not a single eyebrow goes up in Washington.

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