There is an essay making the rounds of the Twitterverse by the distinguished editor Jonathan Galassi; it appears on the Op-Ed page of the New York Times, no stranger to good editors. The title is “There’s More to Publishing than Meets the Screen,” and that “more” is all the work a publisher does to bring a book into the world. The occasion of the piece is the recent announcement that the estate of William Styron was seeking to publish ebook versions of some of Styron’s works, and Styron’s original publisher, Random House, would play no role in it. How could this be? Galassi wonders. Random House helped to make Styron successful and thus deserves a place in the arrangement. The specifics of “place” are not spelled out, but we can assume that it means money or outright control of the management of the digital rights to Styron’s works.
I was very sorry to see this piece, as it seems to me to both entirely right from a moral point of view, but also sadly out of touch with what publishers actually do and why they are valued. This is despite the fact that Galassi is among the very best, and if he doesn’t know why people value publishers (at least that segment of the public that does), who does?
This story awakened memories in me, as Galassi (who could not possibly know this) was a major figure in my life. Many years ago, when I was a cub working at Rutgers University Press, I chanced upon an article of his in Publishers Weekly entitled “Publishing as a Seditious Activity.” At least I think that’s what it was called; I can’t find it anywhere on the Web. The argument of that essay was that publishers had to publish what had to be published even if the business case for such an action was hard or impossible to make. I immediately wrote Galassi and asked if I could meet him. He courteously made time for me at his office in New York City and advised me on how to pursue my career.
It was with Galassi’s example before me years later that I was prompted to fight to put Encyclopaedia Britannica online, despite the opposition of the Board. I was head of product development at the time (1992) and had managed to sneak some money into the budget to create Encyclopedia Britannica’s first CD-ROM. But I knew the CD-ROM was a useless publishing format. I was already examining online venues. By March of 1993, we had discovered the Internet and knew precisely what we were going to do. (As a point of reference, the Mosaic browser did not become available until six months later.) We just never told the Board until the product was ready to launch. I hate to think what would have happened to me had Britannica Online not been immediately successful. Sedition was not welcome in an institution that proudly asserted that it had been on this earth since 1768, making it only slightly older than some members of the Board.
Galassi’s moral argument to the Styron estate is that publishers invest time, money, and expertise into an author’s work and deserve to share in the rewards. Thus, the publisher of the printed book should participate in some fashion in the publication of the digital book, as the digital edition benefited from the editorial labors of the printed book.
The problem with this argument is not that it is not true (it is definitely true) but that authors cannot hear it; they don’t want to be beholden to any editor for the shape of their work, though they will diplomatically compliment editors in the Acknowledgments—typically by noting that an editor “helped me fulfill my vision.” My vision. The line-by-line editing of Random House’s celebrated Bob Loomis and the assiduous work of the copy editors can all be read as strikes against the author. As a sales pitch, Galassi’s comment may be heard as something of an insult.
At least that is how I hear it. “Dear author. You are justly proud to be the possessor of a bauxite mine. When you work with us professional publishers, we will process your bauxite into high-grade aluminum. Then we will use our extensive marketing network to shape that aluminum into various aluminum products, from the siding of a renovated home to the instruments in a space capsule. You must be very proud to be part of the extraction industry!” Of course, authors are not part of the extraction industry, nor even of the publishing industry. Authors belong to the recognition industry, and successful publishers court authors not by telling them how much they can help them but by alerting them to the broad public that is waiting to offer acclamation.
And this is what Galassi misses. He correctly notes that a publisher (in this case, Random House) will, among other things, introduce an author’s work to magazines and newspapers for publicity and rights sales, but doesn’t see the parallel universe that authors hope to participate in and e-books are ideally suited for. This is the online world, where not all of a publishers’ connections are the cozy ones around a midtown Manhattan lunch table. In an essay about digital editions of Styron’s work, there is not a single reference to Google or Twitter, though there is a plea that print will not die. An author or an estate may justly ask whether the publisher that worked so hard to bring a book into the world is the right entity to steward a book through cyberspace.
And so in the end Galassi’s argument rests on the high holy ground of moral rights, whereas authors and their heirs occupy the low ground of economic interest. We should not be surprised to see such an argument in the opinion pages of the New York Times, which increasingly has only its moral authority to rely on.
Or Galassi—and Random House—could change the story. Instead of talking about editorial prowess, the argument could be about online marketing, the building of an online community, the monetization opportunities of the author’s specially prepared Web site, the ability to monitor Web traffic and user activity through private administrative accounts, and the inventive management of the emerging online value chain. I hope Galassi is successful in winning the hearts of authors and their agents, but I would put more effort into appealing to their sense of themselves.