Friday, January 1, 2010

Announcing the Donkey Awards

After posting my November blog, The New York Times, Publishers Weekly, and Book Bloggers, I bought and read André Schiffrin’s The Business of Books: How International Conglomerates Took Over Publishing and Changed the Way We Read, published in 2000. Not only did I discover that Schiffrin’s charges preceded my own by a decade, but his account of how publishing changed, from the mid fifties when a plethora of small but prestigious houses that valued ideas and content as much as profit were transformed into five behemoths that by 2000 wound up sharing 80% of the market. The early acquisitions started innocently enough when the founders aged, fell ill, or died, as when Bennett Cerf at Random House acquired Alfred A. Knopf in 1960 because of Knopf’s deteriorating health. With that merger, Random House did not even control 1% of the market. Nor was it very different when, a year later, Cerf acquired Pantheon, after Andre’s father—a co-founder of Pantheon—passed away and the other partners fell into disagreements. By then André was asked to join this growing conglomerate and, for the next 30 years, as a corporate insider, witnessed the changes.

More amalgamations followed which were then swallowed by even larger media corporations. Random House, taken over by RCA in 1965, was later sold to Si Newhouse, who demanded an increase in sales and circulation by appealing to a wider, more common audience. Newhouse arranged for Random House to pay Nancy Reagan a three million dollar advance for her memoir. Like Rupert Murdoch, Newhouse was one if a handful of Multi-Media billionaires who owned a string of profitable newspapers of little editorial merit, enabling him to purchase the Conde Nast magazine dynasty, Vogue, The New Yorker, and valuable cable stations. Though these publishers and magazines never lost money, they were seen as not profitable enough. He also gave another huge advance to his old friend Roy Cohen, Senator Joe McCarthy sidekick, for his memoir, believing that celebrity would sell more copies. Never mind that millions were lost in unearned royalties. The solution for that was to push for even more titles by or about celebrities…and to insist that every book they printed should earn back its advance.

By 2000 Rupert Murdoch and his News Corporation, having purchased HarperCollins in 1987, went the same route. Commercial books were linked to Murdoch’s entertainment holdings and his conservative political beliefs. Harpers changed when the new non fiction lists, written by the likes of Oliver North, Newt Gingrich, and other figures who shared Murdoch’s conservative political beliefs, made their appearance.

Simon & Schuster was taken over by Viacom, owners of Paramount Pictures, and that imprint became increasingly tied to the entertainment industry, where the styles and values of Hollywood became dominant. Viacom also decided that celebrity books are the titles that will make or break firms, and both Michael Korda, at S&S, and his boss, Richard Snyder, were more than happy to carry out Viacom’s wishes.

Eventually, the multinationals stepped in: Germany’s Bertelsmann, Hachette in France, Pearson in the UK, and AOL Time Warner in the USA. By then the publishing world had largely rid itself of literary people from its golden age and replaced them with business men. Mass culture replaced literature and profit was paramount. Now every title was expected to make a significant contribution to both corporate overhead, profit, and growth leading everyone to seek the same “successful titles.”

Schiffrin said that by 2000, these corporate publishers had pretty much decided that if they couldn’t see themselves selling a base of 20,000 copies, it did not pay for them to take on a book. As he pointed out, when Pantheon introduced Franz Kafka to American audiences, it had a first printing of only 800 copies. As for Bertolt Brecht’s first work, only 600 copies were sold. In today’s market place, neither of these renowned writers would ever have seen the light of day in America.

By March of this year, this insistence on celebrity books became something the conglomerates were proudly raving about, when Harper Collins sent out this press release: HarperCollinsPublishers, one of the largest English-language publishers in the world, today announced the launch of It Books, a new popular culture imprint dedicated to entertainment, music, fashion, design, and sports. The first books in the new imprint will be published in September 2009. It Books will be directed by Carrie Kania, Senior Vice President and Publisher. The editorial team for the imprint will be led by Mauro DiPreta, Vice President/Associate Publisher, and Cal Morgan, Vice President/Editorial Director. Ms. Kania and Mr. Morgan are currently the Publisher and Editorial Director of Harper Perennial respectively, and will retain those roles. "It Books will be a new way for us to reach readers like us--people with an endless appetite for pop culture, who live for music and film and art and fashion and the Internet," said Carrie Kania. "An It book should be fun. It should be interesting. It should be cool. It should look great. Working with Cal and Mauro, we're going to have the chance to publish some great books and market them in new and interesting ways. I'm really excited about this opportunity."

