Marc Jaffe, Herbert Mitgang

About Books

VTR Date: April 22, 1980

Guests: Jaffe, Marc; Mitgang, Herbert


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guests: Marc Jaffe and Herbert Mitgang
Title: “About Books”
VTR: 4/22/80

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. And today seems somewhat like the Day of the Book. We just finished taping an OPEN MIND with Judith Krantz, who wrote Scruples and Princess Daisy. Now we turn aging to the publishing industry, this time with Marc Jaffe, President and Publisher of Bantam Books, the paperback giant that just successfully bid $3.2 million in the now famous auction that for some resulted in the phrase, “The Princess Daisy Syndrome”. Before he became a chieftain, Marc Jaffe was among the best of editors, and I know because he was my editor.

My other guest is Herbert Mitgang, Publishing Correspondent of The New York Times, some of whose comments about the world of books in his Bookends column and in other publishing stories perhaps are more critical of the industry than Mr. Jaffe might be.

You know, in structuring this program I was more than a little surprised at the reluctance of some book people to talk with other book people. It appears that the industry is in more of a turmoil than I had believed. Let’s find out why.

Gentlemen, thanks for joining me today. I was serious about the business of seeming to be something tumultuous going on about the industry. And I wondered why there is quite so much, well, I used the word, just before, “touchiness” about it. Mr. Mitgang, you look in on the industry. Any thoughts about that?

MITGANG: Well, at the moment, one of the difficulties in the industry is the very difficulty that is affecting many other industries. And that is we’re in a recession period, and books are being hit just as hard as some other products where there is a choice. And this is causing the people who publish books to look very hard at what is saleable, what will go over in the marketplace and what is dispensable. And as a result of that very fundamental economic matter, you are having, I believe, some very hard choices being made in the editorial houses, in the conglomerates levels about the houses they own, and about finally what people get to read.


JAFFE: On the way over to the studio in a cab I was rehearsing a few words that I might say, and Mr. Mitgang has now stolen most of them, for which I have to thank him. But I too would not characterize what we are going through as a state of turmoil. Quite the contrary. I think in some respects it’s a state of transition, certainly so far as the paperback industry is concerned. The hardcover publishers are suffering as we are in paperback publishing from the impact of inflation in many, many ways, and our challenge now is one of innovation, one of creativeness in publishing. We’ve all been through bad times before, and we’ll be going through bad times again. I’m sure we’ll get through this particular bad time with success. As far as conglomerates are concerned, I guess I can speak as somewhat of an expert since Bantam books ahs been owned in turn over the past ten or 15 years by four or five different conglomerates, one that was in the insurance and film business, another that was a financial conglomerate. Also, we’ve been owned by large book publishing conglomerates in the past. The fact of the matter is that Bantam, as a company, under these structuring umbrellas has survived, has grown, has published every book it has wanted to publish over these past 19 or 20 years. Our policies have not changed in that we believe that we want to publish books for the widest possible audience. I think there’s a great deal too much attention sometimes paid to particularly small segments of the world of books. And I hope we’ll continue publishing the books that we consider each one has its own viability in the marketplace at a particular time.

HEFFNER: Does that mean, in terms of what you’ve just said, that we can expect from paperback houses that function, I would presume, basically as your own does, that you publish only those that have an appeal to the widest possible audiences at any one moment?

JAFFE: No. I meant to make quite another point. The paperback publisher, and to some extent the hardcover publisher, really is addressing his effort to many masses.

Perhaps that mass market publishing means by definition printings of a million copies or half-million copies, not so. We publish many books every year which have printings of 50,000 copies and sometimes less. Because on the one hand we feel these books, some of them are first novels, some of them are important works of nonfiction, will have a sale over a long period of time. Some of them we are simply trying out, and we hope to have proved themselves, and sometimes they don’t. Each book has its own set of standards, and we hope to have each book meet those standards, whether they’re aesthetic or informational or entertainment, or finally as parts of our business.

