Ken Auletta

Publish and Perish

VTR Date: October 8, 1997

Guest: Auletta, Ken


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Ken Auletta
Title: “Publish and Perish”
VTR: 10/8/97

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And as a longtime college professor, I’m quite familiar with the old saw, “Publish or perish.” The trouble is that these days the idea seems to be “Publish and perish.” Indeed, in its March 17, 1997 issue, The Nation magazine ran a major cover story titled “The Crushing Power of Big Publishing,” indicating in no uncertain terms that it’s the book as we once knew it that’s being crushed, perhaps being squeezed out of existence by nothing more or less surprising than greed.

Then, in its October 6, 1997 issue, The New Yorker devoted its cover to the many elements that today plague publishing. And its media correspondent, my guest, author Ken Auletta, further frightened old-fashioned devotees of the book as we’ve known it with his account of the publishing world as what he calls “the impossible business.”

Well, there had even been a kind of inside-the-shop conference of “bookies” at the New York Public Library, billed as Book Publishing: Dead or Alive? The New York Times reported it as a “rare family confrontation, notable for some blunt sentiments, with much pandering, hand-wringing, word-wringing and declarations of despair and hope.”

Well, I suspect that despair must have prevailed. But I ought to ask my guest, because the peripatetic Ken Auletta was very much there as moderator and very savvy participant. Ken, was there despair or hope ringing?

AULETTA: Both. I think there are people in book publishing who are depressed, and who think that the current decline in book sales, trade-book sales, over the last two years, that decline about nine percent, that that will continue, and that, in fact, the changing nature of the reader will take hold as people divert to the Internet and more television choices, and therefore will buy fewer books.

There are others who think that this crisis is just like other crisis [sic] in publishing of the last hundred years: temporary.

HEFFNER: Well, you had written in the New Yorker, you began your piece, “Two things have always been true about the book-publishing world: everyone who is in it loves to complain about it; and there is always someone, somewhere, who wants to get into it.” And in terms of the two kinds of posture, or even posturing, on this subject, where does Ken Auletta set?

AULETTA: I am simultaneously pessimistic and optimistic. Let me tell you why, what I mean by that. I am pessimistic because I see the business pressures in publishing pushing for more big books, more big first printings, more Hollywood-type celebrity books that they think will achieve a magic mass-market that I think they will never achieve in book publishing. But they will push that, and the accountants, who have increasingly a larger voice at book-publishing houses, will push to make the decision making process more rational, and therefore push out some of those backlist valuable books that they shouldn’t be pushing out and, in fact, that often make money for the publishing house in the long run but not in the short run. So I’m depressed about that.

And what I’m not depressed about is that I think there’s some real opportunities because of technology. To introduce other things to change the economics of book publishing. That is to say: the threatened, midlist or backlisted book that doesn’t sell like a bestseller, and that increasingly is having a hard time finding a publishing house, may well — I’m not saying it will, but may well — find it easier to find a publishing house if you don’t have to keep inventory, and if you have online book sales and immediate printing. You take out some of the bad economics from the business, potentially, and you make it possible for people to keep books in stock.

If, in fact, has access, as they do now, to two and a half million books, they can keep books around without having them on anyone’s shelves for a longer period of time. That’s encouraging.

Also, things like the Internet, a vehicle like the Internet, allows us, as authors, to self-publish. And then if, obviously you can figure out some way to charge for what we’re self-publishing, you make it possible to keep more people in print, and maybe earn a little money from it. But I think it’s a given that reading will go down. I worry about that. I think it’s a given that big publishing houses will get bigger. But I also think simultaneously there’s a contradictory given, which is that more people will get in the business, there’ll be more competition from smaller houses, and perhaps books that now go out of print will stay in print.

HEFFNER: This question of reading going down, please tell me what you mean by that.

AULETTA: Well, if you think about your kids (I have a 15-year-old), think about her day, she comes home from school after playing soccer at 6:00, 6:15. She’s got to eat. She takes a shower after the game. It’s now 7:30. She’s had her family dinner with us. She’s got a lot of homework to do. She doesn’t have any time for leisure reading during the week. She’ll say she wants to watch a program like Mad About You, as she did last night, and I said, “No, you’ve got too much homework to do.” She wants to go online and check whether she’s gotten any mail. “Get your work done.” She got her work done. Last night she went online. So instead of reading a book she checked the correspondence she had from friends from all over the country: the people she went to camp with, people she knows from childhood. So, just looking at her, it’s harder for her to read certainly during the week. On the weekend you can catch up. But do you ever really catch up? And the truth is surveys show that young people are reading less today than they once did. And part of the reason for that is they have many more choices of what to do in their leisure time, and many more pressures. Not just school pressures, but Internet pressures, channel-choice pressures.

