William Katz remembers: The book business

William Katz has had a long and varied career, as an assistant to a U.S. senator; an officer in the CIA; an assistant to Herman Kahn, the nuclear war theorist; an editor at the New York Times Magazine; and a talent coordinator at The Tonight Show. He is the author of ten books, translated into 15 languages. He admits to degrees from the University of Chicago and Columbia. When I asked him if he’d ever written about his various careers, he said that he hadn’t but that he would be happy to do so. His reflections on his work for the Tonight Show are here and here. He took a look at the film industry in the posts “Hollywood, hurray for?” and “Hollywood, hurray for? The sequel.” His most recent post is “Stop the presses! Just kidding.”
Today Mr. Katz asks: “If you can read this in less than six minutes, do you qualify as a leftist?”

Well, you just might. But before you slow down the pace to avoid having a red “L” stamped on your forehead, let me explain.
I’d planned to do a follow-up to my recent post about journalism, and to include ideas for mending the mess in the media. That will come soon, but, in the meantime, we’ve received a gift that requires thankful comment. The generous bearer was Patricia Scott Schroeder, once a liberal flamer in the House of Representatives, and now the president of the Association of American Publishers — those rollicking guys in the book business.
Recently, Ms. Schroeder informed us that liberals are just, well, just more literate than conservatives. “The Karl Roves of the world have built a generation that just wants a couple of slogans,” she said. “‘No, don’t raise my taxes, no new taxes.’ It’s pretty hard to write a book saying, ‘No new taxes, no new taxes, no new taxes’ on every page.” She went on to say that liberals are policy devotees who can’t say anything in less than full paragraphs. “We really want the whole picture, want to peel the onion.”
Well, I mean. Milton Friedman for class sloganeer! Friedrich Hayek for right-wing ad man! Bill Buckley, Victor Davis Hanson, are you or have you ever been, an onion peeler? Speak into the microphone please.
Schroeder based part of her deep analysis on an AP-Ipsos poll showing that conservatives are reading fewer books than liberals. Maybe yes, maybe no. It depends on how honest the replies were. Some poll respondents worry that their neighbors might find out how they answered. If you live in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and admit to reading fewer than two books a week, people won’t let their kids play peace games with yours.
As Mary Matalin, who oversees Threshold, a conservative imprint of Simon and Schuster, said of Schroeder, “As head of a book publishing association, she probably shouldn’t malign any readers.”
No, she shouldn’t. But Schroeder’s comments reflect a reality: Some publishing people are speaking in ways that we associate with Hollywood. One reason is that publishing and Hollywood have moved closer in recent decades in values and priorities. A book editor told me in the late seventies that publishing and show business were becoming indistinguishable. The long march, or, rather, the long ride in the limo, continues.
I got into book publishing in 1974, almost by accident. I’d left The New York Times to write for film and television, not expecting to return to print. But a literary agent pointed out that I lived in New York, book publishers were in New York, and that the coincidence shouldn’t be dismissed by a writer with a print background. I was also advised that publishing was the civilized alternative to Hollywood. The image of publishing then was of underpaid book-loving editors in tweed jackets, with leather elbow pads. The only place you’ll find that guy today is in 1930s Barbara Stanwyck movies.
So I quickly wrote a 30-page outline for a thriller about the hijacking of a nuclear submarine, and called it “North Star Crusade.” The title derived from the Navy’s Polaris missile, Polaris being the astronomer’s name for the North Star. The project sold in three days. That is beginner’s luck. The P.T. Barnum in me was ecstatic.
The contrasts between American publishing in 1974 and today are remarkable. First, the industry was American, and no longer is. Yes, there still are many Yankee-owned publishers, but a good chunk of the major names — names you know, like Doubleday — are now foreign-controlled. What’s surprising is how little uproar this has caused. After all, books have historically generated ideas that radiate to the most influential Americans. I suspect the cause of the indifference is that publishing, sadly, no longer enjoys the central place it once did. New technologies have impacted books even more than film, newspapers, or network TV. You can rent seven DVDs for the price of one book. Indeed, you can buy a 50-million-dollar film for $19.95. A book that cost thousands to produce may sell for $25. And the Internet is to books as free TV is to movies. Why pay when you can get all that reading, and information, at no charge, online?
And yet publishing survives. Like theater, it always will, for there is something irreplaceable about the physical reading of type on a page. And books, especially on politics, continue to have influence, in spite of the digital devouring they’ve taken from Silicon Valley.
The second great change in publishing is the decline in the power of the editor. When I sold my first book, the editor decided he wanted it, and that was that. Today, marketers often make the final decision. And the actual art of editing books, page by page, has almost vanished at many houses. Publishing, once a cottage industry, is today about big money, and some MBAs have ruled that the editing function assaults the bottom line.
It’s shallow planning. Readers boil when a book is sub-standard. But managers who used to think like book people now think like Buick people, and the results might be the same.
The third great change is the rise of conservative imprints. The business side noticed — it took these minutemen less than half a century — that conservative books were selling, so today we have successful imprints like Crown Forum devoted to that persuasion — making Patricia Schroeder’s comments even more bizarre. Look, if you run into her, tell her that these rightist houses publish books where all the words have one syllable. She’ll believe it, she’ll be happy, you’ve done a service.
Oh, you might want to know what happened to “North Star Crusade.” It’s almost exciting. The book was published to good reviews, and was sold to the movies, but never made. Then, someone in “real life” actually tried to hijack a nuclear submarine. Makes a great wedding gift, you know. It happened that a CBS reporter was reading my book when news of the plot came through. He called me, and I wound up on the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite, explaining why the theft was impossible.
It didn’t end there. The CBS spot attracted the attention of the FBI. I got a very friendly call asking where I’d obtained all that information on American subs. I told the agent I’d be happy to turn it over to him. It had all come in a brown envelope sent to me by the public relations department of General Dynamics. Apparently, the Bureau decided I was not a threat to the national existence, and I never heard from the Feds again. I also never heard from my editor again. My publisher was acquired by a movie studio, my editor was sent packing, and that was the end of a beautiful friendship. I had to take my wares to somebody down the street.
I hope to write more about publishing in the future, and will discuss the process of selling books to Hollywood, and what happens to them. It’s the literary equivalent of the Gulag.
Now, Power Line readers, did you get through this in less than six minutes, the way the L-People do? If so, keep it a private matter, and try to dull your skills to fit in with our crowd. Nothing will be said about your transgression.
Don’t ask, don’t tell.

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