BOB GARFIELD: After Random House publisher Ann Godoff was summarily dismissed recently for the stated reason of failing to meet profit expectations of German parent Bertelsmann, there was much handwringing about the state of the publishing industry. Following years of publishing house consolidation and the emergence of retail super stores, Godoff's firing was cited as proof positive that the corporate Philistines had triumphed over the besieged defenders of literary values. And a quick glance at the USA Today best seller list -- or any other list for that matter -- would seem to support the prophecies of literary doom. Number 1: Dr. Atkin's New Diet Revolution. Number 2: John Grisham's King of Torts. Number 3: mass market thriller Portrait in Death. Number 4: Atkin's for Life. Number 5: James Patterson-branded pulp thriller Second Chance. In the top 50 there are only eight titles of literary fiction or serious nonfiction. Last year the industry turned out a record 145,000 titles -- but sales and marketing budgets were dominated by a relative few.
GAYLE FELDMAN: I love the books that are being published... get lost. You have a kind of white noise, static effect, and you have a situation of, you know, haves and have nots.
BOB GARFIELD:Gayle Feldman is author of Best and Worst of Times, a monograph about the industry's last 27 years of evolution. Her study documents the changes in ownership, distribution, finance and marketing that have fed the phenomenon of blockbuster publishing, sometimes to the detriment of more intellectual work. The changes include such varying factors as the ever-growing cult of celebrity to the way books get display space in chain stores.
GAYLE FELDMAN: There's very much an aspect of the real estate business; publishers these days have to pay for display space. The books that are in the window -- the books that are in special promotions -- they are all paid for.
BOB GARFIELD:Even if a first novel or serious biography is well reviewed in the New York Times Book Review, for example, there's no guarantee a browser will encounter it at a Borders or Barnes and Noble. Jason Epstein, former editorial director of Random House, founder of the New York Review of Books and author of Book Business says modern book retailing depends on fast turnover of inventory -- a demand antithetical to the discovery and cultivation of non-populist books, but one the publishers are obliged to satisfy.
JASON EPSTEIN: You have to remember that 40 years ago in the business we had about 4,000 independent book stores, and the sales reps could go to those book store owners and sit down with them and tell them about wonderful book they just read and take a chance on it. A number of those independent book stores would take that chance. Some of them would actually read the books and tell their customers about them. And that's how writers like Faulkner and Fitzgerald, for that matter, found their market eventually. You can't do that now. The retail market doesn't permit that.
JONATHAN LAZEAR: It's harder and hard to break new people out.
BOB GARFIELD: Agent Jonathan Lazear who represents such authors as Jane Goodall, Al Franken and NPR's Scott Simon.
JONATHAN LAZEAR: I have a client right now who has written two -- these two novels are brilliant -- and the first one, I can't give away -- I cannot sell it for 2,000 dollars. His second novel he's just finishing -- I don't have much hope for! I, I don't understand when quality at this level -- and I've read many, many thousands of books -- quality at this level is not being snapped up quickly. I can't find a place for him, and there's something wrong with that.
BOB GARFIELD:The most prosperous large publisher at the moment is Harper Collins, owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, and it's riding a list of best sellers such as Michael Crichton's Prey, 8 Minutes in the Morning and Angels Everywhere. Its profit margin of 12% dwarfs its competitors and the 1 digit margins of industry tradition. Jane Friedman is Harper Collins' president and CEO.
JANE FRIEDMAN: We have become a business-business, and I expect of the people who work for me what News Corporation expects of me, and I feel very comfortable in running a business that can have profit margins that are in the double digits.
BOB GARFIELD:But Friedman dismisses as absurd any notion that the profit imperative is stifling literary expression. If anything, she says, the explosion in the number of works published -- the similar explosion in the number of books sold -- and the rise of the internet have increased opportunities to be published and to be discovered. It's an argument certain to generate snorts of derision among gifted authors who can't get a second novel published because sales of the first were too paltry or who can't get marketing support for a nonfiction because they're not TV-adorable enough for a book tour. But it is a view that Friedman by no means espouses alone.
DANIEL SIMON: Today, the ability of readers to hear about books that they want to read and to go out and get them is just-- so much greater than it has ever been. You know when a great book starts to be read, you know, word gets around like wild fire in a way that, that has never happened before.
BOB GARFIELD:Daniel Simon is the founder of independent publisher Seven Stories Press which publishes and eclectic list of poetry, nonfiction and literary fiction. Consolidation and conglomeration, he says, have altered the ecology of publishing for sure, but one of the consequences is a new flourishing of small and not so small independent presses who do have the patience and sensibilities to cultivate talent. And their success, in turn, encourages large houses, including Harper Collins, to keep in print more enduring works that will be available long after Along Came the Spider and Who Moved My Cheese are distant memories. Because, Simon says, the demand for ideas will never be suppressed.
DANIEL SIMON: Books are deeply trusted in our society. They are agents of change. They change hearts and they change minds.
BOB GARFIELD: So what if others just titillate, motivate and entertain? In publishing and every other marriage of art and commerce, populist tastes have always lorded over more rarified ones. Valley of the Dolls and The Joy of Sex were not published by Rupert Murdoch or Bertelsmann. Gayle Feldman's monograph quotes a famous publisher about the quote "processed, stylized, syndicated, serialized, Hollywood-ized bastardization of American literature." That publisher was Max Schuster, co-founder of Simon & Schuster in 1945. And while it may be charming and romantic to remember a legacy of tweedy book lovers and their 5 percent margins, meager profitability is not necessarily an indication of literary merit. Such untweedy concepts as inventory management, marketing and return on investment may be just the tonic for the chronically anemic industry, which is why publishing consultant Lorraine Shanley is not only not in despair, she's bullish about the future of publishing, and the best works of literature that flow from it.
LORRAINE SHANLEY: Clearly you're not going to get me to shed a crocodile tear over the state of the business. There were 145,000 titles published last year. So it's hard to think that because a few mass market books have risen to the top of the mass market list we should be concerned about the future of good writing. It's all out there. It's simply a matter of finding it and cherishing it.
BOB GARFIELD: Although if you do, grab a second copy, because chances are that little gem you cherish will soon be out of print.