The Death of the Gentleman Publisher

10/12/2011 § 1 Comment

This week, publisher Hachette circulated a memo articulating the services it offers to authors. According to a copy reprinted on a website called Digital Book World, the memo said Hachette, and publishers in general, do four main things:

1. Curator: We find and nurture talent.

2.Venture Capitalist: We fund the author’s writing process.

3. Sales and Distribution Specialist: We ensure widest possible audience.

4. Brand Builder and Copyright Watchdog: We build author brands and protect their intellectual property.

Reading the memo caused me to think back to the spring, when I had lunch with a friend who works as an senior editor with a large New York publishing house. I’d asked him to make a similar case – to convince me why authors should market their work to traditional publishers – and he had offered a similar list. In addition to finding and nurturing talent, he provides his authors money (what he called “a banking function”) plus marketing, distribution, and legal muscle. It was a slightly uncomfortable conversation because I wasn’t convinced. I did not know why I wasn’t convinced.

After I published The Shores of Tripoli, I sent out an email to friends, family and my professional network, including the editor I had had lunch with in spring. In the email I described the Kindle Singles program this way:

Kindle Singles has been around for about a year. In the past few months it has emerged as a boutique publisher inside Amazon, publishing long-form journalism and short stories of the sort that I associate with previous eras: Life, Colliers, the classic New Yorker and those “folio” articles Harper’s used to do.

The editor wrote back with a thoughtful argument taking exception to the comparison. Life and Collier’s, he pointed out, were “editorially driven” – their job was journalism, not retailing. Those magazines also represented a key market for book publishers. They used to spend hundreds of thousands of Dollars to buy the right to print excerpts from the most highly-anticipated books of their era.

He has a point. At the turn of the 20th century, McClure’s published Ida Tarbell’s investigation of Rockefeller’s Standard Oil as a nineteen-part, year-long feature. Tarbell’s investigation cost her publisher, good Mr. McClure, well into the millions in modern Dollars. It also culminated in a book, which McClure also made possible. Amazon won’t do anything like that for me. Amazon just takes my work, edits it and does some marketing (or in most cases, doesn’t) and makes it available for sale.

Two weeks since publishing a Single, I think I wasn’t convinced back in Spring because my discomfort is less about business, than about professional culture. I’ve met several would-be Ida Tarbells over the past few years. I’m not sure there are too many McClures. Not in the sense of a shortage of rich guys who want to be publishers – there’s still plenty of money. But in the sense of wanting to support journalism. I don’t feel the values of golden age journalism are common in modern publishing; I’m suspicious that the services Hachette outlined in its memo are increasingly beside the point, because to get those services, I need to work through a culture that is at best indifferent, and often actively opposed, to the professional culture they inherited. I am suspicious Ida Tarbell would have been appalled by modern publishing, and struck out on her own.

I feel that way because of my own experiences. When I wrote a traditional book a few years back, I worked under an editor who had become famous in publishing circles for his ability to spot talent and promote it. He made best sellers. You want that, obviously. My book was a non-fiction account of a gold rush in 1990s South America. I travelled to the region several times over several years and spent months with teams of gold miners. When we were editing the book, which my famous editor did carefully, he felt that I had failed to really capture what the gold miners themselves were like.

He was right. Each one of the men I described had interesting qualities, but none of them had everything. None of them rose to the level of protagonist, and it left the story lacking.

My editor, in an email, floated the idea that I create a “composite miner.” In that case, I would invent a fictional character who embodied parts of all the real miners, to exemplify the story’s themes. I was surprised by the suggestion and said I thought it was a prodigiously bad one.

This happened at a low moment for American journalism. Judith Miller had yet to be fired; editors of the country’s leading publications were advocating the invasion of Iraq, despite millions of people around the world understanding well enough that the White House hadn’t made its case, and what case it had made smelled of something. Closest to home, we were amid a mini-wave of scandals in which journalists, most of them young men my age, had gotten caught representing fiction as fact. Stephen Glass of The New Republic and Jason Blair of the NYTimes were the most famous. Another reporter, Mike Finkel, was a closer parallel to my situation. He had done precisely what my editor was proposing. In a story about cocoa farming in western Africa, for the NYTimes Sunday Magazine, he had depicted the use of child labor in the cocoa fields. To do so, he aggregated the tales and qualities of several real children he had met in the region, invented a fictional child from that material, and told that fictional character’s story as the chronicle of a real boy’s life. He got caught and the Times fired him.

That’s an extreme case. But it hews to a general atmosphere I’ve experienced firsthand. In traditional publishing, particularly books, the impulse to enforce professional standards comes more and more from the reporter and less and less from the editor. This suits me, but it’s the reverse of how things usually go. Traditionally, the reporter pushes to include material. The editor evaluates the material’s appropriateness. The final balance of source and information happens in the editor’s office, not the reporter’s notepad.

A dramatization of the system a lot of people know comes from the old movie version of the reporter’s classic All the President’s Men. Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, as the reporters, want to run a damning story about the President. Jason Robards, as the editor, keeps telling them they haven’t got the story yet.

Great in a 30 year-old movie. In my 20 years, I’ve never had an editor say that. I’ve said it to editors lots — that I don’t have it yet.

