When I wrote the original article, which also appeared on AlterNet, asking why prominent left-liberal authors published their books with big corporate publishers, I got some guff from a few progressives… and embraced by a mainstream publishing maven. Was talking about the 800-pound gorilla in the living room of the Left a mistake? Nah! By the way, I’ve since heard back from David Corn, via email, today. I think we’ve finally reached a detente–but the issue (the Left sending its brightest stars off to make money for Big Media and the Right) remains one of grave importance. We must strengthen independent media and build our own infrastructure for disseminating media. Oh, and by the way, Mr. Corn, I still want to take you to dinner.
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I had no idea what a resonant chord I would strike recently when I wrote “Sleeping with the Enemy,” a piece for AlterNet and my publishing house’s blog.
I’d hoped to open a dialogue with progressive writers–particularly those who advocate for media reform due to the adverse effects of corporatization and consolidation on U.S. journalism and politics. It seemed worthy of discussion to suggest to writers–especially those who criticize the sinister likes of Rupert Murdoch–that they might want to consider working with independent publishers, rather than lining the already-gilded pockets of those against whom they so often rail.
In no way did I seek to excoriate progressive writers–as I said in the piece. For the sake of drawing attention to this matter, I did choose five names and four big media publishers that I thought best illustrated the depth and breadth of this problem: that the Left sends its very brightest stars and book ideas to make money for big business–and, ultimately, in some cases, the Right, rather than building and strengthening independent media or their own infrastructure for disseminating information.
My salvo grew out of a lunch with George Lakoff and Markos Moulitsas of DailyKos.com, during which my boss, Chelsea Green’s publisher Margo Baldwin, and I had argued against the out-dated logic that you have to go with a big publisher if you want to get your book launched into the big time of bestseller lists and media appearances. I spoke at lunch, and later in the article, about the tremendous hits and new publishing models coming out of independent book publishing these days, as a result of creativity in applying new technologies and ways of thinking about marketing, sales and distribution. I spoke of Chelsea Green’s success with our recent bestseller, Lakoff’s Don’t Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, and offered specific examples from other indy publishers. I invited Kos and all writers to meet us at the table, to think about more and better ways to build advances for writers, which can also strengthen indy media.
And so began a very strange trip. I received hundreds of emails, most from people who were supportive and excited about the new possibilities for true media reform. One thin-skinned response from a writer I mentioned, David Corn, best illustrates the tone and arguments of the few negative responses I received, and I’ll address his valid concerns below. But, the strange trip to which I refer involves two ends of a train ride along the Hudson River. In addition to missives from individual writers and readers, I received two very different invitations: one to an independent media conference at the Rockefeller estate in Tarrytown, New York; the other to meet with, arguably, the grand dame of New York City publishing and media, HarperCollins’s Judith Regan (also mentioned in my piece). I accepted both invitations.
At the Independent Media and the Future of Democracy Conference in Tarrytown, I met many of my idols, like Ron Williams, who started MetroTimes, an alternative newsweekly in Detroit that initially got me interested in journalism, and who now runs Dragonfly Media. I spoke at length with Jay Harris and Steve Katz, publisher and associate publisher of Mother Jones. I got to share my ideas with Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of The Nation. I also met several members of an emerging generation of independent media leaders, like Robin Hutson, publisher of American Prospect, Becky Bond from Working Assets, and David Batstone, of many incarnations including scribing for Spin and founding the magazine, Business 2.0. Batstone is a now a founding senior editor at an about-to-be-launched magazine called Worthwhile, with the brilliant tagline, “Work with Purpose, Passion and Profit.” I also was privileged to meet Jamie Daves, who worked on the Clinton-Gore campaign, the FCC, and most recently as a founder, with Al Gore and others, of INdTv. Daves is full of ideas on how to strengthen independent media and make it more accountable and successful in terms of audience share.
As my article had just come out, many people took the opportunity to tell me what they agreed and didn’t agree with. It seemed to make some attendees pleased and others uncomfortable — along somewhat predictable lines. But at least the ideas were being discussed, and that had been my aim. I did not presume to have all the answers, but hoped to stimulate further discussion of ideas and solutions.
