Billy and the bullies

Did the New York Times, Random House and "America's most popular poet" gang up to smear a small poetry publisher?


Dennis Loy Johnson
June 2, 2000 10:00PM (UTC)

It was a story that broke like a sex scandal -- in a front-page newspaper article that fueled a wildfire of gossip. By the time it was over months later, the reputation of a literary star would be questioned, a highly regarded journalist would reveal a conflict of interest and the biggest publisher in the world would look like a blundering bully.

Who ever thought such a story would take place in the poetry world?

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It all began on Sunday, Dec. 19, 1999, when the New York Times ran a story about poetry on the front page, something none of the many poets I talked to while researching this story could remember ever having happened before. But there it was: an article by Bruce Weber, one of the Times' top cultural reporters, about Billy Collins, who Weber contended was, based on sales figures, "the most popular poet in America." (Admittedly, many of my sources mocked the claim. One acidly pointed out, "Sales figures would indicate that, actually, Jewel is our leading poet.")

There was no denying that Collins was hot. His popularity had soared after a couple of 1998 appearances on Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion" showcased his funny and accessible poems, and within weeks sales of his new collection, "Picnic, Lightning," had topped 20,000 copies -- bestseller status for a poetry book. (This reviewer, by the way, gave it a rave.)

Soon Collins was in demand as a reader at colleges and reading programs around the country, and his three most recent books -- "Picnic, Lightning," "Questions About Angels" and "The Art of Drowning" -- were on the poetry bestseller list at Amazon.com. Within a few months, the biggest publishing house in the world came calling. In the spring of 1999 Random House lured Collins away from his publisher, the tiny University of Pittsburgh ("Pitt") Press, with a three-book, six-figure contract. For a literary poet, it was an unprecedented offer. And whether other poets like Collins' work or not, the deal's lavishness seemed to buoy the spirits of the entire poetry community, coming, as it did, at a bleak time; as Manhattan's publishing giants have grown explosively bigger via conglomeration, they've become less interested than ever in low-profit poetry.

Then came the Times story. The very fact that Collins could get himself on the front page of the newspaper of record seemed like cause for celebration.

But despite Weber's glowing portrait of Collins -- he opened with a dramatic scene of the poet reading to some not so poetically inclined high school students and keeping them "in his thrall" -- the article was actually about the business of publishing poetry. Specifically, it reported on negotiations between Random House and the Pitt Press for the rights to some of Collins' poems.

Random House, Weber reported, had been just two months away from publishing a volume of Collins' selected poetry -- a collection of 80 previously published poems -- when the university press refused permission to reprint the 61 poems Collins had previously published with Pitt, forcing cancellation of the "already completed" book. Weber termed Pitt's refusal "an affront to Mr. Collins" and cited anonymous "publishing executives" describing it as a nearly unprecedented attempt by a publisher to "unduly stand in the way of an author's success."

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But, as was revealed when negotiations between the two publishers finally concluded late last month, the true story -- and Weber's own interest in it -- was considerably more complicated.

"I became almost physically ill," Pitt Press director Cynthia Miller told me, describing the moment when she first saw the Times story last December and read the headline -- "On Literary Bridge, Poet Hits Roadblock." Miller knew instantly that what she'd considered typical rights negotiations had been turned into something else.

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What the average reader learned first from Weber's article was that Collins is "weary after almost thirty years of teaching English," though he nonetheless gives his all to his students. Weber then went on to marvel at other aspects of Collins' popularity before finally getting to the disagreement between his publishers. That, Weber limned quickly: Miller had abruptly "denied" Random House the right to reprint poems that would make up over three-quarters of "Sailing Alone Around the Room," the volume of Collins' selected poems.

Weber briefly quoted Miller's all-business explanation -- allowing reprints from Pitt's recent Collins books would hurt a "return on that investment" -- then the reporter called in a large cast to give damning evidence against her. The anonymous "publishing executives" were joined by Random House associate publisher Mary Barr, who said, "This is an anomalous hurdle, unprecedented for poetry," and "it would have been beyond prophetic for us to predict that Pittsburgh would be this obstinate." Weber wrote that "Mr. Collins and Random House" contended that the selected volume would only help sales of Pitt's books and paraphrased the 58-year-old Collins' complaint that "he has already earned what is generally considered the special honor" -- that is, the publication of a volume of selected work -- that more typically goes to older poets.

In what is perhaps the article's most scathing accusation, Collins' agent, Chris Calhoun, angrily implied that Pitt had demanded an extortionate amount of money -- some $200,000 -- for the reprint rights. "And two complimentary review copies," Calhoun added sardonically.