Everyone has a theory on why that’s so: on what’s gone wrong in US media. Mine is by far the most boring. I think it’s a human resources issue. It’s very hard to find numbers on any of this. My suspicion about what happened is the Cold War ended. Foreign bureaus began to close. The contraction paralleled cutbacks in other institutions, like the US government’s defense budget. At the same time, media organizations went public in large numbers, and had to hit quarterly earnings numbers. Layoffs began. Within a year or two, the first tech boom caused many reporters to leave the industry for what seemed like promising opportunities. In total, the forces of the 1990s cost the industry a generation of institutional memory.

For international news, that was particularly damaging. Like any beat, firsthand experience with international events, and ideally chaotic events, informs how a person edits stories about them. General editing skill is important, but a memory of 1980s east Africa or 1990s Bosnia helps more. And it’s often a young person’s game, because of the travel and instability involved, and by 40 or 45 you’re ready to head to a nice, stable desk.

So a system had evolved. The reporters who had covered the Civil Rights era, the Vietnam War, and Nixon, acted later in their careers as editors for the reporters who covered the war in El Salvador, the end of Apartheid, the AIDS crisis, and the fall of communism.

But then things fell apart. By the time of 9-11, the editors answering the phone in New York, when I and my generation called from abroad (I’m 42; we’re talking a decade or so ago) had come up covering the tech boom and Monica Lewinksy, not Somalia and Bosnia. They had no idea where, in my case, Jakarta, Indonesia was, or what it was like. Two months before the Bali disco bombing, the then-foreign editor of a big West Coast paper told me the only thing likely to be interesting in Indonesia would be if Osama bin Ladin was there.

Maybe Max Perkins played dirty too, though.

It’s not clear to me the wave of fabulists that happened around that time is entirely the result of an attenuated professional culture. But I can’t imagine that helped. It’s hard to overlook that in 20 years or so, I have only in the rarest of cases worked with an editor of a previous generation. Most of my editors are peers. And very, very few of them have ever done my job themselves. So the editorial rigor in Libya or Indonesia or even at home in Barcelona has come from my colleagues. The other writers created the community that mutually enforced standards. Because our bosses weren’t doing it. They were thinking about staffing problems and the advertising crash and all the other things that prompted Hachette’s memo.

That, finally, is why I’m skeptical of claims that working with Amazon robs me of an editorially-driven experience. In legacy publishing, I already had to create that experience myself. That’s not to say I haven’t worked with fantastic editors. I have, and still do. But when I add in the new business crisis, the funding questions, and look at the list above from the Hachette memo, it’s hard to see the upside.


I was thinking about all this during the week, because I had received a few emails from other journalists asking me to comment on these kinds of issues, and to talk about my choice to self-publish a piece of long-form reporting. So I tried to look for some additional information, and mid-week, was surprised to see this:

The Wall Street Journal among others reported this week that the Justice Department is looking into whether several large publishing houses and Apple broke anti-trust laws in an effort to compete with Amazon. The case centers on an alleged effort a few years ago to counter Amazon, which had discounted electronic books to the point where publishers were losing money. If the DOJ is right, five publishers made a deal under which Apple, which was retailing ebooks through its Apple Store, would take a 30% cut of each book sale, but allow the publishers to set cover prices. Normally booksellers buy books wholesale from publishers, and set the retail prices themselves. The result was a floor in book prices, and higher book prices for the consumer. Next they told Amazon, allegedly, that if it didn’t sign a similar agreement, called an Agency Contract, locating pricing power with the publishers, they would cut off Amazon’s supply of books. From reporter Thomas Catan’s story:

Before he died this year, Apple’s former chief executive, Steve Jobs, told his biographer that the arrangement gave the publishers leverage to stop Amazon’s heavy discounts.

“We told the publishers ‘We’ll go to the agency model, where you set the price, and we get our 30%, and yes, the customer pays a little more, but that’s what you want anyway,'” Mr. Jobs was quoted as saying by Walter Isaacson.

“But we also asked for a guarantee that if anybody else is selling the books cheaper than we are, then we can sell them at the lower price too. So they went to Amazon and said, ‘You’re going to sign an agency contract or we’re not going to give you the books.'”

Since last year, the Justice Department has been scrutinizing the role of Apple in negotiating what was effectively an industry-wide price increase, according to a person familiar with the matter.

The publishers named in the story are all very large players, and include divisions of Hachette, Simon and Schuster, Penguin and HarperCollins. The European Union started the investigation (several of the publishers are owned by European parents). Now the US is carrying out a parallel investigation.

At the end of the week, I’d ended up with a coda to my conversation with the editor. I don’t imagine Amazon’s inside stories are any more savory than are its competition’s. In fact, looking through the list of Kindle Singles, I see one by Mike Finkel (to be fair, he seems to have moved past the Times incident, which was awhile back).

But I don’t have the feeling the traditional publishing industry is more likely to produce an Ida Tarbell, or less likely to act like Standard Oil, than is Amazon. My former editor, who broached putting a fictional character in a work of non-fiction, later published a best-seller revealed to be a fraud. He has nevertheless climbed steadily through the industry and continues to be a respected traditional publisher.

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