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The Decade of the Mass-Market Hardcover

The collective murmur at the end of this strange year and decade in publishing climbed straight out of Lewis Carroll.

“Curiouser and curiouser,” people throughout the industry were remarking. For the most part, their comments were not accompanied by optimistic smiles.

The final few weeks of 1989 seemed to reflect the turbulence of the entire 10 years. One publishing executive, heading off to a holiday party, wryly summed it up when he suggested that these days, you couldn’t be too sure. What was billed as a festive gathering just might turn out to be another corporate beheading.

Consider the infamous Halloween Massacre, where a roomful of E. P. Dutton editors and other employees learned that their jobs had been eliminated along with Dutton’s entire adult trade (mainstream fiction and nonfiction) division. As fast as anyone in the room could say “trick or treat,” the 137-year-old operation became an imprint within Penguin USA.

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At Random House, Robert L. Bernstein closed the year with the stunning announcement that he would leave the company he had headed for 23 years. Whether Bernstein’s departure was entirely voluntary or was encouraged by the Newhouse family, which owns Random House, remained a matter of speculation. Within weeks, Alberto Vitale, president and chief executive of Bantam Doubleday Dell, was named to replace Bernstein.

If Bernstein had been regarded, as one top executive from another house put it, as “a man of letters,” Vitale was hailed as a money man--"a guy,” said this executive, “who can wield an ax and bring order into a situation of confusion.”

Money might be an unacceptable topic at refined dinner parties, but in the 1980s, publishing was in a kind of revolution. And as Chairman Mao so succinctly reminded us, a revolution is not a dinner party.

“Never forget that this is a business and not the Library of Congress,” Stuart Applebaum, one of Vitale’s former colleagues at Bantam Doubleday Dell, said.

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Just before Thanksgiving, Simon & Schuster revealed that it would declare a $140-million pretax write-off--translation: a hefty loss--this year. Simon & Schuster is this country’s largest book publisher.

Many in the industry said the year had been marked not only by disproportionately large advances but by record returns to publishers of unsold books. For books that were in the large-advance category, print runs that turned out to be excessive made these returns particularly painful.

Coming as they did on the heels of a series of major corporate consolidations and takeovers, the events of late 1989 did seem to rattle what had until then been a general mood of confidence.

“At the moment, I think they are all having the same kind of nausea,” said Roger Straus, the head of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, one of the few surviving independent publishing houses. Entering the 1990s, Straus said, publishing was “a dinner where everyone was attacked by the same ptomaine.”

In particular, Straus objected to what he called this decade’s “auction fever,” where “a handful of agents have fueled the greed of authors by telling them: ‘I can get you $3 million for this book.’ ” But then, he added, “you have the publishers being stupid enough to say, ‘Yeah, I’ll give you that kind of money.’ ”

Gigantic advances, said Applebaum, the vice president for publicity and promotion at Bantam Doubleday Dell, “are probably having a deleterious effect on book publishing, because basically they are not earning (the advances) back through sales and other revenues, thereby producing red ink, thereby further torpedoing profits at the publishing houses.”

One example that immediately came to the minds of several publishing executives was “My Turn,” the acerbic best-selling autobiography by former First Lady Nancy Reagan. Though the book has garnered immense attention, it was commissioned by Random House with an advance widely reported to be in the $2-million range. “They’re never going to get that back,” a rival publisher said.

At Houghton Mifflin, John Sterling, editor-in-chief of adult trade books, concurred, talking about a “fever that has gone bad” in publishing.

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“You have these two giant dark engines that have driven a lot of what is wrong in adult trade books,” Sterling said. “Number 1 is the size of the advances. Number 2 is the size of advance shipments.”

If looking at this year in publishing also means looking at the decade, Sterling, for one, points out, it’s important to note that for much of the last 10 years, the publishing industry has benefited from a general upswing in the American economy. “We have not really had a serious downturn in the U.S. economy or in the publishing business in the last seven years,” Sterling said.

“So much of what has happened has depended on a healthy economy. That kind of healthy economy just did not happen in the 1970s.”