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By the time the story ended with some more sympathetic portraiture (Collins, "the son of an electrician," readers were told, "was born in a small New York hospital"), it was hard not to share in the sense of outrage. In short order many people did, even though Weber's characterization of Pitt didn't sound like the honorable little press so well known in the publishing world. (It certainly didn't sound like the place I'd known firsthand when I was a judge of its Drue Heinz Literary Prize in 1994.)

But in innumerable online poetry chat groups, at literary events in New York and at writing programs across the country, it seemed everyone was talking about how evil the Pitt Press was being toward the heroic Collins. Anger only intensified a week later when Publishers Weekly picked up the story and reported -- incredibly and, as it turned out, incorrectly -- that Collins, according to Calhoun, his agent, had "waived royalties" (i.e., let Pitt keep his share of the income from the three books he'd published with the press), as an apparent plea to Miller to release the reprint rights.

Soon thereafter, poets published by Pitt began getting letters from Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Henry Taylor, announcing that he was boycotting their work. I interviewed Taylor at the time and asked him what had motivated him.

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"I'm a friend of Billy's," he told me. He said he was at Collins' house in Somers, N.Y., just north of New York City, for lunch the day the Times story appeared, and the two had talked about it. "It all comes down to whether Pittsburgh is behaving reasonably or punitively. I think they're behaving punitively," Taylor said. He said he hoped others would join him, and that he would be "guided by Billy Collins" as to when to end the boycott. After that interview was published, I received a few letters from readers offended by the idea of a book boycott, but even more letters came from people who told me they were joining Taylor.

As Pitt continued to be pounded, however, Collins remained silent. Many fans were surprised that the affable poet let the rancor build without comment, especially those who knew something of his dealings with Pitt. Hadn't Collins indicated to the Times that when another large New York house, Morrow, let his "Questions About Angels" lapse out of print, he'd been delighted to sign with Pitt because "first, the Pitt Poetry Series is well known, with a real litany of first-rate authors. And second because they have a reputation for always keeping books in print"?

What's more, Pitt had bought back "Questions About Angels" and marketed it aggressively. It had also done a remarkable job promoting and distributing "Picnic, Lightning," with the resulting sales figures unequaled by conglomerate publishers. But Collins had nothing more to say about Pitt, and attempts to reach him through Random House were summarily rebuffed. "I don't have his telephone number," his publicist there told me.

In Pittsburgh, meanwhile, Miller was getting "dozens" of supportive e-mails from other university press directors. Still, how do you counter accusations in the New York Times? Her letter to the editor went unpublished and unanswered.

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In retrospect, Miller said, what upset her most was how "the many things I said to Bruce Weber that would have directly addressed the things Random House was saying were the things that did not appear in the article."

The real story, Miller said, was that Random House had reneged on an earlier promise to publish a collection of Collins' new poems first, in 2000, and wait to put out the selected volume until late in 2001. That schedule, she said, would have allowed plenty of time for the still hot "Picnic, Lightning" to "sell through a normal life cycle," and provide the small nonprofit with money to publish more new poetry books. Based on that 2001 publication date for the book of selected poetry, Miller offered Random House "standard reprint fees" (approximately $6 per line).

But in November, before contracts were signed, Miller learned by chance -- an employee was surfing the Web -- that Random House was advertising "Sailing Alone Around the Room" on Amazon.com for February 2000 release. Apparently, Collins had failed to deliver the manuscript of new work, and the book of selected poetry had been put into production even though rights had not yet been obtained. Random House had listed the book in its catalog, too, which had already been sent to book buyers. All of this, Miller felt, explained why pre-Christmas sales of Collins' Pitt books, expected to be high, had instead "plummeted by 50 percent."

When Miller protested, Calhoun asked her to estimate the potential income lost to Pitt by the change in the publication date, she said, to clarify the severity of the selected volume's impact. The Pitt accountant's "conservative estimate" was $200,000, which Miller stressed "was never a negotiating demand." In other words, Miller maintains that Pitt never asked Random House for $200,000. If it had, she added, half of that sum would have belonged contractually to Collins -- something the Times article never mentions.

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Why hadn't the Times article clarified this fact, instead of merely relaying Calhoun's angry remark? In a phone interview, I asked Weber why he'd left it out.

"Did Cynthia also tell you that her entire strategy was basically to tell Random House to go fuck yourself?" he asked me. He admitted this wasn't an exact quote, then explained, "The 'inside baseball' of a book contract didn't seem to be entirely relevant to the case, and it certainly would have bored the shit out of our readers."

