Books in America: Editorially-Bound? Or Market Driven?

THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Steven Schragis
Title: “Books in America: Editorially-Bound? Or Market-Driven?”
VTR: 8/29/91

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND…and my guest today was the subject earlier the very week that we record this program of an impressive New York Times Business Section story headlined “Publicity Obsession Pays Off for Suicide Book Publisher”.

The book, of course, is the controversial Final Exit by Derek Humphrey, described as a “how-to book for suicides”…and its ever more successful and intensely, unabashedly publicity-and-promotional-minded publisher is Steven Schragis, the owner of Carol Publishing Company and its various imprints.

Now, the Times story says that Mr. Schragis is convinced that selling books is largely about “making it easy for reporters to write about them”. It notes, too, that “if publishing is increasingly a marketing-driven business, and one less devoted to the editorial process, then Mr. Schragis [and his company] are the paradigm and vanguard” of modern publishing. In short, he’s sold an awful lot of books!

Now, over the last three and a half decades here on THE OPEN MIND we’ve spoken with a good many publishing eminences. Indeed, last night I read over a number of my earlier transcripts…and, for good or for bad, in no one of them does this marking approach to publishing surface quite so baldly. So that I’d like to begin today’s program by asking Mr. Schragis whether it was for good or for bad for publishing…that publishers have not before at least appeared to be so largely “marketing-driven”. Mr. Schragis?

Schragis: Is it good or bad seems to be a question I…I don’t know if it’s good or bad…it’s, it’s just different. The fact is my company like any other company is trying to stay in the black, in an economy that is very difficult right now. People buy books they’ve heard about, they don’t buy by…they don’t seem to buy books they’ve never heard of. We do a lot of things, but I admit we are obviously very marketing-driven. We want people to k now what we are doing, so that when they walk into a book store, they’re familiar.

Heffner: Well, now, you know, the question I asked you, or the way that I, I, I approached it…

Schragis: Yes.

Heffner: …had to do with the appearance in years past…

Schragis: Yes.

Heffner: …that publishers were not terribly much concerned…

Schragis: I see.

Heffner: …with this aspect of the, of the profession. And, indeed, do you consider publishing a profession, or business. Is…

Schragis: I…

Heffner: …or is that an unfair question?

Schragis: No, it’s not an unfair question and I consider it a business because we employ people, and we pay their salary every week, and we try and have fun doing it, but it is a business like any other business. To say otherwise would just not be appropriate. It is a very special business, it tries to bring ideas and, and new thoughts to people and that’s one of the reasons it’s so gratifying to be in publishing. But, it is a business, just like television is a business and movies are a business. Have publishers been doing this secretly before? I’m more out in the open on it? I think there’s always been publicity departments, always been marking departments. I think our company, and I, I like to say “our company” because there’s a lot of people at our company involved in its success…do it a little differently. We have tried to learn things from other areas of entertainment.

Heffner: Like what?

Schragis: Well, we read Variety. It matters what your ratings are. Certain shows, TV shows that were always considered the best place to promote your book…period…regardless of the book, sometimes aren’t. It depends on the book, it depends on the show, who’s watching that show, the demographics of that show, what they try and present on that show, because people have to leave the show saying, “Boy that was interesting. I’m going to go buy that book they discussed on television”.

Heffner: Well, I’m intrigued by the notion that you accepted the invitation that I proffered to you just as I read the piece in The New York Times because, Lord knows that this is a tiny program. I trust that its audience is a good one. I know that it is an intellectually inclined one…you obviously thought in terms of what the audience for this particular program is. You sized it up.

Schragis: No.

Heffner: No?

Schragis: No. Not…

Heffner: How come?

Schragis: …because I’m not an author. I’m not here to promote a book, nor am I here to promote my company. I’m here because I watch your show when it is on in New York on Channel 13, and you know, you feel you know someone when you watch him on television. You asked me to come on. I’m flattered.

Heffner: Okay. That’s…

Schragis: Nothing more than that.

Heffner: Alright…that’s, that’s very sweet of you. I wasn’t looking for hidden motives. In fact, I…

Schragis: There are none. Sometimes there are, but not as to coming on this show.

Heffner: Well, I have the feeling that if you haven’t been hurt by, you’ve been a little put off by, the attention paid to you as, in terms of the words I use in my introduction quoted…

Schragis: Yeah.

Heffner: …to some extent from The Times.

Schragis: Yeah.

Heffner: “Marketing-driven”, “publicity concerned”, etc. Why are you, why are you uneasy about that?

