Peter Osnos

Public Affairs: What’s Fit to Print?

VTR Date: September 9, 1997

Guest: Osnos, Peter


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Peter Osnos
Title: Public Affairs: What’s Fit to Print?
VTR: 9/9/97

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And I can’t help hut chuckle a hit thinking of the point my wife made many years ago that if people ever want to know just where we are at any particular point in our lives, all they have to do is look at what topics surface on The Open Mind. And that’s surely true of today’s program concerning the hooks America’s major publishers do or don’t any longer consider fit to print. For after my 20 years as Chairman of America’s theatrical movie-rating system, former Los Angeles Times film critic Charles Champlin and I are well into a book about what I call “the rating game,” about just how it was played in Hollywood, and why “anything goes as long as it’s rated” is so deceptive, dangerous and totally unacceptable a concept when applied to today’s television, cable, interactive home video games, the Internet, indeed, all the newer electronic media that increasingly thrust themselves directly into our homes and upon our youngsters.

I know from my years in Hollywood that most Americans really have two businesses: their own, and show business. Yet whatever the starry names and incredible tales that fill the hook, it still isn’t primarily an entertainment, but rather a serious look at at modern media versus the public interest that just won’t likely sell as wildly as so many major publishers nowadays insist a book must sell before they’ll even touch it. So that the book could just be hung out to dry. Which is what my guest today has pledged not to let happen with the worthy projects he’ll presently publish.

For Peter Osnos, former vice president of Random House’s Adult Trade Books, and longtime publisher of its Times Books Imprint, has just created Public Affairs, a new press that will specialize in books by historians, journalists, critics, and others who may write what will sell less but likely loom much larger on the scale of social significance than much of what is readily published by today’s print giants.

Now, Russell Baker wrote recently in The New York Times, “We are all cultural slaves to markets nowadays.” And so I want to ask Mr. Osnos just what magic he intends to work to emancipate us from this unfortunate but, in truth, not quite involuntary servitude.

OSNOS: You mean you want all my secrets?

HEFFNER: All your secrets. Laid right out on the table.

OSNOS: [Laughter] Well, I will attempt to explain the philosophy. I won’t necessarily give you the Coca-Cola recipes. But my view is the problem is not with the hooks. Books are wonderful. I think there are a lot of good hooks published in America today. There’s certainly a lot of people who would like to write good books. There’s certainly a lot of people who would like to read good books. It seemed to me that the difficulty, the one that we’re grappling with, is the marketplace, how it functions, the way we support the writing of the books, and then how we sell them. And what I’m trying to do is figure out a way in which I as a publisher can focus on publishing good and important books well, and take it in some new measure outside of what has become a very commercial and, in a sense, rather crude profit-and-loss kind of relationship.

And how do you do that? Well, I don’t want to do it as a nonprofit. I think that the marketplace should, in our system, work. It should enable people to write good hooks, and it should enable those books to be published, and it should enable people to find them. And the way I’m going to do it, I think, is by reorienting the kind of publishing we do.

Book publishers, over time, were, in fact, in years past, cottage industries. They were small companies, often started by well-to-do people. It used to be said that Alfred Knopf, when somebody came in for a job, he would say to the applicant, ‘Well, tell me, what is your principal course of income?’ In other words…

HEFFNER: Certainly not books.

OSNOS: Certainly not hooks. I mean, the notion was that books were something that you sort of did on the side. Then, over a period of time, books started to become a business. And in the last few years they’ve become a profit center, or at least a putative profit center, along with television and movies and t-shirts, and in the great big media conglomerates, books were supposed to, sort of, to carry their weight. And, of course, they can’t, because they represent a very different kind of audience. They have a much smaller, much more narrow casting concept behind them. For those people who might he interested, it might only be ten thousand people. Does that mean that the book shouldn’t he there? No. What it means is the economics of doing it have to be reinvented. In a sense, I’m going back to the future. I’m going to try to take publishing back to the older model: smaller companies, lower overheads, reduced expectations for sales. But one thing is really important: that we maintain the quality. And I realize it’s, some might even say quixotic, but I don’t think so. I’m absolutely, thoroughly convinced this can work, if we are able to figure out the economics. If I can find authors and help them support themselves while they write those books, then I will go out and find the audience, because I know the audience is there. And in the fullness of time, I will start very small and maybe only do 25 or 30 books a year, but there is no doubt in my mind that there is an audience for good books in this country, just as there is an audience for good television. And it may be small, and it may he scattered in various places, hut it’s there, and we can find it.

