Does giving the public what it wants mean finding the lowest common denominator of taste? The question is central to television programming and newspaper coverage, with producers and editors often justifying sensationalism and vulgarity on the grounds of democratic preference. Now, as Thomas Whiteside demonstrates in "The Blockbuster Complex," the question has become critical for publishing as well, as new market forces lead the industry from concern with quality to quantity, from the best books to best-sellers.
Interest in profits, Whiteside concedes, has always been part of publishing. The Difference today, he warns, is the concentration on pure volume, resulting from the takeover of many independent, family-owned publishing companies by media conglomerates.
RCA now owns Random House; ITT owns Bobbs-Merrill; Gulf & Western owns Simons & Schuster; CBS owns Holt, Rinehart & Winston, praegar, the Popular Library, and Fawcett Books -- the list goes on and on. The computerized merchandising and distributing facilities of these corporations allow them to dominate publishing as no companies did before: In 1977, the 10 largest hardcover publishers accounted for 60 percent of total sales, and the eight largest paperback publishers, 84 percent.
This concentration has resulted in increases in total volume, but a declining number of titles. As one publishing industry official explained, "We publish more books by publishing fewerm books."
Whiteside argues that overemphasis on pure volume might eliminate quality considerations from the editorial process. The interest of the large conglomerates, he points out, is often in books that can be sold for paperback reprint and then made into TV shows or movies. In effect, he claims, the goal is neither book nor movie but a "blockbuster package."
The main beneficiaries of this trend are the people who write blockbusters. Their contracts read like those of baseball's most expensive free agents. but the all-or-nothing pursuit of the Big Book means that, while Judith Krantz and Mario Puzo get millions, the writer of a quality first or second novel gets at best a smidgen of an advance and marginal promotion and publicity, Whiteside complains. In his view, this results in the loss of whole classes of books, "not really unsalable at all, but only unsalable in large numbers."
Blockbusters also aid the the supermarketlike bookstore chains, such as B. Dalton and Waldenbooks. Because of their high volume of sales, these stores get larger whosale discounts than independent booksellers, thus helping nudge many of the independents out of business. Moreover, with computer systems tracking purchases on a day-to-day basis, they are highly efficient at removing slow-selling titles from the shelves, thus minimizing the opportunity for a worthwhile but slow-moving book to catch on.
Whiteside also warns of other losses, including the rapid turnover of editorial personnel, which prevents the kind of close relationship authors and editors often developed in the past while shaping and pruning some of te better works.
Despite the dark side, Whiteside is not wholly negative. He points out that well-known authors have taken strong stands against these trends, and that some companies. such as Houghton Mifflin in Boston, successfully resisted takeover attempts.Whiteside concludes, however, that pressure on the remaining independent publishers is likely to continue, and that government is nor more likely to control mergers in publishing than in oil.
The Blockbuster Complex," published originally as a series of articles in Tne New York, offers a stern warning. Its only shortcoming, it seems to me, is ignoring the backwardness and elitism of parts of the literary establishment -- particularly the self-appointed avant-garde at universities --which has served to assist the corruption of public taste. As Camus said when he accepted a Nobel Prize in 1955, "The more art specializes, the further proceeds public.