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Books In Conversation

Adam Bellow with Finn Harvor

Publishing: historically unprecedented changes. The changes are felt throughout the industry, from the micro press, to the conglomerate. Adam Bellow is in a unique position to comment on both the history of the publishing industry and current trends within it. As an editor, he has worked for several of the larger U.S. houses, including MacMillan, Simon and Schuster, Random House, and, currently, HarperCollins. As a writer, he has produced several newspaper articles and a book (of related subject matter), In Praise of Nepotism. As a publisher, he is a co-founder with David Bernstein of The New Pamphleteer ( Finn Harvor, a writer and artist living in South Korea, caught up with Bellow by phone and email.

Finn Harvor (The Brooklyn Rail): Tell us a little about how you came up with the idea of publishing pamphlets.

Adam Bellow: This idea of publishing pamphlets 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 didn’t 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 one-hundred-twenty 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 I’m something of an amateur historian of publishing, and I’ve 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 we’d start our own little in-house pamphlet war.

I didn’t 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, 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 Harper’s, Collier’s, 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 showcase 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 didn't really see the point in doing this, and I gave up.

Rail: Did they say why during those meetings?

Bellow: 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 you’d be publishing at a low price point—you know, four or five 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, that’s truly timely and controversial and is likely to attract media attention. And that’s hard to guarantee. And to make back the kind of investment—let’s say we could’ve 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 30,000–40,000 copies. And without the ability to count on the review media, it s 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 didn’t 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 Schlesinger’s 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.

I’d had to give up on the idea of publishing pamphlets because I couldn’t 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 didn’t have to spend a lot of money on printing, shipping, and warehousing. You didn’t 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 I’m 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 didn’t think really had the potential to be commercial. So HarperCollins, 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 doesn’t 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 didn’t make enough money, and from the point of view of upper management, quite simply it was a better use of floor space to publish cookbooks 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 you’re spending all your money on a couple of seven-figure books, you’re 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. That’s just not going to happen.

So what I’m describing is a kind of ossification that occurs in the editorial and publishing process that’s driven by what’s 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 it’s affected me as a non-fiction editor, because when I worked at the Free Press in the old days we'd sit around the boardroom and we’d say, "well, here’s an odd little book by a maverick sociologist who’s got an interesting idea, and heaven knows if anyone’s going to find it interesting, but what the heck, it’s only going to cost us $10,000. We’ll pay very little advance, the author oesn't have an agent. Let’s just publish it, throw it at the wall, and see what happens." And you know sometimes those books disappeared without a trace, and sometimes they’d catch on. Because you never knew when something would catch on.

We can’t do that any more. In my end of the business, we can’t 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 don’t 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 don’t propose those books anymore.

So what I’m trying to do, in part, with my pamphlet series is to—I would say from an industry perspective, I’m trying to recreate 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 HarperCollins, well, it doesn t mean that there’s no longer any demand for them. And there’s 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, let’s take the guts of this three-hundred-page nonfiction 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 twenty-five, thirty-five years of combined experience as professional editors.


Finn Harvor


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2008

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