Foreword | December 01, 2003
The Pirate Publishers
Something that Bill Bradley asks Tobias Wolff in this issue’s interview calls to my mind an embarrassing moment in The Missouri Review‘s past.
Wolff’s new novel, Old School, concerns, among other things, an instance of plagiarism. Some ten years ago, a writer sent us a story plagiarized from two authors—Thom Jones and Tobias Wolff. It was a well-cobbled-together forgery using the plot of Wolff’s “The Rich Brother” and certain paragraphs directly lifted from Jones’s “A White Horse.” We were fooled and delighted to publish it. Needless to say, we were less than delighted when we had to apologize in a subsequent issue for having unintentionally played a part in a case of plagiarism. It’s a telling note regarding both Wolff and Jones that when I notified them about what had happened, both were concerned for the magazine first. Wolff was also sorry for the writer so desperate for publication that he’d resorted to copying other writers’ work.
This is reminiscent of a larger embarrassment in American publishing history. Plagiarism and its near relative, piracy, play a surprisingly large role in the chronicle of book publishing in America. They are a little-discussed ghost in the attic of the industry and one of the reasons why it has such an uninspired history. From the beginning the absence of international copyright law and America’s long-lingering sense of cultural inferiority encouraged American printers to simply steal the books of foreign writers. It was cheaper, easier and less risky than putting out original books; on the other hand, relying on stolen goods was not an incentive to relevancy, quality or the development of editorial skills. It also discouraged publication of American authors. Instead of risk-taking, venturesome entrepreneurs looking to the future, pirate publishers were small-time’ thieves doing whatever it took to make a nickel.
Nineteenth-century magazines on both sides of the Atlantic also engaged in piracy and plagiarism, with some stolen articles and stories bouncing around like ping-pong balls. However, the magazine industry was more vital and technologically sophisticated than the book business, partly because serial production required magazines to be innovative. Following the Civil War, magazines began to enjoy increased circulations and unprecedented amounts of revenue from advertising. One result was that they paid writers well. The sums paid for stories by the larger-circulation magazines from 1900 through World War II sound substantial even now. Many of the great novels of the late 19th century were delivered to readers serially in successive issues of magazines such as The Atlantic Monthly and Harper’s. Even as late as the 1940s, magazines continued to be more important to writers’ incomes than the perennially lackluster, low-paying book market.
Transatlantic literary theft burned up productive writers like Charles Dickens and Mark Twain. Both authors had so many problems with publishers that they started their own publishing operations and spent considerable effort running them. Dickens campaigned for effective international copyright law on one of his American tours, which went over badly with audiences. Americans were either indifferent to such technicalities or took the position that no one “owns” words simply because he or she has spoken, written or even published them. In 1870, a judge used this reasoning in his finding against plaintiff Harriet Beecher Stowe when she sought restitution from a German-language press that had pirated and translated Uncle Tom’s Cabin for immigrant German speakers. This case notoriously riled American writers. Even when the U.S. finally joined an international agreement in 1891, the period of copyright coverage was so brief that many felt it scarcely served any purpose. A few years later, Twain sarcastically dismissed the handling of copyright: “Whenever a copyright law is to be made or altered, then the idiots assemble.”
Yet the reliance on foreign books did begin to change after the copyright agreement of 1891, gradually turning a mostly negative influence on the industry into a mixed one. The rights on books during the first several decades of copyright were typically inexpensive, and cheap foreign books continued to support the new American publishing houses of the 20th century. Publishers still depended on them. However, buying foreign rights instead of simply stealing them had a beneficial effect on everyone concerned, including those who were doing the paying.
When Bennett Cerf and Donald Klopfer bought the Modern Library from Charles Boni in 1925, its list included the usual odd ragbag of books gotten cheap or for nothing from Europe, including three titles by Maeterlinck and six novels by Anatole France—a detail that Klopfer remembered in an interview that appeared in this magazine eighteen years ago (TMR, VIII, 1). The two young partners rightly thought that it was a haphazard list and began to pare it down. They continued to get many of their new titles from Europe by making annual visits to favorite European houses. However, they attended more carefully than earlier publishers to the quality and relevance of their lists. Because some of the titles they wanted to buy didn’t fit into the idea of the Modern Library, in 1929 they started—for lack of a better idea for a name—”Random House.” The quintessential new American publisher of the 20th century was cut from a modified but improved version of the old pattern. If the price they paid for a book was low, at least it wasn’t outright piracy, and this financial accountability had a rationalizing influence both on the literature itself and on the industry.
Alfred A. Knopf, established in the same era, operated in a similar way. From the start Knopf relied on books first published elsewhere, sales tested and—until very recent years—purchased at bargain prices. Throughout its history, this prestigious house has been as much a republisher as a publisher of original material. Its first book was the English best-seller Green Mansions by W H. Hudson. Like the partners at Random House, Alfred and Blanche Knopf regularly visited England and Europe to look for new titles. In the following years, Knopf editors continued to scan the lists of overseas publishers for possible buys. English houses, such as Heinemann’s and Jonathan Cape, were especially good sources. Knopf sought and generally chose quality books, but the bottom line of their editors’ evaluations of potential new books, domestic or foreign, was evidence of sales. They were risk averse and conservative in their choices. “Fifty-dollar-a-pound caviar,” editor W H. Weinstock called Borges’s best stories in 1949. He admired Borges, but after all, this was the stuff of obscure South American literary magazines, not fiction for a large audience. Knopf had a second crack at buying a collection by Borges eight years later, after he had published several more stories in American literary magazines, but still they turned him down. The collection would be at best a “succes d’estime,” said the reader, but it wouldn’t sell copies.
