Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Temple of Literary Commerce

I spent Tuesday afternoon conferring over a new book manuscript with an author and editor at the handsome Bertelsmann headquarters on Broadway between 55th and 56th Streets in New York City. As you may know, in an age of media consolidation, this German conglomerate owns many of the most prestigious brand names in American publishing, including Random House (also the umbrella name for the firm's US operations), Knopf, Doubleday, Bantam, Dell, Crown, and others.

Like all publishers these days (and probably throughout history), Random struggles to find the right balance between art and commerce. The confluence of the two is vividly illustrated in the decor of their headquarters, which is a sleek modern building more impressive than any other publishing operation I've visited. The lobby, a marble-lined space perhaps twenty-five feet high, is lined from floor to ceiling with illuminated, glass-enclosed cases in which books from decades of Random House history are displayed. A glance takes in titles by everyone from Norman Mailer and Lee Iacocca to Gunnar Myrdal and William Faulkner. Walking past these icons of culture is an impressive and humbling reminder of why I am happy to work in publishing. (Yes, I am still idealistic about it after all these years.)

Our meeting took place on the fourteenth floor, which is lined with meeting rooms, each named after a notable author. We were in the James Baldwin room, a small space (perhaps ten by ten) next door to the similar-sized Chester Himes room. (Himes's name was only vaguely familiar to me. Google reveals that he was a Black novelist best known for a series of mystery novels.) I noticed other rooms named after Katharine Graham (the late publisher of the Washington Post and author of one of the most-acclaimed and best-selling autobiographies ever written), Willa Cather, Ralph Ellison, James Joyce, Douglas Adams (Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy), and Somerset Maugham.

Unfortunately, the rooms aren't decorated to suit their names. The Maugham room could be in colonial Indochinese style, all bamboo, teak, and silk. The Joyce room might be a Dublin pub circa 1904. The Graham room would replicate a 70s era newsroom with clicking teletype machines. As for the Douglas Adams room . . . well, use your imagination.

In reality, of course, all of the rooms are in comfortable but generic office decor, with just a couple of exceptions. The Dr. Seuss room is a large conference room (seating a dozen or so rather than just four or five) lined with framed covers of the authors' books--The Cat in the Hat, Green Eggs and Ham, and the rest. And the main assembly hall, arrayed with a hundred or so chairs for big presentations, is dedicated to the prolific western novelist Louis L'Amour, the walls decorated with quotations from his writings.

The pecking order implied by the room dedications sends a clear signal to the Random House editors and authors of today. The company is very proud of the Pulitzers and Nobels won by people like Joyce and Maugham and Faulkner. But in this temple of literary commerce, pride of place goes to the fellows who keep the company afloat--the much-loved minor talents like Dr. Seuss and Louis L'Amour, whose books fill the shelves in dens and kids' bedrooms in households by the millions around the world.

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