The New Publishers' Row

IN THE WORLD OF BOOK PUBLISHING, Richard Snyder is known as a pugnacious businessman who's never at a loss for words. So it's surprising to find the chairman of Paramount Publishing peevish and defensive. "Why should the book business be inefficient?" he asked in an interview with NEWSWEEK. "Why is that the glorification of literature?"

Snyder is smarting from -- and genuinely puzzled by -- a growing chorus of attacks from authors, agents, editors and even some executives, who argue that his company and the other conglomerates that dominate mainstream publishing epitomize all that's wrong with the book business. The gripe isn't all new: in their zeal for profits and efficiency, the critics say, big publishers have drummed most of the fun out of what was once a collegial, if somewhat haphazardly run, business. "At least 30 publishing acquaintances of mine have said to me in the last eight years, you got out just in time, it's so horrible," says former Knopf editor in chief Robert Gottlieb. But the situation has become much worse: recently, big companies have shuttered many small imprints, fired editors and whittled down the number of books published. As Robin Davis Miller, executive director of the Authors Guild, puts it, "As there are fewer imprints, there are fewer outlets for authors, and for different kinds of authors." As publishing loses the diversity that comes from many editorial tastes, the public has less to choose from and, critics argue, the culture suffers from a blander diet.

The attacks have grown especially shrill since January, when Paramount, in the process of swallowing Macmillan, announced that it would ax Atheneum, Macmillan's prestigious literary subsidiary, and fold some of Macmillan's adult-trade titles into the Scribners imprint. The same bleak week, Houghton Mifflin abolished the venerable Ticknor & Fields, and Harcourt Brace announced it was firing half its trade publications staff and halving its trade list.

Stir in the other recent closings (Summit, Poseidon, Turtle Bay) and the result is the biggest change in publishing since the late '70s, when the chain bookstores rose to prominence and best-seller fever swept the industry. Now the publishing landscape is dominated by just seven giant houses; two decades ago there were more than twice that many. And while publishing companies have always gobbled up other publishers, never has so much power resided in so few hands. Last year the seven big corporate groups accounted for more than 80 percent of all best sellers.

The most recent bloodletting has split the industry into opposing camps as never before. On one side stand people like Snyder, who worry less about competition from other publishers than from other entertainment companies -- and who are scrambling to get into electronic publishing to beat out incursions from businesses such as Microsoft. But the opposition claims that big publishing really just cares about turning a quick profit on the likes of Howard Stern instead of nurturing the next Faulkner. "Things have never been worse," says an editor who recently left the New York publishing scene. "The contraction is real, and it's taking its heaviest toll on quality books. The same sensations "Hard Copy' is looking for is what books are emphasizing." Agent Deborah Karl thinks literary fiction writers especially are the big losers. Old-style publishing was based on relationships; now when editors are fired, links to developing authors are often broken. "Each time you lose editors and imprints," says Karl, "it eliminates the possibilities for selling manuscripts."

Richard Snyder claims this is hokum. "I do not believe that any good book ever went unpublished," he says. "The publishers are dying to find them." He also argues that the current situation offers splendid opportunities for the small publishing house, which "is always going to be swifter and smarter than the elephants."

Small presses do constitute one of the bright spots in American publishing. George Gibson, publisher of Walker and Co., a modest New York firm, argues that these diverse grass-roots efforts act as a natural corrective to the concentration at the top. Gibson, who's spent much of his career working with little presses, firmly believes that "this is a terrific time for small publishers. if we can prove we're capable of publishing well, we're going to end up getting books that we would never have gotten five years ago." He cites Graywolf, a well-regarded small publisher in St. Paul, Minn. "They published Tim Winton's much-praised novel "Cloud Street' and sold 8,000 copies in hardcover. That's $20 a copy for an Australian writer. So you can publish good literature terrifically and it will sell." Given the available technology, Gibson sees no reason why writers who once would have sold their books to a New York publisher shouldn't "self-publish it and start a publishing company."

Of all the recent changes rumbling through publishing, nothing has had more impact than the computer. Digital technology has changed every corner of the business, from the desktop publishing that Gibson touts to CD-ROM encyclopedias to textbooks tailored to a professor's precise wishes. It all bears out industry critic Thomas Whiteside: "You can't talk about the publishing business anymore. It's the publishing aspect of the communications business. "Most big conglomerate publishers are eager to market computerized educational programs, dictionaries and cookbooks. Since most of them have huge reference and textbook divisions (trade books-novels, history, memoirs and so forth -account for only 18 percent of book-publishing revenues), you can see why they're eager to carve up this pie. But the explosion of electronic publishing is likely to be little comfort to most authors, who've been demoted to "content providers" in the multimedia universe. Sure enough, the dispute over who owns electronic rights -- the author or the publisher -- has become the first big turf war in electronic publishing.

The one positive note in this trend is that many publishers have peered into the computer -- and rekindled their love affair with old-fashioned books. Paramount's Snyder may boast, "We're no longer a publisher. We're an exploiter of copyrights." But ask him when mainstream book consumers will feel the effects of electronics, and he claims, "Never. For pure pleasure, for intellectual experience, you read a book." It's a happy paradox that the notion of pages bound between two covers survives as a useful object, a thing of beauty, or just a missile to hurl at the cat. As Joseph Dionne, CEO of McGraw-Hill, wryly reminds us, the book "is not an inconsequential invention."

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