Stay Hungry

Surviving the book wars and outfoxing the wolves with the Hungry Mind's David Unowsky

In the Table of Contents, the late lunch rush is beginning to die down. Unowsky, however, is winding up. "When publishing is in the control of a few hands, you're only going to see tried-and-true commercial ideas that can be packaged with movies and TV shows."

Unowsky points out that mainstream publishing is now dominated by only seven media conglomerates: Hearst, Time Warner, News Corporation, Pearson, Bertelsmann, Viacom, and S.I. Newhouse. Thus the books that end up on the shelves of the Hungry Mind or the nearby Barnes and Noble are largely determined by a small group of power brokers. And in the world of massive multimedia corporations, those power brokers making decisions from the top are less and less likely to be "book people." According to Unowsky, as media conglomerates like the colossus Bertelsmann AG struggle to wring high profits out of the traditionally low-margin publishing business, the books that actually make it to those shelves will become increasingly homogenized.

Lisa Bullard, marketing director at local independent Graywolf Press, explains: "It's a cultural risk. You're looking at seven people making decisions about what books get published. Mass marketing is based on the notion that everyone wants the same thing. They want to convince a gay man in Minneapolis and an 80-year old woman in Utah that they should want to read the same books."

In the worst cases, publishing decisions are made not on the basis of economics, but on that of political expediency. As an example, Unowsky points to the questionable boardroom hustling surrounding a recent memoir by former Hong Kong governor Chris Patton. HarperCollins, an arm of the media concern controlled by mogul Rupert Murdoch, quashed the book because it threatened Murdoch's media interests in mainland China. It was a good book that was nearly killed because it was bad for business--the sort of thing that Unowsky claims would become increasingly common in a world controlled exclusively by media conglomerates with their fingers in publishing, print media, and retail bookselling.

Mass publishing is also bad for midlist titles--books that are unlikely to become bestsellers. Because tax disincentives make it extremely unprofitable for publishers to maintain backlists, books that don't immediately become bestsellers can go out of print within months of release. University and small nonprofit presses pick up much of the slack by keeping books in print longer and publishing titles that might otherwise never find a home, but smaller publishers also rely heavily on independent bookstores to hand-sell their books through in-store promotion or recommendations to customers. If independent bookstores disappear, Unowsky argues, independent publishing may soon follow.

Book wholesaling and distribution, the crucial link between retail stores and publishers, is now dominated by only two major players: Baker & Taylor and Ingram Book Group. (For a profile of an alternative distributor, St. Paul's Consortium, see "St. Paul's Other Book Baron," p. 23.) Despite assurances of fair play, if Barnes and Noble were to control Ingram, they could control when and where books are delivered, essentially forcing independents to buy from their competitors. (Barnes and Noble could, at the least, collect extensive information about their competitors' stock and sales.) Federal regulators may stop the deal, but Unowsky is not optimistic. "If I'm having a cynical day, I think it has a lot to do with whether Hillary Clinton runs for senator in New York," he says. "Leonard Riggio [CEO of Barnes and Noble] is a big contributor to the Democratic party, so if she's running, they'll find a way to allow the Ingram deal. That's politics."

As Unowsky expatiates on the threat of media monopolies, he grows visibly agitated. His hands dart to the breast pocket of his shirt, hold for a second, then dive beneath the tablecloth. He shreds sugar packets as he speaks and adds them to a mound of paper scraps at the center of the table.

"Those guys control reviewers, cable TV, and newspapers. The Rupert Murdochs of the world limit ideas, make them commercial to sell goods rather than promote discussion. The more conglomerated it gets, when they determine what gets published and what sells, the more those people control culture and information. If they control information," he adds, with an emphatic and unprovoked assault on the table, "they control the truth."

 

Today America's culture industry resembles not so much a polarized battlefield as a messy microcosm of Darwinian evolution, which has as its organizing principle a particularly virulent form of corporate synergy and which lends itself naturally to survival of the blandest. For some, the survival of indies is, thus, not only a matter of nostalgia or fair business, but an ideological cause: Independent publishers and booksellers are promoting themselves as the last, best hope for intellectual biodiversity.

In the meantime, the giants seem to be launching their own campaigns to speed the process of natural selection. Barnes and Noble and Amazon.com recently started discounting New York Times bestsellers by 50 percent--a game that the independents cannot afford to play. Perhaps, in the struggle between online retailers, ravenous chains, and plucky independents, survivors like the Hungry Mind represent the evolution of the new independent: a business model that is as much about perception as selection and price. As David Unowsky well knows, the new independent thrives on both an aggressive, pragmatic retail strategy and a carefully cultivated popular image as an alternative to aggressive, pragmatic corporate stores.

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