Monday, January 05, 2009

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

Adam Bellow of the New Pamphleteer and HarperCollins:

Note: This is the second part of my interview with Bellow. An abridged version of it appeared at The Brooklyn Rail.

CBT: To what extent does mass media and here Im thinking of electronic media -- play a role in driving the choice that publishers make? After all, these days, mass media is so much about debate, and I think thats one reason why the polemical books you mentioned earlier were a natural phenomenon, so to speak, since mass media can integrate its coverage with polemical books very easily, whereas novels arent given much attention. I live in South Korea, and when I watch North American TV, theres zero coverage of Western literature, but there is a lot of coverage of Western movie-making. And while polemical books may not get much direct coverage as specific titles, the themes that particular polemical books deal with can be worked into the discourse of mass media very easily and in this sense get international coverage. How would you respond to that?

AB: I think its very true. In my career Ive been very focused on publishing the kind of book that can be translated into sound bites. Obviously its difficult to do that with a novel, particularly a good one. Although there are very successful novels that succeed because of that. For example, a novel we published at Doubleday, The Devil Wears Prada, which succeeded because everyone knew it was a roman a clef about Anna Wintour, written by someone who had worked for her. And this set the New York media atwitter. And despite its lack of literary qualities, it became a best-seller because it was possible for the media to talk about it in their own terms in a way that was interesting to a mass audience. You cant really do that with a Franzen novel. So there are obvious limitations there. Especially with non-fiction, we are particularly dependent on the interest of the media. We work very hard to package our books in such a way I would even say we spoon feed handles and talking points to people in the media.

One thing we know about the media Im talking about television and radio primarily is that it is a vast sort of bottomless maw that needs to be fed on a daily basis. Its literally starving for content. And thats a good thing, because books, for a number of reasons, continue to be the source and the driver of so much of what is talked about in popular media.

The big driver, the big engine, outside of politics, is the movie and entertainment industry. Thats an endless source of fascination, and the media feed off the film industry and the social life of Hollywood. But books retain a special authority, simply by virtue of their having been published between hard covers. And this is actually a valuable service that publishers perform.

You know, we are an industry that has the privileged position of feeding material into the culture that people tend to trust because it comes from us. Books themselves inherently retain a certain numinousness, a certain authority, even if theyre not by a Harvard professor or New York Times op-ed columnist. The fact that a book has been printed and has a certain permanence and is not fleeting like a movie or TV show, gives it a certain authority.

And thats why books continue to drive a great deal of what is talked about in other media. So were conscious of this role in the system, sort of this feeder of the media. And we try to play along with them and give them what they need in a form they can readily absorb and understand. Because we know theyre not going to actually read these books. Theyre going to read the press release, the press kit, Q & A, and so forth. And we just try to prepare them to talk intelligently about things

CBT: So its all true! Its all true, the rumours about interviewers who dont read

AB: [laughing] Whats the point of publishing a book that people dont understand and cant grasp? This is not news to anybody. We have a very short time to establish a book in the marketplace. And if it takes too long to explain what a book is about, the media, which is incredibly impatient, simply ignores it or takes note of it and moves on very quickly. And this raises a question that you raised earlier, which is can pamphlets compete in this kind of culture? But before I answer that, Id like to say to say something about why Im doing this, and how I came to conceive of this idea and what Im hoping to accomplish. Then we can talk about the obstacles that I face, because there are definitely obstacles.

This idea goes back to the years in the 90s when I was editorial director of The Free Press at Simon and Schuster. I took over The Free Press at a time that was really the height of the domestic culture war. And I had been very involved as an editor in publishing books by what was then the conservative intellectual opposition movement. It was a very exciting time because we were battering down the ramparts of the liberal-dominated opinion media. And it was a tremendous victory if we got a book reviewed in the New York Times. Typically they didnt feel they had to do it. But we had published a number of best-sellers. So at the time I took over The Free Press it had acquired a reputation as a right-wing house. But this was not really fair to the other editors.

