Tough Times for Icons

Kurt Vonnegut passed away late last week. Naturally, there’s a publishing angle to this story.

Early in 1989, Elvis Costello was going around giving interviews to promote his new album Spike. He had been freshly dropped from his recording contract with Columbia Records and was now hooked up with Warner Brothers. He used the occasion to blast Columbia--not for dropping him, but for having previously dropped Johnny Cash, who was at that time--before he hooked up with Rick Rubin and saved country music--entirely without a record contract. You just don’t do that, EC was saying, you just don’t drop Johnny Cash because he’s not selling like he used to. He’s a legend, an icon.

All these years later, record, film, and book distributors and publishers are, of course, booting out icons left and right. I hope somewhere the fools who edged out EC and Johnny Cash are meeting a bad end. Greeters at the Wal-Mart, maybe. Somewhere, anyway, where they can’t do harm pretending they’re more important than the legendary performers they routinely show the door.

In the case of Vonnegut, he spent the end of his writing career with the independent publisher Seven Stories Press, who also recently lost Art Buchwald from among the icons who, through whatever twists of fate, were no longer suited to the corporate giganto-publishing world of the big release and controlled message. That controlled message drove at least one major publisher, Andre Schiffrin, from head of Pantheon books to form his own independent publishing house, The New Press. In the transition he took many of the authors he had worked with from the start, icons like Studs Terkel.

Vonnegut, Buchwald, Terkel--these are just some of the guys marginalized by corporate publishing.

They do a very good job--those conglomerate publishing houses--cramming bookstore shelves and paid-for display tables with their titles, force-feeding the bestseller lists with books by celebrities and big-name politicos. Integrity, wit, and style, though, just isn’t good enough for them.

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