A positive environment for business in general has allowed book chains to introduce discount pricing as a daily event in book-selling and book-buying. In turn, publishers became more inventive in seeking out new marketing ventures. Once considered a rather rarefied commodity, the clothbound books of the 1980s were to be found on sale in drugstores, right alongside the mousse and conditioner, and in supermarkets, not far from the roast beef.

Given the rising price of hair products and beef, moreover, discount-priced cloth books did not seem like much of an indulgence.

The book jacket may carry a $20 price tag, but “people say, ‘golly, I can get Stephen King for $12.56!’ ” Sterling said.

Spurred largely by the book chains, the change in cloth pricing combined with more aggressive marketing by publishers to alter consumer buying patterns. Readers who once habitually waited for a title to appear in paperback now began rushing to buy it in cloth. One resulting trend of the last decade and the last year was a simultaneous softening of paperback sales and boosting of cloth-book consumption.

“You learned to hook your customer,” the vice president of one publishing house said. “You first trained people not to be able to wait for the paperback; then after a while they wanted to go for a higher quality.”

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Ten years ago, she continued, cloth sales were simply seen in a different numerical light. “We went from a huge best seller being 75,000 copies to it being 1.2 million,” she said.

“At the beginning of the 1980s, you could not imagine first printings of 500,000. The fact that there are any is absolutely amazing. The fact that 1.5 million people walk into a bookstore and pay $20--and up--for a hardcover book is mind-boggling.”

And “obviously,” as Roger Straus noted in what might be the first lesson of The Economics of Publishing 101, “it is far more profitable to sell a $20 book than a $4.95 book.”

“The culture just moves too fast,” said Sterling. “People used to wait for the paperback. Not any more.”

That appetite for instant literary gratification has been carefully nurtured by publishers who have applied new skills and sophistication to the art of creating and enhancing a market.

“It used to be that publicity was looked upon as a kind of frivolous enterprise that you gave to the pretty, but ditzy, person who really didn’t have a future on the editorial side,” Applebaum, of Bantam Doubleday Dell, said. Now, he continued, along with eager and aggressive publicity departments, “you have whole new worlds of media coaching and strategic positioning which heretofore have not gone into this courtly business known as book publishing.”

But Applebaum was quick to add, “Really, you need that. Unlike other businesses that are akin to ours--such as television, movies or recorded music--publicity, which includes book reviews, is overwhelmingly the driving force behind book sales.”

Apologizing to Webster, one publisher cited “conglomeratization” and commercialism as the two hallmarks of the decade in publishing. Neither might bode well for the big houses, he conceded, but in their wake, he suggested, the smaller presses may begin to enjoy their long-awaited flowering.

At North Point Press in Berkeley, however, editor-in-chief John Shoemaker was less sanguine. His house was born along with the decade, making its debut on Jan. 1, 1980, and although “our business has shown very steady growth,” Shoemaker said that among the smaller presses, “I think all of us are fighting an uphill struggle to survive.”

After the initial surge of power from the bookselling chains, “the last six years of this decade have seen a tremendous growth in viable independent bookstores” that tend to be more receptive to the titles of small-press houses, Shoemaker said.

“But I think that we publish too many titles in this country"--about 40,000 titles annually, by most reliable accounts--"and we are all competing for a steadily shrinking number of buyers in the face of an increasingly illiterate society,” Shoemaker said.

“If we could sell one book to the number of people who attend a single Dallas Cowboys football game, we could be on the New York Times best-seller list for six months,” Shoemaker said. “But that doesn’t happen too often.”

Among the larger publishers, the excesses in advances and print runs surely will be corrected, many in publishing predicted. “It’s gotten out of hand,” said Roger Straus, for one, “and I think the hand is about to be tightened.”

But any constraints will definitely affect the reader, he predicted. “The reader will have fewer books of some quality than he has,” Straus said, citing “ belles lettres, essays, biography and experimental novels” as genres that may feel the pinch.

Still, not everyone in publishing was humming dirges as the year and the decade came to an end. The climate was cold, Stuart Applebaum said, and “it is not going to improve dramatically in the near future.” But “there’s nothing wrong with publishing presently that could not be cured by more consumers going into bookstores and buying books.”


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