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Has commerce bypassed culture?; Books: The Culture and Commerce of Publishing, by Lewis A. Coser, Charles Kadushin, Walter W. Powell. New York: Basic Books: 411 pp. $19.

By James Sloan AllenJames Sloan Allen is a cultural historian and critic, living in New York City. / February 12, 1982



The world of book publishing has always been a world torn between cultural conscience and commercial necessity. Books may educate and inspire, but they are also products in the marketplace to be bought and sold. And from the days of Gutenberg and Cervantes on down, they have been bought and sold for entertainment and profit no less than for high-minded purposes.

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Just how the publishing industry plays out these ends nowadays has recently aroused the curiosity and ire of authors, social critics, and academicians alike. Last year a Writers' Congress was convened in New York to dramatize the grievances of authors and formulate remedies. Last year also brought Thomas Whiteside's lengthy excoriation of publishers in ''The Blockbuster Complex.'' Now we have the sober study by Coser, Kadushin, and Powell -- and much of it makes depressing reading.

Observing the many elements that make up the book-publishing industry, from editorial decisionmaking, to marketing, to reviewing, the authors -- all academic sociologists specializing in the ways social arrangements influence intellectual life -- concentrate on how book publishers act as ''gatekeepers of ideas'' by determining what gets into print and what does not. Some of the findings are predictable, some are not, and many are downright disheartening.

Coser and his colleagues discovered to their surprise that publishers are so disparate that few generalizations apply to them all: mass-market trade publishers have almost nothing in common with cottage operations run by a couple of people, and neither of these much resembles university presses that enjoy subsidies and serve small, specialized audiences. The one rule that does seem to hold for all publishers is one all would-be authors should heed. It is that few manuscripts ever get into print unless the author is known to an editor or has the backing of an intermediary, such as an agent or academic patron. Unsolicited manuscripts that come in ''over the transom'' almost always go out again the same way. And this means that the publishing world is very much an insiders' world, where familiarity and influence are the currency of success.

This rule points to another fact of publishing today, and one that the authors view with just alarm: the influence informally exercised by the old networks of editors, authors, and patrons is giving way throughout trade publishing to that exercised by dealmakers who see books as ''properties'' to be exploited for all their financial worth.

Chief among these people is the agent who finds or generates a ''property'' and then works out a sequence of marketing ploys to carry the book idea from the hardback publisher through mass-paperback distribution and on into movies, television, T-shirts, and toys. The profits can be immense, as can the author's proceeds. But such marketing strategies have the effect of turning trade publishing into ''an integral part of the entertainment business,'' a trend abetted by the vast financial resources now available to publishers through their conglomerate owners and by a ''revolution in selling books'' that is replacing the independent bookseller by the chain store. Although editors say they feel no direct pressures to publish books suited to these mass-marketing practices, these practices in themselves must lessen the chance of profit on all other kinds of books and thus drive those books from the shelves.

This metamorphosis provides a central theme of ''Books.'' And a sad theme it is. For it signals that commerce is consuming culture in the world of publishing to a degree never before possible or imagined, with the results that quality is being leveled, variety diminished, and tastes homogenized. And this confirms one's melancholy impression that consumer capitalism is pressing cultural life ever closer to the condition of entertainment, sensational and spontaneous in its satisfactions, passive and anti-intellectual in its consequences.

One can only wish the authors had looked further beyond their sociological findings to consider more of the cultural causes and effects. We never see, for instance, how ideological biases influence the content of the books published, nor do we see the influence on publishing of shifts in the cultural life at large, such as the deterioration of humanistic learning, the sway of democratic education, the ascendency of visual technology, and the cult of entertainment.

When the book is written that addresses such issues adequately, we will see the commerce and culture of publishing in its proper context. Meanwhile, this sociological foray has cleared some important ground.