Schragis: Well…no…no…”suicide publisher” is the phrase that seems to make me uneasy.

Heffner: Well, you are the publisher of this extraordinary book, Final Exit…

Schragis: No, I’m, I’m really not the publisher. The publishing…I am, I worked out a fairly complicated publishing and distribution agreement with the Hemlock Society because I am a member of the Hemlock Society, and this was my way of doing something with them.

Heffner: Would you…

Schragis: They are the actual…of…

Heffner: Would you be the publisher?

Schragis: I could have been. I thought it was more appropriate to do it this way. And they thought it was more appropriate, they’ve been publishing books for 12 years…11 years. I went to them and said, “Look, I own publishing companies. I would like to make your book available in book stores and to, and have people know about it. That’s what I can offer as a Hemlock Society member and as a publisher”. Didn’t change anything. This book was to be sold mail order. It is sold mail order. That’s what the Hemlock Society does. We do publish about 150 books a year. But we also distribute some books that are other people, and this is sort of a hybrid of the two. So the headline was wrong. I’m not the publisher.

Heffner: Alright, call it distributor, publisher, what you will.

Schragis: Okay.

Heffner: You made of this book…

Schragis: Yeah.

Heffner: …an entity available to great numbers of people.

Schragis: Yes.

Heffner: That’s why it rose very quickly to the…

Schragis: Yes.

Heffner: …top of the…of at least one…

Schragis: Well, it didn’t…

Heffner: …best seller list.

Schragis: …okay…again there’s a misconception…

Heffner: Go ahead.

Schragis: …that it rose very quickly. This book has been available in stores since the first week in April. Between April and July, mid-July, it sold…

Heffner: One thousand copies?

Schragis: About a thousand copies, maybe a little more…it’s very hard to tell the way the industry works…

Heffner: Sure.

Schragis: …how many you’ve actually sold. We estimate now between one and two thousand copies were sold prior to July 12th. July 12th, The Wall Street Journal brought attention to the book and everything started.

Heffner: Okay, well, that essentially is what I’m referring to. And it’s essentially to what the, what The New York Times story is referring to.

Schragis: Yes. Yes.

Heffner: Now, I come back to the question of what I sense to be a, an uneasiness on your part…

Schragis: Okay.

Heffner: …with this identification. Okay, you’re not “Suicide Book Publisher”…

Schragis: Okay.

Heffner: …but there’s more to the story that made you uneasy.

Schragis: Yeah. Well, that was, that was the main thing.

Heffner: Marketing-driven doesn’t…

Schragis: No, we are a marketing-driven company. We are also…happen to have…I guess the problem, for me, was the success of our company is a lot of people, none of them are…none of whom are with me right now. But our art department was built, our distribution department is computerized and acts quickly and gets books where they have to go. A lot of effort had gone into the last three…almost three years now of making this company what it is.

Heffner: Yes, but your company, I presume, is a reflection…as it is now, is a reflection of your approach to what you are…

Schragis: Yes.

Heffner: …willing to consider and insist upon considering the business of publishing.

Schragis: Yes.

Heffner: Okay.

Schragis: I don’t want to say publicity is the most important, but I’ll certainly say there’s nothing more important than publicity in selling books.

Heffner: And not the editorial process?

Schragis: Equal. But certainly not more important.

Heffner: Well now that’s the point that would disturb a great number of…

Schragis: Yes.

Heffner: …people who’ll hark back to the earlier days…

Schragis: Yes.

Heffner: …of publishing. Right?

Schragis: Yes. Yes, but again, you know, you talk about my uneasiness so I…you’re letting me speak about it. We do have some first rate editors. Hillel Black is one of our editors who was, has been the publisher at MacMillan and William Morrow, prior to being with us. There seemed to be no recognition that a lot of effort goes into making the books, editorially, as good as they can be. But that’s only step one. Then you have to get them out into the stores, which is not easy sometimes. Not every book makes it into every story, and that’s just step two. Then you’ve got to make people hear about it, or they’re just going to sit in the stores. So there was only a focus on the last part, the last step, and all three are important or, or it won’t work.

Heffner: Okay, let me, let me go back to those transcripts that I was reading last night. I had the feeling that what you are saying about the business of publishing is what, in fact was not said, but was done in the past, but done ineptly. Done not so successfully that…

Schragis: Yes.

Heffner: …the effort has always been made to merchandise, but hasn’t been made quite so successfully. I mean you’ve done a number of books, not just Final Exit…

Schragis: Right.

