At Issue

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 207

The old newspaper reporter’s adage has it that freedom of the press extends only to those people who own one. The material philosophy that leads to this conclusion can also be applied to the business of book publishing. Newspapers are intended to be ephemeral products, lasting only a day or two before they are discarded. Books are designed to be more permanent, lasting through a few readings, in the example of mass market paperbacks, to texts designed to last for centuries, as in the case of volumes intended for libraries. As such, books require larger capital investments to produce than do more short-lived forms of information.

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Because of the size of investment necessary to produce and distribute books, strict editorial policies direct most publishing houses. As competition has increased over the years, theory would have it that a freer range of ideas should be the result, expressed by the metaphorical phrase “the marketplace of ideas.” That the opposite is the case has been noted by many critics of the modern publishing industry, and many have equated the current trend toward fewer and fewer publishing outlets as a form of censorship exercised by the multinational corporations that own most of the major European and American publishing companies.

Commodification and Media Ownership

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Although the twentieth century has witnessed numerous examples of outright suppression of book publishing, such as the banning and burning of books in Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and the Stalinist Soviet Union, these forms of censorship proved to be at best temporary stops against the free expression of ideas in printed form. A more significant phenomenon has been the century-long trend toward the consolidation of media outlets into fewer and fewer hands, and even by the absorption of book publishers into manufacturing conglomerates that have little or no history, or even interest, in the written word—at least outside of the context of profitability. This phenomenon is often referred to as “commodification,” the process through which an item that has often been seen as having unique distinguishing characteristics is turned into a parcel of homogenized commerce.

Commodification takes place when the exchange value, or unit cost and profitability of an item, comes to be perceived as more important than the use value, or long-term usefulness, of the same. An economy, such as those of most of the major manufacturing countries, which is based on short-term profitability instead of long-term gain, is particularly susceptible to the commodification of its cultural products. A book, which is traditionally viewed as a vessel holding ideas, is instead turned into another product of the entertainment industry; or even more likely, as just another consumer product, on the same level as a candy bar or a cosmetic product. Values such as the indeterminate and subjective “intrinsic literary merit” are given little room on the spreadsheet of the multinational corporation.

Even less likely to reach printed form in such an economy are those ideas deemed to be critical of, or even dangerous to, the operation of such a system of profit and loss. Linguist Noam Chomsky refers to this system of publishing as a “propaganda” system and maintains that only those messages which reinforce the publishing hierarchy are ever likely to find their way into the popular press. A case in point is the nonpublication of African American writer Richard Wright’s second autobiography, American Hunger, which he wrote during the 1940’s, shortly after the publication of his acclaimed and popular first volume of his life story, Black Boy—which was denounced in Congress by Southern legislators appalled by its cruelly accurate portrait of life in the American South. Wright’s publisher deemed American Hunger to be too incendiary to print in the 1940’s, and its message of civil rights and economic justice was not made available to the reading public until 1977, many years after Wright’s death.

Two individuals have been given a great deal of credit for the construction of the modern publishing system: Australian-born publisher Rupert Murdoch and German media tycoon Reinhardt Mohn. Murdoch began his career as a publisher of tabloid newspapers, then branched out into other media enterprises, such as the Fox television network, and book publishing. He eventually purchased the venerable American publishing house of Harper & Row, which in its most recent incarnation is known as HarperCollins. HarperCollins soon enough became a venue for works of a markedly right-wing persuasion, such as the one written by Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Newt Gingrich, To Renew America (1995). Coincidentally, perhaps, legislation favored by Murdoch, which has allowed for the further unrestricted growth of his empire, has won support in Congress.

Mohn has taken a different approach to the consolidation of publishing enterprises. Mohn came to admire the American system while being held as a prisoner of war in the United States during World War II. Mohn favored a direct approach to marketing, the book club approach, and following his successes he and his fellow German businessmen were able to purchase many famous literary publishing concerns. American literary giants Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, whose list has included the works of many Nobel Prize winners, and Henry Holt, are both now under German ownership. The publishing industry worldwide has been hit by many cutbacks because of these consolidating practices, mainly in the areas of literary publication.

Vertical Integration

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 336

Vertical integration is the ownership of the means of production and distribution by a single individual or entity. In book publishing, vertical integration can take two forms. In its simplest form, the publisher can open up a mail-order division to market products. By avoiding the normal mode of distribution through wholesalers and independent book dealers, such publishers can achieve much higher margins of profit. Not coincidentally, this system of integration also gives the publisher greater control over the contents of the books published. Once a target audience has been established, the publisher can give readers what they want, based on their past purchases—which are typically entertainment and diversion books—and can even influence its tastes. If the enterprise becomes large enough, as it has with some of the larger book clubs, it can begin to affect the editorial policies of an entire industry and function as a means of book advertising as well as merchandising.

The second form vertical integration may take is that of the “superstore,” or mass retailer, a department store of books. Many giant booksellers, such as Barnes & Noble, are affiliated with publishing conglomerates. The books found in these superstores tend to be narrowly chosen for target audiences, and thus the range of expression found in such stores is limited by concerns of marketing. Additionally, regional differences are erased by such conglomerations of texts, and a superstore in Tacoma, Washington, for instance, may very well contain essentially the same books as one located in Huntsville, Alabama—much as grocery stores are the same throughout the country. Again, because of the economic relationship with the publisher, superstores can offer books for sale at greater discounts than can independent booksellers, who must go through wholesale suppliers. Independent booksellers, who have long been regarded as the primary means of ensuring the free expression and dissemination of ideas, face an ever grimmer economic prospect because of the practices of corporate book publishers and corporate booksellers, who have increasingly come to be one and the same.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 194

Two works by Raymond Williams serve as useful introductions to the larger social forces that influence book publishing: Culture and Society (New York: Oxford University Press, 1956) examines how the products of culture (the book being an emblematic example) came to be thought of differently over the centuries and how the meaning of both words in some ways reflects the relationship between “cultural” products and the larger society. Williams’ Keywords (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976) presents short, useful discussions of the ever-changing meaning of bookish words such as “literature,” “fiction,” and “novel.” Part one of The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (1818), edited by William Temple Franklin, gives a fascinating insider’s account of the rise of book publishing in the United States. Friction with the Market (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986) by Michael Anesko gives a detailed account of the birth of mass publishing in the late nineteenth century through an examination of the publishing history of the works of one writer, American novelist Henry James. An omnibus examination of the often adversarial relationship between women writers and publishers is found in Women in Print, edited by Joan E. Hartman and Ellen Messer-Davidow (New York: MLA, 1982).

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