New York — IF you've stepped into a bookstore recently, you may have noticed some intriguing smaller books along with new titles by the Chabons and Isaacsons of the publishing world: an anthology of essays about African American movies; Hollywood short stories by John O'Hara; little-known novels by Gore Vidal and Joyce Carol Oates; early short stories by Henry James; a biography of Joan Crawford; and the poetry of Ishmael Reed.
You probably did not note the publishers of these books, and it's equally doubtful you registered that the two imprints issuing all of them -- Carroll & Graf and Thunder's Mouth Press -- will soon be closed in an economy move by their owner.
The loss of these imprints isn't the kind of news that typically roils the entertainment world. Yet as Eric Banks, editor in chief of Bookforum, put it, "There is something crucial that's lost to the culture whenever imprints like these disappear."
Indeed, the new issue of Bookforum will include reviews of two feisty new books from Carroll & Graf -- both of which "wouldn't necessarily have appeared at a larger house," Banks said -- that take a critical view of former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover: "Bobby and J. Edgar: The Historic Face-Off Between the Kennedys and J. Edgar Hoover That Transformed America" by Burton Hersh, and "Young J. Edgar: Hoover, the Red Scare, and the Assault on Civil Liberties" by Kenneth D. Ackerman.
For Perseus Books Group, which recently acquired Carroll & Graf and Thunder's Mouth Press as part of its acquisition of Avalon Publishing Group, it was a dollars-and-cents issue. The company decided that the two were no longer distinctive enough to thrive in a competitive market. But the New York-based Perseus pointed out that it has also made a multimillion-dollar investment to support independent publishers. "No one has a bigger commitment to the long-term survival of American independent publishing than we do," said David Steinberger, Perseus' president and chief executive.
Still, questions remain.
"When you see the book world conglomeratizing, it can only mean less diversity of voices," said Johnny Temple, publisher of Akashic Books, a Brooklyn-based imprint distributed by Perseus. "When I sign up a book, it matters more that I love it than that I've identified a good marketing niche for it. That's the real essence of independent publishing -- it's not a deal, it's supposed to be a labor of love."
Booksellers voice similar views. Paul Yamazaki, longtime buyer for City Lights Books in San Francisco, said imprints like Carroll & Graf and Thunder's Mouth Press are a boon to readers.
"I think of imprints as independent visions," he said. "How many of the larger houses would bother to put out a collection of John O'Hara's Hollywood short stories? The answer is, not many."
Since its founding in 1982, Carroll & Graf has published mysteries, provocative literary fiction by gay and lesbian writers, history books for a general audience, pop culture anthologies and the familiar "Mammoth" compendiums that explore topics from science fiction to erotica. Thunder's Mouth is known for edgy political nonfiction, African American writing, sports and science.
"At Carroll & Graf, we bridged the gap between small, lesser-known presses and the larger houses when it comes to gay literature," said Don Weise, a senior editor who is losing his job. "In the four years that I've been here, I've acquired more than 100 books, and no one has ever told me no, I couldn't do that. In the book world, that's unheard of."
Some might argue, of course, that publishers produce far too many books for the public to absorb, an estimated 120,000 titles a year. A reduction might well be overdue. Yet others cringe at the prospect of cutting indie publishers.
"We hear a lot of talk about biodiversity, but not much about protecting cultural diversity, especially for publishing," said Andre Schiffrin, founder of the New Press, an independent house. Before that, he ran Pantheon Books for nearly 30 years at Random House. "I was impressed when I first heard about Perseus' business plans," he said. "But they're not a bunch of philanthropists."
This week, the mood at both imprints was somber, according to several employees who asked for anonymity. Twenty-four jobs have been eliminated at Perseus and an additional 21 employees must relocate or find new positions in the company to hold onto their jobs.
Over the last year, Perseus has expanded dramatically. In addition to acquiring Avalon Publishing Group, it has also assumed control of marketing and distribution for some 124 smaller publishers represented by Publishers Group West. Earlier, Perseus acquired Consortium, which had been distributing books for 140 indie publishers. The firm now controls distribution and marketing for an estimated 80% of the indie book market.
The new deals
PUBLISHING observers have mixed reactions to the idea that Perseus is now both a book distributor and a publisher of small imprints.