Among the most beloved characters in the classic Muppets shows were Statler and Waldorf, two older gentlemen sitting in box seats above the stage, mocking Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear and others and then laughing uproariously at their own jokes.
As a now somewhat senior figure myself, I often feel like Statler or Waldorf passing jocular judgments on the characters below. I also react with indignation at what I perceive to be slights to standards or traditions I believe in. Usually a harrumph or two suffices to satisfy my irritation.
But not on this issue…
PublicAffairs, the publishing company I founded in 1997 is now part of the Hachette Book Group and aligned with such venerable imprints as Little, Brown and Basic Books. We are still small by comparison to other parts of this major enterprise, but we can be noisy. Lately however this noise and recognition has been muted.
In recent years, books often dominate the national conversation. Yet rarely now — almost never — does the name of the publisher responsible for a book appear in media coverage about them. When the New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN or The New Yorker break a story, the publication is invariably credited. But the convention when stories are broken by books is that the name of the publisher is irrelevant. It is as though the book is the product of some process of autonomous delivery.
The exception to this rule is in book reviews or when something goes wrong. Authorial blunders such as plagiarism, falsehoods or lesser sins of sloppiness are bound to get the publisher identified with a full dose of finger-wagging, where book publishers are compared to tech giants like Facebook and Twitter for refusing to take responsibility for work that appears under their imprimaturs. Of course, publishers should do everything possible to make their books factually and grammatically accurate. Typographical errors are on the publisher. However, it is virtually impossible for an editorial team to fact check every item in a serious non-fiction book. That would be so time-consuming and expensive that books would take much longer to go from manuscript to publication than they already do. That’s why authors are paid advances — occasionally very large ones — to offset the costs of writing the book, including getting their stories straight.
Finger-wagging notwithstanding, in the past (and I have significant experience with the past), the publisher’s name would be included in a parenthesis after the title (Random House) in feature stories. When a book is “obtained” by the media ahead of an embargo, as they invariably are, there is likely to be an exhortation to that accomplishment as though a feat of investigative journalism had been performed. Sometimes the book is handed to the reporter by the publisher as a means of creating buzz. And sometimes, booksellers just choose to sell the book as soon as it arrives. The unnamed publisher, meanwhile, is scrambling to mollify booksellers who had signed pledges not to sell before the on-sale date.
The reason for leaving out the publishers’ name or breaking the embargoes is the belief, I’ve been told, that the publisher is just a business and anything they do is just driven by the focus on money rather than pride in having supported a book of consequence. Or I’ve heard the insulting observation that “no one cares who the publisher is.”
In recent weeks, PublicAffairs has published a number of notable books that received extensive media coverage. The winners of this year’s Nobel Prize in Economics are Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo. The prize was essentially for the work described in their book Poor Economics: A Radical Way of Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty. On November 12, they will be publishing a book called Good Economics for Hard Times. I read everything I could find about the prize recipients and their work and never once saw a reference to the fact that PublicAffairs was the publisher. It was their editor, Clive Priddle, who years ago recognized the importance of their ideas, gave them an advance against royalties and guided the process towards this triumph. PublicAffairs is very proud of our authors and their books and would like to have been recognized, even if only in a parenthesis.
In the case of another high-profile PublicAffairs book, the author of an exclusive story included the name of the publisher, but an editor took it out. I know that because I asked.
When I first noticed the trend to omit the name of the publisher several years ago, I raised the issue with the person responsible for such style matters at The New York Times. Our exchange was good-natured but frustrating. It was that person who said no one cares who the publisher is. OK, who cares that it was the Times that broke a story picked up by other news organizations? The Times cares.
Identifying the publisher of books with impact improves the visibility of the book and adds a clue to its origins. Without the publisher named, the title seems to me untethered. I wince when someone says to me, “I didn’t know you had published that book.” More seriously, there are publishers so closely identified with right wing ideologies that it becomes a factor in determining their credibility, as is the case, say, with stories from Breitbart or The Daily Caller.
The tumultuous events of the current era have shown, again, the importance of good information, especially if it is revelatory. The provider of that information is the author — just as is it is newspapers, magazines, on the web or in podcasts. But the preparation and distribution of that information is a piece of the puzzle that readers deserve, and publishers need to sustain their place in the media maelstrom.