It Books certainly made an impression on Janet Maslin, who reviewed her first one on December 28, Alanna Nash’s Baby Let’s Play House: Elvis Presley and the Women Who Loved Him. Fascinated by this “long, repetitive and dirt digging version of that dramatic tale… Some details invoke the bottom-feeding biographical style of Albert Goldman,” Maslin plowed on extensively about its 684 pages, with photos, which she pointed out was larger than most presidential biographies. When I read this review I thought of how deeply depressed the state of Culture was at the Culture Desk. Just as critics have their lists of Awards—best books of the year, etc. it led to a decision to start a new award for critics, called The Donkey Awards (Equus Asinus) for the “Best Abuse of Space for the Least Deserving Book.” I’ve placed Maslin’s review as the first nominee for this Award. Joining me on the judges panel are Bill Henderson of Pushcart Press (and author of Rotten Reviews), Joan Baum, a newspaper critic and commentator on NPR, “Baum on Books,” Dan Rattiner, founder and executive editor of Dan’s Papers and an author in his own right, and Marc Schuster, novelist, English teacher at Montgomery County Community College, and founder and editor of Small Press Reviews. I welcome any other nominations—from those of you reading this blog—of print reviews from the Times or any other newspaper or magazine. As with other Awards, we will choose five finalists, with the winner to be honored at an appropriate ceremony; date and place to be decided. To nominate all you need do is send me a printed or electronic version of the review you think hits new lows. No entry fees are required.

Which brings me back to my last blog which was highly critical of the crappy balance of coverage in the weekday Arts section at The New York Times, because of their near total abdication of reviewing books from small presses, discrimination against first novelists in general, their overwhelming preference for “pop” nonfiction over literature (in perfect alignment with what the largest corporate publishers were putting out), and the fact that nearly 90% of the books they reviewed come from the largest conglomerates. It apparently struck a nerve throughout the industry, for it more than doubled any previous posting with more than 1,600 hits—1,300 in the first three days—helped enormously by one prominent critic at a major newspaper who twittered many others about it, resulting in a GALLEYCAT article entitled Indie Publisher Dissects NY Times Critics Favorite Books List, as well as another article that same day in Publishers Weekly’s on-line issue. Among the many email responses I received on was one from Sallie Bingham, a distinguished writer who was once in charge of book reviews at another mainstream newspaper. Here’s what she had to say:

A further thought on your excellent and well-deserved criticism of the NY Times book reviewing: they are almost certainly choosing which books to review, and to review favorably, according to the amount of advertising they receive from the publisher. If you have the time to go through a few issues, you will certainly see the connection, and if you go further and tally the amount of money these ads cost, you will probably receive even more illumination. Local book pages, like the one I edited at the Louisville Courier-Journal, were killed because the publishers refused to advertise in them. The conclusion: whatever the arguments of the editors may be, they are simply covering for the fact that they are controlled by their advertisers. Of course the same kind of shenanigans explains the so-called Best Seller List. I wish I saw hope for change. With best wishes, Sallie Bingham

I took Sallie’s advice and discovered that the cost of running advertisements was astronomical. Hachette for example, ran two full page color ads that cost $36,100 apiece, plus an additional $8,900 for placement on a preferred page, the full cost coming to $45,000 for each ad. Random House took one full color page and five smaller ones in black and white. Penguin ran ten smaller ones, one in full color, while Houghton Mifflin also ran two full color pages. I’d say that Simon & Schuster were cheapskates as I only saw one ad that covered about a sixth of a page. But this, of course is just the tip of the iceberg for I never tracked the ads in the Sunday Book Review section, which are usually extensive, and all go into the same kitty. It’s very likely S&S spent more there, but I can’t vouch for it (if not, they may be in trouble). While their rate card indicated that if more than three ads are placed there is a 25% discount, I also realized that, not having a few hundred thousand dollars to spend, this would not be a likely approach to getting book coverage for the quality fiction we publish.

