June 23rd, 2012

Bennett Cerf quote from _Two Bit Culture_

Who was Bennett Cerf? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bennett_Cerf

What is _Two Bit Culture_? A mid 1980s history of paperbacks, mostly postwar US, but with some space devoted to the 19th century, England and Germany. Written by Kenneth Davis (back when he was much younger, long before he had hit upon the presumably profitable Don't Know Much About Blah theme), I ran across a quote from it in a recent blog post about ebooks and, like apparently a number of other people obsessed with the transition from pbooks to ebooks, promptly ordered a copy from Amazon. It's not unlike my experience reading about the history of Sears, Roebuck back in 1997 or thereabouts and comparing it to my then-employer.

The context to which Cerf is referring: Marshall Field (the guy, not the store) decided to buy some publishers, including Pocket Books, Simon & Schuster (they were closely related to each other but not identical) -- which he did buy -- and Grosset & Dunlap -- which he failed to close the deal on. Why did Field fail to close the deal?

"a small but extremely powerful cartel consisting of Random House, Harper & Brothers, Charles Scribner & Sons, the Book-of-the-Month Club, and Little, Brown & Company stole a march on Field and bought Grosset & Dunlap out from under his nose. According to Bennett Cerf ... the papers ... were waiting to be signed when Donald Grosset, son of the firm's founder, called Cerf, entreating him to be the white knight who could rescue Grosset before Leon Shimkin [super clever guy at Pocket and S&S -- among other things, he had the brilliant idea to send a stenographer to take down Dale Carnegie's lecture and then get Carnegie to let them publish it as _How to Win Friends and Influence People_. Shimkin's other editorial decision was to get J.K. Lasser to write a tax prep guide] could close the deal for Field."

Here is the Cerf quote:

"The thought of one firm, Simon & Schuster, controlled by Field, having the original publishing unit, the hardbound reprint and the paperback too, was frightening. They could go to an author and say, 'Not only can we publish your book, we can guarantee you the hardbound reprint and the paperback.' That would be a package deal no other publisher could match." The note says the quote comes from Cerf's 1977 memoir, _At Random_.

Of course, it would not be so many decades before that's what all the publishers would be offering authors. But in the meantime, to cope with a difficult competitor, to handle a tough transition, what are the big New York publishers gonna do?

Form a cartel.

[ETA: Apparently they then went on to form Bantam Books.]

Sloppy history

Davis opens _Two Bit Culture_ with a story about the success of Dr. Spock's baby manual.

p 4 "By 1938, he had acquired enough of a reputation to warrant the first call from a publisher eager to have Spock write a book about child rearing for parents. Spock's standing came not because he tended to famous patients but because of his training. At the time, he was perhaps the only pediatrician in the United States, and maybe the world, who had psychiatric and psychoanalytic experience. According to Spock, anyone who made inquiries at university pediatrics departments would have learned that if they wanted a pediatrician with this training, Spock was the one."

I am relatively certain this is self-serving nonsense that Davis didn't bother to fact check, because if _he had_ fact checked it, I'm pretty sure he would have promptly discovered that Leo Kanner had much more extensive training in the same set of fields, was himself running a clinic in an academic context at Johns Hopkins (the first psychiatric clinic for kiddies in the US possibly anywhere, as near as I can tell) around the time Spock got the call. And Kanner's book for parents about child rearing was made it into print _before_ Spock wrapped his up.

But I could be wrong. I know Kanner's book about child rearing came out in 1941 and Spock's came out in 1946. What I'm less certain about is the amount of psychoanalytic training that Kanner had.