Book publishing -- and bookkeeping

"The more books we read," said that gifted reader and bibliophile Cyril Connolly, "the sooner we perceive that the true function of a writer is to produce a masterpiece."

This romantic view of literature was once shared by publishers in their more idealistic moments.

Would any business -- say, an ice cream manufacturer -- keep on churning out a flavor once it was proven to be a loss item? And yet this is what book publishers have done in the case of poetry, as well as most short story collections and an awful lot of first novels.

Out of snobbery or earnestness, the publisher has assumed a measure of dedication as part of his role. He has made a compact with himself and his public that he is a keeper of a flame, ambitious for something more than just money.

This chivalrous pose or chivalrous reality -- depending on the individual case -- is being rudely threatened these days. A three-part series by Thomas Whiteside in the New Yorker, done with that magazine's extreme thoroughness, learned no doubt that book publishing -- perhaps the last of the 19th century gentleman's businesses -- has come into the 20th century with a vengeance. Meaning, the bottom line is no longer a footnote, but, well, the bottom line.m A two-part series in the New York Times leads to the same conclusion -- that the making of books is now dominated by the keeping of books.

Who is to blame? One is invited to pick one's favorite villain.

Over here, with accountants in tow, is the Wicked Congolomerate, twirling his moustache as he buys up all but a handful of the old family publishers -- left like widows with their homesteads foreclosed.

Always lurking in the shadows, whispering, "Pst! Let's make a deal," is the Sly Agent. He regards the printed page as a mere excuse for screen rights. His aim is to turn books into the software of the entertainment industry, as one observer has put it.

Also swinging a mean black cape is the Paperback Giant. No longer content simply to be a reprinter for the supermarket and airport racks, the Paperback Giant wants to get in on the selection of the original product, figuring that all those top dollars entitle him -- like $3,208,873 for the rights to Judith Krantz's "Princess Daisy."

The newest menace on the scene is the Big Bookstore Chain, making his sinister influence felt by sending back to the publishers any titles that don't sell like hotcakes. (B. Dalton forced publishers to eat $7 million worth of stock in July and August alone).

Whoever is the villain, whoever is to blame, everybody seems cross about the sloppy editing, the cheap paper, the shrinking backlists of titles.

Publishers, literary agents, and editors have given up their old "artspeak" to talk in the mode formerly associated with Hollywood moguls or television executives attacked by ratings anxiety:

"A book is either a hit or you can't give it away."

"You hit the jackpot or nothing."

Something like the star system has, in fact, descended upon publishing, with a few authors promoted to fame and fortune on the basis of their hot subjects and talk-show personalities.

Meanwhile, the best-seller list is filled with diet books, "I'm-O.K.-You're-O.K." manuals, scenarios about the next Great Depression, and confessional autobiographies of movie stars -- now stars of two media.

We know that junk books have been with us at least as long as junk food. In his essay "Of Books," Montaigne, some four centuries ago, spoke of "such like trash writings."

But no matter how grubby Grub Street got in the past, the Connolly assumption was always there -- an article of faith buried in the junk pile. The question today is not: Are masterpieces being printed? They seldom are. But: Are masterpieces still believed in?

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