However, one of my beefs with the Culture Desk is not that they accept advertising from the people they are most likely to review. It’s that they don’t show sufficient respect for literature any more, at least by Webster’s definition of literature, which is: Written works which deal with themes of permanent and universal interest, characterized by creativeness and expression, as in poetry, fiction, essays, etc, as distinguished from works of journalistic nature.” And literary is defined as “versed in or devoted to literature.” A careful reading of their book pages last month verifies these charges: there were 25 reviews in the weekday editions, 17 by the Big Three. Michiko Kakutani wrote five, one a novel, three of non-fiction, and another bogus novel, an Autobiography of Fidel Castro by a Cuban exile who wanted to paint an abysmal portrayal which Michiko didn’t like all that much (but it does fit in with Kakutani’s slippage from once being considered a literary reviewer to one who has devloped an obsession for reviewing political non-fiction as evidenced by her having written reviews for three books about Obama’s campaign in the later part of 2009 and another concerning Sarah Palin’s campaign). Janet Maslin wrote seven reviews: six of non-fiction and one autobiographical novel by a celebrity novelist. Dwight Garner reviewed five books, all non-fiction (just as his ten favorite books of 2009 were all non-fiction). Thus the Gang of Three reviewed three novels, one autobiographical novel and 17 non-fiction titles, clearly qualifying this group as “journalistic book reviewers,” and not “literary critics.” In all, the Arts section reviewed 25 books in that time, 17 coming from the six largest conglomerates that have 58 different trade imprints between them. Five more came from major independents. Of the other three, one came from Indiana University Press—The Years Work in Lebowski Studies (academic essays about The Big Lebowski, now a cult film). Another came from New Directions (not a small press on our scale, but certainly an independent committed to quality writing), and a third from Applause Theater & Cinema Books for The Play that Changed My Life.

Like Sallie Bingham, I too hope for change at the Times. Is it possible? Who knows? For change to occur, however, it has to start at the top. But who is in charge? Jon Landman is the overall editor at the Culture Desk, and while charming and whimsical in our email exchnages, I’ve no sense that he believes anything is amiss. He’s told me that they try to achieve a balance between widely read “popular” books and more serious stuff. But so far this has not been in evidence. In their restaurant reviews, the Times covers the good ones—large as well as small. When it comes to cooking as an art form, their reviewers appreciate good taste. If they decided it was more important to cover the most popular eateries in this country, good taste would go out the window and they would be writing about Burger King, McDonald’s, KFC, Jack in the Box and IHOP.

Katherine Bouton, who took a buyout last month, was the editor in charge of assigning books. I take that as a positive sign, in that she thought Minatour was a small press instead of part of Macmillan. Is it possible that other reviewers or editors at the Times have similar thought processes, believing that they are reviewing books from 58 different publishers when all are part of the largest six conglomerates? Before stepping down, she posted a comment on my blog that I was wrong about their coverage of first novels, claiming that in the preceding six months, 11 first novels were covered. In fact, she was likely referring not to any major reviews but probably to Amy Virshup’s column, “Newly Released,” which I hope Amy will be able to continue. It featured short, Publishers Weekly style synopsis. In her December 17 column Amy covered six books: five from the major conglomerates (two from Random House, two from Macmillan, one Hachette) one from a true smallish independent, Soho Crime, and five of them were fiction. These are better percentages than those exhibited by their major reviewers and, now that Amy has replaced Katherine Bouton, perhaps this might indicate positive changes to come.

I also noticed that, starting on December 21, the remaining eight major reviews were written by “outsiders”—Barry Gewen, Simon Winchester, Charles McGrath, Robin Henig, Larry Rohter, Patrick Healy, Edmund White, and Katha Pollitt. Among these reviews only five were non-fiction and three were fiction. Five came from the major conglomerates, another from Oxford University Press (a powerhouse in its own right as Oxford sells as many books as the rest of all the American University presses combined—and they also occasionally advertise in the Times). And two of these reviews were actually from smaller independents.

If this is an indication that the Gang of Three might be phasing out, that would be a cause for celebration. On the other hand, if Maslin, Kakutani, and Garner are the Chief Executives here (and only taking their holiday vacations), I despair of any improvements. Let’s face it: the New York Times is America’s only national newspaper that a thinking person can respect; their only major failure being in their book review policies and personnel. When GM’s management was canned for failing to produce quality cars, does it make sense to keep on a staff that fails to produce quality reviews?

