Surprising survivors

When it comes to books, we've been trained to think of all things big as bad: A few publishing conglomerates will absorb all the small houses, eradicate the tastes of independent-minded editors, and dilute the world of literature with a flood of bestselling thrillers.

But, as Michael Crichton suggested in "Jurassic Park," nature doesn't always evolve as we planned. Yes, an alarmingly small number of giants rule the publishing world, but a funny thing happened on the way to monopoly.

It turns out that the mammoth media companies have more interest than we expected in promoting small, quality brands. In just the past year, ABC/Disney allowed its Hyperion publishing house to spawn an eclectic little imprint called Theia. Bertelsmann's Random House opened Strivers Row to focus on nine titles a year by African-American authors. And Pearson's Penguin Putnam gave birth to a small literary imprint called BlueHen.

In each case, discerning editors have been given relatively free reign to pursue their own tastes, sheltered at least somewhat from the blockbuster pressure that produces those pyramids of dreck in the center of the nation's chain bookstores.

A new novel from BlueHen provides a case in point. "The Deadwood Beetle," by Mylène Dressler (reviewed on p. 19), is the kind of quiet, sophisticated story that was sure to be ignored by the giant media companies or relegated to the mythical world of e-books.

Financially, literary fiction is rarely profitable, but miraculously, the deep-pocketed conglomerates seem willing to tolerate vernal ponds, like BlueHen, where interesting authors like Dressler can still thrive.

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