Monday, December 29, 2008

Adam Bellow -- publisher, editor, author [part one]

Adam Bellow of the New Pamphleteer and HarperCollins:

Note: This is the first part of a longer interview, which I shall post in weeks to come. An abridged version of it appeared at The Brooklyn Rail.

CBT: The philosophy behind the New Pamphleteer is that, where published text is concerned, shorter is better. Yet the current trend of the publishing industry seems to be an almost blind faith in the artistic and/or intellectual superiority of the Big (that is, Long) Book. Furthermore, this inclination in favour of the Big seems to be reinforced by the book reviewing apparatus, which also gives "major" works a conspicuous amount of attention.

Can pamphlet-length books really count of being judged on their content alone? Or has the fetishization of the Big Book become so entrenched that what one is fighting is not so much just a struggle for fair attention, but an ingrained prejudice?

AB: think we should take up first your premise of whether the book industry is biased toward the bigger or longer book. From a certain point of view of course it is, and for structural reasons that have to do with the emergence of large-scale corporate publishers. I’ve been twenty years a book editor at MacMillan, Simon and Schuster and Random House, and what I’ve seen arise is a true mass market for hard-cover non-fiction books. Naturally publishers and book-sellers alike make more money on a book they can charge 30 dollars for. But buyers are somewhat price conscious, and intellectual non-fiction cannot normally be published much above 26 – 27 dollars.

On the other hand, if you have a big fat biography of Teddy Roosevelt or John Adams, you find this price sensitivity is not such a great issue. So what I see is a continuing preference for books that can be published at a high price because the margins are better and the big publishers have, as you know, enormous bureaucracies and hierarchies filled with marketing, sales, publicity, financial, and legal departments. And they have to be paid for by profits from books, and book publishing is not famously a high margin business, which is why we don’t spend a lot of money on marketing and advertising.

At the same time, I would point out something I really began to notice in the early ‘90s, not long after I came into publishing, and that is what I would describe as the attempt – a struggle if you will – in which the pamphlet is struggling to return or re-emerge. I began to notice in the early’90s, really at the peak of the domestic culture war, books started to appear like Arthur Schlesinger’s Disuniting of America or Philip Howard’s Death of Common Sense. They were books about 160 – 180 pages, priced about 19, 20, 21 dollars, and they all became enormous best sellers.

Now it took me a while to realize that these books were essentially pamphlets. The reason you don’t recognize them as such is that they’re published in hardcover and priced pretty high as opposed to being published as trade paperbacks. The reason they’re not published as paperbacks is twofold. First, paperbacks have to be priced considerably lower, and so the margins are even smaller for the publisher. Also because paperback books don’t get reviewed. So if you have a polemical argument that you think is timely, as a publisher you really want it in hardcover.

Take Robert Kagan’s book about Europe and America. It grew out of an article, as many of these pamphlet-style books had done, and was published in hardcover almost instantly by Knopf and became a very big success. And here’s what I would describe as the attempt by large-scale corporate publishers to speed up their response time – to be more reactive. Because typically it takes, as you know, a couple of years for a book to be written and then another year for it to work its way through the production and marketing process.

So as the tempo of events has picked up, particularly, I would say, after the end of the Cold War in ‘89, publishers are really trying to act a little more like magazine editors. But they still have the constraints imposed by their lumbering bureaucracies and publishing processes, and so my conclusion – sorry about the length of my answer, but my conclusion is, there will always be a place in the market for the big book. This is what I term the “fat book” theory. There are some books that need to be published – that readers in fact want at length. As I sometimes say, there will always be readers who want to know how many pairs of spectacles Teddy Roosevelt had in his vest pocket when he charged up San Juan Hill. (The answer is twelve.) And that is the kind of interesting fact that, you know, you wouldn’t get that in a 150 page life of Teddy Roosevelt.