The Free Press had a long and venerable history as a social science publisher, and it put out around 120 books a year. There were seven or eight editors, publishing all these serious books. And yet it was only the conservative books that got attention, so the general perception of the Free Press was that we had gone right-wing. And as the editorial director, I felt it was my job, my responsibility, to reposition the press so it would not be misperceived. But this was a difficult thing to do. So I began to think about how one would go about doing this. And I had the idea, because Im something of an amateur historian of publishing, and Ive always been fascinated by the role of pamphlets in fostering political debate and also social movements of various kinds. And I thought, well, maybe I could publish a pamphlet series, and what we would do is invite people from the left as well as the right to contribute, and wed start our own little in-house pamphlet war.

I didnt think this would be a money-maker. But it would serve to position the Free Press as a house that was not so much partisan or right-wing as a house that was serious about ideas.

So I took this idea to Simon and Schuster, and I reminded them that back in the 1920s and 30s, most publishing companies had magazines that they also published. You know, Scribner had Scribners magazine and there were Harpers, Colliers, the Atlantic, and they served a number of purposes.

First of all, they were going concerns in their own right. But they also served to show-case house authors and to attract new authors. It was a smart thing to do. And I thought of the Free Press pamphlet series as the equivalent of a magazine. Well, needless to say, the management at Simon and Schuster didnt really see the point in doing this, and I gave up.

CBT: Did they say why during those meetings?

AB: Well, they just -- I think they were correct insofar as it would have been a nice thing to do if you could have done it successfully on a mass market level. But it would have been very difficult to make it financially viable because with something youd be publishing at a low price point you know, 4 or 5 dollars to get that kind of thing into mass distribution you have to meet all kinds of market tests that one usually applies to a mass market book. You have to have a famous author, to whom you have to pay a lot of money, and you have to figure out how to earn back that money. And the only way to earn back that money is to have a thesis, or an argument, thats truly timely and controversial and is likely to attract media attention. And thats hard to guarantee. And to make back the kind of investment lets say we couldve gotten Tom Wolfe to write a pamphlet, we would have had to pay him $50,000 and we would have had to sell at four dollars a unit, five dollars a unit, something like 30 40,000 copies. And without the ability to count on the review media, its a tough thing to do. Really, it would have been like launching a magazine, and it would have cost a lot of money. So I didnt really disagree with them, I just tucked the idea away in the back of my mind.

But as I said earlier, I continued to feel there was somehow a kind of pamphleteering spirit trying to be reborn. There was a pamphleteering culture trying to emerge, and it was really being stifled by the business model of the big publishers. I mean, only a few very established voices like Schlesingers were able to get through, and to be published in that medium.

So I basically tabled the idea. I just put it aside, and went back to my conventional job as an editor. Soon after that I left the Free Press. And I wrote a book myself, In Praise of Nepotism, which was published by Doubleday, and along the way I accepted a position at Doubleday as an editor-at-large, which is my current role. And that is a position that was designed to allow me to do my own writing or other projects, and contribute a limited number of books to the Doubleday list.

However, a big change that occurred in the culture after 9/11, as you know, is that the blogosphere exploded. It really came into its own as a medium for independent journalists and writers, and it began to challenge the existing media. And I became, like many other people, an addictive reader of blogs during the Afghan War and the Iraq War. And it suddenly occurred to me that this was the solution to my pamphlet problem.

Id had to give up on the idea of publishing pamphlets because I couldnt make it work in the conventional structure of distribution and promotion. But with the internet I realized not only did you have an immense pool of talent to fish from but you also had a low-cost delivery system. As long as you could print small quantities of a pamphlet and sell it cheaply through your website, you didnt have to spend a lot of money on printing, shipping and warehousing. You didnt have to have a big marketing budget. All you had to have were certain conditions to be met in terms of an author with a certain visibility within a very well-defined niche market, and you could break even in effect and even make a little profit at low levels. And really what Im describing is a re-invention of mid-list intellectual publishing.