HEFFNER: You said, “Heaven forbid.’ You didn’t say that, hut you looked it when you said, “It’s not going to he non-commercial.”

OSNOS: Right.

HEFFNER: But why do you insist that it not be nonprofit, that it not be…

OSNOS: It will be a company, a business.

HEFFNER: That it be a profit-making business.

OSNOS: Well. I just think that… Well, it depends on your definition of profit making. I think that this is just my personal taste. I actually believe that in the United States today there are plenty of people who do nonprofit publishing, Look at all the great universities have university presses, many of the think tanks publish their own kinds of hooks. I mean, there’s an awful lot of subsidy or nonprofit publishing that goes on in this country. And, on the other end of the spectrum, there’s a lot of commercial publishing that goes on in this country.

After all, I mean, 58,000 books were published last year, and it was a massive business, and billions and billions of dollars in sales. It’s not as though nothing is going on. But between the university or the subsidy presses, and the mass market presses, there is another audience. It’s the audience that listens to this program, presumably. It’s the audience that listens to NPR. It’s the audience that watches PBS. It’s the audience that goes to independent films. It is an audience of people who listen to classical music. It is probably ten to twelve million people of a certain kind, of a certain kind of interest and ideas, and a certain kind of way of looking at the world. And they are not served, as a rule, by the focused academic presses or the rather narrow academic – and I don’t mean that in a derisory way; I think that’s what they are, they’re meant to be: they’re monographs– and they’re not really served by their mass-market, mass-circulation Steven Kings and Danielle Steele’s. They’re in the middle. And that’s the part that’s being squeezed. And that’s the part that that I’m really getting at. And it’s the part that I believe is not served in our current economic models. And I think the marketplace should support it.

I think, if you end up as a publisher being essentially dependent on the kindness of strangers, you’re always going to have a problem. You’re not going to he able to decide what you want to publish; the people who give you the money are going to decide what they want you to publish, because they give you the money. And, you know, the person with the money is ultimately going to have the control. So I think, if we can create… And this, I suppose, I’m son of closing in on the definition of what I’m doing. I think my little publishing company will be able to do fine on its own. It’s a part of a slightly larger group, but we can go into that later. It’ll do tine on its own.

What I’m looking for now… I’ve raised the dough. The capital is there. The equity is there, and we will do fine. What I’m now looking for are ways to support the writers. I think that’s the issue. I think if you come to me and say, “I want to spend five years writing an important book,” you need to have the resources in order to do that. Well, if I give you $25.000, that’s not enough resources, is it, to spend two, three, four, five years writing a book. So what we need to do is find other means of helping you have the resources to write the book. And once that book is done, if I’m going to be your publisher, I will knock myself out to see to it that that hook is properly published. And I’ll he able to do that because I won’t he obsessed by the fact that I’ve given you a million dollars which I now have to earn back through sales, which I know I can’t, so I’ll he fighting the budgetary wars and holding off the Visigoths.

Now, if you understand what I’m saying is, I believe the marketplace can manage a good, small – and many, in fact, good, small – publishers. Where I think we need to create new systems to support the whole publishing enterprise is by providing help for writers. It doesn’t necessarily have to come from publishers. Think of it this way: In the post-Cold War world – actually, in the post-war world — we had the Cold War, and government, partly as a response to the Soviet threat, invested billions of dollars in research, in R&D, in science and technology. And that was where most of our important research was done. Subsidized, paid for by the government. Now, if the government hadn’t been doing it, it would’ve been a really serious problem. No one else was going to do it. At the other end, you have this massive enterprise of commercial support for movies and television and so on.

