Donald Lamm Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The Changing World of Publishing: Conversation with Donald S. Lamm, Chair, W.W.Norton Publishing Co., by Harry Kreisler, 2/5/98

Photo by L. Carper

Page 4 of 10

Changes in Publishing

At Berkeley you have discussed the implications of conglomerates acquiring publishing houses. For example, Viacom, the owner of Paramount motion picture company and Blockbuster video stores, acquired Simon and Schuster, the book publishers. You argue that these acquisitions ignore the autonomy that should exist for independent publishing. If that's a fair statement of what you were saying, could you comment on that?

Yes, it is entirely fair. I think that you start with something that I call the false worship of the great god synergy, a misplaced belief that if you own different types of media, that somehow you can control the publication and the broadcasting and the reproduction on a screen of a single work, through all these media. And it just isn't so. There are quite different mentalities that are operating in, say, the book business or the film industry, and rarely are those mentalities fused in a single project. Disney is coming closest to that, but they use their book division, called Hyperion, mainly as a vehicle to promote "Disney-ware," if you will.

So what gets lost, in a way, is this concern for the generation and love of ideas.

It's not so much lost, Harry; I think the answer is that it is diluted, that no commercial publisher can survive entirely on a diet of books that require people to think. But, then again, Norton never did. At this university, for example, and maybe he was even a professor here when you were in graduate school, was William Burdick.

Yes, the author of The Ugly American.

Right. Well now, Bud Burdick was a professor of political science here, and when I met him I was talking to him about doing a book in political analysis only to discover that he was much more interested in publishing a collection of essays about the way America was screwing up our policy in Southeast Asia. He teamed up with a writer who happened to be a Norton writer named William Lederer. When the manuscript came to Norton, it was a collection of essays. When it emerged as a book, it was called The Ugly American and the exercise that intervened was that the two authors put a fictional overlay on these essays.

And was that part of the process of Norton nurturing a work.

Absolutely. There was an editor at Norton, Eric Swenson, who was a close friend of Lederer; they'd both shared Navy experiences, and Eric became a drinking buddy of Bud Burdick's, and also a very good editor. And all three of them agreed that the most effective way to produce this would be to, in some way or other, metamorphose it into a novel. And, as fiction goes, it's a little bit disjointed and more like a collection of short stories.

But it conveyed a sensibility and ideas that were very important as America was increasingly getting involved in the world and was about to be involved very deeply in Vietnam.

Exactly. And then of course the phrase, "ugly American," became a catchword and was used inappropriately and inaccurately. They had no idea when they chose that title; the "ugly American" was actually a do-good engineer in the novel. But it became a synonym for an imperialist swine.

Now something else seems to be going on in the industry, getting back to this idea of the synergy that's supposed to emerge from these mergers of different units in a large conglomerate, and that is a lot of self-delusion about what should be paid to an author for a book and what the market wants in the way of a book. It sounds like a very different set of activities than what you've just described with The Ugly American.

I would say that the heart of it, of course, is the money illusion in publishing. There is a chain of expectations that go beyond any realistic levels for the most part. I except here name-brand authors whose books indeed earn out the advances that are paid to them.

John Grisham, for example.

That's right, any of the popular novelists. Even, occasionally, a public figure -- Colin Powell's book certainly earned out. It earned out mainly because General Powell went out on a book tour, which was disguised in part as a campaign tour. And as soon as that campaign/book tour ended, the sales of the book came to a skidding stop. But the main point here is that we tend to get caught up in the excitement of auctions for properties, as Hollywood would call them. And even though deep down we know that we are entering very risky territory, we somehow cannot resist that. All of this was supposed to change six months ago but I've only encountered publishers who pay lip service to change, to the notion of bringing the spending down back to the levels that make good business sense.

It sounds to me that you're questioning the notion of paying $3 million to the former mistress of O.J. Simpson.

Well that is, of course, one of the many, many casualties of the O.J. Simpson saga. I mean nearly every O.J. Simpson book by participants, if Miss Barbierri was indeed a participant, really bombed out. Interestingly, the two that made the most money were the first out of the gate, one by Christopher Darden, and then a book that Norton published by Vincent Bugliosi, who was best known as the prosecutor in the Manson murder cases back in the 1960s.

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