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Crank Call (4/8/1998)


Published April 8, 1998 at 4:00 a.m.


The announcement that Church Street booksellers Chassman & Bern will be closing its doors at the end of April — threatened with impossible competition in the form of a new Borders "superstore" opening in June a block and a half away — came only a week after larger and even more ominous news in the book-publishing industry. At the end of March, New York media mogul Samuel I. Newhouse — "Si" to his friends — announced the sale of America's largest publisher, Random House, along with its many imprints, including Knopf, Pantheon, Ballantine, Crown, Times Books and Fodor's Travel Guides, to Bertelsmann AG, the German media giant that already owns three formerly independent U.S. publishing houses: Bantam, Doubleday and Dell.

According to a report in Time magazine, the Random House sale will give Bertelsmann a 23 percent share in the $7 billion American trade book industry (a "trade" book being defined as a non-academic, non-technical publication for general readers). For those who care, it also means that seven publishing houses hitherto operating as separate entities have been swallowed whole by one corporation, which, whatever else it may do with them, wont permit them to compete against each other for manuscripts and authors. The burden of diminished competition will fall first on writers, whose markets are drying up fast; and next on independent booksellers, who are already fighting for survival against the giant bookstore chains, with their mammoth accounts, their larger distribution capacity and their huge discount and promotional deals with publishers.

With Chassman & Bern out of business and the arrival of Borders only weeks away, Mike DeSanto has harsh words for a business climate that systematically demolishes small businesses in the face of corporate clout. "We're not whining. We're facing unfair competition," says the owner of the Book Rack in Winooski. "I'm offended that a city like Burlington opens its arms to giant corporations like Borders and Barnes & Noble only because people think it's going to increase the tax base — without caring at all what kind of citizens they are."

As a member of the American Booksellers Association, DeSanto is "solidly behind" a lawsuit recenty filed by the Association protesting Borders' and Barnes & Nobles' dominance of the market and the "secret and illegal" deals they've allegedly been making with publishers to the disadvantage of the smaller stores. The case won't come to trial for awhile, but "we're going to be running ads about it when Borders opens here," DeSanto warns.

The story is wearyingly familiar to anyone who's been following it —- the consolidation of smaller business interests into larger ones; the lock on information and the flow of ideas held by a handful of global media outfits; the demise of the independent publisher, the independent bookstore, the independent writer and the independent mind. In the wake of the Bertelsmann coup, there's been some pro forma squawking in the business community about "foreign" ownership of American interests, though in the so-called global market — which is just monopoly capitalism dressed up for New Year's 2000 — a German is the same as anybody, and no one expects Random House to stop publishing Michael Crichton in favor of Lutheran Bibles or the Brothers Grimm (which were Bertelsmann's first best-selling titles in the 19th century).

Speaking personally, I'd rather have a dose of German earnestness beamed at me 24 hours a day than the crapulous mix of celebrity, sex, natural disaster, diet advice, stock tips and fake spirituality that American publishing increasingly dishes out in a desperate effort to get with the times. Book publishers are not trend-setters; they are camp followers, known to be money-losers, beaten and bruised, and lately bowed into submission by the larger world of "media" and "info-tainment." What's going on in Burlington bookstores is just a miniature reflection of the new order, where what you know, what you learn and what you read are determined almost entirely by corporate interests.

This truth shoots through every aspect of American popular culture as it currently stands. Movies, books, television, newspapers, music, magazines and "leisure time" — all owned by the same people, and all following the single directive of market capitalism, which is to make money. And not just money, but "always more money, more this year than last, more next year than this. The new Borders on Church Street won't be any worse or better than other stores of its kind. It will be identical, which is the whole point, both of Borders' enterprise and my objections to it.

According to its own figures, Borders normally stocks 200,000 separate titles in each of its numerous outlets. A similar number may be assumed for Barnes & Noble. But don't be fooled by the apparent plethora of tomes. Your reading choices today are actually fewer than they were five years ago. In the first place, the books are all the same — another techno-thriller; another 16-year-old figure-skater's "autobiography"; another memoir of "abuse" and "recovery"; another way for men to be from Mars and women to lose fat on their thighs.

A large portion of sales at the big bookstore chains doesn't derive from books at all, but from publishing "products" — cards, calendars, software, tie-ins, CDs and, presumably, tens of thousands of muffins and scones. The content of books is not the concern of corporate conglomerates; every day of the week a manuscript goes unpublished because it can't be sold like a can of soup.

Every day a good and important book — make that dozens of good and important books — is returned to the publisher and marked for the shredder because it hasn't reached a mass audience in the five or 10 minutes it's been allowed to sit on the shelf. Academic publishers, meanwhile, are getting nervous about footnotes, which are reliably reported to "turn off" readers, while libraries are scaling back their orders for new books, mesmerized by computers, "systems" and the false promise of the Internet as a substitute for learning and scholarship.

It gets worse. At major publishing houses, editors have stopped editing in favor of "acquiring authors," hunting down the next supposed megahit — which in most cases, in common with their "block-buster" cousins in Hollywood, turn out to be colossal flops — and jumping from house to house like so many dolled-up gnats. Proofreaders and copy editors are increasingly illiterate (ask any writer), and the only standard of an author's merit is the sales record on his or her previous work.

This all might make sense if publishers were actually profiting from the new way of doing things. But they aren't. Hardcover sales of trade books were down 7 percent in 1997, and an industry that was once euphemistically called "flat" is now openly acknowledged to be in serious trouble. Maybe Bertelsmann will make the difference. But I doubt it.

So I'm weeping for Chassman & Bern, and I'm rooting for Book Rack, and for Booksmith in Essex, whose owner, Lee Beaupre, also reports this week that his business is getting worse by the month. He, too, blames the giant chains — "these big boxes" — for his woes. But the trouble is bigger than Borders, I fear. It's bigger than all of us. It's wearing a suit and smoking a cigar, and it's putting its Gucci'd foot down, now, on you.