We were all asked to Tarrytown to consider the changing landscape and ecology of all media, and how independent media can begin to better distinguish itself with the aid of new technology and ideas. Check out the National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture for more about an Andrew Blau-penned report, called “Deep Focus,” in which he invites “anyone in the independent media field today to consider how they will adapt to the opportunities and demands that will define this new era.”
I’m also ruminating on what happened next, when I left the conference and hopped a train to Grand Central, and then a cab to Judith Regan’s luxurious digs at HarperCollins. Since accepting her invitation, I’d imagined that our meeting would be right out of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” when Mr. Potter summons George Bailey to his office to offer him a load of money… if George’ll just close down that pesky, old Bailey Building&Loan.
Waiting in the lobby of Regan Media, I had a few minutes to peruse some of her latest offerings, which run the gamut of the liberal-conservative political spectrum (she publishes both Hannity and Colmes, for example) and, on the cultural spectrum, running from UnVeiled: Voices of Women in Afghanistan to How to Make Love Like a Porn Star. Then a woman from human resources came to ask me for a resume. I explained that I was not there for a job, but only to meet Ms. Regan. She seemed surprised at my pronouncement, but we were soon interrupted by another member of Ms. Regan’s team of forty, who escorted me into an office appointed with deliciously hip, tasteful art and furnishings, including a gargantuan desk and two upholstered chairs facing it. I couldn’t help but notice that behind and to the right side of the desk, where it would be in full view as she spoke to me from her perch, was a poster with the title, “How to Give a Blowjob.”
Why not? I thought. It’s her office.
When Ms. Regan breezed into the room, I was initially struck by how beautiful she is, and how cool, in her black jacket, jeans and funky black shoes. She started out behind the desk, but we seemed to bond right off the bat and she came out from behind, and sat casually in the other chair, leg crossed up under her, as she occasionally ate a piece of broccoli or some other steamed vegetable from a plate that sat between us. The truth about Judith Regan is that she is seductive as hell, smart, bold and wicked funny. We laughed… a lot. I was having fun. As she told me she wanted me to do a book for her, and to make me the “Ann Coulter of the Left,” I began to see her vision. As she started to talk about the kind of real money I could make finding books, developing TV shows and movies, jet-setting from New York to L.A., I found myself inevitably thinking: “I could really reach a lot of people with a good message. I could help change big media from within. I could let my husband quit his job and try to make that new career in renewable energy happen.”
I could… I could… I could. You know what I mean?
I found myself thinking, too: “How ironic.” I just wrote a piece pointing out the hypocrisy and other problems of people on the Left publishing with big media companies, and now here I am contemplating offer from Big Media to publish my book, and make me rich and famous. How ironic, that leaders of independent media are gnawing slowly on my ideas — some castigating, some concurring — while Rupert Murdoch’s long tentacles were already reaching out via Judith Regan to bring me into the fold. How ironic, too, that I honestly liked Ms. Regan — although she represents for me a 21st century, sexy version of Mr. Potter. I liked her because she’s not a hypocrite. She believes in Big Media, in being rich and powerful — and in having lots of fun. And I think that anyone who makes no bones about media and consolidation and what’s happening to journalism and politics, and the gulf between the haves and have-nots, should be thrilled at the chance to work with her. And on some level I wish that I were one of those people.
I didn’t quite get to the point, there in Ms. Regan’s presence, of making a George Bailey-type speech about how, well, golly, no, Mr. Potter! I’m not going to take that job. I want to hold onto my ideals and keep fighting. But, I’m telling her now. Damn, Judith. I’d really love to work with you, but I cannot make money for Rupert Murdoch. I hope she’ll be happy, at being surprised to learn that she is wrong about “everyone [being] a star-f***er in the end.” She strikes me as a woman who loves surprises.
