Friday, March 30, 2007

Rant: Squeezing the Juice

Here is a rant, first published on the OW site:

Squeezing the Juice: What is Wrong with Mainstream Publishing

We all know the the sorry story.

OJ Simpson, former football player and occasional movie actor in the aptly titled The Naked gun, was charged with the brutal murder of his ex-wife and her boyfriend. The jury acquited him, but he was later found liable for their deaths in a civil trial and ordered to cough up $33.5 millions.

Years later, Judith Regan, head of ReaganBooks, an imprint of HarperCollins, (guess they didn't include in the budget money for spaces between words), cut a deal with OJ for a book entitled "If I Did It" (as in, "If I Murdered My Ex-Wife and Her Boyfriend"). As the book was on the verge of publication, the books printed and ready for shelves everywhere, a good ol' firestorm of indignation broke out. The books were withdrawn and destroyed, Regan eventually fired, and outraged commentators patted themselves on the back for the issue being completely resolved. The system had worked!

Had it?

The system worked...not.

It is typical of how our society's self-appointed 'protectors' (uh, that's not me, of course!) miss the boat--they saw the ice cube, but did not see the ice berg. What a titanic mistake! it's enough to give one a sinking feeling!

Eliminating one person from mainstream publishing does not resolve the fundamental problems which led to "If I Did It" getting as far as almost doing it. There were and are built in flaws which enabled the OJ book to almost be published. None of those flaws appear to have been addressed (or mailed or even sent by courier). Another OJ style book can easily be published...a few years down the road...once the issue has cooled off, and a publisher thinks the public will pay out big bucks for sensationalism.

Judith Regan only had to get a general okay from HarperCollins for the basic idea of the OJ book to win approval. As a starting point, one has to wonder about the internal politics that allowed Regan to go on with the project. Was it simply she had a great track record for raking in the dollars? Why would anyone have agreed to publish a book where OJ would describe how he had murdered two people, "if" he had done it?

Anyway, other people than Regan were involved from the start, to approve the project.

And, OJ apparently did not write the book. It was "ghost edited", but not of course by the ghosts of his ex-wife or Ronald Goldman (what would THEY have written?). Someone was the ghost editor, someone hired the ghost editor, someone probably edited the ghost editor.

Books in large publishing houses go through a committee structure. Some group of people approved the book, approved the detailed outline, approved the choices of people who worked on the book, and then approved their work. It may have been mostly Judith Regan's decision, but she did not do the work all by herself. She probably delegated responsibilities: to whom?

The mother ship, HarperCollins, which had approved the general idea of the book, must also have approved the final version--and possibly the various drafts leading up to the final version. And the cover art.

In short: many people were involved in making "If I Did It" not an "If", but a reality. Judith Regan deserves a lot of blame, but she has also become a scapegoat, and no one talks about all the people around her.

It is reasonable to suggest that one reason "If I Did It" almost did it was because of how modern mainstream publishing functions. The biggest houses are often part of a larger corporation--rather than being independent publishing houses, they are a "division" and must maintain corporate profits. Where smaller (or even larger) publishers used to be independent, used to have a focus, used to publish books just because they should be published, today's "division' publishers of necessity are often focussed on the bottom line, to justify their corporate status. Vertical integration does not produce a lot of quality literature.

A book such as "If I Did It"--heck, you can practically hear those cash registers working! The tastelessness of the book was obviously a second consideration compared with the money it could make.

None of this system, as far as anyone outside it knows, has changed. And it is hardly HarperCollins that is the problem. It is all the large "mainstream" publishers which carry large bureaucracies and feel pressure to bring in the scheckels.

So nothing in the long term has really been fixed by dumping Judith Regan. The structure that allowed her to get as far as she did remains. The greed which prompted the OJ book remains. The lack of the people involved in taking personal responsibility remains.

There not only are no guarantees another OJ-style book is nolt around the corner, it is virtually guaranteed there eventually will be one. There is money to be made in sensationally exploiting tragedies.

Are there a lot of good people in mainstream publishing? I think so, yes. Do a lot of people in mainstream publishing want to publish good, thought provoking books? I think so, yes. And some thought provoking books are definitely published. But the internal politics, the pressure to mass market, to bring in money, over rules everything.

So I'm not applauding. Not yet. When the thought provoking books get the same publicity budgets as the sensational crap books, then maybe I'll start clapping. A little.

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