What I’m suggesting is that I don’t want the government to be paying for the hooks, and I don’t think the marketplace is going to pay as much as I think people need in order to write. So there has to be something else. And in the sense it’s a third force in this country. And it’s unique to American society. And that is civil society. That is foundations, it is philanthropy, it is the university. It is a whole variety of means that can he, in a sense, mobilized to get behind writers when they’re working on their books. Give them a place to work. Give them an office. Give them a stipend. Allow them, you know, give them access to databases. Give them access to a research assistant. That’s very valuable stuff. And that will make it easier for them to write the hook, and easier for the publisher to focus on publishing the book well, not merely underwriting the author.

HEFFNER: We used to talk about the economy of scale. I gather you’ve concluded that there is a diseconomy of scale, and when the conglomerates buy up the presses, and the presses become beholden to the larger and larger numbers demands, that’s when what you want goes down the drain.

OSNOS: Not always, but to a large extent. I think that the… I mean, this is an issue I know that you’re interested in yourself and has been discussed, I’m sure, on this program many times. And that is that, it was a tribute to Eric Severeid, said, The worst thing that ever happened to television news: it became a profit center.”

Information, when information becomes, in and of itself, a profit center, it gets into trouble. Because information is not inherently profitable. And I think that the problem it’s had, that’s come up in large publishing conglomerates, is that they own movie studios, they own baseball teams, they own t-shirt companies, they own theme parks. And then they look at the book publisher, and they say, ‘Well, you should be able to do 15, 20, 25, 30 percent a year also.” Well, we know that that’s simply not the case. Publishing is a curious, eccentric, risk-laden business with relatively low returns, in fact.

HEFFNER: At its best, what did the old publishing return each year?

OSNOS: Well, you know, you hear different stories. I would say probably… Certainly enough to pay the rent, and enough to invest in the company, and enough to go on to France for a month. I mean, I don’t know exactly. I would say maybe four, five, six percent. And in the big, public companies today, as you know, 15, 20 percent is what’s required, and anything less than ten percent is considered paltry. So if you think that less than ten percent is paltry, then you’re not going to like publishing.

The other thing, of course, is that every single book is a product line. When Proctor and Gamble makes soapsuds, at the very most they make 20 brands of soapsuds. And they get out there and they support those soapsuds with everything that, you know, they can possibly muster. A book publisher, every single hook is a universe all to its own. No one ever goes in and say, you know, “Let me have that Random House hook,’ or, “Let me have that Simon & Schuster book”; they say, “Let me have the Heffner book.” Every single book has to he created in a way that enables it to exist on its own. That creates a whole series of problems for the publisher, because, as an individual product line, it’s very small.

You know, authors are always complaining, ‘Well, they didn’t do enough advertising. They didn’t support my book. They didn’t do…”

HEFFNER: “I’ve never seen my book in…”

OSNOS: “Never seen my hook in a bookstore.”


OSNOS: Well, that’s, you know, no author has ever found his own hook in a bookstore. It’s amazing how books evaporate the minute an author gets within… I really do believe there is a higher being in force and fate up there, because the books disappear the minute the author turns the corner in the bookstore

But the fact is that, if you publish a book, somebody spent five years writing it, you ship 12,500 copies, which is actually not a bad first printing for a serious hook, you don’t have a whole lot of money. An ad in The New York Times, a little ad in The New York Times will cost you $12,500. Well, if somebody blinks at the moment that they see that ad in the paper, it’s gone. I used to say that I… And this is, my friends, I’m sure, at The New York Times and other great newspapers would he very offended. But I think, when it comes to book advertising you could take the money out on the street and burn it. That’s how effective I think it is. I have… At least for the kinds of books I do. People don’t respond to that. It’s expensive, authors expect it, authors want to go on, you know, ‘Good Morning Cleveland.” They think that if they travel around the country and appear on certain kinds of, you know, morning television programs, that’s the way to sell the book. Nonsense. I don’t think that works.

