KHSU interview with Thomas Christensen
17 June 1997
Marc Sommer, host: This is Alternative Review: in-depth interviews with pioneers on the frontiers of cultural transformation, individuals who are discovering more effective and humane responses to the most profound and persistent challenges of our time.
Once upon a time book publishing was a world apart. A preserve for a few souls in the coercive world of commerce still passionately committed to the enduring value of words and ideas. Legendary editors like Maxwell Perkins would virtually co-author books with their authors, honing their often rough-hewn genius into sculpted prose. Not so today, at a time when even the most venerable publishing houses have been swallowed whole by the likes of Rupert Murdock or Walt Disney to be marketed alongside tee-shirts and trinkets. Publishers tell their authors that if they want editorial attention, they'll have to hire an editor themselves. Among the few publishers who still retain an interest in the language, lives, and ideas of their authors is tonight's guest, Thomas Christensen, editor and publisher of Mercury House, a nonprofit book publisher in the San Francisco Bay Area. Tom is a former senior editor of North Point Press, the Berkeley-based book publisher that became a legend in its decade-long history for its devotion to quality literature and superior production values. At Mercury House, Tom has sought to maintain this tradition against rising tides of commercial pressures that have led virtually all major publishing houses to succumb to a single-minded, celebrity-driven pursuit of profits at the expense of any higher purpose. This evening we'll be discussing with Tom how publishing came to this sorry pass and what it might take to revive a thoughtful and literary tradition in the age of content free communications. My name is Mark Summer and I'll be your host this evening on Alternative Review.
Tell us how this world of book publishing has changed. so much in the last ten or twenty years. What have been the forces at work and what have they done to the world of book publishing?
Tom Christensen: I work, as you said, at a publishing company called Mercury House, and one thinks of other companies with names like Random House or Tilbury House; there's even a Pudding House. This "house" metaphor goes back to the genteel nineteenth-century tradition of publishing as a family-like intellectual activity. Through the years, that tradition was more or less retained, in the sense that publishers would publish some books even though they were not commercial, supporting them with other books that were commercial. Publishing companies through most of this century were editorially driven, and an editor would publish a worthy book feeling that a publishing company had a responsibility to the public. Starting after the war, and especially in the seventies and eighties, this all began to change. Independent publishing companies began to get absorbed into other companies. In the seventies, for example, Ballantine was bought by Random House, Bantom by an Italian corporation, Dell by Doubleday, Lippincott by Harper, Viking by Penguin, Simon & Schuster by the Gulf & Western Corporation, and so on. A process of consolidating publishing in fewer and fewer hands was beginning. Within these companies, power began to shift from Editorial to Marketing and Sales. This has really accelerated in recent decades, particularly in the nineties. In recent years there's been unprecedented change in publishing. I read recently a biography of Edmund Wilson, one of the notable writers of this century, which mentioned some of the sales figures of his books. Wilson was selling a thousand copies of many of his books, maybe fifteen hundred copies, and so doing creating an important body of work, a very influential body of work that had a significant cultural impact, even though he wasn't selling a large number of copies. In today's publishing climate, Wilson would have a difficult time publishing those same books. The situation we have today is one in which publishing, as everyone recognizes, is a commercial activity, and its traditional function as a cultural activity has been tremendously eroded.
MS: Tom, today is it that there are fewer discriminating readers because there are so many other competing forms of media, or is it that the publishers and editors themselves have developed a different attitude toward books and their purpose?
TC: It's a little of both. There are still many discriminating readers. As I said, Wilson was selling fifteen hundred copies of many of his books and similar books, serious books, sell this many copies today. But publishing companies no longer consider that level of sale acceptable. There is also a kind of trading of readers that takes place as a result of the tremendous media push which is given to the top titles. Today the top-selling titles in a given year represent a vastly greater percentage of total book sales than they did in the past, and there's an enormous media and market push for those books. With this sort of relentless bombardment on the reader, it does create a taste in readers for this kind of book. Also, today there are many more other kinds of media that compete for readers' attention. I was reading somewhere about Tom Paine's Common Sense, how almost every literate person in the United States purchased or read that book when it came out, and how today the only comparable cultural phenomenon would be the Superbowl. Books don't have that kind of dominance in terms of people's activities any more. Still, there remains a significant group of serious readers, but these readers are not being effectively served by the present system.
MS: I know that there are people who apologists for the current so-called free market of books, who say that there will always be small publishers who will bring out certain kinds of quality books even though they are not great money makers, and they will help balance the rest who are out for the buck. You've had the experience of both participating and watching the struggle of small publishers to survive in this climate. Can you describe what that like? The kinds of obstacles that you face as a small publisher in getting attention from reviewers and book sellers?
