Burning Books (or Rather Book Companies)

By Tom Engelhardt. Originally published at TomDispatch.

No one listened better than Studs.  For those of you old enough to remember, that’s Studs Terkel, of course. The most notable thing about him in person, though, was this: the greatest interviewer of his moment, perhaps of any moment, never stopped talking, except, of course, when he was listening to produce one of his memorable bestselling oral histories — he essentially created the form — ranging from Working and Hard Times to The Good War.

I still remember him calling my house. He was old, his hearing was going, and he couldn’t tell that my teenage son had rushed to answer the phone, hoping it was one of his friends. Instead, finding himself on with Studs talking a mile a minute, my son would begin yelling desperately, “Dad! Dad!” 

With that — and a recent publishing disaster — in mind this morning, I took my little stepladder to the back of my tiny study, put it in front of my bookcase and climbed up until I could reach the second to the top shelf, the one that still has Studs’s old volumes lined up on it. Among others, I pulled down one of his later oral histories, Will the Circle Be Unbroken?: Reflections on Death, Rebirth, and Hunger for a Faith.  In its acknowledgments, I found this: “Were it not for Tom Engelhardt, the nonpareil of editors, who was uncanny in cutting the fat from the lean (something I found impossible to do) and who gave this work much of its form, I’d still be in the woods.”

And that still makes me so proud. But let me rush to add that, in the years of his best-known work when I was at Pantheon Books (1976 to 1990), I was never his main editor. That honor was left to the remarkable André Schiffrin who started Studs, like so many other memorable authors, on his book career; ran that publishing house in his own unique way; found me in another life; and turned me into the editor he sensed I already naturally was. 

For me, those were remarkable years.  Even then, André was a genuinely rare figure in mainstream publishing — a man who wanted the world to change, a progressive who couldn’t have been a more adventurous publisher.  In fact, I first met him in the midst of the Vietnam War, at a time when I was still an Asian-scholar-to-be and involved in organizing a group, the Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars, that had produced an antiwar book, The Indochina Story, that André had decided to publish.

In my years at Pantheon, he transformed me into a book editor and gave me the leeway to find works I thought might, in some modest fashion, help alter our world (or rather the way we thought about it) for the better. Those included, among others, the rediscovery of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s early-twentieth-century utopian masterpiece Herland; the publishing of Unforgettable Fire, Pictures Drawn by Atomic Bomb Survivors (not long before, in the early 1980s, an antinuclear movement in need of it would arise in this country); Nathan Huggins’s monumental Black Odyssey; Eduardo Galeano’s unique three-volume Memory of Fire history of the Americas; Eva Figes’s novel Light; John Berger’s Another Way of Telling; Orville Schell’s “Watch Out for the Foreign Guests!”: China Encounters the West; and even — my mother was a cartoonist — the Beginner’s comic book series, including Freud for Beginners, Marx for Beginners, Darwin for Beginners, and, of course, Art Spiegelman’s MAUS, to mention just a modest number of works I was responsible for ushering into existence here in America.

The Second Time Around

What a chance, in my own fashion and however modestly, to lend a hand in changing and improving our world. And then, in a flash, in 1990 it all came to an end.  In those years, publishing was already in the process (still ongoing) of conglomerating into ever fewer monster operations.  Si Newhouse, the owner of Condé Nast and no fan of progressive publishing, had by that time taken over Random House, the larger operation in which Pantheon was lodged and he would, in the end, get rid of André essentially because of his politics and the kind of books we published. 

We editors and most of the rest of the staff quit in protest, claiming we had been “Newhoused.” (Writers like Barbara Ehrenreich and Kurt Vonnegut would join us in that protest.) The next thing I knew, I was out on the street, both literally and figuratively, and my life as a scrambling freelancer began. Yes, Pantheon still existed in name, but not the place I had known and loved. It was a bitter moment indeed, both personally and politically, watching as something so meaningful, not just to me but to so many readers, was obliterated in that fashion. It seemed like a publishing version of capitalism run amok. 