And also, if you think about what television does to someone’s brain, it attenuates their attention span. Reading is a linear experience that takes patience and work. You’ve got to stay with it. Everything about television is not about staying with it. It’s using that remote control quickly to keep switching.

HEFFNER: By “television” you mean modern communications, electronic media.

AULETTA: I do. I do. I think electronic media often subverts reading. And not just because it’s an alternative choice, but I think the very process, it is a nonlinear experience. Reading is a linear experience which takes patience and time and work and effort. And television doesn’t always take, usually doesn’t take, time and work and effort.

HEFFNER: What does that do, that nonlinear leaning that you see, what does that do, in your estimate, to larger questions of public-policy questions, citizen-participation questions, interest-in-principle questions?

AULETTA: I think it undermines the civic culture potentially, and I worry a lot about that. For instance, the television culture is one that demands instant gratification. “Give me the answer. Get to the point.” You watch television, and you watch kids. They’re not only watching television, they’re listening to, you know, a CD player in their ear, a Walkman, and maybe they’re reading a magazine or reading a book at the same time. They don’t focus fully on any one thing. In fact, they feel they can grasp everything in part because it’s not so complicated.

Well, public-policy issues are very complicated, and they don’t lend themselves to the people-ization. I’m talking about People magazine and celebrity-kind of journalism and quick takes of television and movies and too much of print today. So I think that what is happening with television and magazines and journalism in general, and in much of book publishing, because celebrity books and Lady Di instant books and Kitty Kelly’s latest best-selling book about the royal family, is we’re asking people to have sharp points of view, sum it up quickly in a very short period of space.

Being a citizen in a democracy takes time and patience and effort. Most decisions and public-policy issues are very complicated, and they demand more than yes or no answer. And I think we have a yes or no culture.

HEFFNER: Then what? What into the next century?

AULETTA: You get less voting behavior, which we already have.

HEFFNER: Absolutely.

AULETTA: Among Western democracies, I think, we have the lowest voting participation rate. You get more cynicism. “They all do it. They’re all a bunch of crooks.” In fact, the cynicism is so think that no one’s upset about what the Democrats and Republicans do in Washington. In a sense, they say, “Oh, they’re all a bunch of thieves [sic] and crooks.” So you don’t hold people accountable the way you should.

I think those are the dangers for our culture, our civic culture. I think you can make an alternative argument and come out a little more hopefully, and I don’t dismiss it, which is that technology will allow, for instance, you to register to vote at home. Will allow you to vote at home without having to tax yourself by walking to the polling place. Technology will allow you, and does allow you, to get instant information on anything you want when you want it. Not having to wait for some network programmer to program the evening news at 6:30. And technology allows you many more choices. You have over 200 online newspapers in America today, online.

So if I want information, I have many more sources of information as a journalist today or as a citizen today than I had five or ten years ago. That’s hopeful.

HEFFNER: That’s the hopeful aspect of it, but what you described first undermines all of that. You have more choices; but you’re not educated then to choose.

AULETTA: And also the choices may be more plentiful but they may not be better. That is to say, if you have more entertainment news, is it better? Or more crime news on local TV stations, is it better?

HEFFNER: When we’ve spoken before about Three Blind Mice, about communications futures, I never before had the sense — not of despair; it’s not in your nature to be a despairing person — but you’ve never before, it seems to me, put together the negatives in terms of public policy of the civic society of the future as you do now. Obviously, you’re moving further and further along those lines. What’s pressed you into the kinds of observations you’re making now?

AULETTA: Well, actually, you know, I would mildly disagree with that, that point, in that, if you read the book, the last chapter and the foreword to Three Blind Mice, which was published in ’91, I talked about some of these issues there.


AULETTA: As I do in the foreword to my last book, The Highwayman, that came out this spring. I have a graduate degree in political science, so I’ve always had that schooling, and been imbued with looking at questions or wanting to look at questions from what are the public policy implications or what are the civic implications of this. So I actually think I always have thought about it.

Now, as you suggest, also suggest, and I think this is fair, as you go along and you report more, and as the consequences of technology and other changes, as you steep yourself in them more and more, you come to new realizations and clearer realizations, and I think I’m learning all the time, and I probably have, it is fair to say that I probably have a more acute sense of some of the pessimistic sides of this potential future today than I did five years ago or two years ago.

