NEW YORK — THIRTY years ago, the business of book publishing was a treehouse for the literary crowd. Today it's a corporate fortress where editors and MBAs push to sell more books to more kinds of people than ever before.
Some say the change is good business. Others say it spells trouble for serious books.
In the last five years, media conglomerates like Viacom, Paramount, and Time-Warner scooped up publishing houses, shut down literary imprints, and jettisoned editors.
Consumer spending on adult trade books (books for general readers) rose to $6.3 billion in 1993, up 60 percent since 1988. But industry analysts say the increase comes from record-breaking hits like Robert James Waller's ``The Bridges of Madison County,'' a book most literary pundits dismiss as pulp.
The financial success of such books is luring publishers away from fine literature, critics continue.
``The larger companies have imposed new profit expectations on publishing houses that require runs of 20,000 to 25,000 books,'' says Andre Schiffrin, who heads up the not-for-profit New Press here. ``Most good books can't do this.''
Some of the best new books, in Mr. Schiffrin's opinion, are relegated to tiny press runs, limited distribution, and high prices.
For example, ``A Moment of War,'' by British author Laurie Lee, was turned down by 12 American commercial houses before the New Press picked it up, Schiffrin says. Despite excellent reviews, the New Press sold a modest 12,500 copies, a nice tally for them, but hardly enough for a larger house.
``What we're heading for is a publishing company run by a movie company run by a cable company run by a telephone company with a bunch of computer subsidiaries,'' says Jim Sitter, executive director of the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses in New York. These firms are good at serving the market's tastes, but they are less adept at ``putting quality first and dealing with diversity,'' Mr. Sitter says.
In their defense, big publishers say all this criticism comes from an isolated group of literary snobs whose influence and relevance have waned in the industry's expansion.
``We don't publish for the literary community, we publish for the public,'' says Alberto Vitale, president of Random House. ``The literary community is only a small part of that.''
Those who say the major houses reject important literature for bestsellers don't know what they're talking about, Mr. Vitale says. ``It's impossible to sustain a publishing effort on bestsellers alone, because you never know when you're going to have one.''
While he argues that consolidation has added ``strength and buoyancy'' to the book business by allowing it to expand, Vitale says the much-maligned ``bottom line'' is no more important now than it has ever been.
``All houses large and small have survived because they were profitable,'' Vitale continues. ``Only a few have survived with handouts. Few people think that book publishing should be a charity. There's no such thing as a publisher that can survive by losing money.''
ACCORDING to Steven Rubin, an editor at Doubleday whose clients include John Grisham (``The Firm'' and ``The Client''), good books are always being published, and arguments to the contrary are ``a bunch of hooey.''
``You have to define what makes something a `good' book,'' he says. ``I've read `entertainment books' that are just as well structured and nicely written as anything else.''
Mr. Rubin attributes bigger marketing budgets and promotional campaigns to the fact that booksellers - who can return unsold books to publishers for credit - can't keep track of the vast number of new books that come out every year. Often, he says, a good book is lost in the crowd: ``You can't just promote a good book by shipping it out and hoping it sticks.''
Schiffrin argues that the new emphasis on mass-market advertising discriminates against books that advance unorthodox viewpoints or are solely intended to contribute to a debate on important social and political issues. As a rule, he says, large corporations avoid controversy. ``If you say that every idea has to prove beforehand that it can pay its own way, you're not only censoring ideas, but you're also, by definition, creating a kind of conservative output: You're feeding into received ideas.''
According to Alan Gottesman, a publishing industry analyst at Paine Webber, the economics of publishing are not attractive.
``It's a hit-driven industry,'' he says. ``On a third of the books you lose money, on a third you break even, and on a third you hopefully make enough money to carry the rest. You will make more money on ancillary rights than you will in book sales.''
Indeed, the concept of ``intellectual property'' has sparked corporate interest. Companies that own television stations and movie companies want the rights to original creative work, Mr. Gottesman says, in order to profit from its proliferation in movies, TV shows, CD-ROMs - even T-shirts and lunch boxes.
Media conglomerates are not as concerned with books as they are with what's inside them, Gottesman says. For them, the issue is not preserving literature in the form of a book, but delivering its contents in a way that people will want to buy it. ``If you've created a story that the public wants to consume,'' he says, ``how they consume it is secondary.''