HEFFNER: Mr. Mitgang, you think that’s a fair statement of what’s happening and what Marc Jaffe is saying?

MITGANG: Well, I think Marc is talking about the present situation and especially as it applies to the mass marketplace for the paperbacks. I’d like to add this point though. In the few years that I have been covering this business, as little as three years ago I used to hear this line of reasoning from a publisher, including paperback publishers. It would go as follows: We are publishing these popular books that we don’t necessarily believe in, that I don’t read myself when I go away on a weekend, that I don’t necessarily want my children to read, in order to make money on those out there in that big wide marketplace, in order to publish books which we know are only going to see a limited number. But these are the books we believe in , these are the first novelists we want to bring along, these are the poetry books and the literary books that we want to take a chance on. I do not hear that anymore with either the hardcover or the paper back publishers. And there are some marvelous ones in both, and certainly including Bantam Books. And you have to go down the back list of Bantam and Pocket Books and Dell to see what marvelous books existed in the past. I do not see that kind of a back list being built up today from the kind of books that are now being pushed forward. What I do see, and again, it’s part of the definition of what makes a mass marketplace, there are a lot of category books being emphasized: Gothics, Westerns, World War II, and The New York Times Best Seller List. But I do not see too much daring, I don’t see too much adventurous publishing, and I don’t see that big, middle and lower-middle ground being explored. And I’d like to ask Marc whether he thinks that today’s novels are going to fall into the back list ten years from now?

JAFFE: It’s a question that we will only know the answer to ten years from now, but I can say that efforts are certainly being made to see that that happens. Perhaps not by the same companies that may have done that sort of thing ten years ago. There’s no question but what large companies which have large overheads of all kinds, which sustain large costs, have to look to a profit in order to keep going. And substantial profit. By the same token, there’s a growth, I believe, a very, very intense growth of small publishers, sometimes publishers of one or two books. We, as a matter of fact, at Bantam have benefited because these small publishers, sometimes in California, I think in the East now, they’re beginning to take a much more important publishing, a much more important part of publishing books that we have acquired from them, and after that launching by a small publisher, then reach out way beyond what a marketplace, a small publisher could attain. A book like The Tower of Physics by Richard Kopfield. Two, three, four years ago a book called Notes to Myself, which started as a small book of poetry and personal musings became a success, and then we enlarged that. We ourselves are publishing a book by Terry Davis, who was nominated as one of the possible winners of the American Book Awards in his first novel to be announced next week, I believe. We have published his first novel. As a matter of fact, we had it originally under contract. We’re publishing in a few months a novel by another first novelist named Peter Gethers. He happens to work at Bantam. He’s the young editor. But I can assure you that in hardcovers the people at Dutton who published the book didn’t publish it because he was an editor at Bantam; they saw quality there. We’ve recently published a series which will continue of anthologies of fiction, some established, some new. Stories of the modern South, West Coast fiction. We’re always exploring, but these days obviously we have to explore more carefully.

HEFFNER: But how do accept or reject, which do you do, the generalization that Mr. Mitgang offered, knowing always that we’re looking to see what is happening generally in the publishing industry as in all industries? Do you think that the characterization of what’s happening is fair?

JAFFE: I think that the innovation may not necessarily be coming from the large companies, if it ever did; it’s coming from smaller companies and sometimes from larger companies. The face of publishing, and much less the profile, is changing. And I think that’s something that is going to take a little time to become clear. Right now the face is a little bit fuzzy. But I think it will become clearer, and I think that you will see that just as distribution machinery must change at times like this, I think the creative side, the editorial side will change as well, but it has not changed sufficiently so that we really can comment on it intelligently.

Just as one last point with respect to small publishers. I saw, I believe, in your Bookends column, there is a reference to the Pushcart collection of new fiction that we published by one of our competitors, Avon books. This is an example of the kind of innovation that’s taking place, and where the new things in publishing will come from.