But something else that Weber left out of his story offers another explanation: his friendship with Collins' agent, which was the subject of rumors I'd heard from sources in both New York and Pittsburgh. It would not be unusual or necessarily questionable to be professionally acquainted with a subject on such a contained beat -- the New York publishing scene is surprisingly small. And indeed, knowing people in the business gives a reporter advantages in covering it. But a more personal friendship with someone who has a vested interest in the outcome of the events being reported on (literary agents like Calhoun typically receive as much as 20 percent of their clients' earnings) is another matter.

Weber admitted without hesitation that the rumors were true. Asked specifically if the relationship was personal or professional, Weber characterized it as a "close friendship" going back to college days, "so I've known him for a good long time." Asked if he didn't see this as a conflict in reporting the story, Weber laughed and said, "Well, no."

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Two days after news of Weber's conflict of interest broke, Collins called Miller and asked if talks could resume. "Everybody in New York is suddenly my best friend," she told me at the time, but that was all she would say on the record. She told Collins she'd talk only if Random House "called off the dogs," and she had agreed not to talk to the press herself until negotiations were over.

When she was at last able to speak with me in April, Miller told me about a telephone conversation she had with Daniel Menaker, Collins' editor at Random House, a couple of weeks before Weber's article ran in the Times. Up to that point, Miller says, every solution she'd suggested to Random House and Calhoun had been "dismissed out of hand, as if they weren't even reasonable things to talk about." Still, she insisted once more to Menaker that Random House either delay publication of the selected volume or "give us fair recompense." Then, she says, Menaker abruptly warned her, "'Our spin doctors are going to be all over this. This is going to be all over the media.'"

Miller, who had not spoken to Weber at that point and was unaware of the upcoming Times article, said Menaker's remark startled her. "He repeated it over and over," she said. "I kept thinking, why would this be all over the media? People fight over permissions all the time. You don't normally read about it in the New York Times." (Attempts to reach Menaker for clarification were rebuffed by Random House publicity.)

Whoever the "spin doctors" Menaker mentioned might be, there are other reasons to question the impartiality of Weber's story: Numerous sources were cited on one side of the issue, and only one on the other. It seems notable that Weber didn't talk to Ed Ochester, for example, the well-known director of Pitt's poetry publications, and Collins' editor there. (Ochester certainly would have added a kind of balance -- he told me he thought the Times story was "bilge water" and "a setup job" orchestrated on behalf of Random House. "They have egg on their faces," he said. "What they've done is foolish. For any place to begin producing a book without securing the rights is bizarre.")

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Weber also misrepresented some aspects of the publishing industry -- it is not standard operating procedure to hand over rights to material as hot as "Picnic, Lightning." Nor is it normal to put out a selected volume so soon on the heels of such a hit; it is highly doubtful, for example, that Random House would have considered putting out "Sailing Alone Around the Room" this year if it had published "Picnic, Lightning" itself. Nor is it normal to put into mass production books for which the rights have not yet been procured.

But perhaps most troubling of all are the questions the matter raises about Collins himself: Why did he remain silent while a small press with a stellar reputation for supporting poetry -- particularly his poetry -- was being unfairly maligned? Why didn't he call off poet Taylor from his divisive poetry book boycott?

Collins missed another diplomatic opportunity in late April, when Miller and the Pitt Press quietly issued a press release announcing the settlement of the rights negotiations. Miller had asked Random House negotiators to join in the statement, but they declined. Collins, meanwhile, finally spoke, but only to make a brief, angry statement to the Washington Post. "The poems are being held hostage," he declared, but refused to elaborate.

In Pitt's release, however, Miller stated that her "primary concern" was to "protect the success" of all three of Pitt's Collins books, not just the 61 poems slated for the selected volume. And despite Collins' remarks, his Pitt poetry is still in circulation and selling quite actively -- all three books are among the top 20 poetry bestsellers on Amazon.com, for instance.

Ultimately it was Random House, not Pitt, that chose to delay the publication of Collins' selected volume. Once negotiations reopened in January, Pitt offered a licensing deal whereby Random House could have put the book out earlier for a sliding permission fee. Instead, Random House chose to give Miller what she'd asked for in the first place: "Sailing Alone Around the Room" will be released in late 2001, and will feature the 61 poems purchased from Pitt for "standard permission fees."


Dennis Loy Johnson

Dennis Loy Johnson is a Pushcart Prize-winning fiction writer and the author of the syndicated books column "Moby Lives."

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