Michael Korda

Farewell to Gutenberg?

VTR Date: May 7, 2011

Historian Michael Korda discusses the history and trajectory of publishing.


GUEST: Michael Korda
AIR DATE: 05/07/2011
VTR: 09/20/1010

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.

And my guest today is an old friend, a brilliant writer, historian, biographer…and a great editor.

We’ve just completed an Open Mind conversation about his own stunning new HarperCollins book, “HERO, The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia” – and if you miss it on air, I hope you’ll watch it on our website.

But even beyond the impressive list of best-selling books he’s authored, Michael Korda distinguished himself over many years as the long-time Editor-in-Chief at Simon & Schuster.

He’s Emeritus now –and it’s been a few more hectic, hectic years for book publishing since I first needled him here with the thought — but I’ll ask my guest once again today whether I really need to put a question mark after the title I’ve given our program, which is: “Farewell to Gutenberg?”… question mark. Or should it be a most emphatic explanation mark instead? What’s in it for publishing, Michael? Where are we?

KORDA: Well, just at the moment, to use the familiar phrase, we’re paddling …

HEFFNER: (Laughter) Don’t … don’t …

KORDA: … up a cert … up a certain kind of creek (laughter). And it’s an alarming experience.

HEFFNER: You know I thought … if I may interrupt … a moment ago, in between our programs, I, I said to you at the very end when we were talking about Lawrence of Arabia and your next venture, I said, “By gosh they’ll always be an England”. And I wondered if you’d reply to my question again, as you did a few years ago, “There’ll always be a publishing world”.

KORDA: Oh, I think so. Yes, yes, yes, I don’t, I don’t … I don’t doubt that at all. I think there will always be an England, too, although we may not recognize it for what it used to be.

But, but there’ll always be a publishing world and there will always be writers and they’ll always get published, and they’ll always be read.

I think that first of all I should remind you of some basic historic facts …. Lawrence of Arabia made his first stab at fame by digging up Hittite cities in what is now Syria, a culture which was as old as Egypt.

And of course, they wrote in Cuneiform upon clay tablets and a book … because they had books like everybody else, was written on clay tablets and was sold in wicker baskets, which contained “x” number of clay tablets … you took them out, you read them, you put them back in again. Not a bad way of publishing a book.

Late in Egyptian times the discovery of papyrus and of ink made the clay tablet essentially obsolete by replacing it with papyrus and ink.

At the time, I have no doubt people said, “You can’t ever replace clay tablets, papyrus and ink won’t last, they’re hard to read, the clay tablet is the basis of civilization, if you take it away, it will end all literature and knowledge.”

Needless to say nothing of the kind happened. All literature and knowledge moved on to be written in ink on papyrus in large scrolls.

In Roman times when book publishing was a successful business, in Rome, there were large buildings that allowed for a tremendous amount of light at which Greek slaves on tables wrote out in pen on scrolls people’s books.

Which were then sold in clay jars that contained scrolls on a wooden handle. Anybody who is Jewish and has ever seen a Torah, knows exactly what a Roman book looked like because it looked like several Torahs in a clay jar with a, with a stopper on it.

You bought the book, you brought it home, you put the clay jar on your library shelf and you took out each scroll one by one and you read it.

Now that lasted for a very long period of time until somebody had the idea of cutting the scroll up and binding them on one side so that you now had a flat package with pages which you turned.

I am quite certain that everybody said, “It’s the end of civilization, the scroll was … all of literature and knowledge was contained on the scroll. There will be nothing. This new invention of turning pages … is nothing like it. I can’t read that properly.”

That as you know, was finally replaced by printing on both sides of a page and binding it … the book as we know it.

But the book as we know it is not, not by any stretch of the imagination the final technology of book publishing or even the high point of book publishing.

Many would argue that the library at Alexandria which consisted entirely of scrolls was the center of the world’s civilization for far longer than our civilization has been going on.

So I don’t view with any degree of discomfort books making their way onto a computer, a handheld device, a phone … more likely, as I think, being more likely to project it from some kind of hand device onto a wall, so that you could read it that way.

I, I would already point out to you, although I’m not shilling for one brand over another that, that with a Kindle I can read The New York Times in any type size that I like.

This is … at my age, and at yours … a huge difference because I can blow it up and make it much more comfortable to read as turn the pages electronically.

I can do that with a book on a Kindle, I can make the type as large as I want to. A huge advantage over the ratty grey type of a paperback book which is restricted to whatever size it is.