It is also clear from their readers’ evaluations that Knopf generally avoided controversial subjects. In this magazine (XXIII, 3), we printed the internal readers’ reports by Knopf editors of such books as James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room (“An unhappy, talented, and repellant book”), Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (“certainly isn’t enough genuine talent for us to take notice”), Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (“at most, a sort of cultish interest, from secret lovers of the gothic”), and Anais Nin’s A Spy in the House of Love. Blanche Knopf sent only a brief note to the French agent who’d sent her a copy of Lolita, saying, “You and I both know this was impossible at least for us…. I wonder if any publisher will buy it?” After more than a dozen American publishers turned it down, someone finally did buy Lolita—Walter Minton of G. P Putnam, in one of those crazy bets that publishers sometimes make and that keep literature alive. Since then, the book has become, if anything, more controversial than it was in the 1950s; it has also sold an estimated fifty million copies worldwide.*
When Random House bought Knopf in the 1960s, it was the model for what became a wave of buyouts and mergers that by the 1990s had become a tsunami threatening to crush what little variety remained in the industry. Paradoxically, this trend toward “going big” is another instance of the industry thinking small. Fretting about risk and complaining that they are engaged in an “impossible business” (the title of a New Yorker article about trade publishing, October 6, 1997) with low profit margins and declining unit sales, publishers contend that they have no choice but to sell out to conglomerates. Unfortunately, their problems have only been considerably worsened by this trend.
Trade publishing cant thrive within conglomerates whose founding companies began in cable television, entertainment production, newspaper chains, the whiskey business or even foreign publishing. These business cultures aren’t going to fix their problems with “increased market clout,” production consolidation, “synergy,” “management solutions” or any of the other magical-sounding nostrums supposedly provided by the larger companies. Instead of solving the core problems facing publishers, what conglomerates bring is firings, consolidation, “managers” taking over as editors, inept marketing and the push to shovel out more genre books and turn authors into brand names with “predictable sales,” like so many bottles of soft drink. At best these are nickel-and-dime improvements affecting a quarter’s balance sheet; at worst they further erode reputations and the morale of employees. In the end, nobody’s happy, since the trade publishing units of conglomerates have become their least profitable, least prestigious holdings—a serious comedown for expensive companies bought to serve as showcase properties.
I doubt that the business improvements crucial for publishers’ futures will be found by top-heavy companies locked into methods of book production and delivery that have remained unchanged for over sixty years; instead, they will have to come from the sort of audacity most recently seen in technology companies. I could foresee changes involving flexible-print-run book delivery, along with variable formatting and binding options that include high-quality (and high-margin) books. Also, the business might benefit by undergoing a split similar to the software/hardware division in technology, in which editing specialists or houses develop books and then license them to producer distributors. Producers could then concentrate their efforts on making books and delivering them in ways that provide alternatives to an outdated wholesale-retail system. These changes would open up the field for new and potentially high-quality editing imprints (with low capitalization requirements), as well as unleashing other talent in everything from writing to printing and sales.
However it’s done, entrepreneurs have to find ways to transcend a system that historically has lacked vision and nerve—a system that currently marks every book selling less than twenty or twenty-five thousand copies as “disappointments.” Too many relatively successful and highly regarded books end up handicapping editors’ and authors’ careers. Something is wrong in a business that generates this much failure.
The more important solution for trade publishers has less to do with business, though, than with finding and presenting good and occasionally great books. Publishers need to put more energy into looking for great individual books. Rather than eking out their survival on genre, celebrity, diet, and general junk, they should put more effort into looking for those singular books that make a difference, the ones that make them proud to be editors, redound to their reputations as publishers and may just sell beyond anyone’s imagining.
Despite the quagmire of megamedia publishing, fine writers do manage to achieve reputations and survive. The ways they do so vary from case to case but include literary magazine and university-press publication, which is particularly important to early-career and noncommercial authors, such as short-story writers and poets. International publication is also important. Translated writing from places like Latin America has been widely influential in the last thirty years. British publishers have introduced some of the best English-language writers of the past few decades, including V S. Naipaul, Salman Rushdie and J. M. Coetzee. The Missouri Review has published or interviewed such writers as Stanislaw Lem, Naguib Mahfouz, Chinua Achebe, Mario Vargas Llosa and others. Many of the stories in this issue concern international issues.
It is an interesting note on the saga of copyright that as writers have begun to be more reasonably compensated for foreign rights, with extended periods of coverage and better protection against piracy, literature has become more truly international. In a world fractured by politics and war, this is a good thing.
*The full Knopf files are at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin
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