Roger Straus on Publishing, Part II

THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Roger Straus
VTR: 4/23/1983

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. I’m a pre-McLuhan kind of person myself, so for many years now I’ve been involved in television and films. My basic bias is for the printed word, which may not be doing as well in our times as one would wish, however. And so I’ve invited to THE OPEN MIND today Roger W. Straus, the President of the distinguished American publishing company of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, so that I might talk with him, as I have recently with others, about the lot of books in America.

Mr. Straus, thanks for coming. Is it good, bad, or indifferent, what’s happening to books?

STRAUS: I wish I could bring you the good news, but I’m afraid I can only bring you relatively poor news, which I am sure you’ve heard from everybody else you talk to – and that is that the book market, and by books, I’m talking about trade books…the books that you and I would walk into a friendly book store, or more recently a local aggressive chain book store to buy…the sales are down, and the publishers are crying, and with considerable justification, I might add. There are a lot of reasons for it, but I don’t see a very large light at the end of the tunnel in the reasonably near future.

HEFFNER: You say there are a lot of reasons. What are some of them?

STRAUS: I think one has to start back at the beginning, way back about two years ago. About two years ago it became apparent that the largest producer of books in America was in serious trouble, that is mass paperback. And I think the trouble began with the collapse…I can’t think of a nicer word…of mass paperback publishing in America. What had been a lively industry, an industry that had been a) profitable, that had produced good books for the masses at a fair price; that something was very sick as far as that particular segment of the industry was concerned. And it was a bit as if you had taken a large stone and threw it into a pond. The ripples from that affected everybody: the writers, publishers such as myself, and the whole framework of publishing began to feel these shivers and shudders. The reason that they were in trouble had to do with many things. One of the things was the concentration on themselves on the one or two huge books. By that I mean the books that they had paid extraordinarily large sums of money for, which they probably weren’t going to recover in most cases. This, along with the usual cost of producing anything going up, made it impossible for them, in their point of view, to keep the prices for books really low. I’m sure that you, just as I, the civilian, on our way to the airport to San Francisco, London, or wherever, would go to your local friendly kiosk and lay out a ten dollar bill and pick up three paperback books. And if two of them didn’t please you, you’d leave them with the hostess on the plane and go on with the one that you liked. As soon as the retail price started going up, then the so-called “multiple buy” started going down.

There are also a lot of interlocking problems as well. In the good ol’ days of five years ago, seven years ago, most mass paperback houses were doing mass paperback publishing, and regular publishing houses were doing regular publishing, releasing rights of their books to mass paperback houses. Then as companies began to merge and gobble each other up, pretty soon most of the mass paperback houses decided that they had to have a trade arm, and the large publishing houses decided they had to own a mass paperback house. So a lot of back and forthing was going there, and consequently, into the pipelines of America, meaning the book pipelines of America, an enormous amount of forthright merchandise was thrown in for various reasons.

Another reason, again, for the mass paperback failure, in my opinion, and some mass paperback publishers would disagree with this one, I’m sure; they decided that they could control their destinies better if they could originate paperbacks. I’m not talking now about gimmick books. There will always be a run on cat books. There will always be…now everything is the virgin novel or the romance novel. But I remember when I was a good deal younger, people made a good deal of money on costume novels, historical novels. This is always going to go on. Tastes change, but people buy these kinds of books, and so forth and so on. But what is being thrown into the moor, are paperback originals commissioned that in some instances have no right to be published at all. And if they do have a right to be published at all, it should be quietly, not loudly. And readers became disillusioned with what they were buying on the news racks.

This is the attack on mass paperback houses. I don’t want to overstress that because that is only one of the problems that is going on. In our own industry, meaning Farrar Straus, Viking, Knopf, any other publisher you care to mention; we too have been forced to raise the retail prices for all kinds of reasons, different reasons, all of which are more or less obvious in the economy we live in. And I think we were so stupid that it is unbelievable, that when we saw it coming five and six and seven years ago, that we didn’t then begin to bite the bullet and raise the prices. And we held back so long that the jump from a $7.95 novel to a $14.95 novel practically overnight, shocked off a lot of our readers.