So you … the, the idea that books, literature, civilization will stop merely because you’re getting it in a different form is not borne out by history.

And the publishing business, has in any case, managed to survive many different forms of actually issuing the works they sell.

Roman booksellers had bookshops, they sold their books in clay jars. There’s wonderful correspondence from the Emperor Claudius to his publisher, because Claudius wrote a long and very popular best selling history of Rome.

I expect it was in part best selling because, as the Emperor, almost everybody of, of consequence felt themselves obliged to buy the book.

But never mind, his correspondence with his publisher reads exactly like any other author’s correspondence with his publisher. “Why are you not using people to walk through he street shouting the name of my book to attract buyers? Your slaves are not producing enough copies of the book and they’re leaving out whole lines and making mistakes in spelling and punctuation that make me the butt of ridicule from my friends.”

HEFFNER: Started then, huh?

KORDA: Absolutely. “I have absolutely no way of understanding your accounting. I know that the book is selling more copies than you are (laugh), then you are offering to pay me for”. It reads like modern correspondence.

So, the book publishing industry will go on. Now whether it will go on, necessarily in buildings in New York City with lunch at The Four Seasons, or Michaels or whether it will move to California and become in some way associated with Apple and with other electronic producers of the means to distribute knowledge and so forth, I don’t know.

But after all, book publishing was centered in Boston for most of the United States history and only moved to New York very late in life. If you were going to the publishing center of New York in the 19th century, it’s to Boston you would be going to, not New York City.

So it won’t really make a difference if it moves to San Francisco.

HEFFNER: Michael, doesn’t this sort of come down to the fact that I’ve sort of asked you the wrong question? I shouldn’t have asked you whether … what’s going to happen to book publishing, but I should ask you what question would have me ask you to elicit from you some sense of where you see the matter of books going. The matter of what we have considered called books in the past going? What’s the future of reading? If any.

KORDA: I think the future of reading is enormously healthy and it’s not going to end or stop. But I would say that the book as we know it, printed on paper whether in hard cover or in paperback will continue to exist certainly for a good many decades.

If only as a kind of luxury item or because we’re used to taking a book with us. I don’t see any reason, however, why that won’t, in the end, change to a more convenient kind of electronic device. Or that that would make an enormous amount of difference.

The, the, the thing that you’ll find, I think is that freeing book publishing to some degree from the tyranny of printing and the printed book and letting it float on different terms into the electronic world is going to make it much simpler for people to self-publish their own book.

So that in terms of people’s first novel, in terms of books that people find hard to get published, in terms of voices that don’t’ get heard in the commercial publishing world, I think that all of that can be dealt with by anybody who knows how to use a computer. And projected onto the Internet quite simply and that you’re going to find that there’s an enormous degree … greater ability to self-publish a book and make it work.

HEFFNER: What do you think then the impact of that freedom will be upon us, upon our literacy, upon our knowledge, upon our … I was going to say “wisdom” but won’t, what do you think will happen to us because of this freedom?

KORDA: Well, I think it will open us up to the ability to choose from much more radical and unconventional writers than normally get published today. And that, in itself, will be interesting, I think.

I think at the same time that you have to imagine a future where perhaps a box not larger than this table will contain everything that has ever been written and published in the history of humankind. And that we will be able to tap into that without any difficulty from any one of a number of different devices which I’m not going to try to imagine, because I’m not a technologist.

And that’s also going to change the world because the sheer menu of knowledge and our ability to go to it instantaneously … which we get a feel of now when we go to Wikipedia … we don’t get up anymore, go to shelf or the library, pull out an encyclopedia and look up something.

You can, as you’re writing something else, simply flip over to Wikipedia and get everything you need to know or want to know on a subject which you’re not familiar with.

Now, multiply that by a million, multiply that by a billion and you have the entire world at your fingertips.

HEFFNER: But I’ve always had in the past, the world has always had Michael Korda and his counterparts, the editors, the selectors … what is going to be the impact upon us … not having Michael Kordas. Quite seriously.

KORDA: Well, I think there will be Michael Kordas or Robert Gottliebs or other editors still functioning.

I, I don’t see that the process of selection, the process of merchandizing and the process of accounting for books is going to change radically simply because they’re not sold in a bookstore, but are being sold over, over, over the network.

