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Book Publishing’s "Iron Triangle": Recognizing How the Media Downplays Books from Small Publishers

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In the brief time he managed to stay on message, Arizona senator
John McCain connected with America by elucidating the dangers of
Washington’s “Iron Triangle”—that is, how the
political contributions of business interests, funneled to
candidates by lobbyists, grossly distort the nation’s
law-making process and undermine the public interest.

In the world of trade book publishing, a similarly dangerous and
no less obvious “Iron Triangle” exists, and yet no one
dares elucidate it. The dozen largest book publishing corporations,
assisted by the big national media, have a hidden, insidious,
iron-clad hold on the ideas and stories that reach the American
public. Their books—and theirs virtually alone—get the
lion’s share of media interest and resulting sales.

This power dynamic must be delineated, discussed, and dealt with
for many reasons. Primary among them is that trade book publishing
is one of the chief generators of ideas and information in America.
In addition, the business itself heavily favors the large, moneyed
interests. Furthermore, publishing, while an easy business to get
into, is an inherently hard business at which to make any money. Its
standard operating rule—that bookstores can send back books as
consigned goods anytime they like—makes it so harshly
unpredictable that few small publishers can survive for long in
national competition. Large publishing houses manage because they
have funds for national advertising, because some of their books
ultimately get media anointments, and because the sheer volume of
their book output makes them impossible to ignore by the national
media. Large houses publish about as many books in a week as my
company has in the past five years—that number is 16.

In contrast to the largest firms, most small publishers find
national media advertising prohibitively expensive, and lack
effective media connections with which to compensate. Not that
they’re at fault. Many in the national media won’t even
deign to meet with small publishers to get to know their books,
authors, or approach to books. And yet the book-writing process is
little more than the collaboration of two people—a good author
with a good editor. The large publishing houses have no monopoly on
either, but you’d never know it from the grossly
disproportionate attention they get from the national media.

Don’t believe me? Look at the popular news weeklies like Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News; the
entertainment magazines like People, Entertainment
Weekly
, and US Weekly; the great national daily
newspapers like the New York Times, Wall Street
Journal
, Washington Post, and USA Today; and on
and on down through network and cable TV, National Public Radio, and
nationally syndicated radio. These media outlets cover a very “discriminating” selection of books. Anywhere from 90-95%
of the books reviewed or discussed hail from the dozen largest
publishing houses in the U.S.

Indeed, when it comes to books, the national media might just as
well declare: “We operate a closed shop. Second- and
third-class citizens—like small, independent
presses—need not apply.” The situation is even worse with
fiction than with nonfiction, which is a big reason why most small
presses don’t even bother entering the novel-publishing
business.

Librarians and library publications tend to be much less
class-conscious, but publishers can’t make a profit selling
only to the libraries. But at least a saner rule is in effect in
that market: After they order books, libraries don’t return
them.

In the aggregate, small book publishers produce tens of thousands
of books each year and, hoping against hope, continue to send them
to the national media. The national media handles the deluge and
simplifies its decision-making process by employing the infamous “seven-second look”—five seconds of which are
devoted to identifying the book’s imprint and the remaining
two to tossing out “the riffraff.”

My publishing house has had a lot of critical success over its
five years, but it remains a second-class citizen chiefly because of
media discrimination. A clear case in point is Live by the Sword:
The Secret War against Castro and the Death of JFK
written by
investigative reporter Gus Russo. In November 1998, we published
this book that connects John and Robert Kennedy’s plots
against Castro, Lee Harvey Oswald, pro-Cuban sentiments, and John
Kennedy’s 1963 assassination. A narrative history that was
brilliantly researched and painstakingly edited, Live by the
Sword
did exactly what the public and the media had clamored
for—reviewed and made sense of the millions of pages of
documents declassified since Oliver Stone’s movie JFK. Yet the national media largely ignored the book, which would
have sold three to four times more copies (and actually made a
profit) if Simon & Schuster—the big publisher which
originally contracted for it—had seen the project through to
publication. The media doubtless would have lavished attention on it
because of its imprint.

The national media published a number of thumb-suckers several
years ago when Bertelsmann, a large German conglomerate, bought
America’s largest publishing company, Random House, and fears
widened about the ill effects of foreign ownership and consolidation
in the book publishing industry. The gravest harm, some said, was
that good book authors would find fewer places to disseminate their
ideas.

In fact, with smaller publishers taking up the slack, good
authors can publish many places today. The only problem is that,
because of publishing’s “Iron Triangle,” going with
a smaller publisher all but assures them and their work relative
obscurity.

It’s ironic that the national media shows so much more
open-mindedness towards technology entrepreneurs than it bestows on
publishing entrepreneurs. New ventures in high-tech get plenty of
media attention. New ventures in publishing—and, for a general
interest trade publisher, each new book is a new venture—get
the cold shoulder.

The “Iron Triangle of Publishing” won’t be
dissolved through lawyers and lawsuits. The situation probably
isn’t an actionable restraint of trade. Nor is the unwritten
pact between big book publishers and big media a grand conspiracy
between elitist entities, though there’s ample arrogance, even
haughtiness, to be found. It is, instead, the product of a heavily
entrenched book business and an equally entrenched, and
unquestioning, national media. But the harm is still the same.
Competition is stamped out, important ideas are kept from the
public, and the national discourse impoverished.

The problem, in my view, is mostly a matter of mindset. If it
engages in some honest introspection, the media will readily
acknowledge that it has long been discriminating against the small
publisher, and that this discrimination (even if unconscious) has
grossly distorted the marketplace of ideas in America. If it looks
within its collective soul, it will realize that, to the
nation’s detriment, a superstar like Alfred A. Knopf would
never have succeeded had he begun his publishing house in
today’s anti-competitive marketplace.

The “Iron Triangle of Publishing” can be instantly
loosened, but only if the national media chooses to put aside its
close-minded and discriminatory ways, and commits to a simple, fair
precept: Judge a book by its author and the book’s merits, not
by its publishing pedigree. If it does, the readers of America will
be immensely better off.

Bruce L. Bortz is the Publisher of Bancroft Press in Baltimore,
Maryland. Its newest general interest title, just released in late
April 2000, is “A Cry Unheard: New Insights into the Medical
Consequences of Loneliness” by James Lynch.

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