The other thing that occurred in the 90s in the publishing business was something referred to euphemistically as the Great Mid-list Contraction. This occurred when a number of big companies decided all at the same time to go out of the business of publishing first novels by literary authors. You know, small novels that they didnt think really had the potential to be commercial. So Harper-Collins, for example, famously cancelled several hundred contracts in one stroke just got rid of them. And they also got rid of Basic Books, which was a venerable non-fiction publishing imprint the analog of the Free Press along with Pantheon which was part of Random House -- and Addison-Wesley, and a few other formerly independent publishers that had become part of various publishing houses. These places were all sold off or shut down or re-invented.

Pantheon today is a little boutique publisher that doesnt really have much reason to exist, and is part of the main Random House list. But it has no connection with its past. It was founded by a couple of German-Jewish refugees, Kurt and Helen Wolff, and they brought to it a European kind of publishing sensibility and they published very serious books. And their successor Andre Schiffrin made what to all appearances was a successful, lively, vibrant publishing company with a sort of left-leaning agenda. And they published a lot of bestsellers. But even so, it just didnt make enough money, and from the point of view of upper management, quite simply it was a better use of floor space to publish cook-books or Dilbert, or what have you, because that stuff makes money. There might be one or two books published by Pantheon the Studs Terkel books, for example, that were worth publishing. But the rest they thought were inconsequential. And they just changed it.

Now this decision on the part of the big publishing companies was really driven by changes in the marketplace for books; the emergence of Barnes and Noble as a national chain had all kinds of ripple effects backward up the chain of the publishing process. Because when you have a big chain store, their interest was in moving large numbers of books and so they will order large quantities of books they think will sell.

But as publishers start to think about, well, how do I supply this marketplace, what do I have to do? The answer is if you want to have a book that will sell in very large numbers, you have to have an author who can get on the mass media outlets like Good Morning America, the Today Show, and so forth. And those people are celebrity authors, and celebrity authors have to be paid million dollar advances. And if youre spending all your money on a couple of seven-figure books, youre not going to have the room in your budget, or even the desire, to do a couple of first novels that some editor happens to be crazy about. Thats just not going to happen.

So what Im describing is a kind of ossification that occurs in the editorial and publishing process thats driven by whats happening on the retail floor. These are the changes that we in the creative end of the publishing business have had to contend with. And its affected me as well as a non-fiction editor because when I worked at the Free Press in the old days wed sit around the boardroom and wed say, well, heres an odd little book by a maverick sociologist whos got an interesting idea, and heaven knows if anyones going to find it interesting, but what the heck, its only going to cost us $10,000. Well pay very little advance the author didnt have an agent. Lets just publish it, throw it at the wall and see what happens. And you know -- sometimes those books disappeared without a trace, and sometimes theyd catch on. Because you never knew when something would catch on.

We cant do that any more. In my end of the business, we cant do it when we sit down in a meeting with the sales and marketing people. We have to be able to say, this person is the best-selling author of X, and this book is going to outperform that one for the following reasons. And they take that kind of analysis seriously. What they dont want is to be told that this book is terrific, but we can give you no help in terms of marketing and positioning the author. And so these sorts of books are subtly (or not so subtly) discouraged. And editors who obviously want to succeed like everyone else, they just dont propose those books anymore.

So what Im trying to do in part with my pamphlet series is to I would say from an industry perspective, Im trying to re-create the mid-list publishing model lower down the food chain. Just because those books are no longer going to be published by Random House and Penguin and Harper-Collins, well, it doesnt mean that theres no longer any demand for them. And theres plenty of supply. The question is how to bridge that gap how to connect the supply with the demand in a format through a publishing vehicle that makes sense in the New Economy. And my solution is, lets take the guts of this 300 page non-fiction book, shrink it down in effect to under a hundred pages and give people something for low cost that we as editors think is worth their time. And remember the real equity that I and my partner David Bernstein bring to this enterprise is to combine 25, 35 years of combined experience as professional editors.

Now to turn to the question of the material were publishing: we are for the most part deriving it form the internet and the blog world. But it is important to be clear that we are not simply re-packaging blog content because that would not be of any interest to anybody. What we are doing is identifying talent in the blog world. And were offering to work with people and develop their ideas and their skills to the point that theres something people might actually want to pay for.

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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