MITGANG: At the same time that you have the innovation by the smaller houses, we also are witnessing the collapse of larger houses s they are absorbed, some over a hundred years old. And this is pretty shocking got those who have followed not only authors, but very venerable and wonderful imprints. So you see a house like T.Y. Crowell being absorbed by J.B. Lippincott, and then Crowell-Lippincott merging, and then Harper & Row taking over Crowell-Lippincott, and now both Crowell and Lippincott are about to die.

HEFFNER: But Mr. Mitgang, what impact does that have, does that kind of activity have upon someone watching us today, a book buyer, a book reader, not someone who has feelings of nostalgia for the old industry. What’s the impact upon him?

MITGANG: Yeah. What it means to me is that a little two-book-a-year California house or a pushcart press cannot reach out in the same way that a Lippincott or a Crowell could. And it means that two or three houses which would put out 50 or 100 books a year are no longer going to exist. Now, that diminishes opportunities for authors, it manes that there’ll be fewer opportunities for readers. To me it’s as simple as that. And just because somebody is pushing certain innovative books which cannot get out there because the booksellers and the big book chains who are also in a sense controlling much of the distribution, it just means less of a broad opportunity for the author and for the reader.

HEFFNER: Marc, do you think it has that impact upon the reader?

JAFFE: I think the reader will have, one way or another, as broad an opportunity to satisfy his tastes as he has before. I do want to, without getting into a debate, Herb, about whether the contraction of the houses is significant or not, I should cite at the same time that Lippincott and Crowell became part of Harper & Row; a large publishing group in Boston, Houghton & Mifflin formed a new imprint called Tickner & Fields which is a 100-year-old imprint which had been dead for a long time, although it published very, very distinguished books. And they put a brilliant editor, the retired director of the University press, Chester Kerr, in charge of this operation, and I’ve seen the first catalogue, and it’s a very distinguished list of books. And his little company at Tickner & Fields under the umbrella of Houghton Mifflin could become a very significant publishing house.

MITGANG: I was glad to see that Tickner & Fields started under Houghton Mifflin. I hope this doesn’t get too involved. Let’s talk about that same house, Houghton Mifflin. Of course, a railroad conglomerate tried to take it over, bought about six percent of the stock for Western Pacific Industries. And it was Houghton Mifflin’s executives who came to such organizations as the Authors’ Guild, who turned to their authors like Galbraith and Schlesinger and Archibald McLeish to help them stave off by a powerful publicity campaign an unfriendly takeover. I’m not totally against some of these takeovers. Some of them, without mentioning necessarily the houses, saved some of these companies which for management reasons or which have begun to falter. But we also have a picture of very large organizations not necessarily in the communications business, not in the book publishing business, who come in, who came in when book publishing ws very glamorous, and then decided that you can make more money just by putting your money in treasury notes, or not having to worry about paying the huge interest and raising the prices of the books. So here is a case where Houghton Mifflin, which very nicely started Tickner & Fields, as a small, very minor house at the moment, also asking its authors to resist a takeover by a non-publishing conglomerate, and to quote Archibald McLeish’s wonderful phrase for it, he called them “corporate carnivores”.

HEFFNER: You know, using that phrase, “corporate carnivores”, I think, as I look at you and I listen to you, Mr. Mitgang, and as I read you over the years, you’re a man of great good taste, and you’re a literary person, you’re a writer yourself, the author of a number of books, you have great feeling about the publishing industry as it was. And I wonder as I’ve read you and as I listen to you now whether this is an exercise in nostalgia somewhat. And that’s why I asked the question about the impact upon the reader and also the impact upon the creative person. Does it make that much difference?

JAFFE: May I just interject to answer…

MITGANG: Marc in impressed with my nostalgia.

JAFFE: The opportunity for the reader is, I think, constantly growing. I would suggest, for example, that a new series of books that Bantam is launching called The New Age Books will offer a wide range of contemporary nonfiction that will search the horizons of knowledge. Some books not well know, some books very well known. We will, in 1981 be starting a series of important, what I think I would call literary fiction. It’s a different way of going at the solution of the problem.

