Three Things I’d Like to See #2.1


[Part One]

Right, they’ll never do it, but shouldn’t mainstream publishing houses want to explore a world beyond the Hudson River? Maybe talking about it will shed light on such fiascoes as the recent National Book Awards (see below) and the defensive reaction to a Nobel Prize judge’s accusations that the U.S. publishing community has become “too isolated, too insular.” (Honeys, it is.)

I’ve never understood why American publishers duplicated the British model of placing mainstream houses in one location so they would dictate to the tastes of the rest of the nation.

Why didn’t we load our printers and binders into the wagons as we went hacking and slashing across the Plains to the West? We certainly brought our newspaper presses. But for some reason – perhaps it was the independent wealth of publishing founders — we kept book publishing on the East Coast and eventually in New York City itself. We decided to depend on a “cottage industry” ideal in which literary ideas would foment within the social exchange of like-minded people.

By now, however, working in close proximity has made New York book publishers appear inbred and clannish. If you can’t get them on the phone, it’s because they’re calling/emailing/texting each other, lunching at publishing “in” spots, complaining about hotel rates at Frankfurt or BookExpo and working the room at author receptions as if a world outside publishing doesn’t exist.

And does it? Not long ago, Farrar Straus & Giroux was thought to be a serious rebel in publishing simply for having an address 30 blocks south of what was then called Publishers Row. St. Martin’s was sort of a maverick for operating out of the Flatiron Building seven blocks north of FSG. Publishers Weekly didn’t hire a correspondent west of the Hudson until the mid-/70s. Around that time, one Los Angeles reviewer remembers this conversation with a book publisher after the National Book Awards:

Publisher: “Well, the West had some great victories tonight.”

L.A. Reviewer: “What do you mean? None of the winning authors live west of the Rockies.”

Publisher: “I meant the West Side of Manhattan.”

Today publishers’ offices are physically more spread out in New York, but by any standard, the industry is so remote and rumor-driven that it can’t help but appear exclusive and arrogant to the rest of the country.

Publishers know that, yes? Surely people in publishing are a bit embarrassed about shutting themselves off in a gated community of bigness where they appear so inaccessible, so removed, so jaded.

Or, is it rather that they are trapped. When my San Francisco Chronicle colleague Bill Chleboun (pronounced Clay-bone) and I used to visit mainstream houses in New York to talk about advertising, the publishing people we met always knew we had a tight schedule of about 60 meetings in five days. This meant we were racing through the gossip mill of NY publishing a lot faster than they could telephone each other, so around the second day of our trip, our hosts were asking us, “All right, so what have you heard?”

(I should mention that Bill and I rarely felt the arrogance or smugness coming from individuals [as opposed to the industry] that authors outside New York so often describe when dealing with the mainstream. Just about everybody we knew in New York publishing remained open and human, while the system they worked for seemed increasingly to ooze rudeness. The pressures of their jobs demanded insane results, whether in dollars or awards or publicity, for the “big” books, always to the exclusion of the “small” books. Under those pressures a thousand different agendas emerged, making the business of books arbitrary and competitive, very much like Hollywood. With this came a tone of stiff-arming condescension that kept New York publishing more distant and more arrogant than ever.)

The National Book Awards Fiasco

So let’s look at what happened with the National Book Awards recently and see how working in such a tight-knit community can limit one’s perspective.

First a few questions:

1) When it was agreed that the tired old NBA dinner needed reinvigorating” to “make it fun again,” did the organizers hire a Broadway theater with famous actors and get PBS to cover the proceedings — or at least webcast it themselves — so a DVD of the best moments could be sent to booksellers/librarians all over the country who could run a loop for customers/patrons at the check-out counter and to book groups that could show it at the next meeting and to YouTube so that people outside New York could personally experience the timely and literary importance of the NBAs and buy lotsa copies of the winners’ titles?


2) Or did the National Book Award organizers decide to cancel the ceremony because of the rotten economy and instead design a smashing four-color poster of finalists and winners to send out to bookstores/libraries/schools everywhere and with the money left over interview finalists and winners for a DVD to send around (as above) and maybe even dispatch the authors themselves on a strategic tour of, say, five cities where they would promote reading and literary adventure along with their own books?


Instead the organizers decided to move the NBA from a modest hotel and hold it at a posh black-tie dinner in a “regally decorated,” very expensive restaurant called Cipriani’s Wall Street with “the gold columns and the arches and the elaborate floral arrangements hanging from the walls.”

This sent a message to underfinanced authors and hanging-by-a-thread booksellers (not to mention frugal readers) that dining on baked tagliolini and roast filet of beef is what you do in New York when the rest of the world is counting pennies.

Oh, but pardon, they weren’t through yet. So as not to exclude anybody in the New York publishing scene, the organizers continued the NBA ceremony at a big after-party in a hotsy totsy in-spot called Socialista. This way “the very young” assistant editors and marketing people who weren’t invited to the dinner could have their own wasteful and wasted evening.

Nor was that the end of it. To turn a dreary literary occasion into what the NBA board described as “a bigger experience,” the organizers decided to glam things up with New York celebrities from the magazine world – you know, Anna Wintour of Vogue and Jann Wenner of Rolling Stone and zzzzzz. Throw in Candace Bushnell of “Sex and the City” and you couldn’t get a more provincial NY would-be celebrity setting that sat back on its self-congratulatory plush seats.

Granted, some publishers at the dinner looked around at the “lush opulence” and saw it as “totally inappropriate,” as Steve Ross of Collins told the NY Observer. “But, you know,” he added, “we get so few opportunities to have anything to celebrate.” Aw. Well, look at it this way, Steve: The amount of money tossed down the drain on food, booze, cash prizes, tuxedoes, cab fares and corporate tables for this one night could have kept several independent bookstores out of bankruptcy court for months.

Of course looking at it from inside the New York scene, who could blame the organizers? The new NBA’s were what is called a Page Six event, meaning the gossipy insider page of the New York Post might have mentioned the boldfaced names for two seconds. It was dished more than covered by the New York Observer’s book columnist Leon Neyfakh, who also lost the focus. Quoting “one of the fashionable youngsters” at Socialista as saying, “Why does this party suck?” (too crowded), Neyfakh wrote: “Ms Joffe seemed to be wrapped in a sleeping bag made from several snow leopard carcasses.” So much for making the NBAs about books.

Happily, other media like National Public Radio brought word of the NBAs to a larger audience, but that seemed to be peripheral, like a bonus. After all, the idea was to make the New York book publishing scene nearly aristocratic in its glitzy and self-adoring excesses, to tell everybody watching that you’re an outsider until you’re an insider, to build “it” and hope they will still come.

Well, they don’t any more. That was the air of desperation one could feel 3000 miles away. For one thing, there is a parallel world on the Internet where a revolution in publishing is shifting power from the bottom up (more columns to follow about this). Then there is the flat sale of books that began long before the economy tanked and requires solutions from outside traditional industry sources, not from digging further into rusty old celebrity baloney.

In any case, publishers fiddling while the book trade burns to the ground is not the image I want to take from this. Rather it’s what we can learn from the NBA fiasco that’s been staring us in the face for years.

The second part of this (windy even to me) post will be up tomorrow.