June 24th, 2012

The Publishing Non-Business

Quotes from _Two Bit Culture_, Kenneth C. Davis

p 86 "Lovell Thompson of the old Boston house Houghton Mifflin ... wrote in The Publishers' Weekly in November 1944: ... "there is nothing either businesslike or financial about publishing... the book business is suddenly beginning to behave like the oil business in the teens, or the car business in the twenties or the movies in the thirties. There is a strange tendency for the cheerful, disorganized, ne'er do well publishing industry to combine vertically in the familiar pattern of big American business ..."

"He then "cautioned about the dangers of low-priced publishing, thundering the old publisher's rule that in the low-price world, "the worst books sell best.""

Once the cartel set up Bantam, they gave Bantam the benefit of preferential access to the participating presses backlist. The board of directors was made up of members of the participating presses and they were sufficiently involved in day-to-day management and editorial decision making at Bantam to chase away at least one executive who thought he was running things. And one of the members of the cartel was Curtis Circulating Company.

p 106

"In addition, the company spent half a million dollars in its first six months on free racks for the dealers, racks that were supposedly just for Bantam Books. The practice at the time was for books to be displayed by publisher rather than category. A large, handsome rack covered with Bantam emblems would go a long way toward ensuring that Bantam Books were on display."

(The rack story reminded me forcibly of Hovenkamp's discussion of Conwood vs United States Tobacco. Hovenkamp makes a solid argument that case went the wrong way -- and effectively everyone agrees with him -- and in any event UST's behavior with respect to racks may have been more extreme. Still, it did result in a massive penalty. http://www.justice.gov/atr/public/hearings/single_firm/docs/219951.htm)

Lovell Thompson's argument is kinda hard to buy. He's essentially saying, hey, we had a gentleman's agreement, let's all be gentleman, at a point in time when the cartel's market domination is undergoing a real threat. The rest of the cartel, oh, here's the list of participants in Bantam:

p 103

"The company that emerged was a force to be reckoned with. Grosset & Dunlap and Curtis Publishing each held 42.5 percent of the stock, Ballantine [the individual that the board would ultimately run out] held 9 percent, and Pitkin and Kramer each got 3 percent. The company's board of directors was composed of some of the most august and powerful men in publishing: Cass Canfield of Harper & Brothers; Charles Scribner; Meredith Wood of the Book-of-the-Month Club; Cerf of Random House; Grosset president O'Connor; and four Curtis executives. Ballantine was installed as president, Pitkin as vice president, and Kramer as treasurer and secretary."

Further down the page, and ad in PW includes a description of Bantam:

"an independent neutral channel for the mass publishing and distritubtion of reprints of ..."

"neutral" = a member of the old boys' club.

Anyway, the cartel has decided that S&S and Marshall Field (and Penguin and the other new paperback houses feeding into the newsstand distribution system) need to be Dealt With. In Dealing With that threat, they engage in _exactly_ the kind of highly competitive activity that Thompson says publishers aren't capable of engaging in because they are busily occupied Helping Society by Publishing Good Books.

But really, this is just straight up what cartels do amongst themselves vs. what cartels do to outside threats.

No wonder the publishing industry thinks this is reasonable behavior today. It worked before, didn't it?

Do Good Books Pay for Themselves?

The short, and obvious, answer is: depends on how you define good.

Kenneth C. Davis' _Two Bit Culture_ is a _really_ interesting book and I'm happy I'm reading it. However, I had negative respect for Davis based on his later work going into this, and this book has actually reduced my respect for him further. Pulp magazine fiction, both what was in its pages and its authors, were significant contributors to the contents of several paperback lines during the time covered by this book. However, for the _exact same set of reasons_ that Davis' chooses to downplay pre WW2 paperback production, these lines get short shrift.

Davis is a fucking snob. It is annoying the hell out of me. And if you say, well, he called it "Culture" in the title, I'll get my copy of _Highbrow, Lowbrow_ by Lawrence Levine off the shelf and hit you with it until you come to your senses or find a sympathetic officer of the law to pull me off of you.


He spends an inordinate amount of time describing the contents of the discovery [sic] series and New World Writing. After an adulatory listing of what was included and how it was acquired and blah blah bleeping blah, he describes how they inevitably went under -- basically, the individuals driving the projects bailed with the assumption they would continue without them and they didn't. Duh. And can I just say how much I hate pbooks? I cannot get this thing to stay open to type quotes in.

p 201

"Although the series was covering its own expenses, it was creating an enormous drain on the editorial staff, and by 1959, after fifteen issues, New American library was ready to call it quits. The total sales for the series had been over one million copies, but its influence on readers and writers and the contemporary literary scene far outweighed simple numbers. In the supposedly uneventful fifties, New World Writing, along with discovery, had stood for the new, the challenging -- the assault on the status quo."

Two things. (1) "Enormous drain on the editorial staff" != "covering its own expenses". That's called being subsidized by Mickey Spillane. While I _absolutely respect_ sucking dollars away from the creepy JW to pour into things like a chapter from what would become _Catch-22_, why pretend you're doing anything different. (2) The really amazing shit that happened during the 50s was not happening in NWW or discovery, and pretending that it was is really, really, really weird and silly and honestly? Kinda creepy.