There will still be a need for somebody to explain what the book is about, to publicize it, to edit it … all of that can take place without necessarily its being on paper.

I mean … look at it this way … there was a whole period of time when people resisted, including Lawrence, by the way … of Arabia … not to speak of George Bernard Shaw and many other people … when people resisted the typewriter.

The typewriter was felt to be a constraint, a mechanical instrument which would put an end to the free flow of writing, which had always come from a pen on a piece of paper.

And yet towards the end of his career and life, Lawrence was using a typewriter and George Bernard Shaw was using a typewriter.

So the mere presence of a machine does not stop literature and the change in the way of packaging literature is not going to stop people from publishing it. There’ll still have to be choice made. There’ll still have to be an attempt made to publicize books. There’ll still have to be an attempt to distinguish which books need an enormous influx of, of merchandizing and advertising and publicizing and which books should be done on a more modest scale. I don’t see any change in that particularly.

Will people need to learn a new way of doing those things? Yes. Possibly not in your lifetime or mine, but eventually.

HEFFNER: You don’t think then, I gather, that the kind of impact that the web, blogs, etc. have had and are having upon newspapers …that there will be that kind of drastic impact upon publishing, however you define publishing.

KORDA: Well, I think the problem with newspapers is that there isn’t anything a newspaper does that can’t be duplicated on the web somehow … even though it feels unfamiliar to you and to me.

HEFFNER: What can’t be …

KORDA: … because we expect to open up The New York Times and look at it.

HEFFNER: What, what’s not true about that for books? I mean how is it different for what we’ve called books?

KORDA: Because the book’s a finished product. In other words … one book … it, it’s not … it’s not something that comes out daily. You open The New York Times daily and you find in it the weather page or the sports section or whatever it is.

That, that can be done and is done on, on the Internet. And for that matter, you can get The New York Times on any of these reading devices …


KORDA: … and get it, as I say, in a form which you will find easier to read because you can change the type size. The book as a product is an individual product, it’s not interchangeable.

The, the nearest comparison is not with newspapers, but to what has happened to the music business. If five years ago, ten years ago I had told you that you could go to any shopping mall in the country and not find a music store there selling disks, the equivalent of records … ah, ah you would have said, “You’re crazy, it’s a huge business … there will be two or three in every shopping mall”. And there were.

There are none now … you can go to a shopping mall and never find a music store because everybody’s getting … except you and me, perhaps … is getting their music from iTunes and downloading it into an iPod and listening to it in a whole different way. They’re still paying for it. People are still producing the music, people are still selling the music, people are still recording the music. The music business is, in fact, making money. After an initial period, by the way, in which it seemed as if the world had opened up and swallowed them and they’d vanished.

But the, the way of selling the product has changed. It is going to happen to the motion picture business in some ways even faster than it happens to the book business.

People won’t stop watching films. They won’t stop making films. Movie companies won’t stop selling films, but there isn’t any law that says that you’ll always have to go to a theater and sit there holding your popcorn and watching it.

It can now be downloaded to your computer and from there to your television screen. And if you have a big screen at home which will allow you to see even Lawrence of Arabia as big as you want to see it and in brilliant color. The movie will be sold to you by a different technology … is that so bad? I don’t think so.

HEFFNER: And you don’t think so about the book.

KORDA: No. I think the book will go on. It will eventually be sold to us in a different technology as I say, I image that for a very, very long time to come, probably through the lives of our children, the book itself will always be available in paper form, because so many people are used to it.

But on the other hand, people felt that way about the 78 RPM vinyl record. People felt that way about the tapes that replaced that. People felt that way about long playing albums. How will you ever get classical music if you don’t have those big black round things with the a hole in the center?

The truth of the matter is that all of that has now been digitalized and you’re getting in purer quality than you could ever have gotten it with the previous recording devices. So, it hasn’t gone away. It’s there, but you’re getting it in an easier form.

You wouldn’t, unless you were a determined antiquarian or contrarian necessarily want to go back to holding a 78 RPM record or having a dozen of them …

HEFFNER: It’s a great feeling.

KORDA: … for a symphony.

HEFFNER: You know that, it’s a great feeling to do so.

KORDA: It is a great feeling, but it’s gone. I mean … (Laughter)

HEFFNER: Okay. That’s gone. But then, then I think I’ve asked you a series wrong questions. And let’s see if I can get to the right one in the few minutes we have left.