TC: Actually, I think there's some truth to the attitude that there will always be people willing to do publishing on a small scale, and get good books into print. But the system currently doesn't serve the authors who are published that way very well. In the past, a small publisher could do a book and expect it to appear in stores, to reach readers and to have an opportunity for word of mouth to work, so that one reader might purchase a book and give it to a friend or tell a friend about it, so that a good book could have an opportunity to succeed on its merits via word of mouth. There are a lot of reasons why this very often doesn't work so well anymore. One is that distribution is now concentrated in the hands of a few large organizations, with a corresponding loss of depth and diversity. If walk into your mall store—Barnes & Noble or Waldenbooks, say—at the front of the store you will probably see a shelf of "hot new titles," but most people don't realize that the places on those shelves are purchased by the publishers. When a small publisher such as Mercury House is competing against a giant corporation like Viacom or Hearst for shelf space, well, we just can't do it. Also, books don't stay in the stores for very long anymore. Books are returned to the publisher after only a few weeks. I think the average life of a hardcover book in a store is something like six weeks now. What this means is that books sales today aren't driven by word of mouth but rather by the marketing mechanisms that are timed to the book's release. And many of the same corporations who own the publishing companies also own the radio, television, and news media that are used to publicize the books. These companies can generate a lot of attention for a book in order to capitalize on that brief window when that book is in the store. An author who has been kept out of this privileged system finds it a very uphill battle to reach readers. So what you often find is you'll have a book which sells 500, 1,000, 3,000, or 4,000 copies—a small number of copies—and it might take a decade for that book to reach its readership and for people to realize its cultural and literary significance, assuming it isn't simply overlooked completely. That kind of system isn't economically feasible for small publishers, or any publishers.
MS: This obviously has economic effects on small publishers but it seems like it also has very strong effects on the larger culture because books remain the most thoughtful … the deepest thinking a society does is not done on radio, on TV, or newspapers. It still has to be done by a relatively slow means of ruminating.
TC: Books are an ideal technology, and in the fashion today for new technologies we sometimes forget what a perfected technology a book is. My wife and I are working on a companion book to a PBS television series now and this has brought home to me how much more you can do in a book than in the television medium. They're working essentially with sound bytes, stringing them together and doing the best they can, but you just can't get into things the way you can in a book. Not only that but we still have printed books from the Gutenberg period, and they're still perfectly readable today. Iif you compare that to software that people were using maybe fifteen years ago, which is virtually unusable today, you can see what a great piece of technology a book is. Moreover, a book is multimedia—it has words, it has pictures, it has cross-references, you can skip around in it. You can take it to the beach, you can carry it with you. It will last you a lifetime. Because of all this, because of how perfected a technology a book is, I think that books are going to stay around. But overall, when you look at the situation in book publishing in our culture today, you have to see that our current system is not serving either authors or readers very well.
MS: Tom, I wanted to go back to what is being lost when books, particularly books that handle substantial issues, are no longer given the kind of attention that they need in order to circulate new ideas into a culture. What kinds of books are being pumped out by the major publishers these days? What topics are popular and what topics are not, and what are the kinds that are being lost in the shuffle at this point, the ones coming out from the small publishers?
TC: Today publishing is almost entirely—more than 90%—controlled by eight or nine large corporations, which also own theme parks, television stations, radio stations, newspapers, so that publishing is now a part of the larger entertainment industry. And so book publishing is tending toward this "Hollywood" model where you put out a small amount of product and try to get everyone to consume it. I'm sure that the marketing people and MBAs at these companies look at the book publishing industry and just shake their heads: 30,000 different products, each of which is purchased by a different market segment in small numbers is just nonsensical from the standpoint of a big entertainment conglomerate that is trying to push product. What they are trying to do is get almost everyone to read the same twenty or thirty books; so you have Howard Stern or Rush Limbaugh or The Bridges of Madison County selling tremendous numbers and all other books getting a smaller and smaller piece of the pie. A couple of years ago I noticed an interesting statistic in the publishing trade journal Publishers Weekly; it said that or The Bridges of Madison County sold more copies than the entire best seller list had sold only ten years before. So from the mid-80s to the mid-90s there was this tremendous change, where the top books were taking a much bigger piece of the total pie of books sales. Even though the total book sales were about constant, or grew slightly, those other books at the bottom of the book food chain in terms of sales were getting a much smaller part of the pie. The kinds of books that are being lost are alternative view points, expressions of different cultures, books in translation, serious books with limited markets, and books that lack mass marketing angles. There is a substantial loss of diversity and also of particularity. Remember, a book can be a very significant and important thing, even if it's only read by a small number of people. I read Eduardo Galleano recently talking about books that sold maybe only 500 or 600 copies that turned out to be the most important books of the century. If you go back and look at the bestseller list from forty or fifty years ago, most of the books will be meaningless to you. It indicates that there is no direct relation between salability and merit. I think the relationship is almost random,
MS: What's not random, of course, is salability and marketing "prowess." In other words, if there is a great deal of money and energy behind the book to promote it, you could promote almost any book, couldn't you?
