Our Ken Starr Cares About Books, Even If the Antitrust Guys Don’t

In the same week that S.I. Newhouse Jr. dumped Random House into Bertelsmann’s maw, the news that someone in power cares a hoot about books was faintly heartening. Of course, the someone in question was Kenneth Starr, and the way the independent prosecutor cares about books is to conduct surveillance of them, specifically by subpoenaing the records of Barnes & Noble and Kramerbooks & Afterwords, the Washington bookshop where Monica Lewinsky is reputed to have purchased some items, said to have included a copy of Nicholson Baker’s Vox about phone sex.

A subpoena for bookshop receipts! It’s enough to bring thumps to the underexercised hearts of privacy enthusiasts everywhere–well, virtually all privacy enthusiasts, William Safire having kept his silence on this question to date. Mr. Safire made one of his memorable contributions to the American vernacular with his profligate scattering of the suffix “-gate” over the petty scandals of our time, so that Water- dwindled to nothing more grave than a trivial prologue to Travel-, Trooper-, File- and Etceteragates; surely, he can extend himself now for an acerbic rap at Kramer- or Voxgate? Just as Mr. Starr’s subpoena for Sidney Blumenthal sent the adrenaline speeding through the arteries of most of Mr. Blumenthal’s fellow chatterers, even the many who thought he deserved to collect back pay for the years when he was massaging the Clinton reputation on Mr. Newhouse’s New Yorker dime, so has Mr. Starr blown for a moment on the fading embers of–to use an unhip word–freedom.

It’s encouraging to know that some arm of the law is lifting a finger for books, because the antitrust division of the Justice Department evidently doesn’t. The day before the deal between Bertelsmann A.G. and Random House was announced, The New York Times fronted a piece about the lapse of interest in antitrust enforcement at the Justice Department. It seems that in this ever-expanding Gilded Age, Justice, as they call it in Washington, only cares to disturb mergers and acquisitions within an industry when the deals result in price increases. As if consumers were nothing more than discount-hunting machines. As if future readers have no stake in the ability of non-Bertelsmann publishers to bid against Bertelsmann for display space in the front of the superstores. As if the public is or ought to be indifferent to writers’ prospects for cultivating their careers. On the face of it, those prospects weaken every time the book business consolidates.

But the yawning silence from Washington is surely no surprise–not in the era of St. Vince Lombardi, when deregulated growth is not just a good thing, it’s the only thing. The silence from Washington reverberates through West 43rd Street as well. The Times editorial page succeeded in half-deploring Bertelsmann’s acquisition of Random House without once invoking the antitrust issue. If Bertelsmann’s deal, which will produce a mega-entity with almost one-quarter of the American book business, does not restrain trade, the words “restrain” and “trade” have no meaning.

In the politics of culture, the smart money, like Bertelsmann’s, harrumphs that protests against the conglomeration of book publishing are awfully naïve, if not, horror of horrors, elitist; that there’s something a little, well, predictably fin de siècle about writerly lamentations. Jason Epstein, the longtime powerhouse Random editor who has defended every consolidation of power there, now wistfully defends the Bertelsmann-Random deal in the April 6 issue of the magazine edited by the wife of his former boss, The New Yorker . There, Mr. Epstein indulges in nostalgia of his own for the days when Bennett Cerf ruled Random and told adorable jokes. The current shortfall in publishing profits is the fault of collapsing independent bookstores! It’s the Internet! Needless to say, no harsh word about Mr. Newhouse’s contributions to culture will be spilled in Mr. Newhouse’s organ.

Or in any other conglomerate publishing house, evidently. It takes one to flatter one, and that’s what the conglomerates do–protect each other’s flanks. In the wake of Random House’s artful deal (appropriate for the publisher of Donald Trump’s The Art of the You Know What , Brooke Gladstone reported on NPR’s “All Things Considered” that Viking had asked Carol Felsenthal to write a Newhouse biography. Ms. Felsenthal’s biography of Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham had been brought out by Putnam, whose treatment of the book had not pleased her, and now Putnam was merging with Penguin, Viking’s parent. “I thought, ‘Oh, my. This is terrible,’” Ms. Felsenthal told Ms. Gladstone, “because I had left Putnam because I thought that they dropped the ball on the Graham book. And here, we’re at least going to be sister companies.” Ms. Felsenthal went on to say that Putnam president Phyllis Grann told her agent that “it would complicate her life too much to print a book that knocked friends who worked for Newhouse at Random House and Condé Nast and the New Yorker .” (Ms. Grann denies saying that, according to Ms. Gladstone.) In any event, Putnam dropped the Newhouse biography, which was subsequently picked up by the small independent Seven Stories Press.

A cautionary tale, and a prefiguration. The bad news is obvious. The good news is that we are still far from a monoculture. If memory serves, there were no small presses in 1984 . Even global conglomerates will maintain separate divisions, publish different types of books for different types of nooks (and schnooks). Tastes are too wildly different to scoop up huge profits in the big mesh of mass markets alone. Independents and university presses will strive mightily to pick up an ever-widening slack, but with far less money for promotion, they need to figure out how to sell books in new ways.

For today’s corporate hotshots are right about one thing: The current system has got to give. The publishers publish too many copies of their big books in order to serve chain bookstore orders. When the chains return 30, 40, 50 percent or more of a Paul Reiser, a Whoopi Goldberg, a Newt Gingrich or a Bill Clinton, the publishers have to eat their losses, while the chains float their next purchases on the sea of credits that come from returns. Random House, Bertelsmann and the rest failed to solve this problem by publishing celebrity books. Like a drowning man flailing, they only burned up their oxygen. Now they will try to control mega-advances by reducing competition, but the odds are that won’t work, either. It’s time for some real entrepreneurship–new ways to match books with markets. That’s supposed to be what capitalism is good at. Restraining trade is the dirty surrogate that comes to mind when corporations are clueless, but even restraining trade is a stopgap. The bottom line is a result, not a cause. Good ideas, as always, are the hard part–and as always, they’re scarce.