And that is, what do you think’s going to happen to us with the change that will come about? Not ay de mi, the end of books, or anything like that. What’s going to be the impact of whatever the change is?

KORDA: I think very likely a richer, more complex and much more available culture, literature and world of knowledge constantly available, downstreamed in enormous quantities. I think people’s curiosity will be met to a degree which we can’t even guess at or fathom today.

I think it will be like putting all the world’s greatest libraries together in one place and making them available to any young person who wants to cruise through that and find what he or she is curious about.

I think it will be an amazing world of knowledge that if we were to live to see it would seem as revolutionary to us as it must have seemed to people when the book first began to become popular and was taken away from the place where it was … the first books, the Bibles, were … when they were released from the clergy, chained to a table in a church so that you could go in and if you could read you could read them there, but you couldn’t take them home. First of all because you couldn’t afford to and second because it was against the law to take it home.

And when that changed and people began to take books home, it was as if they could suddenly reach out and gather into them all this knowledge which had been sitting in libraries which they had not been able to go because they were hard to get to and you had to be a scholar.

That’s going to happen, but on a vastly bigger scale than we can ever even imagine. All the world’s information and knowledge is going to be out there and one person will be able to summon it up and, and see it.

I think children will be so spectacularly educated, exposed to so many different points of view that literature will be so much more easily widespread, much more easily absorbed that there will be such a richness of it … whereas today many things are quite hard to find. I think 20 years from now nothing will be hard to find.

HEFFNER: How will it be published? Whatever that means.

KORDA: I should imagine that as we speak that in the great publishing houses of New York City like Simon and Schuster and Random House and Knopf and Harper Collins that people are working that out as we speak at this very moment.

These are going to become vast repositories of their own backlists, for one thing. Which, by the way, for the first time, the backlists of the great publishers of the world will be made valuable, accessible property, rather than you’re wondering around saying “I don’t understand how Random House could ever have let that book go out of print” … 40 ago or five years ago.

There will be nothing out of print. The entire backlist will be available to you … at the push of a button. You’ll be charged for it … fine.

You would have been charged for it if you bought the book. But it’s … it will be available for the first time … there will be no more of that business saying ah, ah … I want to read a copy of Our Mother’s Keeper, a novel which Bob, Bob Gotlieb published, a comic novel … comic/tragic … probably in the late 1950s, out of print since … God only knows when … in the 1960s probably … wonderful, funny, hilarious book.

I want to read it today. Today? This will be difficult accomplish and will require many phone calls and it will be mailed to me … maybe, if I’m lucky a week later for $20 … for a battered old copy of it.

Tomorrow, you’ll simply have to go to Simon and Shuster’s website, punch it in and it will come to you electronically … if you want to print it out, you can can print it out, but it will be there.

So that whole notion of what’s out of print, what’s hard to get at, what’s unavailable, that’s about to go by the way … all of culture will be available, everything … however improbable, however ill known (laugh) … however small … however far fetched. Everything will be available to you. It’s a huge change.

HEFFNER: And do you think that the editorial function will be the same?

KORDA: I think so. I think so. The front list will still have to be chosen. People will still have to decide which books to publicize and which books to market heavity.

All of that will go on as before, but in some, somewhat different form.

HEFFNER: So you remain that perpetual optimist.

KORDA: I wouldn’t call myself a perpetual optimist, but I’m an optimist about this kind of technology … yes.

I see knowledge being gathered together and made available throughout the world in every culture.

I see that changing history as radically as printing changed history, way back in the 16th century.

HEFFNER: Do you think it will be Google’s activity now?

KORDA: Google’s entirely? No, I think Google will be one factor of it. I think Apple will be another factor and there will be unimaginable enterprises surging up … the purpose of which will be to make available to you everything in literature, everything in knowledge hat was ever available in some form or another. And charge you for it.

That’s publishing. I don’t’ think … it’s a different function … it wasn’t’ a different function at the booksellers in Rome from what it is now.

HEFFNER: Michael Korda … that’s publishing, you’re right and that’s show business … you’re right. Thank you again for joining me and I, I’m so impressed with HERO: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia that you’ve just written in a very conventional way. And I’m so pleased that I could buy it as a book.

KORDA: I am, too. But I think you’ll be able also to buy it …

HEFFNER: Online.

KORDA: … on one of those machines (laughter) if you want to.

HEFFNER: Thanks Michael Korda.

KORDA: Thank you for having me.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. Meanwhile, as an 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.