Sleeping with the Enemy

Why do our favorite progressive writers flock to corporate publishers?
by Jennifer Nix, from AlterNet
May-June 2005

Image by Flickr user: katerha / Creative Commons


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I’ve got an invitation for all progressive authors out there.

How about putting your money and ideas where your mouths are? Why not work with independent book publishers to share with the public your thoughts about progressive politics, social justice, sustainability, and media reform . . . instead of lining the pockets of the corporate publishers (and ultimately the five or ten rich white men who control nearly every media message we read and hear in the U.S. today)?

Let me share with you a story about an independent publisher waging battle against the corporate-owned and fossilized business of book publishing. We could use a little help from you, friends.

Late in 2004, Chelsea Green Publishing did the impossible. We signed George Lakoff, got his book Don’t Think of an Elephant! : Know Your Values and Frame the Debate out in five weeks (!), and then ushered it onto The New York Times and other national best-seller lists less than a month later.

We did this by partnering with progressive activist and indy media groups to launch the book via e-mail blasts and on various Web sites, like MoveOn.org, Democracy for America, Apollo Alliance, Jim Hightower, GreenFestival, AlterNet, and more. We also got a lot of help from the blogs, like DailyKos and BoingBoing. We published a book about new, progressive ideals and, rather than going the traditional and lengthy turn-your-hair-gray publishing route (calling on galleys, sales reps, early reviews, and ads), we went directly to progressives to get Lakoff’s book out into the world. It worked. We created a new publishing model. And we’re not shy about telling you that Chelsea Green and Mr. Lakoff have made a very nice chunk of change.

So?

There is a great deal of talk from progressive leaders these days about how this country needs media reform as part of a multifaceted approach to saving democracy and winning back the White House and Congress. A woeful lament is sung by our progressive leaders about how the media companies are now concentrated into homogenous conglomerates that, at best, worry only about bottom-line profits, while at their most sinister are dedicated to furthering the radical right-wing agenda.

We agree! What we don’t understand is why these same progressive writers and activists don’t walk the walk and offer like-minded independent book publishers a seat at the table when strategies for media reform are being bandied about.

For the sake of opening up this discussion, I’d like to ask Amy Goodman why she published her last book, The Exception to the Rulers: Exposing Oily Politicians, War Profiteers, and the Media That Love Them, with Disney-owned Hyperion.

Michael Moore: What possessed you to make money for Rupert Murdoch by publishing Stupid White Men with ReganBooks/HarperCollins and  then go to AOL/Time Warner’s Warner Books with Dude, Where’s My Country? before jumping to a third corporate ship, Viacom’s Simon & Schuster, to publish your latest offering, Will They Ever Trust Us Again? 

David Corn: When you were underscoring the media’s role in spreading W.’s deceptions, in The Lies of George W. Bush, why did you choose to go not only with a corporate-owned publisher, but with Crown—for years now, a member of the German-owned Bertelsmann AG conglomerate, which helped to spread anti-Semitic literature and Nazi propaganda in the years leading up to and during Word War II? Al Franken: When you were publishing Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right, why did you make money for Dutton, a cog in the wheel of British-owned media giant Pearson, rather than help to reform American media by making a commitment to and money for an independent American publisher? And, finally, I really hate to point out to populist Jim Hightower that he, too, made money for that same Brit media giant by going with another of Pearson’s holdings, Viking, when he published his latest book, Let’s Stop Beating Around the Bush.

Come on, people. Is it all about the big advances? Hear this: A big advance does not a best-seller make. It should be about how many people buy your book.

As a small, independent publisher, we at Chelsea Green have often heard variations on this particular theme: I’d love to go with a mission-oriented publisher like you, but you just don’t have the publicity, distribution, and sales strength to get my book out into the world on a grand scale.

Not true. Look at the Lakoff book, which capitalized on creativity, speed, and the harnessing of strategic partnerships and new technology. The book was a best-seller on The New York Times list for months on end and held strong on other national lists as well. Don’t Think of an Elephant! has been featured in New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and Boston Globe articles and continues to appear in newspapers and magazines around the country—even in the far-flung red states. Lakoff has appeared on NPR, PBS, CNN, FOX, CBS, ABC, NBC . . . and on an alphabet of broadcast stations around the country. Lakoff’s book sits in cash register displays at bookstores from California to Vermont.

There are plenty of other examples of recent independent hits, including Berret-Koehler’s tremendous job with John Perkins’ best-selling Confessions of an Economic Hit Man and the runaway hits MoveOn’s 50 Ways to Love Your Country, from Inner Ocean, and Potomac Books’ Imperial Hubris. The time has come to marshal our independent might and technology for all progressive-minded books, so that the money made on your books does not, in the end, fund the very same corporate media interests we are all fighting against on other fronts.

This rant is meant not to excoriate progressive writers, but to draw attention to the fact that you need to do more than talk the talk about media reform. Independent publishers are with you, fighting against what’s happening to our media, to our democracy, and to our country. How much sense does it make to publish your books with the likes of corporate publishers, with the proceeds going to strengthen the very media and political systems against which you rail so eloquently? Why not make money for yourselves and also funnel profits into strengthening independent presses by giving us a chance to work with your names and ideas?

No one is asking you to make less money, or to see your books die on the vine due to a lack of publicity, marketing, or distribution. Book publishing has always been a crapshoot in corporate hands, and it always will be. Why not align your efforts with nimble, committed folks who are working to reform our media while they sell books? Just as the Internet is changing politics, it is changing media—and it is changing the slow and antiquated world of book publishing. We’ve proven it, and we can keep proving it, with ever more inventive ways of reaching out to the public.

You no longer have to make deals with the devil of corporate might in order to sell your books. Independent book publishers can work with writers to find their audiences and create new echo chambers with technology and various independent media partners. Together, we can spread word of your important ideas—and turn them into best-sellers.

We just need to be invited to the table. Let’s think creatively about new ways to publish books so we can start making some honest headway on changing our corrupt media system.

It’s time to put up—with some commitment to independent book publishing—or to shut up about media reform.

Jennifer Nix is editor-at-large at Chelsea Green Publishing based in White River Junction, Vermont. Reprinted from AlterNet (www.alternet.org, March 3, 2005), an online source for news and commentary about progressive politics and culture. 


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