Heffner: …whatever your relationship…

Schragis: Yes.

Heffner: …to it is. And they built up an extraordinary success record…

Schragis: Yeah.

Heffner: …for your companies.

Schragis: Thank you. Yeah…part of it is I think we are doing some things that others haven’t thought of. And part of it is society…I mean everything has changed very quickly in the past few years. Media has changed, entertainment has changed, and, and, publishing is part of the entertainment world. Things happen much more quickly than they ever did before. And publishing companies that are not keeping up are suffering for it. Publishing companies that are keeping up, and there are some…certainly, certainly Putnam is a very tough competitor. Simon and Schuster knows what they’re doing, they are a tough competitor…are, are pulling away from the rest of the pack, so to speak.

Heffner: Now, as one who is not involved, beyond my edition of Tocqueville and my little Documentary History of the United States…

Schragis: (Laughter)

Heffner: I’ve got to plug them because a new edition has just come out. I’m not as involved as you are. I don’t have the business interest. How do you respond to those who would be critical of the business approach saying, “As the emphasis is placed upon…

Schragis: Yes.

Heffner: …merchandising, upon marketing, upon selling, by definition, there must be less emphasis placed upon the quality of the books”. Now, you reject that? You accept that?

Schragis: I think I reject…I hate to reject all these things you’re saying, but…

Heffner: Why not, you’re my guest.

Schragis: I don’t…I don’t think the fact that a…that a lot of effort, and a lot of thought and a lot of manpower by a lot of competent people is placed on the marketing and publicity end does not mean that a lot of effort by a lot of competent people is not placed on the editorial end. The Times article which is…seems, seems to be the benchmark here, said you know I expansively pointed to the floor that is all publicity people. And I’m very proud of that floor. But I’m also proud of the floor above it, in our building, which is all editorial people, who work very hard to turn out good books that we can publicize.

Heffner: Yeah, but the criticisms are always made. And I don’t’ mean of you…I mean going back in these…going back to the very beginning 35 years ago of this program…

Schragis: Yes.

Heffner: …there were those comments always about merchandising and marketing in our society that, by definition, and this is what you may reject…

Schragis: Yes.

Heffner: …that when you come to emphasis more and more and more successes in marketing, by definition, there is going to be less of an emphasis upon quality. Now do you totally reject that notion?

Schragis: I…

Heffner: Hasn’t our…

Schragis: I think…

Heffner: …society reflected that?

Schragis: Our society…I mean you’re…basically I think you are…I, I do reject it. I…but I think our society has made it such that if you don’t market and publicize, no one knows about your product or your book, whatever you want to refer to it as. I think if, if Bonfire of the Vanities, probably the greatest novel of the eighties, or of my time, came out and it wasn’t written by Tom Wolfe and it was written, had a different title, and it was just released to the public, no one would hear of it, it would probably get very few reviews, sell a couple thousand copies at best, and, and fade off into oblivion. Great book, but no one would know about it, no one would read reviews of it, no one would talk about it, it would never happen.

Heffner: I guess what I’m trying to do is back you into a corner, which is not fair to my guest, but I’m trying to back you into answering the question as to whether you do think that to any degree, substantial degree, there has been a diminution of emphasis upon editorial excellence because the realization…

Schragis: I see.

Heffner: …in our society that one markets and markets and markets the hell out of everything.

Schragis: I think, I think perhaps…it would be hard to say that’s totally untrue, because if everybody in the whole company were only working on the editorial process and that was all that mattered perhaps it could be even better. But there is still a lot of attention paid to the editorial quality of books, and there are still a lot of very good books being published by an awful lot of people almost every day.

Heffner: You, you have to have realized that you’re on a program in which so many of the guests hate modernity and in a sense, as the chief hater of, of…

Schragis: Yes.

Heffner: …modernity, I pick my guests with an eye to that and then we sit here and we complain about the contemporary world…

Schragis: Yes.

Heffner: You obviously, as a very much younger man, don’t have the sense of “Ay de mi”, “what happened to us? Where have we gone? We’ve gone down the drain in terms…

Schragis: Yes.

Heffner: …of our standards”.

Schragis: Well, I…I must say, I mean what you’re referring to…I think ever generation…

Heffner: Sure.