And then, luck struck a second time. A few years later, one of my co-editors and friends at Pantheon, Sara Bershtel, launched a new publishing house, Metropolitan Books, at Henry Holt Publishers.  It seemed like a miracle to me then.  Suddenly, I found myself back in the heartland of mainstream publishing, a “consulting editor” left to do my damnedest, thanks to Sara (herself an inspired and inspiring editor). I was, so to speak, back in business. 

And as at Pantheon, it would prove an unforgettable experience.  I mean, honestly, where else in mainstream publishing would Steve Fraser and I have been able to spend years producing a line-up of books in a series we called, graphically enough, The American Empire Project?  (Hey, it even has a Wikipedia entry!)  In that same period, Sara would publish memorable book after memorable book like Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed and Thomas Frank’s What‘s the Matter with Kansas?, some of which made it onto bestseller lists, while I was putting out volumes by authors whose names will be familiar indeed to the readers of TomDispatch, including Andrew Bacevich, James Carroll, Noam Chomsky, Michael Klare, Chalmers Johnson, Alfred McCoy, Jonathan Schell, and Nick Turse.  And it felt comforting somehow to be back in a situation where I could at least ensure that books I thought might make some modest (or even immodest) difference in an ever more disturbed and disturbing America would see the light of day. 

I’ve written elsewhere about the strange moment when, for instance, I first decided that I had to publish what became Chalmers Johnson’s remarkable, deeply insightful, and influential book Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire on the future nightmares my country was then seeding into the rest of the planet. Think, for instance, of Osama bin Laden who, Johnson assured his readers well before 9/11 happened, we had hardly heard the last of. (Not surprisingly, only after 9/11 did that book become a bestseller!)  Or consider Noam Chomsky’s Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance, which I published in 2003. So many years later, its very title still sums up remarkably well the dilemma we face on a planet where what’s on the mind of top foreign policy officials in Washington these days is — god save us! — a new cold war with China. We’re talking, in other words, about a place where the two major greenhouse gas emitters on Planet Earth can’t agree on a thing or work together in any way.

The Second Time Around (Part 2)

But let me not linger on ancient history when, just the other day, it happened again. And by it I mean a new version of what happened to me at Pantheon Books.  It’s true that because, in my later years, TomDispatch has become my life’s work, I hadn’t done anything for Metropolitan for a while (other, of course, than read with deep fascination the books Sara published). Still, just two weeks ago I was shocked to hear that, like Pantheon, Metropolitan, a similarly progressive publishing house in the mainstream world, was consigned to the waves; its staff laid off; and the house itself left in the publishing version of hell.

Initially, that act of Holt’s, the consigning of Metropolitan to nowhere land, was reported by the trade publication Publisher’s Weekly, but count on one thing: more is sure to come as that house’s authors learn the news and respond.

After all, like Pantheon, at the moment of its demise, it was a lively, deeply progressive operation, churning out powerful new titles — until, that is, it was essentially shut down when Sara, a miraculous publisher like André, was shown the door along with her staff.  Bam!  What did it matter that, thanks to her, Metropolitan still occupied a space filled by no other house in mainstream publishing?  Nothing obviously, not to Holt, or assumedly Macmillan, the giant American publishing conglomerate of which it was a part, or the German Holtzbrinck Publishing Group that owns Macmillan. 

How strange that we’re in a world where two such publishing houses, among the best and most politically challenging around, could find that there simply was no place for them as progressive publishers in the mainstream.  André, who died in 2013, responded by launching an independent publishing house, The New Press, an admirable undertaking. In terms of the Dispatch Books I still put out from time to time, I find myself in a similar world, dealing with another adventurous independent publishing outfit, Haymarket Books.

Still, what an eerie mainstream we now inhabit, don’t we?

I mean, when it comes to what capitalism is doing on this planet of ours, book publishing is distinctly small (even if increasingly mashed) potatoes.  After all, we’re talking about a world where giant fossil-fuel companies with still-soaring profits are all too willing to gaslight the public while quite literally burning the place up — or perhaps I mean flooding the place out.  (Don’t you wonder sometimes what the CEOs of such companies are going to tell their grandchildren?)