TC: Editors look for books that are marketable—that "have a handle," as they say. You don't even necessarily need to read the book. It's the idea of the book—whether you can market it. The reason for this, as I said before, is that most books are sold in a short period of time when they just come out, with a big splash, a big push. And as I said, there isn't really much of an opportunity for word of mouth to affect most books, either positively or negatively. Therefore, the kind of books that publishers look for are books where you have a clever, simple, or a current marketing angle that is going to be promotable, almost regardless of the quality of the book or what's actually in the book. On the other hand, you can have a beautiful collection of stories or novel that if it doesn't have some angle or some way to promote it in 25 words or less—and I literally mean 25 words or less—then that book, no matter how good it is, is going to be very difficult to sell, and so most publishers are going to pass on it.
MS: Let's talk about what can be done at this point to reverse these trends. There are plenty of thinking people in this society, I'm sure of it. They're not all just my friends (laughs). There have to be others as well, all over the country.
TC: When I worked at North Point Press, my colleague Jack Shoemaker used to say that he felt he knew almost every reader of poetry in the country personally—it's such a small market.
MS: I've seen even in the New York Times Book Review an estimate that there are about a thousand serious readers left in the United Stated, which is absurd. That's just not true.
TC: No it isn't.
MS: We have various media, including public radio, that are forms of communication for word of mouth to occur.
TC: And it can happen. It's not that it can't happen, but it's just very, very difficult, and it usually doesn't happen.
MS: Uh-huh. Is it partly also that we haven't yet learned—that is to say the people who are involved in small publishing—to use the alternative media to create this word of mouth that is not primarily driven by the amount of money, you know, to create a marketing campaign?
TC: That could be.
MS: I'm trying to think of other media through which books can be announced besides these fierce gate keepers at the New York Times Book Review.
TC: I think that there are some encouraging signs in the sort of independent spirit you see, for example, on the internet where an individual's website is not so different from or any less accessible than a big corporation's website. That can be something of an equalizing factor. The most important thing is probably that people learn to be more discriminating about the ways that they get their information. If that can be encouraged and developed … which I think is sort of what you're trying to do, isn't it Mark?
MS: It is indeed.
TC: Then I think that would be a very positive thing. Also, you mentioned that Mercury House is a nonprofit organization, and I think that public support of literature is something that we really need right now in the context of what is going on in book publishing and other kinds of publishing. Literature was about the last art form to come to the table as far as public funding in this country, where we have a lot more support for symphonies, ballets, theaters. But literature is not perceived as something that ought to be publicly supported or funded. In fact, as you know, we've seen a lot of erosion of support with the attacks on the NEA and so on.
MS: I want to give people a chance who would like to support or find out more about the work of Mercury House and other quality small publishers a chance to contact you. Before we finish up, why don't you give me the address and the phone number.
Okay. Mercury House's books are distributed by Consortium Book Sales & Distribution. They distribute more than fifty publishers, about half of which are nonprofits. There are a number of small publishers, both nonprofit and privately owned that are doing serious and important work. Mercury House is at [previous address removed]. People can call us at [previous telephone/fax numbers removed].
MS:: I should say also that you've published two local Humbolt County authors; one of them is Jerry Martin. His book is called The Shell Game, isn't it?
TC: Yes. It's an exploration of different attitudes to money and commerce between native Americans and Europeans, the kinds of misunderstandings that occurred in their encounter, and the legacy of those misunderstandings. And it's also a pretty funny story of Jerry's personal struggles with all sorts of commerce.
MS: And I must also admit that you published one of my books.
TC: Absolutely. Living In Freedom, about Prague's Second Spring.
MS: Tom, I really want to salute you as a person who is a classic editor in the old style. I felt extremely well taken care of at Mercury House; it was really a family for me. And I felt that I was willing to give up the bright lights of New York publishing for the warmth and support of the literate and caring group of people at Mercury House.
TC: Thank you, Mark.