This Week’s Column:


by Dennis Loy Johnson

December 30, 2001 — Anyway you look at it, 2001 has to be regarded as one of the book industry's most bizarre years in recent memory. Or distant memory, for that matter. The creepy revolution that has been transforming the business most radically since the mid–90s or so — the eradication of independent publishing houses and booksellers by massive, international "mass–media" conglomerates — has been the over–riding story of our recent literary times, with each year bringing sickeningly deeper realization of the impact of that take–over upon our intellectual and spiritual lives, not to mention how much you pay for a book, and who gets to write them.

This year, however, that story seemed to become, suddenly, old news, or at least news too wearying to acknowledge anymore. Or maybe it just went underground. (It's not as if the mass media, much of which is now owned by those conglomerates that also own the publishing houses, has been following this one very closely, or calling it the way it is.)

Instead, in 2001 the big stories all seemed to be about individuals — and not just the corporate honchos we'd grown used to hearing about, but honest–to–gosh writers.

The thing is, these were mostly stories of writers, not their writing. That is to say, these were stories of scandals. And as such, did they have anything of meaning to say about the American book industry? Were they, perhaps, instances of the ongoing issues of consolidation finally assuming a human face? Or were they merely distraction from those issues, and no more than what they seemed to be — gossip?

Take the first of the year's notable stories — the story of novelist Jaime Clarke. In March, Clarke's first book, "We're So Famous," got a not just bad but nasty anonymous review in Publishers Weekly. In response, Clarke promptly offered a $1,000 bounty for the name of the reviewer.

Offering a bounty was outrageous enough in itself, but challenging Publishers Weekly like that? Why, nobody's ever even had the nerve to point out that their name is ungrammatical without a possessive. The magazine is, after all, probably the second most powerful reviewer in the country, after The New York Times. Some would say it's actually more powerful than the Times, as PW's reviews are in reality previews that come out before the books even exist, and strongly influence middlemen (librarians and bookstore buyers) as to what books they'll order to offer the public.

All of which made Clarke seem insane, and made his story all the juicier.

Playing out nearly concurrently was an even juicer story — that of Alice Randall and her "Gone With the Wind" parody, "The Wind Done Gone." This story had all the elements — race, sex, Hollywood, you name it. Then a judge told Randall she wasn't allowed to make fun of a revered book like that and another element was added: the first amendment.

But as much press as that story got, the story of historian Joseph Ellis got more. In fact, a lot of historians made the news this year.

In started in June, when the Pulitzer Prize–winning Ellis was discovered to have been lying for decades to students and interviewers about his personal history, claiming everything from heroism on the football fields of his high school to the killing fields of Vietnam; he'd never set foot on either. But while Ellis was ridiculed by the general public, and reviled by anyone who'd lost a loved one in Vietnam, most media commentators — especially in publications that had given his books positive reviews — fell all over themselves to point out that there was no reason to doubt the veracity of his writing, as if it was inconceivable that a historian who would lie to his students would lie to his readers. His book, "Founding Brothers," stayed on the bestseller list throughout the brouhaha.

In July, historian David McCullough was discovered to have apparently made up a Thomas Jefferson quote that appeared in his bestselling hagiography, "John Adams." McCullough deemed the quote so important it was highlighted on the book jacket and used as a chapter title. Subsequently, journalist Philip Nobile revealed some significant errors in McCullough's previous hagiography, "Truman," another bestseller. Nobile also published an essay in which he included the transcript of a ten–year–old interview with McCullough in which a hostile McCullough promised to correct the errors in later editions of "Truman," although he never did. "John Adams" stayed on the bestseller list, selling, so far, 1.5 million copies in hardcover.

In September, historian Michael Bellesiles, already under heavy fire from Charleton Heston and the National Rifle Association for his "Arming America," which posited that guns weren't so omnipresent in colonial America — meaning that maybe the 2nd Amendment did refer to arming militias and not average citizens — was accused by several prominent historians of having made numerous mistakes in his research. This story hasn't finished playing out yet — Bellesiles hasn't responded to all the charges yet — but his book isn't on the bestseller list.