So the consignment of Metropolitan Books to the trash heap of history is, you might say, a small matter indeed. Still, it’s painful to see what is and isn’t valued in this society of ours (and by whom).  It’s painful to see who has the ability to cancel out so much else that should truly matter. 

And believe me, just speaking personally, twice is twice too much.  Imagine two publishing houses that let me essentially find, edit, and publish what I most cared about, what I thought was most needed, books at least some of which might otherwise never have made it into our world.  (The proposal for MAUS, for instance, had been rejected by more or less every house in town before it even made it into my hands.)

Yes, two progressive publishing houses are a small thing indeed on this increasingly unnerving planet of ours. Still, think of this as the modern capitalist version of burning books, though as with those fossil-fuel companies, it is, in reality, more like burning the future.  Think of us as increasingly damaged goods on an increasingly damaged planet.

In another world, these might be considered truly terrible acts.  In ours, they simply happen, it seems, without much comment or commentary even though silence is ultimately the opposite of what any decent book or book publisher stands for. 

You know, it suddenly occurs to me. Somebody should write a book about all this, don’t you think?

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. Carla

    “You know, it suddenly occurs to me. Somebody should write a book about all this, don’t you think?”

    Watch out, Tom Englehardt. When Barbara Ehrenreich said that, her editor tasked her with researching and writing “Nickel and Dimed” (On (not) getting by in America) — which I am re-reading at the moment to commemorate her.

    Anyway, this was a great piece. Thanks, Lambert, for posting it to NC.

  2. Arizona Slim

    Oh, brother. Does this ever remind me of a story from the Arizona Slim File.

    Back in the mid-1980s, while I was working in a series of menial dead-end jobs, I kept myself going by working on a book about my bicycle adventures in the United States and Canada. I figured that, given the enormous popularity of Peter Jenkins’ book, A Walk Across America, the publishing industry would love to back a gal with a similar story.

    I couldn’t have been more wrong. Rejections slips right, left, and sideways.

    After receiving yet another one during the summer of 1984, I told a coworker that I’d just have to publish that book myself. “Oh, good!” she exclaimed. “Now you can do it exactly the way you want!”

    Boom. Mic drop.

    That was my start in self-publishing. I brought my book out in 1985. It wasn’t up to my current standards, but what the heck. It was *my* book.

    And guess what I’m doing right now? If you guessed that I’m publishing another book, you’re right! I just got the proof back from the printer yesterday morning, and it looks very nice, if I may say so myself.

    As for the big publishing behemoths, let them do whatever they’re going to do. Out here in indie publishing land, the weather is just fine.

    Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to get ready for today’s big in-person meeting with one of my book’s endorsers. We’re going to be meeting in my garden, and what’s not to like about that?

    1. cocomaan

      Yep, I’ve started self publishing too after about 4-5 years of flirting with the publishing industry on various fiction novels I’ve written. Last year I decided enough was enough and went through Amazon. Book launched in May.

      What’s funny is that I set up an author website as part of my self pub adventures. And then, a month after finally getting the website up with zero hopes that it would result in anything, the managing editor at an imprint of a major publisher reached out to ME and asked if I had any projects on the back burner. They had read a freelance piece I did nine years ago, googled me, and found my website to email me.

      I was floored. Me and the editor are in talks on a nonfiction book idea I had been cooking for a few years, it’s looking like this might end up with a contract!

      So there you have it, if you build it, they will come. In the meantime, I am probably self pub’ing another book this fall and have a trilogy lined up for next year.

  3. DJG, Reality Czar

    Ahhh, 1990. Thanks for bringing back memories, Tom Engelhardt.

    I was working in the college division at Scott, Foresman as a sponsoring editor in the physical sciences. HarperCollins (that is, Murdoch) swept in and overturned the place.

    The first words out of the mouth of the Brit (it’s usually a Brit) sent in to demolish the place was, Ach! Yee’re pension plan doesn’t conform to the legal code. (Which meant that the pension plan, which included an ESOP, was going to be looted.)