I think the way to sell a good and serious book is by giving it a slow hum, by having people talk about it in serious forums, in magazines, newspapers, and on television and radio. And, over a period of time, a good book will find its audience.

HEFFNER: But, Peter, you talk about a ‘slow burn.’ There’ve certainly been enough stories recently about the fact that the bookstores themselves put out the fire. How are you going to deal with that? Now, you’re not talking about the publishers themselves now.

OSNOS: Well, again, I think that distribution… You know, everything comes down to content and distribution. Content is, you know, what’s on the page, and distribution is how it’s disseminated. And that’s true of all phases of entertainment and all phases of information. Let’s stipulate for the moment that I’m going to provide good content.

HEFFNER: Right. So stipulated.

OSNOS: All right. Because that’s obviously essential.

The second issue, which is, ‘How is it distributed?” is a completely different and very difficult question. I think the answer is a mix of things. You know, a few years ago I discovered, I realized, began to realize that in our house we were buying a lot more from catalogs. We don’t have time to go and, you know… How much time am I going to spend on buying a pair of khakis, or a work shirt, or a pair of shoes? If I know my size and I know my style, give me an L.L. Bean catalog; I’m very happy. And I can do it in a minute and a halt’.

Books could he purchased much more easily, much more efficiently in ways that didn’t necessarily involve the physical act of going to that bookstore and hunting for something which you may not find.

HEFFNER: The Internet?

OSNOS: Internet is very good. You know, I guess this is a theme that I think I talk about in a great many contexts. There are a lot of different ways to do things. There are a dozen different ways. I’m not suggesting that the bookstore should disappear. I love bookstores. We all love bookstores. I think what’s been fascinating to me over the last few years is the tremendous explosion of the bookstore as venue, as destination, as place to go for a cup of coffee. You know, you go into any one of these superstores, every seat is taken. That’s wonderful. People going there because they like the feeling of a bookstore. I’m not at all suggesting that the local independent, where the person really knows his or her inventory, that that should go, because it’s wonderful, and it’s a great thing. What I am suggesting is that we provide other means than just the good fortune of finding the hook, or finding a clerk who will help you with a book. There has to be catalogs, Internets, telephone sales. You know, books, as I said at the outset, are very old-fashioned business. And the best parts of it are the old-fashioned parts of it, which are the small, serious, and concentrated attention.

What I would like to see happen is us adopt today’s new technologies and today’s new insights into marketing to the old system of providing quality and support for writers. And I think it can be done fairly without a, you know, without a great deal of distress, and certainly it doesn’t have to rely completely on the kindness of strangers.

HEFFNER: But you can, you feel that you need to make this connection directly with the book-reader.

OSNOS: Yes. I think that…

HEFFNER: Excuse me. In that sense, you really come at the right time, with the new electronic ability to make that connection.

OSNOS: Yes. I think this… As I said, I think the readers are there. I think the readers are there, I think the readers are interested. I think the readers… You know, the wringing of hands about the decline of reading and the decline of ideas, and, you know, things ain’t what they used to be, and probably never were. And, yes, in fact, people have less time to read today, and it’s true that attention spans are shorter, and so on. But, you know, as somebody was saying at a meeting I was at the other day, ‘Hey, Steven King is a thousand pages. People sit down and read Steven King at a thousand pages. So why won’t they read something else at a thousand pages?” It’s not about attention spans; it’s about finding the reader and engaging it. Engaging the reader in something that they feel they want to know.

I happen to, my favorite kind of reading are great stories, great biographies, great histories, great tales of derring-do. I just think that that’s a wonderful way to understand the world. Now, you can’t find other ways. I mean, I take a great success of recent vintage, Katherine Graham’s autobiography of this last year, personal history. Where else could you find, how else could you have the experience of sitting down and spending two or three or four evenings with Katherine Graham telling you about this extraordinary, riveting life? How else could you do it? A book is a book. It provides a certain kind of service.

