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  • Writing for RCA:Neoliberalism in Publishing I
  • Jeffrey R. Di Leo, Editor and Publisher

In 1932, when Random House sought to legally publish Ulysses in the US, it was Bennett Cerf, one of the co-owners of the publishing house, that contacted James Joyce. After receiving Joyce's consent to publish, Cerf had a copy of the book sent from Paris to New York, and then arranged for customs officials to seize it at the docks so that he could prepare for a court battle over it. Ten minutes after Judge John Woolsey of the New York district court delivered his verdict that the book was not legally obscene, Cerf had the typesetters at Random House working on Joyce's masterpiece.

To many, Cerf, who co-founded Random House in 1925 with Donald Klopfer, and whose press also published Sinclair Lewis, William Faulkner, Gertrude Stein, Truman Capote, and John O'Hara, is one of the heroes of American publishing. Though Joyce's book had been published some ten years earlier by Sylvia Beach's Shakespeare & Co. in Paris, because it was banned in the English-speaking world, Joyce did not profit from it until Cerf stood up for it in court. The legal publication of Ulysses by Random House finally allowed Joyce—rather than the Ulysses bootleggers—to reap more of the financial rewards of its publication.

In hindsight—and from a less flattering perspective—moves like Cerf's acquisition of Ulysses and the building of a top-tier list of authors by his press can be seen as laying the groundwork for the rise of contemporary corporate publishing.

That is to say, it foreshadows a publishing world where Simon & Schuster is a subsidiary of CBS, and HarperCollins is owned by News Corporation, the multimedia conglomerate founded by Rupert Murdoch; where twelve publishers out of approximately 85,000 account for almost two-thirds of US trade and mass-market book sales; where 90 percent of active publishers account for less that 10 percent of total book sales; where Random House alone accounts for over 13 percent of all US book sales and has world-wide sales revenues of almost 2.4 billion dollars; and where Random House alone sells more books than 76,500 US trade and mass-market publishers combined.

How did this happen? How did it come to be that a few publishing corporations now control the majority of book sales in the US? And what does it mean for the 76,500 "small" presses that reside in the shadows of corporate publishing giants like Random House?

In the case of Random House, by the 1950s, the co-owners began to worry about what would happen to the company if one of them died. Cerf said, "Donald and I knew that the real value of the company had increased each year, but nobody knew by how much." He continued, "If its value was too high, how could the survivor afford to buy the other half, and how could the widow of the one who died raise enough cash to pay the estate tax?"

Worries about the future of their company if one of them died led Cerf and Klopfer to sell 30 percent of their stock to the public in 1959. "From then on," writes Cerf, "we were publishing with one eye and watching our stock with the other." "Instead of working for yourself and doing what you damn please, willing to risk a loss on something you want to do, if you're any kind of honest man, you feel a responsibility to your stockholders," wrote Cerf.

Going public opened the door to expanding the business, which it did shortly after by acquiring both Knopf and Pantheon. Soon Time-Life took an interest in merging with Random House—a deal which eventually fell through when it became clear that the US Department of Justice would most likely oppose the merger on anti-trust grounds. In 1965, however, Random House was sold to RCA for 40 million dollars, at which point Cerf stepped down as president.

Cerf said they accepted RCA's offer because "it was one of the great corporations of the country."

And who would disagree...


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