So Many Books, So Little to Read

As literature becomes product, the editorial director of Times Books flees New York

By Dwight Garner

Published November 8, 1996 8:00PM (EST)

here's a tip. Don't try suggesting to Steve Wasserman, the new book review editor of the Los Angeles Times, that L.A. isn't everyone's idea of the most bookish city on the planet.

"That's pure snobbery," the intense, bearded, 44-year-old Wasserman says, nostrils flaring just a little. The greater Los Angeles area happens to be the country's single largest book market, he says, then adds: "It's rubbish designed to comfort New Yorkers who can't do without the conceit of their special position  otherwise they would find continuing to live in Manhattan unbearable. In my view, there are no more provincial people than dyed-in-the-wool Manhattanites."

Wasserman is in scorched-earth mode, and it's hard to blame him. He is preparing to move back to his native West Coast after 12 successful years in New York's publishing scene, and it's clear that Manhattan has indeed become acutely "unbearable" for him. Unfortunately, the reasons why he's fleeing town have far more to say about the corporatization and decline of American publishing than it does about New York's alleged provincialism.

Wasserman stunned the publishing world last month when he quit his post as the editorial director of Times Books, the respected Random House imprint that publishes political, health, and business titles  as well as a series of best-selling games books. Wasserman's move came on the heels of the resignation of Times Books publisher Peter Osnos, prompting many to wonder if the heyday of Times Books was over  that is, if Random House publisher Harold Evans wasn't planning to reduce the esteemed imprint (which in recent years has published such books as Theodore Draper's "A Struggle for Power," Benjamin Barber's "Jihad vs. McWorld" and Sister Souljah's "No Disrespect") to merely a purveyor of lucrative crossword puzzles.

Wasserman sat down with Salon last week, in the Los Angeles Times' New York offices, to talk about his years in publishing and about why he believes we're facing "the most serious crisis in the whole of American trade book publishing history." Interestingly enough, Wasserman didn't mention Harold Evans' name once. But he used a political metaphor to make himself clear about what he feels life is currently like under Evans' regime  the relationship between imprints like Times Books to Random House is "essentially colonial." As long as the natives aren't too restless and provide handsome profits, he said, "the governors of the metropolis are very content to count their proceeds. But sometimes things get a little difficult out there in Guadeloupe, and they decide they no longer need the colony ... It's a big fiscal drain, it's a quagmire, get rid of it."

This kind of imperial distress, Wasserman remarks, is running rampant at the moment. "There is a sea of red ink sloshing through the corridors of most publishing houses," he said. "There's panic at the top. The men at the top  and they're almost all men  are bewildered at the problems that confront them in what they like to call the marketplace. They don't understand its behavior." He cited the fact that two of Random House's best-selling books last year  John Berendt's "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" and Joe "Anonymous" Klein's "Primary Colors"  were complete surprises as example of the fact that the Harvard Business School approach to publishing is never going to work, and that bookselling will never be an exact science. "These were classic midlist books," he observed. "Nobody expected them to be bestsellers."

According to Wasserman, the industry is becoming far too "conglomeratized." Huge publishers like Random House and Simon & Schuster are gobbling up more of the market than ever as many smaller houses and imprints  Ticknor & Fields, Summit, and Athenaeum  have closed in recent years. The same thing is happening in bookselling, he adds, as smaller stores are forced to shut down because they can't compete with the superstore chains. "This is all, of course, a 25-year trend," Wasserman said, "but it has reached critical mass."

The ironic thing about Wasserman's "gloomy view" of the current publishing scene is that  as he admits  there have never been more books, good and bad, published in America, roughly 50,000 titles this year alone. "I go to the ABA (the annual American Bookseller's convention), and it gives me a severe sense of literary vertigo," he said. "I ask myself, Are all these books necessary? I just want to go back to the hotel and lie down." He added that he often shops at the chain bookstores he deplores, because their selection is so extensive.

So where exactly is this oft-decried publishing crisis, and how is it affecting American readers? Because there are so many books crowding the marketplace, Wasserman said, the shelf life for most books has shortened dramatically. "When I first came into publishing, the shelf life of the average nonfiction hardcover was between six and eight months," he said. "Today, it's six weeks." In other words, a book has to find its readership quickly  or it's gone forever.

Further, publishers who do want their books to be featured prominently in the superstores have to print more copies of them than ever, he said, usually more than 50,000 on the first printing, so that the chains can pile the books up on their front tables. But often this strategy backfires, and the bookstores return most of the books for full credit. (The long-standing industry policy that allows stores to return unsold books has long been a major thorn in the side of publishing houses.)

The stampede to find "big" books and give them even bigger print runs has had a none-too-subtle effect inside publishing houses, Wasserman continued. Why allow a good editor to work for months on a book by, say, a talented historian that will only sell moderately well, when you can have the same editor out looking for the next "Seinfeld"  which may not get much editing at all, and sell 40 times the number of copies?

Wasserman sees this kind of cultural change  call it the Seinfeldization of America  everywhere. "I don't want to blame the people for the problem," he said. "But we're engulfed by a junk culture, where multiple addictions to celebrity, to sensationalism, and to gossip really are driving a great deal before it, leaving us in a position not unlike that which greeted the Chinese people after they awoke from the cultural revolution: old traditions smashed, old antiquities tossed into the dustbin."

Pessimistic as Wasserman is about publishing today, he's not particularly concerned about inroads the online world may or may not be making into the world of reading. People will always respond to the "sensual" nature of books, he said, adding, "I suspect that we will have parallel species. People will watch television for certain things, they will listen to the radio for certain things, put a CD in and listen to music, they'll go online for certain things, and they'll curl up at night with a book."

With regard to his new role at the L.A. Times, Wasserman said he hopes to make the paper's book review "more consistently interesting and serious, without being solemn." He'd also like to find a way to get the review section more of a national readership, possibly by offering weekly subscriptions.

As our interview wound down, Wasserman admitted that his tenure in New York publishing may have prepared him more than he'd like for Los Angeles' movie-driven cultural scene. "One gets the feeling," he said, "that there are a lot of people in publishing now who wish they were in the movie industry, but somehow missed the boat." But one also gets the feeling that even in L.A., Steve Wasserman will be more happy at night curling up with a good book than making small talk with Bruce Willis at the opening of "Die Hard X."

Dwight Garner

Dwight Garner is Salon's book review editor.

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