Schragis: …I mean when I go home and talk with my friends, you know what we say, “You know there’s been no good music since ’69…you know…whatever happened…since the Beatles broke up there’s nothing worth listening to anymore”. I think what you’re talking about is, is just common with every generation. But things have changed. Publishing is a business. If, if we don’t turn a profit, if we don’t grow, we won’t be around and a lot of people will be out of work and a lot of books that we had hoped to publish will never be published. So I am not retracting or embarrassed to say I am in a business and I consider myself a good businessman. I’m proud to be a good businessman. Obviously, I love books. I love publishing, I went into this voluntarily and I’m glad I did. I m ay have aspirations in other areas, but this…this was something I very much wanted to do. If, if publishing were run by people who didn’t love to read and didn’t love to discuss ideas, then maybe we’d have a more serious problem than we have now.

Heffner: Now, do you feel that your selection of the books to publicize, market, after you publish them, or whatever arrangement you make with them…do you think that those choices reflect that part of your interest that has to do with reflecting upon ideas…

Schragis: Sure.

Heffner: …dealing with ideas.

Schragis: I do. I mean books are chosen, at our company…again we do…we do a lot of things very differently than other companies and, and I’m proud…

Heffner: How so?

Schragis: Well, for instance, how…how are books…how do you get a book published by one of our various imprints…Birch Lane or Citadel or, or Lyle Stuart? An editor proposes that the book be published. We have a number of editors and they get their information from individuals, almost always agents I must admit…we, we try and say “we’ll go anywhere”, but most of the best stuff comes through agents. They present it to a number of people, the head of our marketing division, the head of our subsidiary rights division, the head of our sales division, the head of our publicity department, myself, the man who runs our company, Bruce Bender, who keeps all the operations going, and we discuss it. Who…it’s ultimately my decision, but I listen to these people. Then our contracts department negotiates the contract with the author, because if we want to publish the book, but he simply wants too much of an advance, or he doesn’t want to give us, you know, more than American rights, or some amount of the films rights, we may not have a deal.

Heffner: If you were a…

Schragis: An author…

Heffner: …alright, if you were an author…

Schragis: Yes.

Heffner: I don’t know of what…not of Final Exit…

Schragis: Final Exit.

Heffner: …right. Would you feel generally pleased by the presence of this orientation if you were generally an author…

Schragis: Yes.

Heffner: …and then I would ask you if you were a Hemingway, if you were a Faulkner, would you be pleased with this newer orientation?

Schragis: I think I would because I know a lot of authors. I didn’t three years ago, but I know a lot now. And when they’re unhappy, their laments are usually, “I wrote a great book, but it didn’t make it into the store…it wasn’t available”. Well, with our company it is generally available, at least a few copies in most every store in the country. That’s good.

Heffner: I must admit that as I become aware of the…

Schragis: Yes.

Heffner: …success of a number of your books, I, I remember the story that I was told, that Alfred A. Knopf used to say that he never met an author…

Schragis: Yeah.

Heffner: …who didn’t say, “I can’t find my book in the bookstore”.

Schragis: Right. And sometimes you can’t find one of our books. I mean…when we…when our sales department sells our books from our catalogue into bookstores, not every store takes every one, and that’s sometimes a problem. But, we do pretty well in that area and authors like that. What’s the next thing they always complain about? “They didn’t publicize my book. They…no one heard about it. They didn’t send it out to reviewers; they didn’t get me on shows. I wanted to be on ‘Donohue’ and he never called”. You know, “I wrote a great book, but no one heard of it”. I think…again…many of our authors say that about us, but most say, “No, we gave it every opportunity to be seen and read”. And I think that is why people write books, they want people to read them.

Heffner: But, I guess a basic question to ask you, given this present controversy…

Schragis: Yes.

Heffner: …is whether you would publish a book, you would give life to a book…

Schragis: Yes.

Heffner: …you would give the opportunity to an author if you didn’t feel that your publicity, your marketing apparatus would find his product, his book of poems, perhaps, something that you could publicize the hell out of.

Schragis: Well, it’s…certainly the ability to publicize the book is a key element in our decision to publicize it. The fact is we have published poetry…not particularly successfully. We’ve tried, though. We were unable to generate much interest in it, and we didn’t do very well with it, unfortunately. The irony is…I, I…in my mind, if I don’t think a book can sell at least 10 to 15 thousand copies, not sure we really want to publish it. This book was in many ways the exception. There has to be some reason other than…there has to be a reason we want to publish the book if we don’t think we can sell that many copies…probably we shouldn’t publish it. We are a business. Final Exit was something I was very personally interested in and it went on to be our most successful book of the year, but it was not supposed to be. Ah, I don’t know if I’ve answered your question or not.