HEFFNER: But Marc, whatever one company does, a larger question is: How is the community served? How are the rest of us who want to read and who want to buy and read books served? And how is the author served? How are those people who have something to say, something to write, who want to reach the rest of us? Are they better able to do it now? Or had the, have the shifts and the changes in the industry, has the impact of the recognition that as a mass medium now, have these changed, has this changed these opportunities?

JAFFE: Well, I prefer the view, and again here you may not agree with me, that the really good book that is to say, good in itself and one that has a market among the readers of this country, will find a publisher. Perhaps some of these books, and this has been, some of the books we call list fillers, the books that are published without any real hope and excitement about a future but just published to fill a list, have gotten now in a sense against the industry, but there are many flaws that we have. And we’ve always been looking, as long as I’ve been in the business, looking at our lists and saying, “Is there any way we can really contract the number of books we are publishing rather than expanding?” Maybe some of the books we publish simply should not be published. I feel that the readers are still going to be offered across the board as wide an opportunity to read for education, entertainment, enlightenment, whether from Bantam or any other publisher, as many kinds of books as they have in the past.

HEFFNER: There’s no downside then, related to the modern industry, the shift into the new book industry?

JAFFE: Well, certainly there’s always a risk. We’re in a gambling business. But I believe that each book is to be taken as its own little publishing enterprise. And we try to make each book, and I think I’m speaking for many publishers, not only Bantam, we try to make each book justify itself. I think that’s good publishing.

MITGANG: Tell me this. When you walk into a bookstore, and I forget what the exact phrase is for books that are stacked, are they called “dump racks”?

JAFFE: Well, we like to call them “standing floor displays”, Mr. Mitgang…


JAFFE: …but that’s all right. You’re close enough, yeah.

MITGANG: I’m quoting.

JAFFE: All right.

MITGANG: I’m forming it the way I see it within the way booksellers refer to it as dump racks. And since bookstores have very limited space, I see these dump racks, and I also see the bookshelves, and I wonder what effect having to have these large numbers of a handful of bestsellers, what effect do they have on other books so that when you go to a display and you want to get a book that was published three years ago, you’ve seen a movie called “The Tin Drum” and you want to get a Gunther Grass’s, one or two books of his, or a Heinrich Bole, or Georgio Bisanni’s The Garden of the Finzi Continis, some of the, any of the European literature, any of Thomas Mann, that I’m sure is still in print in paperback or quality paperback. How are those books affected by the overpowering 50 books that are shoved onto the shelves each month? Don’t they knock them off physically?

JAFFE: Without getting into the details of distribution…

HEFFNER: Because we only have a minute left.

JAFFE: …the answer is, to some extent, yes, but in most cases in every city where there are the large bookstores, those books are in stock. I would want to make one last plea for the merchandising of bestsellers, because one of our objectives is to gain new readers. I think that publishing now has a responsibility that it’s for the first time really beginning to fulfill, of getting books into the hands of more and more and more readers. The more readers there are, the more bookstores, the more books of all kinds.

HEFFNER: You mean the mass media market? It is a mass medium, reach more and more people.

JAFFE: And inspire them to read, get in the habit of reading. I think if Princess Daisy is bought as the once-a-year book purchase, if they like the book, the readers will go back for more not only of the same, but for more and more variety in their reading pattern. I don’t think there’s any question about it.

HEFFNER: Do you agree?

MITGANG: That supposedly was the argument about Roots, opening up a whole new audience to people who have never literally bought a book in their entire life. And I’d like to think that that is true. I’m not sure, and I hope it is true. And I hope that people will immediately…

HEFFNER: Rush out?

MITGANG: …rush out, buy books the moment they turn off their television sets, right after this program is over.

JAFFE: John Paul Sartre started out reading pulp fiction.

MITGANG: Not writing it, though.

HEFFNER: (Laughter) On that note, gentlemen, thank you very much for joining us, Marc Jaffe and Herbert Mitgang.

And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope that you will join us again on THE OPEN MIND. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck”.