Adam Bellow, Pamphleteer for the 21st Century

Adam Bellow has earned a name for himself as an editor of famously controversial and conservative books, and his new venture aims to "reinvent the book for the 21st century."

Adam Bellow, son of the novelist Saul Bellow, has been in publishing for the past twenty years and has earned a name for himself as an editor of famously controversial and conservative books like Illiberal Education, The Real Anita Hill, and The Bell Curve. His newest venture has as its goal no less than, as his Web site puts it, “to reinvent the book for the 21st century.” Bellow wants to do this by bringing back the art of pamphleteering. In a series of 4-by-6 inch, $4 booklets with an average of 60 to 80 pages each, he hopes to create a new, affordable forum for presenting ideas. The significance for the blogosphere is that Bellow believes the Internet has become the central arena for intellectual debate in America, and it is from this source — reprinting digests of blog posts or letting individual bloggers pull together collections of their writing — that he hopes to harvest most of his material.

Gal Beckerman: How did you come up with the idea? Because it seems both old-fashioned and, at the same time, like you are trying to establish a new paradigm.

Adam Bellow: I’m both a professional book editor and an amateur publishing historian. So this represents the fruition of an idea that came to me ten years ago when I was editorial director of the Free Press at Simon & Schuster. In the mid-nineties the publishing business experienced a profound shift, or retrenchment. It was called a “mid-list contraction,” which was a euphemistic way of saying that big publishers were no longer going to publish books that were projected to sell any less than 10,000 copies. They mostly intended to prune their list of small first novels, little quirky books and literary fiction. But that also affected all the midsize publishers that were involved in intellectual publishing — publishing about politics and ideas. In a very short time, this small group of publishers were either sold off, reinvented or shut down.

I began to cast about for a way to keep this kind of publishing going. It occurred to me that, in the nineties, a lot of the very successful books that were published were short, polemical books that really deserved to be called pamphlets, books like The Disuniting of America by Arthur Schlesinger. On top of this, I also had this awareness that all the great social and political and scientific and religious revolutions in Western history were accompanied by, and indeed instigated by, pamphlet wars, from the Reformation to the Enlightenment.

It seemed to me, about the American situation, that the end of the cold war had thrown everything into flux, and that there would be a period of intense argument. Ideas would become important again because things were uncertain. And that’s when I began thinking about how to reintroduce the pamphlet.

My model, the one that I’m hoping to recreate, is an American pamphlet series published in the 1920s, called the “Little Blue Books.” They were published by a Jewish, socialist newspaper editor, very eccentric, brilliant guy named Emanuel Haldeman-Julius. He was a very progressive figure and had a little publishing empire going in the Midwest. At some point he decided to put out pamphlets, which he charged a nickel for. It was strictly a mail order business. He sold these things for twenty years. And he managed to sell a hundred million pamphlets in five years. He was very close with the leading polemicists of the day, so some of them had original material. But the pamphlets were also an eclectic mix of history, poetry, proverbs, joke books, sex advice, household tips, occasional pieces of journalism. When I asked my dad, when he was still alive, whether he had ever heard of the “Little Blue Books,” he said, “Oh sure, when I used to commute to college from the south side of Chicago, to Northwestern, I’d go down to the IC and there would be a little vending machine. You’d put in a nickel and you’d get out a copy of the poems of Shelley or the stories of Maupassant. You’d read it on the train and then you’d discard it.”

The situation now is different. It’s not so much that there is a lack of reading material or higher education like there was then, but rather that people don’t have time to take in all the information that is thrown at them. And this in a period when the tone and the level of public intellectual argument in this country has been adversely affected by both the media revolution and by current events. It’s been polarized and coarsened by the political climate. It’s also been made shallower and more superficial by the media environment.

So that’s on the one hand. On the other hand, I noticed the explosion of activity on the Internet. After 9/11 there was this huge explosion. I think it can best be described cosmologically. First there is a big bang. Thousands and thousands of individual blogs are spewed out. Nobody reads them in particular. They are all just little points sort of flickering in the cosmic gloom. But over time, because the Internet is a kind of pure intellectual democracy, little aggregations form. People are drawn to one another by common interests. And at the same time, certain individuals emerge as large planetary bodies, very often surrounded by circles of other people who share their interests.

So I’m looking at this and thinking this is where the excitement is, this is where the action is. And like many other publishers, I thought how do I exploit this energy and vitality.

GB: Well, couldn’t it be argued that what you were describing as the role of pamphlets has now been taken up by blogs? What added benefit is there in taking material from blogs and putting it in print form?

AB: What I am describing as the blogosphere is basically a Wild West situation, an oil boom, a gold rush. From the perspective of the traditional publishing company there is something to tap into, but not much of an understanding of how. What they are typically doing is applying the old familiar paradigm, the horse-and-buggy paradigm, bloggers should be writing books. Well, of course many bloggers do write books. But that is a different matter. That’s turning them into a different animal.