HEFFNER: Are you suggesting that it was the jump as opposed to the plain fact that I can’t go into a bookstore without having to spend almost twenty bucks?

STRAUS: Yeah…I think, for instance, over that five year period, if each year it had gone up a dollar or two rather than the big jump it wouldn’t have happened. You hear the old saw, which is perfectly true; again, if you want to go to the theater you think nothing of laying out thirty dollars for two seats. At the same time, you walk into the bookstore and there is a new biography on Chateaubriand that you want to buy and you see a twenty-five dollar tag on it, you go “woo!” and decide maybe not to buy that book. That the public has not gotten used to the higher prices, I think has been one of the problems.

HEFFNER: You know, it’s interesting – as you list these many reasons for the publishing industry’s problems now, there seem to be no villains. Yet I had had the feeling, in terms of other things you had written and said that you felt there were some villains here. Is that unfair?

STRAUS: I think it’s somewhat unfair. I could give you a view of the future that by mistake will give you a villain.

HEFFNER: What do you mean?

STRAUS: (Laughter) I think publishing in the 1980s is going to change enormously. I think it’s going to be a huge change very quickly now. Because, again, of the mass paperback collapse and so on and so forth…I’ve used that line before…

HEFFNER: And you mean collapse.

STRAUS: And I do mean collapse. I mean, there are at least two of them that are painfully for sale. And there are three or four that have been that have gone out of business, have been merged, just in the past year.

HEFFNER: May I interrupt?

STRAUS: Yes.

HEFFNER: What would be the consequences of collapse?

STRAUS: Well, what’s the consequence of collapse is the point that I’m getting to…is that there are fewer imprints of supplying books to the market, because they’re not going to do more books. They can’t. They’d ruin themselves if they did. So there will be fewer books available to go into the marketplace — fewer good books, and fewer bad books; both. There’s no question about that. But what’s going to happen then? And that is my view of the future – is that down the line, not too far along, a publishing house such as myself, or any of the publishing houses, will do a book – whatever the book is – and have a pleasant success with that book; sell anywhere from 20 to 100 thousand copies of the book – and rather than putting it on the auction block to the several mass publishing houses that are left, those books will be done by that publisher himself – and merely restructure that book…publish it as a paperback and print it. Because the villain has been, if you’re looking for a villain, and I have to rather careful with my wording here, the neo-monopoly…I think “neo” will get me off the hook…the neo-monopoly of the distribution of books, of paperback books throughout America. I can remember about ten years ago we were running a very hot hand. We owned the majority of titles, would you believe, by Hermann Hesse…what you remember, was much read in the college communities in the sixties, I guess that was. And we were selling a little book called Journey to the East, as if we were printing our own money. The book was what, only 80 or 90 pages long. We were selling it in those days for what was a competitive paperback price – I think it was ninety-five cents retail price. I was saying to our sales manager, “This is ridiculous. Why don’t we just sell it ourselves to the mass paperback?” Our sales manager came back and said he told you, “Go away. Unless you’re prepared to give us ten books a month, give us a program of books, we’re not going to touch your books… (???) …the markets we’re doing business with already”.

HEFFNER: Now you’re saying that’s going to turn around?

STRAUS: I think that’s going to turn around, because there are going to be less products for those distributors to handle. There they were overflowing…and they’re going to be looking for more products, and therefore will reach for ours.

HEFFNER: How will that affect me as a reader and a buyer?

STRAUS: You will have…you as a reader and a buyer will have a larger opportunity…a larger possibility of buying what I would call good books at a fair price.

HEFFNER: You mean the prices that are being charged now are not fair.

STRAUS: …When I say fair I’m using it in the generic sense, not fair in…being overcharged…I mean, these are what the prices are and the prices aren’t going to be bad. The good news on the publishing scene is the growing strength of what is known as trade paperbacks. And that is a book, such as the book sitting on the table there…

HEFFNER: The Susan Sontag Reader…

STRAUS: …The Susan Sontag Reader, which we have just published for, I forget what, the retail price…probably about seventeen dollars and a half…and will end up doing very nicely…we’ll end up selling 15 or 20 thousand copies of that book. Now that book, a year from now, will be in paperback, at some price probably in the neighborhood of between $7.95 and $8.95.