Now, I’m convinced that the problem, as I said, is not getting the good book; it’s figuring out all the different ways there are to connect, to find, me in this case, or you in another case, where we are, and tell us that the book is out there. And this is a way in which publishers have essentially been inefficient, I submit, because they’ve been so distracted by the dreadful issue of having overpaid the author, you know, having given the author this big advance: “I gave the author $100,000. I’m only going to sell 5,000 copies. Oh, woe is me.’ Instead of focusing on how to do a good job selling the book, they’re wringing their hands and thinking about, “Maybe I can do it on the next hook.”

In other words, if you’re distracted, you’re not going to do a good job publishing a book well. And I am trying to separate, in a sense, the publishing of a book with the, this is the support of the hook. Again, I’m putting them on slightly different tracks. And I think, if I can come up with the right form… As I say, I’m being a little hit vague about it because I think it’s, in a sense… It’s not quite proprietary, but it does require a certain amount of explanation for people to say, “How arc these pieces going to fit together?”

I’m quite convinced that we can support writers and publish books well at the same time.

HEFFNER: You feel that you will find the sources of support for the writers.

OSNOS: I do.

HEFFNER: You said foundations.

OSNOS: Foundations, institutions. Look, if tomorrow ADM, Archer, Daniels, Midland, which seems to spend, God knows, a fortune each year on underwriting television and radio, if they came to me tomorrow and said, lI tell you what. We’ll give you X dollars, and all you have to do is said, ‘This book came to you from Archer, Daniels,’ or whatever the rest of the catch line is, “or, ‘This book came to you from GE,’’ some people would be wildly offended if I put that in the front of the book, wouldn’t they? They’d say, “My God, this is a prostitution of the great, you know, free market of ideas.” Baloney. That’s the way PBS works, it’s the way NPR works. If they stayed out of my hair, I wouldn’t mind if GE or Coca-Cola or anybody else came along and said, “I’ll put something on page one.”

HEFFNER: Wasn’t that what Chris Whittle, in a sense…

HEFFNER: No. He tried something else. He put advertising in books. I’m not suggesting advertising. I think that makes people uncomfortable. And what he did was: he would sell the book to Federal Express; Federal Express would put an ad on every other page. That doesn’t particularly appeal to me.

I’m talking about the concept of underwriting. Why is it that corporations underwrite radio and television, hut don’t underwrite books?

HEFFNER: Listen, I’ve just had two guys in here, Bill Baker and Larry Grossman, talking about, on another program, that question. And at least Larry feels that it’s not working sufficiently well, and that you need to move to, at least in part, real commercials.

OSNOS: Well, you see, again, I think that, over the years, we’ve devised an array of solutions to these problems. I mean to step outside books for a moment and go back to television, you have PBS, which is one formula. C-Span took another formula altogether. C-Span was conceived the idea that they wouldn’t take money from the government, and that they would have to find the money elsewhere. What they did was they shamed the cable companies into saying, “If you want to, you know, if you want to he able to do ESPN, you better do some public-affairs programming.’ And so that’s how they solved the problem.

I think, in fact, with NPR and PBS, take commercials now. Whatever they call it. They call it “underwriting,” but they’re essentially commercials. They’ve gotten longer. And I can tell you as a book publisher they’ve gotten more expensive. But the good news is that they are, it’s effective, I think, in terms of bringing interesting and important ideas to people, because NPR, PBS, the public and community television, is extremely valuable. And I think, while we will never have public or community books, what I am looking for is a way to build on the successes of that kind of rather specific, finite market of people interested in ideas, and serving them in the way they are now served by other media, but not books.

HEFFNER: Peter, that’s as good a place as I can think of saying, “Thank you very much for joining me today,’ and obviously wishing you very well in the work you are into. And my suspicion is that you’re going to make it work.

OSNOS: I certainly hope so.

HEFFNER: Thanks again, Peter.

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 cheek 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.”