So there are always going to be people who want that. But particularly when it comes to current affairs and political controversy, people want faster interventions from the intellectual class, if you will. They want more of what I would describe as a French publishing culture, in which you have high-level intellectuals like Bernard Henri-Levy firing off a book on his summer vacation, and it’s in print a couple of months later. This is what’s necessary, because to continue my broader cultural analysis, after the end of the Cold War, clearly the West entered an ideological crisis. And then we have the outbreak of the age of terror. And so the world is changing rapidly, and the pace of change has accelerated, and people have a need for illumination and knowledge of the dark world outside their little Hobbit villages. And so they naturally turn to the intellectual and journalistic class. But they’re also demanding more substance in a shorter format, delivered faster, and book publishers are struggling to deliver this, but the industry is not suited to do it.

CBT: One of the great paradoxes of contemporary literature is that while the reading public generally has less time for reading, books that are critically lauded as major have become longer. It seems (again speaking generally) that they contain a lot of "stuff writing" -- i.e., passages that in earlier decades serious writers would have been inclined to cut. And the word count of contemporary major novels is sometimes noticeably very high.

Any comments? Has the contemporary novel become too long and self-indulgent? Or is length an irrelevant concern to the writer of vision?

AB: I like the phrase "stuff writing." It captures well the digressive tendencies bordering on self-indulgence of certain major writers -- Roth, DeLillo, Wallace, and Tom Wolfe to name a few whose books (and editors) have been criticized along these lines. However, in my view the readers of such books don't mind and may in fact prefer their novels large and all-embracing. People who do read seriously like to be fully absorbed by a book. The novel was originally meant to be a reflection of human society and a broad repository of knowledge -- look at Middlemarch, or Moby Dick, or Gravity's Rainbow. I think the taste for such books, as well as for lengthy historical novels, may be part of a healthy reaction against the constrained, minimalist, and overly 'personal' fiction of recent decades.

CBT: It's not uncommon for contemporary successful novelists to have little experience of regular, non-literary work. Is this a problem for the culture?

American writers used to come from all strata of society, from the patriciate to the working class. Now writing has become a white collar occupation, and most writers come from the affluent middle. Moreover, just as regional cultures have been dissolved in the acid of mass culture, today's writers are no longer autodidacts but products of the modern university system. After graduating from Ivy League colleges where they receive virtually the same education and acquire the same social views, they pass through professional degree-granting programs and are fed into a network of well-funded academic and nonprofit institutions that serve to further insulate them from the realities of American life. That I think explains the insular, self-referential feel of so much modern fiction, and why such writers must do "research" when they turn to topics other than themselves. On top of all this there is a natural tendency for writers to marry one another (like Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman) which tends in turn toward caste formation and dynasticism, as it has most visibly in Hollywood. Under the circumstances a general economic collapse might be the best thing that could possibly happen to American literature.

CBT: In your opinion, will the current economic crisis have a more deleterious effect on books sales than past recessions? If so, is there anything publishers can do to weather the storm?

AB: This is a grim topic for someone like me who works in the New York publishing industry. Publishers are indeed being hit hard by the collapse of consumer spending and a general contraction has begun with significant layoffs and restructuring at a number of companies. But as in other sectors, this has been coming for a long time and there is no reason publishers should be insulated from broader economic forces. Plus to a large extent they brought it on themselves, insofar as books have been priced very high and are essentially now luxury goods. This is a natural result of rising costs, combined with conglomeration and the transformation of publishing into a mass market phenomenon--all well-documented trends. Some recent commentators have predicted that books will henceforth be read by an elite coterie of esthetes and that publishing itself should go back to its pre-corporate days as a vocation for the rich. I doubt that will happen but there could be a major wave of technology-driven differentiation wherein big houses will concentrate on the mass market, competing fiercely for sure things -- i.e. bestselling authors and writers with media platforms -- while smaller houses pick up the slack, publishing the literary novels and mid-list nonfiction that are no longer cost-effective from the corporate point of view. The New Pamphleteer is part of this trend toward new-media based micropublishing, which is already well underway.

Bio: Adam Bellow is, with his partner David Bernstein, publisher of the New Pamphleteer. He is also an editor with many years experience at houses such as MacMillan, Simon and Schuster, Random House and HarperCollins. Finally, he is an author in his own right, and has written several articles as well as the book In Praise of Nepotism. He is working on a new book.

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