But I am, as you also say, by nature optimistic. So I am a guy who finds myself gravitating to that Christopher Morley aphorism, which is, “The truth is a liquid; not a solid.” And I think that it is very liquid on my mind. And some days I wake up and I’m pessimistic, and other days I wake up and I’m optimistic. And most days I’m both at the same time.

HEFFNER: You know, over the years (and this program has been going for 41 years now), over the years, people who have sat opposite me, I’ve put the question to them, and there’s been reason to do so for these four decades plus: Mustn’t we experience then (because so many of them have had a bit of that concern about the future), mustn’t we then experience some kind of transvaluation of values in order to survive with more rather than less of what was good about the past? No one seems to want to deal with that. You seem so realistic. I wonder whether, when you get to the prescription-writing stage, whether you see some way of conceding that it’s going to be a very, very different world in the 21st Century, holding on to as much of the past as possible.

AULETTA: I think it will be a different world. And as part of my beat at The New Yorker, trying to write about that different world, be it publishing or Microsoft or whatever. But I do think, and I actually think it’s a theme that runs through a lot of what I’ve done, a kind of conservative theme, if you will, a searching for conservative, not in the political sense, but in a values sense, searching for the continuity, searching for a way to hold onto those values that are dear and important. That is to say, I want publishers to not just think about profits, but think about their public obligations. When I write critiques of press coverage of events, I want reporters to remember, and I want to remind them, as a writer, of their public-trust obligations. When I write about the networks, I want them to think not just about their profits, but what do they promise when they receive their license in public trust. I want Rupert Murdoch, when I ask him, “Why did you move Melrose Place to the family hour at 8:00, and would you allow your 13-year-old to watch it?” and when he says, “I wouldn’t, when she was 13, allow her to watch it,” and so I said, “So why’d you move it to 8:00, the family hour?” Well, they’re all moving these salacious shows to 8:00. But I want to hold them accountable for that.

And if that’s a way of trumpeting traditions and values that I don’t want to lose, so be it. I think it is.

HEFFNER: You say, “If that’s a way of trumpeting them.” Yes, trumpeting them. But is it a way of accomplishing anything? The movement takes place to 8 p.m. It’s an astonishing move.

AULETTA: It is. You know, my attitude is that, since I don’t want government to, and you don’t want government to pass laws that seriously infringe upon the First Amendment, unless they seriously… The First Amendment is not an absolute right; you can’t cry “Fire” in a crowded theater, for instance. And you’ve got other rights that can sometimes conflict with it, like the right to a fair trial and the presumption of innocence. But I think that, I come to the view increasingly that one of the ways you change behavior is to change the peer pressure or the culture. But which is hard, and not something that lawmakers can do overnight, and maybe even not even do.

But that is to say, if you want to change the way journalists behave, you’ve got to shame them to behave better. And you’ve got to shame them by criticism, and you’ve got to shame them by asking the Rupert Murdochs who own these journalistic institutions, whether Bob Wright’s the president of NBC or the head of CBS, or Michael Eisner at Disney, you’ve got to put them on the spot and hold them accountable for their behavior. And if they do something that is salacious or that is doing something that may be harmful to children, make them think about that. Just as we’ve gotten people to think about cigarette smoking, and altered behavior in the process.

So I think somehow you’ve got to address the peer-group pressures. And one of the things that we don’t do enough… I went, for instance, to an Aspen Institute conference this summer about journalism and privacy and tabloid journalism. The usual questions that…

HEFFNER: The usual…

AULETTA: …we media critics like to address. Well, you looked around that room, and there were 18 or 19 of us, and all of us agreed. But who wasn’t in that room were people like Murdoch and Eisner, people who own these journalistic institutions. And until they’re in that room and exposed to the arguments that journalists like to make about responsibility, they’re not going to hear anything.

HEFFNER: But when they’re in the room, Ken, what do you accomplish? What do we accomplish? What can be accomplished when, primarily in our lives, we look to the notion of profit?

