Publishing gets a little less indie There’s soul searching among the industry’s little guys as Perseus closes two recently acquired imprints.
By Josh Getlin, Times Staff Writer
If you've stepped into a bookstore recently, you may have noticed some intriguing smaller books along with new titles by the Chabons and Isaacsons of the publishing world: an anthology of essays about African American movies; Hollywood short stories by John O'Hara; little-known novels by Gore Vidal and Joyce Carol Oates; early short stories by Henry James; a biography of Joan Crawford; and the poetry of Ishmael Reed.
You probably did not note the publishers of these books, and it's equally doubtful you registered that the two imprints issuing all of them — Carroll & Graf and Thunder's Mouth Press — will soon be closed in an economy move by their owner.
The loss of these imprints isn't the kind of news that typically roils the entertainment world. Yet as Eric Banks, editor in chief of Bookforum, put it, "There is something crucial that's lost to the culture whenever imprints like these disappear."
Indeed, the new issue of Bookforum will include reviews of two feisty new books from Carroll & Graf — both of which "wouldn't necessarily have appeared at a larger house," Banks said — that take a critical view of former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover: "Bobby and J. Edgar: The Historic Face-Off Between the Kennedys and J. Edgar Hoover That Transformed America" by Burton Hersh, and "Young J. Edgar: Hoover, the Red Scare, and the Assault on Civil Liberties" by Kenneth D. Ackerman.
For Perseus Books Group, which recently acquired Carroll & Graf and Thunder's Mouth Press as part of its acquisition of Avalon Publishing Group, it was a dollars-and-cents issue. The company decided that the two were no longer distinctive enough to thrive in a competitive market. But the New York-based Perseus pointed out that it has also made a multimillion-dollar investment to support independent publishers. "No one has a bigger commitment to the long-term survival of American independent publishing than we do," said David Steinberger, Perseus' president and chief executive.
Still, questions remain.
"When you see the book world conglomeratizing, it can only mean less diversity of voices," said Johnny Temple, publisher of Akashic Books, a Brooklyn-based imprint distributed by Perseus. "When I sign up a book, it matters more that I love it than that I've identified a good marketing niche for it. That's the real essence of independent publishing — it's not a deal, it's supposed to be a labor of love."
Booksellers voice similar views. Paul Yamazaki, longtime buyer for City Lights Books in San Francisco, said imprints like Carroll & Graf and Thunder's Mouth Press are a boon to readers.
"I think of imprints as independent visions," he said. "How many of the larger houses would bother to put out a collection of John O'Hara's Hollywood short stories? The answer is, not many."
Since its founding in 1982, Carroll & Graf has published mysteries, provocative literary fiction by gay and lesbian writers, history books for a general audience, pop culture anthologies and the familiar "Mammoth" compendiums that explore topics from science fiction to erotica. Thunder's Mouth is known for edgy political nonfiction, African American writing, sports and science.
"At Carroll & Graf, we bridged the gap between small, lesser-known presses and the larger houses when it comes to gay literature," said Don Weise, a senior editor who is losing his job. "In the four years that I've been here, I've acquired more than 100 books, and no one has ever told me no, I couldn't do that. In the book world, that's unheard of."
Some might argue, of course, that publishers produce far too many books for the public to absorb, an estimated 120,000 titles a year. A reduction might well be overdue. Yet others cringe at the prospect of cutting indie publishers.
"We hear a lot of talk about biodiversity, but not much about protecting cultural diversity, especially for publishing," said Andre Schiffrin, founder of the New Press, an independent house. Before that, he ran Pantheon Books for nearly 30 years at Random House. "I was impressed when I first heard about Perseus' business plans," he said. "But they're not a bunch of philanthropists."
This week, the mood at both imprints was somber, according to several employees who asked for anonymity. Twenty-four jobs have been eliminated at Perseus and an additional 21 employees must relocate or find new positions in the company to hold onto their jobs.
Over the last year, Perseus has expanded dramatically. In addition to acquiring Avalon Publishing Group, it has also assumed control of marketing and distribution for some 124 smaller publishers represented by Publishers Group West. Earlier, Perseus acquired Consortium, which had been distributing books for 140 indie publishers. The firm now controls distribution and marketing for an estimated 80% of the indie book market.
The new deals
Publishing observers have mixed reactions to the idea that Perseus is now both a book distributor and a publisher of small imprints.
"There isn't another example of a major trade publisher that also runs such a broad distribution business, and time will tell if Perseus can juggle both," said Drake McFeely, president of W.W. Norton, the nation's largest independent publisher.
Others are thrilled at the commercial prospects. "I'm very excited by what Perseus has done, because we now have the opportunity to create the strongest platform for independent publishing that's ever existed in this country," said Morgan Entrekin, publisher of Grove-Atlantic, whose books will be distributed under the Perseus umbrella.
As for the loss of the two imprints, Entrekin said it was regrettable but perhaps necessary. "There's constant change in publishing," he said. "The bottom line is: Are wonderful books going to go unpublished because of this decision? I doubt it."
Charlie Winton, the longtime independent publisher who sold Avalon Books to Perseus this year, agrees that the company may emerge as a major force. But he expressed disappointment at the shuttering of the two imprints. "The more zeroes you put on a deal, the more it's about business and less about books," he said. "As I've intersected with the Perseus people, it sometimes feels we're having an independent publishing discussion. And sometimes it feels like you're dealing with a big corporation, which you are."
Meanwhile, as the remaining indie publishers watch closely the unfolding events at Perseus, they wrestle with the choice between going it alone or hooking up with larger publishers — which may, down the road, decide to eliminate them. For Jen Joseph, publisher of Manic D Press in San Francisco, the problem is that, once bought, an imprint must demonstrate financial growth to its masters or risk being killed.
"When you eliminate imprints, something crucial disappears," she said. "I'm a good publisher and a really bad capitalist. I've never been interested in growing the company 5% or 10% a year. What interests me is the sustainability of books and how you connect with readers."
Others have cast in their lot with larger owners, even as they fight fiercely to maintain the quirky independence that got them into publishing in the first place. "There's a vast amount of noise out there in the culture right now, and readers need trusted filters to help them make sense of it," said publisher Richard Nash, who recently sold Soft Skull Press, a Brooklyn-based indie, to a new company run by Winton and will become executive editor of the larger venture, which will be called Counterpoint. When an imprint disappears, he said, "an important filter is lost."
Like many, Nash voiced skepticism that the editorial DNA of Carroll & Graf and Thunder's Mouth Press could somehow be transplanted into other imprints. The best imprints, he said, are like sprawling but well-edited anthologies. They resist easy hooks.
Barney Rosset, the legendary founder of Grove Press, addressed this in a 1960s interview, Nash recalled: "He was asked if he had a vision publishing, if Grove Press had a specific purpose. And he answered, 'Yes, there's a purpose. But the only way that you can discern the purpose is by looking at what we publish.' "