HEFFNER: Which shocks me, because the first paperback I ever did sold for thirty-five cents.

STRAUS: I thought you were going to say twenty-five. (Laughter) I go back as far as you…

HEFFNER: I don’t know, maybe it was twenty-five. But that, I think, is what astounds me. What is the relationship…what is the legitimate relationship between increase and inflation? It hasn’t been that proportionate. Why have your prices risen so much higher than the prices of everything else?

STRAUS: I’m not sure…I’m not a hundred percent sure that’s true. I think the reason…I think it’s mostly true, and I think the reason is one that I made much earlier, and that is that we held back on raising prices because everybody was petrified to do it; long past the moment that we should have raised the price. In other words, to use a formula – a seven-to-one markup – alright, we’ll take a six-to-one markup because we really don’t want to drive our customers – alright, we’ll take a five and a half-to-one…as overhead went up and all of the other expenses went up, and finally, everyone was simply forced into doing it.

HEFFNER: You’re suggesting now that the bad news that you brought us is going to bring about the elimination of a number of companies.

STRAUS: Yes.

HEFFNER: It’s going to bring about trade publishers getting further and further into the business of printing their own paperbacks.

STRAUS: Right.

HEFFNER: Alright…what bad news? You started off with bad news, what’s the bad news?

STRAUS: Well, the…

HEFFNER: …for people who are listening and watching?

STRAUS: All right…I think during the time of change before…the publishing is throwing off less profits as their owners, whether their owners are conglomerates, or whether their owners are individuals…

HEFFNER: That’s bad news for you, not for us.

STRAUS: Well, no, no, I’m coming to the bad news…

HEFFNER: Okay.

STRAUS: Therefore there will be less risk-taking on the new author. And therefore, you will have a situation, for the time at least, because I can come to the good news later if you want, for the next several years there will be publishers…there will be authors who would have been published…publishers…authors who are not being published now who should be published.

HEFFNER: Mr. Straus, that’s the question that I wanted to come to. Is that happening now? Has that been happening over the past few years, as some people have charged?

STRAUS: Yes it has. The one exception, which is a funny exception, I don’t believe up until now…I think it may change a little…that very many pretty good first novelists have been issued. I think where the area, the area of holding back has been in the semi-scholarly and the more interesting literary area: a new biography of Kafka; a new book of essays by so-and-so, etc., etc. I think that is where we’re soft. And really, the worst part of it all is the third novel by an author whose first two books haven’t made it, but it’s still a pretty good book…I think this is where the knife has been cutting the worst, which is really too bad, because, as we both know, very often an author will do five, six, seven, eight books before the audience comes to that author.

HEFFNER: You’re saying the chance-taking is absent from the scene.

STRAUS: Cut back…I won’t say absent, that’s too didactic, but cut back.

HEFFNER: Now, is this a function to any great extent…well, you spoke before about being able to get books from our local aggressive book dealer, and then you modified that to say the “chain”. And I know that in the past you’ve been very much concerned about consolidation of power in the industry. Is it a function of consolidation here? Is everybody gobbling up the…

STRAUS: Well, there are two consolidations going on; one, in the publishing business per se, in which you have publishers…emerging (???)…a perfectly reasonable thing to do. What has been happening up until quite recently, as I suspect you know, is that communications businesses have been buying publishing houses; RCA Randomhouse, CBS Holt, etc., etc. They found that that was untasty, and by that I mean that they weren’t making enough money on their investment. So they started vomiting them up. And they have either found new homes or are being divided off. And when this kind of thing happens…therefore, you have a whole relocation in the industry and then you have a situation where authors may get left out in the cold and certain kinds of books don’t get published. The emphasis is completely on how we can make more money.

HEFFNER: Mr. Straus, I know that publishing is a gentleman’s…

STRAUS: Was…

HEFFNER: …profession…was…not any longer…But I’ve spoken to a number of gentlemen in the field, who I admit are involved in these conglomerates…who say that despite that fact, despite their own interests, there really has not been the kind of impact Roger Straus talks about. There really hasn’t been a diminution of interest in the, in the untried writer. Now, what leads to this conflict in interpretation?

