John K. Wilson is coordinator of the Independent Press Association’s Campus Journalism Project and founder of the Indy, online at www.indy.pabn.org. Wilson interviewed various media critics for a report to be distributed at the Free Press-organized National Conference on Media Reform in St. Louis, Missouri, later this week (May 12-15).
What follows is Wilson’s email interview with Jennifer Nix. This interview and others, including those with Barbara Ehrenreich, Mark Crispin Miller, Howard Zinn, Sonia Shah and more, will also appear this week on MediaChannel .
John Wilson: You have criticized the fact that so many celebrity progressives like Michael Moore use mainstream corporate publishers (even after experiencing censorship and frustration). But don’t the large advances and connections and marketing people give these big publishers an advantage over what small publishers can offer?
Jennifer Nix: A lot to answer there!
First, I don’t make a distinction between celebrity and non-celebrity progressives. And after a great deal of thinking about this, I don’t even want to make the distinction between those who are progressives, and those who are not, as there are people of all political persuasions who believe our media system needs help. The real problem is that even those people who advocate against media consolidation and the corporatization of news in this country apparently do not see the hypocrisy of publishing their books with—and making further profits for—the very same big media conglomerates against which they rail on other fronts. For example, Amy Goodman: Why speak out against Disney-owned ABC News and its role in furthering the agenda that took us to war in Iraq, and then publish your book on that very subject with Hyperion Books—owned by…yes, Disney. Why allow the profits from your book to further strengthen the Disney-ABC machine? Independent book publishing must be included in the equation for shoring up our independent media, and an alternative infrastructure for disseminating news, information and ideas. Independent book publishing should be, in fact, the solid base of that infrastructure.
Some people equate large advances from big media publishers with marketing strength—and prestige. But just because a house throws a great sum of money, as an advance, at an author (and the agents), it does not necessarily follow that said house will put all its marketing muscle behind selling that book. How many authors have fallen through the cracks at big houses? And how many authors have simply taken their advances, become disinterested in how the books will sell, and not written the absolute best books of which they were capable? It’s a diseased system. An advance should be just that: an advance against royalties, based on future sales of the book. And an independent house might not have as much money to throw around at the beginning of this process, but we are mightily committed to the books we choose to publish and, as we and other independent houses have shown in the past few months, we can get you a bestseller and make money for you on the back end of the publishing process. Just ask George Lakoff, author of Don’t Think of an Elephant!. A system that promotes better books and actual sales of those books should be the goal. Independent houses ask authors to be realistic about how much money they need up front, and to work with us to find creative ways of building that sum. Perhaps it’s through pre-sales of the book, as we’re doing with the founder of DailyKos.com. Perhaps it’s through finding individuals or foundations that would like to help further an author’s work. These are approaches that build interest in the book from the very start. Then we do our very best to find the audience for your book and to get the book into their hands.
To say that only big media houses have connections and marketing people is not accurate. I’ve worked for a National Public Radio program and written for many magazines and web outlets. I’ve had to market my own writing over the years and I bring that experience and those relationships to my job at Chelsea Green . You must look at each house and staff individually, rather than accept the bogus assumption that all big media publishers can offer you more than all independent houses can.
In the end, I believe it is a political choice you make when you decide which house to publish with. At this point in the game, if you believe that our media and democracy are in trouble, due to consolidation and corporatization, then it’s time to make a commitment to independent media–which includes independent book publishing! We need to stop feeding the corporate beast. We must funnel the profits from books into strengthening independent publishers, who can then afford to publish more books and promote more authors. It’s simple, really. It’s like voting with your dollars, and not buying products from companies whose policies and practices are to pillage and squander. Send a message to big, corporate, consolidated, homogenous, democracy-murdering media that you’ve had enough, and you’re not going to take it anymore! (Hat tip to “Network“)
And back to the question of celebrity. To Mr. Moore and others like him: Why not use your celebrity to bolster indy publishing? No one is asking you to make less money, or to see your book die on the vine due to a lack of publicity, marketing and distribution. Work with an independent house to find a creative publishing plan. The Internet is leveling the playing field in terms of marketing and distribution, as evidenced by independent bestsellers like our Don’t Think of an Elephant!, Berret-Koehler’s Confessions of an Economic Hit Man and Imperial Hubris from Potomac Books, to name a few recent examples. The time has come to marshal new technology, independent talent and chutzpah–and our political will–to usher out the era of media consolidation and degradation.
Wilson: Consolidation in the bookstore industry has destroyed a lot of independent bookstores that traditionally have sold progressive books. Can independent publishers succeed even when they’re working with corporate booksellers?