AULETTA: You do, but you look, also look to the notion of not being embarrassed. I mean, it’s very tribal. It goes back, as that many centuries. You’re talking about someone who wants respectability, not just profits. Maybe they want to be perceived as powerful. Maybe they want to be perceived as something, as Larry Tisch did. Larry Tisch did some terrible things to CBS in the name of profitability. But Larry Tisch was also a man who was very concerned about how his grandchildren thought of him. He’s just a human being. I mean, he may be a mogul, he may be a billionaire, but he’s a human being. And that human element you can sometimes get to by shaming these people into behaving in a proper way. Larry Tisch tried to cut CBS news and was forced, he did, in many respects, but some of the cutbacks he wanted to do, he couldn’t do. Why? Because he didn’t have the power? He had the power to do it. But he was embarrassed that it was creating front-page headlines in The New York Times, and embarrassing him in his building and his family. He didn’t want that to happen.

HEFFNER: Let’s go back then to the first days, when you began to write Three Blind Mice about Larry Tisch and the others in the media. Have you seen progress? Have you seen a response, a positive response to “Shame on you?”

AULETTA: I don’t think there’s enough “Shame on you.” No. So I think things have worsened; not gotten better. But I would argue that that may be — and I emphasize the word “may be,” because I am, as you said earlier, a realist as well — it may be because people are not shamed enough, and there’s not enough criticism and not enough people…

I remember, one of the favorite things I’ve done for The New Yorker is a piece I did in 1993 where I went around and interviewed 20 leading moguls, the heads of the entertainment divisions of the networks, Rupert Murdoch, Michael Eisner, Michael Ovitz, etcetera, and Jack Welsh, the head of General Electric, Jones, NBC. And I asked them all the same question, surprised them all with the same question. And the question was, “What won’t you do?” And what I loved about doing that was they were totally stunned by the question. And suddenly they had to grapple with the reality, which I think is reality, which is they, by day they produce products that sometimes they would never, by night, allow their own children or grandchildren to consume. And somehow you have to bring those two worlds together and present that to them, and say, “How do you justify doing this?” And you have to do some research, as I tried to do, to have some examples of some of the things they did that maybe they should be embarrassed by.

So I think that’s a valuable thing to do, to at least get them for a period of time to think twice, or maybe, when someone is proposing a new Basic Instinct movie to them at the studio, maybe, “Do we really want to do this kind of salacious movie again?”

HEFFNER: Now, I come back to the question — and I know what your answer is: “There hasn’t been enough of the ‘Shame on you.'” — any indication at all that the moguls you referred to back away from not doing, not putting on the air what they would expose their 13-year-old daughters and sons to.

AULETTA: Well, I mean, Rupert Murdoch, who, in many ways, leads the pack in airing salacious and tabloid journalism and salacious, you know, sex and violence, he killed a show that was doing reasonably well on the Fox network called In Living Color, because he though it was off-color. And look at the tabloid presses pulling back on Lady Di, and saying they were going to give a zone of privacy to the two royal grandchildren. There is some evidence, at times, that people pull back.

Now, in the Lady Diana, in the wake of her death, they pulled back, in part, because they felt that the public would not support them if they did this, and it would be anti-business. Somehow you got to make that connection. And the public bears some responsibility. It’s not just, you know, “Blame them,” the other guy, you know, those moguls. The public is buying, are buying, in many cases, the products that these moguls are producing.

HEFFNER: Well, no one would deny that ultimately the responsibility, or the blame (I don’t know why I don’t want to use the word “responsibility”), but the blame is there with the public. It’s the public that’s buying the material. If the public weren’t buying, consuming the material, they wouldn’t be creating this material. But the public is what it is. It does buy it. It is appealed to. And we constantly hear the notion of, “Well, I’m a media mogul; I’m not a parent, except in my own home. I’m not a teacher, except in my own home.”

AULETTA: Well, that’s, there are many people in the media, including some moguls, who would challenge that. Frank Stanton, when he was president of CBS, and Bill Paley, who was his boss, sometimes challenged that. The networks which ran documentaries which didn’t get high ratings, but did them because they thought they were important, were the McCarthy hearings, which may not have gotten the highest ratings, but they ran them because they were important, or The New York Times, which prints the “news that’s fit to print,” in their judgment, and they print on their front page usually what they think is important, not what they think is the most popular or celebrity-oriented. So I think there are examples of people upholding and trying to do their job, say, in journalism, as educators.

HEFFNER: Ken, we’ve reached the end of our time today. But I want to have the last word and point out that most of those instances are taken from the past, and the fairly distant past: my day in broadcasting. At any rate, we’ll have to continue this discussion. Ken Auletta, thank you so much for joining me today on The Open Mind.

AULETTA: My pleasure.

HEFFNER: And thanks too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. And if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4 in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150.

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

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.