Other individuals in the news: In July, Bill Clinton got $10, 11 or 12 million, depending on whom you believe, as an advance for his memoirs. In September, one of last year's giant advance recipients, Jack Welch, who got $7.3 million, put out his book "Jack: Straight From the Gut." Most critics agreed it was a dud, but it's on the bestseller list. Also in September, there was the story of Fay Weldon, who admitted she took money to feature Bulgari jewelry in her novel, "The Bulgari Connection," which subsequently got mostly bad reviews. But publisher Atlantic/Grove says it, too, sold well.

Finally, there was the story of Jonathan Franzen. After an astonishing amount of publicity before its release, his novel "The Corrections" was greeted by praise from, it seemed, nearly every important critic in America. Then the book was chosen by Oprah Winfrey for her Oprah's Book Club, which usually results in sales of 400,000 to 500,000 more books. Franzen at first accepted Winfrey's offer, then after it was announced said he had problems with her viewer/readership; he said it would put off men from reading his book. He also said he didn't want to put a "corporate sticker" such as the one for O.B.C. on his book. He also mocked Winfrey's program in several interviews.

In the huge media storm that erupted when Winfrey subsequently announced she was dropping Franzen from her club, no one directly questioned Franzen on his obviously sexist — and possibly racist — comments, nor on the difference between the "corporate" O.B.C. sticker and the insignia for the mega–publisher already on his book, let alone on why he accepted Winfrey's offer in the first place. Instead, the whole thing was deemed a "highbrow – lowbrow" disagreement, and the industry gave Franzen its most resounding vote of confidence — the National Book Award for novel of the year. "The Corrections" is still on the bestseller list.

Meanwhile, there were other stories throughout the year that seemed more like stories from last year, or the year before — both in the way they related to issues of consolidation more than to individuals, and in the way they got shockingly little attention in the mainstream media.

For example, there was the story of the years–in–the–making lawsuit by the American Booksellers Association and 26 independent bookstore owners against Barnes & Noble and Borders, whom the ABA accused of getting secret discounts from publishers and distributors in violation of Federal law. Court proceedings had barely gotten under way when they came to an abrupt end triggered by the 87–year–old judge's decision that even if the ABA made its case (which most accounts said it was doing) damages would be too difficult to estimate. He therefore threw out the ABA's claim for damages, making it fairly pointless to continue. The ABA settled for an amount roughly equal to their legal expenses. And the best chance that the legal system had to deal with the monopolization of American bookselling slipped quietly away, perhaps forever.

Shortly after that, there was another trial on abstract issues — writers' ownership rights — that may have long–term affect on what you read and how you read it: Random House sued tiny Rosetta Books for publishing e–book versions of Kurt Vonnegut and William Styron novels that had first been published by Random House. Random said they own all versions of the texts no matter what format they appeared in. The writers and Rosetta contended Random had only paid for books.

One of the most distressing ongoing stories of the year was the fact that newspapers around the country were dropping or reducing their book sections like never before. In fact, during one startling two–week period in the spring newspapers in the country's biggest book markets made some of the most dramatic cuts: the Boston Globe and The San Francisco Chronicle both dropped their esteemed stand–alone book sections in favor of pages–shorter coverage buried in their entertainment sections, and The New York Times shrunk its fabled New York Times Sunday Book Review by two pages. While letters of complaint about it poured in to this website when I wrote about it, Times book editor Chip McGrath said he heard "not a peep" of complaint about the cuts from readers.

But maybe the most significant story of the year has been the way major publishers have been abruptly giving up on their multi–million dollar investments into e–books. Random House, AOL Time Warner, and Barnes & Noble all closed up highly–touted electronic–publishing endeavors — most of them begun just last year. As Warner Book's head Laurence Kirshbaum said, consumers had steadfastly refused to buy the product. "The real problem is a technology issue," he said. "No reading device comes close to reproducing the experience of reading a book."

That story represents, surprisingly enough, a victory for consumers. To date, publishers have only seen e–books as a way to transfer production costs to someone else, add another very expensive step to the process (the e–book reading device, which typically costs hundreds of dollars), and generally increase their profits. They haven't seemed to give much thought at all to the idea that some texts might be more suitable to the format than others; that people may not have the extra money to spend (especially in that demographic publishers are desperate to attract — young people); and that people simply prefer the superior technology of a book. Now, publishers have to face the facts and deal with reality, although they've thrown away so much money on these enterprises don't be surprised if they raise the cost of books again to cover their ignorance.