    The second words I heard were from some secretary, “But Mr. Brit, will we have to join a union like the employees in New York? I heard [shudder] they have a union there.”

    [A sudden lesson in how collaborators operate / operated.]

    “Darling, yee’re not going to have join some union.”

    Murdoch and the related Morlocks made one big mistake: They fired almost everyone in the college division, some 100 of us, and we fell under Illinois’s plant-closing law. They had to keep us around for three months as the “plant” shut down. I signed an astronomy author. It was either do my job or wander around the offices like some zombie.

    Then we were all ejected, and curiously, I was invited to an arts colony (in Lake Forest of all ironic places) to write for six weeks. I recall eating much broccoli, which must be the antidote to Murdochism.

    Would that we were all André Schiffrin.

    But publishing books still matters–especially now, as we collectively teeter on the edge of a cliff.

    No one’s collected e-mail messages is going to survive.

  4. The Rev Kev

    As book companies amalgamate, it gets easier to censor certain authors and books. Consider some of the books mentioned here – Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Nickel and Dimed”, Thomas Frank’s “What‘s the Matter with Kansas?”, Chalmers Johnson’s “Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire.” If all those publishing companies had been amalgamated a few decades ago, would any of those book have seen the light of day? Didn’t Thomas Frank have to publish some of his work overseas – because he could not find an American publisher willing to do so?

  5. Societal Illusions

    I read this yesterday and was left saddened by it. Human creativity is abundant. Is this institutional knowledge and specialized talent and industry relationships and refined processes easily replicable? Perhaps, but I expect the adage will of “place your arm in bucket of the water then yank it out and look for the hole” doesn’t apply here. We are likely worse off for the demise of this house and another cause for suspicion when things are destroyed because “profits.”

  6. sharonsj

    So I spent about 30 years in various aspects of book publishing, but I specialized in genre fiction. Every company I worked for either doesn’t exist or is part of a conglomerate. I’m also a published author, but my books are out of print and I’ve spent the last four years doing short stories. I’ve discovered that there are often problems with young editors and independent presses: They can’t deal with anything written in omniscient and their contracts are cobbled from various sources without them understanding the meaning of the clauses. I do see plenty of pitches for self-publishing but, sorry, I would only go that route if all else failed.

    1. cocomaan

      That’s hilarious that modern editors can’t handle omniscient storytelling. I blame phenomenology.

      I only went self pub after failing miserably, so you’re right.

      1. Tom Pfotzer

        It’s clear to me that:

        a. We need more writers. Writing changes people’s minds. It’s powerful
        b. We need better ways of getting writers the run-way they need to get airborne

        I have little insight into the world of writers, so I’ll ask for help here.

        Is there a place – a forum, or a online writers’ improv, where you can get your stuff, or excerpts / shorts of your stuff, published so some readers can see it, react to it, generate interest, etc.?

        It seems like the gateway to becoming a writer is tiny, and only a few can squeeze through…but so much needs to be written about.

        Self-pub is one way to open the door a little, but you still have the big problem of promoting your work well enough to get people to actually read it.

        Promotion is tough, and often expensive to start the (big inertia) ball rolling.

        1. Arizona Slim

          When it comes to self-publishing and effective book promotions, I recommend Peter Bowerman’s book, The Well-Fed Self-Publisher.

        2. Cocomaan

          Yep there are definitely sites like Wattpad that allow people to generate a following. There are also newsletter communities like Bookbub that promote.

          Among the multitude of the problems in fiction or even general publishing is that it’s dominated by women on the writing and the consumption side. It has now become chicken and egg for male readers: are they not reading recreationally because they don’t read or because there is nothing written for them? Interesting problem. But publishing for recreational reading shrinks every year and I think it’s because half the audience isn’t really targeted.

    2. JBird4049

      I do not understand. Are we saying that the inability to imagine, to think of anything like the immaterial as real such as religion, myths, legends, and philosophy? All of which is very real to many people.

      A neoliberal metaphysics of the mind in which only the physical is real and money determines worth to such a level that they cannot even dream of it?

      That suggest a blindness, forget emptiness, of the mind that is horrifying.

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