Nix: Yes, consolidation kills independent publishers and bookstores–and it will go on killing until we make a stand. I can’t actually confirm that fewer progressive-minded books are being sold today, but I will speak to the fact that it has traditionally been harder for independent book publishers to get their books into the corporate bookstores, probably because of economies of scale. And the big media publishers have been able to throw their weight around and push Borders and Barnes & Noble to carry more of their books, to the detriment of independent houses–“Sorry–no room on the shelves!” But Amazon.com changed the equation, and lists just about every last book, allowing every last niche of publishing to be explored by the general public. With the Lakoff book, we used constituency marketing, via the Internet, to reach progressive activist and media groups, driving sales initially to Amazon–because they currently have the list that all the publishers and booksellers watch. Sales from members of those groups got Lakoff rising on Amazon’s list, and then the independent and corporate booksellers starting calling in orders.
That’s one way to get around being kept out of the corporate chain stores. But, when progressives learned after the election that 61% of Amazon’s political contributions had gone to Republicans, Amazon suddenly didn’t look so appealing to some folks. Perhaps, with enough marketing and support, the independent booksellers could get their bestseller list to supplant Amazon’s. There are some movements afoot to change the dynamics, to better favor independent booksellers. I’d like to see independent booksellers and media working together to create some kind of campaign to shed light on all of this. So, give me a call!
Wilson: One effect of book publisher mergers has been to leave mid-list books out in the cold because publishers now focus on the blockbusters. Has this had the unanticipated result of benefiting small publishers, because you can grab less well-known authors who are being shut out by mainstream publishers?
Nix: I don’t necessarily identify the problem as mid-list books being shut out by mainstream publishers. Look at any big media publisher’s list and you’ll see a whole range of books, on various subjects by well-known and unknown authors. I think the problem comes in their throwing all their marketing money behind blockbuster, celebrity books–some of which are important books, many of which are commercial crap. Also, independent publishers aren’t only getting “less well-known authors”–and, I’m not sure the argument could be made that this would even be a “benefit” to independent publishers. I can only speak for Chelsea Green on this matter, but our aim is to publish important books, for the ideas to contribute to individual lives and to the national discourse. We aren’t interested in being ghettoized, or settling for mid-anything. We’re here to make a difference.
Wilson: How does media consolidation affect the ability of independent publishers to get publicity for books? Do you fear the future prospect of book publishers and newspapers owned by the same corporations, or is a certain skepticism of progressive books already evident at mainstream book reviews?
Nix: The first problem is that media consolidation has diminished the overall number of outlets that can offer information–publicity or news reports–about any and all books, be they corporate or independent. The second is that it’s not a “future prospect” that book publishers and newspapers will be owned by the same conglomerate. That’s the case now. Follow the trail of any corporate-owned newspaper, magazine, book publisher, TV and radio station or network, music company, etc., and it leads back to a handful of media conglomerates and the ridiculously rich, white men who run them. The third problem is that there is absolutely some level of internal pressure, within conglomerates, to promote books offered by publishers within that empire. They call that “synergy,” folks! This synergy takes the form of, say, a Fox News producer or New York Post reporter heeding the call to create a segment or news piece about a HarperCollins-published author. Profits from the sales of that book then tidily feed Big Daddy Rupert Murdoch’s media empire.
That’s a pretty egregious and political example as well, by my citing Rupert Murdoch and Fox News, given their well-documented bias. But there are those who believe there is significant bias against progressive books and authors across all mainstream media. Perhaps there is, and perhaps there’s a study of book reviews that could validate that claim, but I’d prefer to speak to what I know from experience.
Working for an independent publisher, it is harder to get noticed and reviewed by the mainstream outlets, probably because they have their habits and relationships. Maybe bias plays a role in some cases–and certainly snobbery does in others. And, sometimes, it’s a combination of both, as when the New York Times placed George Lakoff’s progressive political book, from a small, independent publisher, in the same how-to category as cookbooks and What to Expect When You’re Expecting, rather than in the higher-profile political category. They did, however, place conservative Anne Coulter’s How to Talk to a Liberal (If You Must), published by a big media house in the Bertelsmann empire, in the political category. Go figure. Despite this treatment, Lakoff’s book still sits on the NYT how-to bestseller list, lo these many months later.
With a mix of tenacity, relationships, that aforementioned chutzpah–and providing review editors with great books to assign–you can break through. And, then it’s easier the next time. At Chelsea Green, we also don’t shoot just for reviews. We aim to get our authors publishing opinion pieces and to see news reports about their ideas as well.
Another thing that could help? I mentioned before that I’d like to see independent media and booksellers working together on a campaign that can raise all of our profiles, collectively. That’s something that could get us out of whining mode, and into action mode. Pardon me, but I’m tired of sitting around and complaining about what’s going on in politics, media and bookselling. It’s time to realize that we have the power and the responsibility to lead the way out of the media wasteland. It’s time to rally the public to stand up to rabid consolidation and corporatization of ideas, news and information. It’s time to hold ourselves accountable.