STRAUS: Well, if I were running a conglomerate I would certainly say the same thing. But let me give some examples that will perhaps underline what I’m saying…factual examples, not possible examples…

HEFFNER: …perceptual…

STRAUS: No, this is actual fact. McGraw-Hill, one of the best and wealthiest publishing companies in America, has almost completely closed down their trade publishing house, by their own announcement. They can’t make a go of it. Harcourt Brace Ivanovich has moved their publishing house out to California for various reasons…

HEFFNER: Books are written in California.

STRAUS: Books…no, no, I’m talking about where the operation stems from…for various reasons of economy…

HEFFNER: You’re not suggesting that’s the death of a publishing company.

STRAUS: No, no, I’m saying that simultaneously they have cut back their trade back operation considerably…answer your question…Macmillan Company, which is a large supplier of books, as you know, is now very tentatively in what you or I would call the trade publishing business. I’m really mentioning these three large ones…I could mention other ones…in answer to your question. It is perfectly true…when they say that Random House/Knopf, (???)Valentine found a happy home with Mr. Newhouse…Sy Newhouse was in the business already…they couldn’t be more fortunate and they’re doing fine…because they’re being backed, they’re doing just as good publishing as they did before, maybe doing better publishing than when they were under RCA; the exception was in this large framework. But of course, the whole panorama…you will see less activity in the areas that we’re talking about. And with the examples I’ve given you, I think these are answers to those people who say “No, it ain’t true”.

HEFFNER: Let me ask whether your researches or your instincts indicate that a smaller or larger percentage of Americans are buying and reading books.

STRAUS: Well, I understand from looking at the latest figures on a poll that I just saw a few days ago, that it’s fairly well leveled off, which is not good.

HEFFNER: Leveled off from going down, or leveled off from going up?

STRAUS: Leveled off from going up. It’s not leveled off this way. There are all kinds of theories, of course; everything from the old bugaboo of television, more sports, even into the various types of television…I don’t think that’s really the problem, I must say.

HEFFNER: What do you think is?

STRAUS: I think the problem is that we have to get used to the fact in America that there aren’t that many people who are interested in reading that many number of all kinds of books.

HEFFNER: Yes, but I was asking about percentages.

STRAUS: Yah.

HEFFNER: I was asking about portions…I wasn’t talking about absolute…but are we talking about one percent of the American public or are we talking about ten percent?

STRAUS: Who read books regularly?

HEFFNER: Yes, buy and read books regularly.

STRAUS: Buy and read books…the last figures I saw I think was something over ten percent…the people who claim that they read a book…that they buy a book once every “x” number of weeks.

HEFFNER: That’s a fairly high percentage.

STRAUS: Not a bad percentage.

HEFFNER: Now, you’re saying that though, instead of going up…

STRAUS: Yeah…

HEFFNER: …it’s leveling off.

STRAUS: It’s leveling off.

HEFFNER: What would you anticipate for the future, for the end of this century?

STRAUS: I suspect it will drop rather than rise for all kinds of reasons.

HEFFNER: Then what?

STRAUS: Well, the good news that I think is going to happen, is that publishing is going to return, of course, large exceptions…there always will be, presumably, a kind of Doubleday operation, a kind of Simon and Schuster operation, both of which are perfectly healthy and do good jobs in the main…or most of the time, let’s put it that way. But what is happening, or what was happening before, back in the 1920s. A lot of small publishing houses are beginning to mushroom around…up…throughout the countryside…I’m not talking about small publishing houses that have always existed…to do Maryland, publishing Maryland cookbooks, or the seashores…I’m talking about real publishing going on. And I think some will fail, some will go, sprout up, and it will be new generation of publishers. And it will go back towards being the cottage industry it was in the 1920s. I think it is very helpful. One of my great complaints which I have said publicly as well as privately, is the reason I am no longer a member of the Association of American Publishers, is that I believe that that organization…trade organization has failed the future. And by that, I mean that they should be devoting a good deal of their time to helping these small publishers as they grow up, to how can they handle their distribution problems, how can they get credit, how can they get their books into the bookstores and live out the returns that they have to take, etc., etc. etc. That’s on the side, I admit, but it is where the future is, I think.

HEFFNER: Your scenario presumes then, that a smaller and smaller percentage of Americans will be, let’s call it, well educated.

