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Some Random Thoughts on Publishing…

…occasioned by an article in The New Yorker titled “Publish or Perish” by Ken Auletta (April 26, 2010). The article’s subtitle is: Can the iPad topple the Kindle, and save the book business? Our subject is the perceived decline of publishing—and that “random” in our title, we hasten to add, does not wish to single out Random House. Herewith some observation with no reference, we promise, to any electronic devices.

Publishing has gradually evolved from an activity centered on substance (the books or the subjects they covered) into a business focused on profits and growth. McGraw-Hill, for example, began when two individuals (James H. McGraw and John A. Hill) became interested in the railroad industry—each in his own way—both concentrating on technical and trade subject. Each formed a company; these companies were later merged. Alfred A. Knopf entered publishing after getting to know John Galsworthy (of The Forsyth Saga fame). He began at Doubleday and then formed his own company—intending to publish European authors who were then neglected in the United States. He was a hands-on publisher who knew his authors. Making a profit was no doubt an element in all this—but his interest was books and authors. MacMillan began as a book store in Scotland. Two brothers ran it. One, Daniel, had a gift for business; Alexander was the literary inspiration behind the venture.

The personal touch disappeared as such companies grew large, successful, and then huge. If we look at MacMillan today, one of the tabs on the company’s U.S. webpage is labeled “Publishers,” and under it are names such as the following, each once an independent publisher: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, Henry Holt & Company, Picador, St. Martin’s Press, Tor/Forge, and others.

McGraw-Hill now calls itself McGraw-Hill Companies and includes as its holdings  Standard & Poors, Platts (energy information), McGraw-Hill Construction (ditto on construction), Aviation Week, McGraw-Hill Broadcasting, and JD Power & Associates.

Knopf has now been absorbed into Doubleday, Doubleday into Random House, and Random House into Bertelsmann AG. That last corporate giant was once, and remains, a major German publisher—but like so many others it has morphed into a multi-tentacled media giant.

It also goes the other way around. Simon & Schuster, for example, which lists among its properties…Pocket Books, Scribner, Free Press, Atria, Fireside, Touchstone, Gallery Books, Howard Books, Atheneum Books for Young Readers, Little Simon, and Simon Spotlight…is itself the property of CBS.

Now we would propose here that the woes of publishing might—just might—have something to do with this massive corporatization of book distribution. It is a process in which the origins of the industry have been submerged way, way below the surface. It would be extremely difficult, we think, to find a publisher who actually reads a book, as Alfred Knopf certainly did—or engage with authors in extensive correspondence.

Now if we couple this evolution with a very parallel transformation of book retailing, we manage at least to paint a tiny little target at which we might aim our rubber-tipped arrows in trying to hit the subject. What publishing, you might ask? Is anything actually left of it? Or is the sound and fury that of something else—some rough colossus slouching around the globe to find the customers it can no longer even see? 

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