NEW YORK CITY is the center of the book publishing world, the corporate headquarters of the ``literary industrial complex.'' So when the city's largest publisher, Random House Inc., had a public brawl this spring with one of its subsidiaries, Pantheon Books, much was at stake. The ostensible cause of the row was the resignation of the managing editor of Pantheon. He claimed that his editorial discretion and autonomy were compromised by the corporate parent. Well-known authors picketed on Manhattan streets. The literary elite hurled thinly disguised charges of censorship. Random House management replied ``nonsense,'' and added that there is no logical connection between telling the management of Pantheon they can't keep printing books that lose money - millions of dollars - and censorship. Business retrenchment should not be confused with censorship.
What should a reader think? Get some distance from Manhattan and the answer is easy. Cries of foul against Random House stem from a serious misperception about fundamental changes taking place in the book business and a refusal to adapt to them. Seeing a moral equivalence between Ayatollah Khomeini's book reviewing legacy (censorship) and businesses that pay homage to market forces (Random House) won't wash. The charge of censorship is a smoke screen, since books - on anything one can imagine - can be bought or borrowed almost universally.
Jason Epstein, writing in the ``New York Review of Books,'' makes the obvious, but no less radical, observation: ``Book publishing can be done only by hand, one book at a time, like any custom work or like writing itself, though with respect to writers, publishers are mere valets or midwives.''
One part of the book business is at its core a cottage industry, a handcraft of wordcraft in an age of lasers, satellite communications, computers, and television.
But the role of ``valets or midwives,'' the publishers who take a completed manuscript and turn it into a printed book for a pair of hands and eyes (many, many hands and eyes, they hope), continues to change. The business trends of the last decade are proving counterproductive: corporate mergers; six-figure advances to leading authors; super-agents who negotiate these advances; and the overdependence on large bookstore chains located mostly in shopping malls, which earn most of their profits on a small number of blockbuster books.
Good writers will usually find publishers, albeit not always large commercial ones. Booksellers will always seek readers, who, it is safe to assume, will continue to seek good writers. Regardless of the size of a publishing house or the number of titles on bookstore shelves, publishers are not selling sausages. Thus the inescapable truism: Publishers must make money if books that writers write are to be read by an audience of more than 10.