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Shakedown shakes publishing houses to the core

Diane Evans
DelMio.com (MCT)

Maybe you're someone just too snobbish for nostalgia. If so, don't read on, because I'm not going to apologize for feeling regret over the news that Doubleday is being dismantled as a division of Random House Inc.

Doubleday is just one of the casualties in a publishing industry streaming with bad news. Writing in The Daily Beast blog, author and editor Tina Brown noted, "The carnage in media jobs accelerated last week with hundreds getting whacked at CBS, NBC, Time Inc. and my own esteemed publisher Doubleday." You could add to the list: Simon & Schuster, Thomas Nelson Publishers and Scholastic.

No surprise, with the economy what it is, coupled with consolidation of various forms of media in a digital age.

Doubleday, in particular, represented the mystique and glory of big publishing houses in New York. I envision these places much as the newsrooms of major dailies under titans such as John S. Knight: The quality of the written word mattered. And you better get it right.

Among its legends, Doubleday had Jacqueline Kennedy as an editor. And it still is a house of celebrity. Current authors include Suzie Orman, John Grisham and Dan Brown.

Of course, whether it was Kennedy at the table with client Carly Simon, or a current editor trying to coax the next book out of Dan Brown, the business is about selling books and making money.

The difference, in an earlier time, is that publishing had the air of a regulated industry. Now it's like a deregulated free-for-all, with everything from free downloadable books, free Kindle books, self-published books, books-on-demand and you name what else.

Consumers have more choices, but they've also got more sorting out to do on their own, with publishers in a diminished role as institutional filters.

Meanwhile, continued cost cutting comes with raised concerns about poor editing, and in some cases, fabrications in books sold as nonfiction.

And the future? In the mix of continued shakeout and job loss, there still will be serious books and serious publishers.

One title currently in the works at Doubleday that will now transfer to one of the remaining Random House units: The yet-untitled story of Jackie Kennedy's 16 years at Doubleday. It's by historian William Kuhn and it is slated to come out in 2011. In an announcement in September, Doubleday said that Kuhn would draw on "previously untapped archival material" and interviews with Kennedy's authors, collaborators and friends from the 1980s and 1990s.

That hits on why Doubleday's demise is a loss: Because it was the kind of publisher that invested in books that required the digging up of new and valuable information. If the trade-off is that we have more choices now, then the question is: Is more really more? Or is it less?

___

ABOUT THE WRITER

Diane Evans is a former Knight Ridder columnist and is now president of DelMio.com, a new interactive online magazine on books for writers and readers.

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