But understand this, too. I’m saying to the leaders of independent media, to progressive writers and anyone else who might care about infusing some more chutzpah, money and fun into the mix with our dedication and drive to put out messages and media that are not controlled by — and make money for — big business and the Right: Please, let’s work together and find some new answers. We need to stop running around with our hands out, asking for donations, to write stories and make documentaries that only our choir of the convinced ever sees. We need to stop back-stabbing our like-minded friends who also desperately need that same $10,000 from this foundation or $25,000 from that one.
I’m proposing that funneling our ideas and money through independent publishers and building our own infrastructure might be at the heart of a possible new and better course. Perhaps it sounds naive to talk like this, but I would also put forth that it’s plenty naive to think that the titans, who publish our Amy Goodmans and David Corns, aren’t laughing all the way home in their chauffeured limousines and Jaguars, to their Gotham penthouses and Malibu estates.
And that brings me to some of David Corn’s concerns. Yes, sir–we might not have realized we had the power to do what Chelsea Green did with Lakoff back when you wrote your book. Apologies. And, yes, Lakoff’s was a political book that came out, with perfect timing, just before the election (so did a lot of other political books). Please don’t try to take away our success, though, at getting that book out and into a bestselling number of hands in less than two months. No big publisher would take Lakoff’s idea for a popular, accessible version of his theories back then. We believed. We acted. And, without our innovative marketing and publicity ideas, that great little book would have been a wasted effort for Mr. Lakoff. We learned to use technology creatively, as are other independent publishers — be it a Lakoff-type or MoveOn book phenomenon, or Imperial Hubris, or Confessions of an Economic Hitman. All very different books, and very different publishing plans. All independent bestsellers. Don’t presume that your New York publishers would have known what to do with those books, as most of them had the chance… and passed.
The time has come when we don’t have to fit every author and book into the antiquated, top-down, elitist system of editors deciding what the public should read… and often being wrong about what will sell. We need to get over the habit of tying big advances to prestige — and thinking a marketing plan to match will follow suit. If a potential author has a big following via a blog, or column or body of work across many outlets, why not ask his or her audience if they’d like to help fund the author’s advance by agreeing to buy the book while it’s being written? That’s what we’re trying to do with Markos Zuniga, from Daily Kos. And his community has sent a resounding yes! They are willing to buy that book six to nine months in advance. Read for yourself on his blog.
How about trying creative financing for books, and collaborative fundraising? That’s what Chelsea Green is doing with the Center for Investigative Reporting and a book idea by its editorial director, Mark Schapiro. CG commited to a certain part of an advance made up of what we can regularly afford, with additional investment and grants coming from foundations and individuals interested in furthering Mark’s work, sought by both CG and the Center for Investigative Reporting. The end result? An “advance” comparable to what a big, corporate publisher might offer — and we can keep working to strengthen indy media.
There’s nothing holding us back. The Internet has leveled the playing field when it comes to marketing, publicity, sales and distribution. It can also help us pick books that we know will sell, and save money for other books on which we’d like to take chances. Top-down is so over! Let’s celebrate the opportunity for a bottom-up, open-source flowering of any and all experiments aimed at figuring out how to better do what we do. And it doesn’t mean we can’t work with mainstream and big media to get important stories out, either. It’s all good when we’re talking about reaching any and everyone. Let them come to us with money. Let’s just stop making money for big media, off our best ideas and names, without first finding the ways to funnel more of the profits into our own infrastructure. We can publish good books, strengthen indy media–and make a profit. We don’t have to sit at the beggars’ table anymore.
It’s time to start ushering in the next great era of independent media. I wasn’t trying to curry ill will — or favor for one publishing house — in drawing attention to this topic. I simply saw an 800-pound gorilla sitting in our livingroom, and I thought pointing it out was a good idea.
– Jennifer Nix is editor-at-large for Chelsea Green Publishing. She is a former producer of NPR”s “On the Media” and staff writer for Variety. Her freelance work has appeared in such publications as The Nation, New York and The New York Observer, and on Salon and AlterNet. Nix is also a co-founder of the international school-building not-for-profit, Building with Books. She’d like to invite David Corn to dinner next time he’s in San Francisco