Heffner: Sure. Sure you’ve answered it. Not, not to the satisfaction of a great many people, but you’ve answered it…you answered it…

Schragis: I’ll try again them. (Laughter)

Heffner: No, no, no…I don’t mean that way, I don’t mean that you haven’t given it your all…

Schragis: Yeah.

Heffner: …your answer isn’t going to please a number of people because the question will come back, if you are this successful, and you are very successful, and you said…

Schragis: Thank you.

Heffner: …you very kindly indicated before that there were real…there was real competition from a number of other major publishers…

Schragis: Yes.

Heffner: …who equally well know how to use the publicity apparatus, the promotional apparatus…how to sell, how to merchandise…

Schragis: Yes.

Heffner: …the question does come up, to what degree will that approach to dominate American publishing, just as to what degree will the mass media’s emphasis upon mass appeal programs…will they lead to the diminution of the place that specialized programs, specialized books, books and programs that will, by definition, have smaller audiences…where will they be, what’s going to happen to them?

Schragis: They’re going to have problems. I mean I’ve seen it because we do some books, or I have read books along those lines, and I think maybe you’re broadening it now beyond just books to television shows and to, to movies, and things like that.

Heffner: Sure, wouldn’t you have me do so?

Schragis: And you’re right…the big blockbusters, the ones that are heavily promoted, the ones that open in 3,000 theatres nationwide are the ones that get all the attention, and that everybody talks about. But, you’re talking about a change in society. Is it a good change in society? No, it really isn’t. I think there are still always going to be avenues for the smaller and the more special. But you’re also…from your question I think there’s a prejudgment…the big stuff is not that good, it’s just fluff…the little stuff, that’s the intellectual stuff, that’s the stuff people should be reading. That’s not always true.

Heffner: I, I want to insist that that’s somewhat my point of view…look at my age, I’m an old man. I’m an elitist, I guess, as many of the people who write and insist that that’s the case…

Schragis: Yes.

Heffner: …I don’t think that’s totally true. I do think that we’ve got to deal with the question of “where do the others go”? Now you passed that off a moment ago…I don’t mean you meant to dismiss it, but you said, “There’ll be places”.

Schragis: Well…book stores carry a lot of books, from a lot of different publishers. They’re still available. They…I mean…there are still…admittedly there are stores more and more that want “just the best sellers”, but there are a lot of book stores in this country that carry all sorts of things.

Heffner: If you were the smaller writer, the writer who, by definition wasn’t going to appeal, whether you went with a publisher who knew how to promote, knew how to merchandise or not…if you were a smaller appeal writer, would you be as sanguine about where we are today and where we’re going? I mean you say…

Schragis: Yes.

Heffner: …is it good or bad…you say you think there are very bad elements about it, but as an author what…would you tear your hair in despair? Wouldn’t you have to?

Schragis: No…I mean I’m not sure that subjects that people think are small are always as small as you say. Look at the bestseller list. It is not all, you know, the memoirs of movie stars of the unauthorized biographies of, of recording artists. It is that. But every once in a while it is other things. I mean everyone…everyone cites the success of Amy Tan and, and they should cite it…talk about it. I mean I, I said most books are plotted and planned and that’s why they get to be so successful. Well, there’s an exception, though. This is just wonderful writing that had a small first printing and found its audience because it was just so good.

Heffner: Of course, I’ve just gotten the signal that we have less than a minute left, and in it I want to ask you where you think we’re going, where the publishing business is going.

Schragis: Hey, like, like the entertainment industry, if appears to be going more and more to the big budget, highly market-driven books, because publishing is not government subsidized, these companies all have to show a profit. And that is how you make money in the industry, and so that is what the companies are doing more and more. It’s not just us.

Heffner: You’re not arguing for a non-profit arm of the industry?

Schragis: No. Maybe, maybe a little help would free you up to do some more worthy things at times, but I’m not making that argument. You asked me where do I think it’s going and I’m admitting it’s going in the direction that The Times is a little worried about.

Heffner: Mr. Schragis, thank you so much for joining me today. It’s an intriguing subject and as you…you’re right, it relates to many other things in our society. Thanks again for joining me.

Schragis: Thank you.

Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. And if you’d like to share your thoughts about our program, please write The Open Mind, P.O. Box 7977, F.D.R. Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts, send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck”.

Continuing production of THE OPEN MIND has been made possible by grants from The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Edythe and Dean Dowling Foundation; the Thomas and Theresa Mullarkey Foundation; The New York Times Company Foundation; The Richard Lounsbery Foundation; and from the corporate community, Mutual of America.

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