As a media historian, what I understand about the emergence of new media is that they don’t wipe out old media but they force them to adjust in some important way, so there is a rearrangement of the panoply of media. The publishing companies are like the oil companies in relation to solar power or hydrogen. They know that it’s got the potential to destroy their monopoly so they are trying to control it, they buy up the patents and try and manage the transition. But they don’t really know where it’s going, they don’t have much of a vision of how to adopt to the new digital universe.

My argument is that pamphlets answer those dilemmas. They address the publisher’s dilemma and the blogger’s dilemma. The pamphlet culture that is trying to emerge, which has been called into being by the ideological struggle of our time, is being hampered by the old paradigm, by the market constraints on publishers who cannot sell a small book unless they put it in hardcover and give it a price that makes it worth the cost of distribution. That’s the publisher’s dilemma. The blogger’s dilemma is how do I get my voice heard. Not just in the blogosphere but outside it. From the bloggers point of view, there are precious few alternatives. Successful bloggers like Andrew Sullivan and Glen Reynolds can get newspaper columns and book deals. Occasionally they get profiled in a magazine. But most bloggers don’t have that option because they don’t have that kind of audience.

My vision, my hope, is to supply that editorial filter that everybody complains is missing from the Internet. I think someone needs to do that and I am electing myself.

And my audience is really twofold. First there is the universe of blogs itself, which is a narrow market but a global one. But beyond that I find that there are many, many people who have become aware that the blogosphere exists and that it is powerful and influential but being busy people with a lot of demands on their time, they haven’t got the faintest idea of how to get acquainted with it and find the stuff that would interest them. I had a conversation with Sam Tanenhaus [editor of the New York Times Book Review] and I asked him what blogs he reads, and he is a serious intellectual and a highly energetic guy. And he said to me, “I don’t have time, I haven’t the slightest idea.” That tells you something. For someone like him the pamphlets would offer him the best of the blogosphere.

GB: Two potential problems I see in transferring blogs into print is, first, how do you get past the problems of immediacy, making the posts seem as vital even though they are not appearing the same day as the event they are commenting on. And, second, how do you get past the problem that plagues most of the blogosphere, of rabidly partisan rhetoric that does not engage in the kind of intellectually honest pursuit you seem to want this project to highlight?

AB: Immediacy is an issue and because this is substantially a new form of publishing, I am still learning how to do this in a way that is viable. But I’ve moved away from the idea of trying to imitate blogs. These will never have that immediacy. What I am pursuing more is the documentary interest. There is a valid mission in the effort to document the life of the blogosphere. I think of the series over time as a sort of fever chart of the blogosphere’s obsessions. I’m gambling that there will be an audience over time for that. And because this is a mail order business, I need to increase the delivery speed. So when you buy a pamphlet on my Web site, you are given access immediately to a pdf e-book, so that you have it right away and then I send you the printed copy in the mail. Also, I need to be better at anticipating events. You can’t anticipate a war in the Middle East. But you can anticipate the Oscars or the 2008 elections.

I also want to emphasize that this is not mass-market publishing. I am trying to preserve the original model of the Free Press and Basic Books, which were not mass market at all. They were niche publishers. It was the kind of intellectual publishing where they went to the people who cared. And the Internet is an ideal delivery system for that. This gets into your next question of what do you do about these polarized communities. And my answer to that is you publish stuff for those polarized communities to begin with. You provide a platform in their midst that arbitrates between the better and the worse. And you say, this is material that is developed especially for you. And because this is small-scale publishing where you can break even by selling a couple hundred copies of something, it really doesn’t matter. I mean, it’s very cheap. I can print as few as a hundred pamphlets for relatively little money. I am paying for this out of my little legacy left to me by my dad. It’s not a lot, but I figure on this basis, subtracting the inevitable start-up costs and foolish errors that I’ve made, I should be able to keep this going for a year.

GB: The first three that you published — a pamphlet of posts about the Lebanon war by the blogger Michael Totten; a reprinting of the speeches of Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader; and a digest of Lebanese and Israeli blog posts from during the war — are these representative of the kind of pamphlets you hope to put out?

AB: They are. We wanted to come out with something that was pegged to current events and that would allow us to experiment with basic publishing templates. One reason we selected Michael, beyond the fact that he had a good profile, is that he is reader supported, and that seemed like a good bet. Here’s a guy whose got an audience whose willing to pay an average donation of twenty bucks to read what he puts up for free. Not only did I think that that was a good bet for a pamphlet sell but I wanted to indicate that this is a way to open up a new income stream for bloggers. That was one reason. Clearly we’ll do anthologies of stuff published by bloggers with followings. The blog digest format is another one we’ll want to repeat. Here’s a case where something happens in the world and blog activity spikes and it allows you to showcase what is happening online. I thought it was very moving because it was a testimony to what it feels like when history is rolling over your head. And partly because the rapprochement between Israeli and Lebanese bloggers was so tender and tentative, and important and valuable. And the idea that it could have been destroyed wantonly in a month, makes that collection so important on a documentary level. And, finally, the Nasrallah collection is a no-brainer. Here’s a guy who wants to be the next leader of global jihad. You should really know what he has to say. And I hope to be able to do that kind of publishing again.

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Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.