If any of you share these opinions, there are two things you can do about it: pass this blog on to anyone you think of who might feel similarly (as well as registering for future monthly postings if you've not already done so) AND make your feelings known by contacting Clark Hoyt, the New York Times Public Editor (, just as Ivan Goldman did in his following email.

From: Ivan G. <>Subject: 10 Best Books
To: public@nytimes.comDate: Wednesday, December 23, 2009, 11:53 AM
Dear Mr. Hoyt:I was distressed to see the Book Review section list what it called "The 10 Best Books of 2009" in its Dec. 13 issue. It was a claim that brings to mind such idiotic articles published from time to time in second-rate glossies that claim to tell us, for example, "The 100 Most Interesting People in America." Obviously you can't name them if you don't know everybody. Likewise it's a virtual certainty that you're missing some of the best books because you haven't read even a defensible sample, much less all of them. Is this semantics? No. These are hard facts, and your Book Review section is exaggerating beyond the range of acceptability. Liars often claim that their lies are close enough to the truth to approximate truth. Don't you think the Times should do better? Naming Notable Books is clearly acceptable, so why put your paper in the same category as run-of-the-mill liars? Yes, I had a novel come out in 2009 and so I have a personal stake in this. No, it was not reviewed by the Times. Yet it was nominated as a Notable Book by Booklist and the American Library Association and received fine reviews elsewhere. I presume no one in the Books section read it. It was deemed unworthy even of the negative review splashed all over Pages 18 and 19 of that same Dec. 13 issue, a book someone read but disliked.

On a closing note: In Motoko Rich's report last month in The New York Times that Kirkus Reviews would be closing down by year’s end, an editor at one of the conglomerates shed no tears because, as he told her, “reviews in Kirkus don’t move unit sales.” A close friend told me today that, while Kirkus’ parent company, Nielsen, in divestiture mode (the same folks who advertise themselves as “A Global Leader in Media Information TV, Mobile and Online Intelligence” and who also claim to track 70% of domestic book sales ...a great exaggeration that I've written about before), managed to sell off other papers, like the Hollywood Reporter and Billboard, and were willing to toss Kirkus into the deal for free, it wasn’t of interest to the buyer. Why not? “Because it only earned Nielsen $250,000 a year and that wasn’t enough profit to make it worthwhile.”

To me this underscores what the new publishing business is all about. If “unit sales” don’t increase, there is no respect given by the conglomerates to the fact that Kirkus—like Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and Library Journal—provided vital information about good books that the mainstream print media regularly ignores. And if it doesn’t earn sufficient profits, it’s not worth the time it would take a new buyer to keep it going.

Let us hope that somehow Kirkus will survive and that we won’t need to report a burial come February. Like the other pre-pub reviewers, advertising was not a prerequisite for getting reviews.


PS: If anyone out there is looking for an extraordinary cover artist, Lon Kirschner, who has been doing book covers for us for over 15 years, is definitely the man to call. A creative guy who reads the manuscripts he's assigned, Lon invariably comes up with something that both captures the mood of the book and also references a key element of it. You can see examples of his work, and get in touch with him, by going to his website:


  1. From the sound of things, the world of book reviewing is as spectacularly deranged as most of the other worlds we’ve conjured out of money, markets, and cynicism. As a consequence, I wouldn’t be all that surprized if The Donkey Award didn’t become a highly prized accolade among journalists, proof positive that they’ve done the job they are paid to do and done it well, too. Some of them might even cite it on their CVs. Keep banging away at them though, Marty. Some day, some one might just hear the racket and open the door.

  2. It would be nice for the readers of the world if the New York Times could hire a critic in the vein of their music critic Anthony Tommasini. While I can't say if he reviews independents statistically better than you suggest in the book world, I can say he is a wonderfully caring critic of the independent contemporary music world.

  3. A very good, thoughtful post, albeit depressing, especially as a debut novelist with an independent publisher. I only have one complaint - sounds like the winners of the Donkey Award have done a disservice to donkeys everywhere.

    Gayle Carline, author of Freezer Burn

  4. A very thoughtful and interesting post. Glad that there are smaller presses like The Permanent Press for writers and readers alike.

    Maud Markson

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