12 April 2005

Tunneling Under the River

The guards at Stalag-Luft 10014 are probably getting suspicious. Another prisoner of war publisher has tunnelled under the Hudson and into the woods: Judith Regan of ReganBooks (an imprint of the spacebar-challenged HarperCollins, in turn owned by NewsCorp International) is taking her publishing operations to LaLaLand "by the end of the year."

What do I mean "another"? Doesn't the article make it sound like Ms. Regan is the first, or one of the first, publishers to "shake up an industry that has long operated in a parochial, Manhattan-centric fashion, even as technology has made the location of a company less important"? Well, it does. And, just like so much of the "publishing news" that's out there, it's incredibly ignorant and egocentric… just like the implied criticism of the industry. Some segments of the publishing industry have never been centered in Manhattan; Christian publishing, for example, has long been centered in the Midwest (Chicago, Memphis/Nashville, and central Michigan being the most-obvious examples), and "how-to" publishing hasn't been centered in Manhattan for at least two decades. Further, in many niche categories, the (or a) dominant publisher has never been in Manhattan, or only "entered" Manhattan as a result of a corporate acquisition. Then, too, there are other publishers who long ago fled the overpriced office space of Manhattan, like Baen Books.

All of these escapees from Stalag-Luft 10014 (including those who evaded capture) have something in common: They're not "full-line" publishers/imprints who'll publish just about anything. Even ReganBooks isn't truly a full-line imprint. What is more disturbing is this:

Wicked, the novel that led to the Broadway show about the early life and family of the Wicked Witch of the West, has been a big seller. Ms. Regan lamented that she did not own any of the non-book rights to Wicked and cited it as an example of the kind of situation that, under her new contract, "will never happen again."Publishers have long complained that Hollywood has benefited so richly from their work. A publisher can nurture an author, helping produce books that earn a few million dollars at best; a movie studio, in turn, can buy the film rights to a project that will earn more in its opening weekend than a publisher will ever hope to see. There is no guarantee, however, that Regan Media can secure film or television rights to all the books she publishes, or even to those she most desires. Authors retain those rights, often hiring film agents in addition to literary agents to more fully exploit the opportunities.

(typography corrected, fake paragraphing omitted for clarity) Notice the misuse of numbers in this passage? There's a big difference between "box-office receipts" and "earnings" for a film. Then, too, there's the unstated antitrust/tying problem here. NewsCorp also owns Fox TV and that other Fox. Do you really, really think that there will be no problems with getting a free and fair auction for ReganBooks properties? And, further, do you really, really think that critical matters won't leak through the Swiss-cheese-like "Chinese wall" at HarperCollins, with critical "ideas" ending up going to film without compensation or acknowledgement to their creators? (Aside: Moving to California, though, just makes it that much easier to file a Desny action…)

How, though, does this fit into my oft-stated antitrust concerns about the publishing industry? Precisely because there isn't a monolithic publishing industry. As any antitrust lawyer will tell you, cases are usually won or lost based on market definition. Antitrust examination of the publishing industry usually does a piss-poor job of looking at the publishing industry as a middle, not an endpoint, and recognizing that consolidation restricts not just sources for consumers, but markets for authors. The author of Christian inspirational works is little affected by consolidations in the New York-based part of the industry; neither is the author of sport or how-to books. The author of science fiction, or of mysteries, or of serious contemporary-affairs-based nonfiction, though, is. The NYT article in question may help get some west-of-the-Hudson perspective into the particular acquisitions and procedures for one of those areas (ReganBooks doesn't do books labelled science fiction or mysteries, at least at present), but it won't reduce the common-ownership problem. <SARCASM> Maybe, though, the editors will have more time to edit, since it'll be harder to call them down the hall to marketing meetings if the marketing dorks stay in New York. </SARCASM>