STRAUS: I think that is probably true. And I think anybody’s statistics would prove that with the expense of a college education going up and so forth and so on, and the fact that the government is no longer financing…anybody would say that the number of people graduating from college in the late 1980s is going to be smaller than those who graduated in the 1970s, because…presumably your targets of the kind of books we’re talking about.

HEFFNER: I wonder what impact that statistic, that presumption will have upon the kind of people we are and the nature of our democratic society. We seem to be talking increasingly about a technocracy in which there are maybe more and more, people who are well educated, but proportionately, but smaller and smaller. It seems to lead to a class of society, a class; a cultural kind of classification rather than a material and wealth kind of classification.

STRAUS: I think the one footnote…we do a lot of international publishing and so, we’re talking to German publishers, French publishers…and one thing that we forget, because we’re so used to hitting ourselves on the head rather than patting ourselves on the back…most people forget that in America today, despite the fact that there have been cutting, as there has been ever since Lyndon B. Johnson, of the monies that are going into the library systems of America; there is still more money in the library systems of America to purchase a book or anything else than any other country in the free world. And this is a remarkable and wonderful thing. And I don’t think…it may shrink a little, but not much. And I think the continuation of that, of course, is the backbone for most publishers.

HEFFNER: I began…I began the program by saying that I am obviously a pre-McLuhanite myself, despite involvement in film and in television. And I just wonder whether illiteracy will loom larger in our times, and whether it’s possible to recapture the values, or to maintain the values of a linear society in a nature where this element looms less large; the plateau is likely to become a line downwards…and which there is more and more involvement with the other media.

STRAUS: It’s quite possible, because the other media certainly can sap more time more easily and cheaper. And that’s a hell of a challenge.

HEFFNER: You said before, you said “the bugaboo of television”, is taking away the involvement with books, buying and reading…you dismiss that. If you don’t dismiss that, you don’t seem to pay as much attention to…

STRAUS: I think it’s a minor problem because I’m old enough to remember all of the “Calamity Janes”…I wasn’t old enough to remember when radio came on, I’m not that old…but certainly when the first people had easy access to television in their own homes…well, the whole damned thing is going to collapse now. And of course, it didn’t. And I don’t think it will this way. I think there will be an adjustment of one kind of another. I think there will be a slope down, and then people get used to what they have and it flattens out. And it may be a little infringement but not a tremendous infringement.

HEFFNER: It has been said frequently that inside the motion picture industry, what has happened in movie theaters, there is a lack of concern for keeping them up. At least in the past it has been driven the potential audience out of the theaters…but books…are you prouder today than you were 20 years ago of the way we are printing books? Is that an element of the down slope?

STRAUS: It’s a mixed bag. No, it’s not a down slope. We just published a book on Stieglitz, which is a memoir, a biography by a woman called Sue Lowe. And it is the most beautiful book you’ve ever seen in your life. It really is a beautiful book. And I think we are charging in the neighborhood of twenty-five dollars for something of that kind, and it’s worth every penny of it. And it will be in everybody’s library and so forth and so on. Because we’re printing it for an audience that’s probably in the neighborhood of fifteen to twenty thousand people. And they will pay that for that book. On the other hand, it would be hard for me to castigate, or…when Doubleday chooses a book for their book club, they put it on their high-speed presses, they shrink-wrap it, and they put it through the mail as small as possible because of the postage; or they deliver it to their book club population for as low a price as possible. Fair enough. There’s an audience for that. It’s a certain kind of book. There are all kinds of publishing, and book publishing, for the first time, are beginning to have…I drove over here with a printer…and they’re beginning to do better things with books at a somewhat cheaper price….the pages don’t fall out so often…some of them do. But in the main, the quality of the printing of books can be good if you want it to be. If you want it to be.

HEFFNER: Mr. Straus, we’ve reached the end of our time. Some other time we’re going to talk about the quality of the selling of books.

STRAUS: I’d like to.

HEFFNER: Thanks for joining me today, Roger Straus. Thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time here on THE OPEN MIND.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck”.

This is Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. We would like to know your ideas and your opinions about the subject we discussed. Please send your comments to me in care of this station.

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