And some of the year's other top stories might represent good news for readers, too. For instance, the decision to muzzle Alice Randall was thrown out by a higher court. Parody, it turns out, is legal after all. And Random House lost its case against Vonnegut, Styron, and Rosetta Books, too. Alternative editions — priced differently, accessible differently — will thus be available to readers, and it's always good for readers when publishers have to be fair to writers.

Even the Jaime Clarke story can be seen in an encouraging light — he merely said in public what most writers have been saying privately for years. Book reviews should be signed, especially in publications as powerful as Publishers Weekly. Clarke will no doubt pay for his comments somewhere down the line, but it was the sort of brave act that often inspires others to stand up for justice.

But what about the story that has to be — in terms of sheer number of words wasted, anyway — the story of the year: the Jonathan Franzen story? To me, his winning of the NBA signified the great disconnect between the industry and the media that covers it from the public both supposedly serve. They virtually cemented the unnecessary highbrow – lowbrow division they decried, and sanctioned some despicable (not to mention anti–intellectual) sexism, classism, and racism to boot.

It shows you the ruthlessness that's overtaken the industry. Franzen's book is selling; that's all that seems to matter. Now that the industry is ruled by conglomerates, concern about the bottom line has overcome any concern for altruistic quality of greater cultural proprieties. The idea is to make not a profit but a greater profit than last year. Thus, three days after a Random House spokesman admitted, in a Chicago Tribune report, that like most other major publishers Random House was making a profit this troubled Christmas (even though the rest of the retail business is slumping), the company announced it would begin layoffs — because even though it was making a profit, it wasn't making as much of a profit as forecast before the September 11 tragedies.

Those layoff announcements, made just days before Christmas, also came at a time when the book business should have been making important observations about what consumers want from publishers. One of the astonishing stories to come out of the terrible events of September 11, and the subsequent war, is that people wanted to read books of some relevance to the issues behind those events. Yes, they wanted Nostradamus, but they also made smash bestsellers out of obscure academic studies of Islam and profiles of Osama bin Laden and histories of the World Trade Center and journalism about recent events in Afghanistan. It should have been a heartening phenomenon for what it said about the role and the future of the book industry, let alone for what it said about the American public — it was all about gaining in–depth spiritual and intellectual understanding through books.

But the conglomerate–publishers, for the most part, once again showed an active ignorance of the general zeitgeist. Yes, they hustled to answer demand for those surprise bestsellers, but mostly they fretted that those books — many of which were published by small presses, to boot — were keeping the books they expected to be the big hits of the season (by authors such as Patricia Cornwell and John Grisham and other usual suspects) from rising up the bestseller list. The leading sellers of fall 2001 weren't seen as much more than a momentary trend — a fluke.

And of course, most of the other big stories of the year that I discussed above in one way or another revealed a similar and just as obviously yawning "disconnect" between the industry, the media, and the public. But then, if consolidation of the book business is the overriding literary issue of our time, disconnects between power structures, media outlets — including publishers — and the public are the overriding cultural story of our time.

Still, as I say, there were some encouraging stories within the publishing industry this year, and there were some encouraging stories within the press that covers it, too, and they're just as important to note as the disappointments.

Take, for example, my favorite book–business story of the year: After the San Francisco Chronicle closed its stand–alone book section, reduced it by several pages and buried it in the entertainment section, the newspaper got so many reader complaints that the editors finally put the book section back the way it was.

Clap hands and sing, ladies and germs. Both The Chronicle's readers, and its editors, did the right thing, and are to be applauded.

And it goes to show you that while 2001 was a year when gossipy stories of individuals seemed to dominate and ongoing issues of consolidation seemed to recede, a slightly closer look reveals that it was actually a year when other individuals, to less ballyhoo, took on some of those issues, and influenced them in a way that will benefit us all: not just The San Francisco Chronicle and its readers and editors, but Jaime Clarke, Alice Randall, Kurt Vonnegut, and William Styron. The year wasn't exactly bereft of positive developments in other areas, either — there were all the surprise bestsellers of fall 2001, the "rethinking" of the e–book "revolution," and the simple fact that, while the rest of the retail sector is in a tailspin and the recession deepens, book sales were still up.

There's hope for us yet.

Happy New Year.

Last Week’s Column: TREND OF THE YEAR The book business is getting trendier and trendier. Which trends were the most interesting in 2001?


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