July 3, 2012

The dark visions of Alberto Vitale


Former Random House CEO Alberto Vitale is back from the dead, expounding on the future of publishing and desperately trying to seem relevant in a long interview posted on Publishing Perspectives. The site grandly calls him one of the “most recognizable figures in the history of [the] American publishing industry,” but it’s hard to imagine how this missive from Vitale, who left Random House in 2002, will be of use to anyone in today’s publishing business.

For those who don’t remember, Vitale is the career money guy who worked first for Bantam Books and then at Random House under S.I. Newhouse. His love for books is far from recognizable: he wandered into publishing, as he describes it in the interview, and seems never really to have understood it. (When he stepped down as Random House CEO he summarized publishing as a “crapshoot business.”)

Pressed to name some books he looks back fondly on, he cheers for celebrity memoirs by Colin Powell and Lee Iacocca. It’s not surprising. The last time Vitale surfaced, in a podcast for the Wharton School of Business, he sang the praises of George W. Bush’s memoir, which had been on the bestseller list for all of  8 weeks and which prompted him to say:

The critics of George W. Bush should think twice about being so critical because, you know, if there are people who buy these books in the millions of copies, there’s got to be something to it, you know what I mean, I’m not gong to say what… But there’s got to be something to it.

It’s this kind of crass commercialism—coupled with right-wing idiocy—that turned many editors and authors against Vitale during his tenure at Random House. He is famous in particular for a fight he took up with publisher André Schiffrin, who ran Pantheon Books from 1961 until 1990, when Vitale forced him to resign. The move was something of a disaster for Vitale: the entire Pantheon editorial department quit in protest, and numerous authors and editors—including Kurt Vonnegut, Studs Terkel, and Barbara Ehrenreichprotested in front of Random House’s offices. Huge bestselling authors, including James Michener, threatened to leave Random House.

But the incident is something to look back fondly on in the new interview. Vitale recalls that:

One of the first things I did [after arriving at Random House] is to sit down with the head of Pantheon [André Schiffrin] and I said to him: “We have to make money,” as they were losing money hand over fist. I wanted him to prepare a budget, and he refused to prepare a budget, and he refused to make any changes, so I said to him ‘goodbye.’ The next thing I knew, I had authors picketing outside the front door of the company. It was unpleasant…but the net result is that Pantheon is still alive and doing well today.

I asked Schiffrin about Vitale’s version of the Pantheon fight. He replied in an email that “His account of Pantheon is totally inaccurate. We gave him a budget, which he then proposed to slash by two-thirds—of the titles and the staff.” (Schiffrin tells his version of events in his memoir, A Political Education, published by Melville House.)

And while it’s true that a Random House imprint called Pantheon still exists, it bears little resemblance to the house as it was run under Schiffrin, certainly not in the number of titles published: The Summer 2012 Pantheon catalog contains just 12 titles, a huge fall from the 100 or so titles the old Pantheon published each year.

The new interview, however, doesn’t just focus on ancient history. It gives Vitale the opportunity to expand on a number of current publishing topics. He thinks agency pricing is too high—all ebooks should be $9.99 or less, he says—ponders higher margins with digital technologies, and proclaims, as if it’s interesting, that ebooks are a “major opportunity for publishers.” The interviewer asks Vitale about the difference between Europe and the U.S.—I presume the question was meant to refer to the book markets in the US and Europe—but Vitale replies by saying “Europe is moving slowly, and the United States is moving very fast” and then proceeds to bash Europe, which he has been doing for years.

Asked about Google and Amazon, he says, sure, they’ll be important players and adds “maybe AOL” too. I’ve never worked as a CEO, but if you could buy stock premised on the idea that AOL will never be important to the future of book publishing, I would buy it all.

The interview is also filled with some of Vitale’s characteristic right-wing barbs — “Free markets cannot be regulated”! — and more complaints about European politics:

The unions, the socialistic approach…Everybody thinks that they deserve pension, they deserve vacation, they deserve education, they deserve medical care…Nonsense!

Want to hear more of this? I don’t—but if it’s your kind of thing, feel free to quote Vitale as if he knows what he’s talking about, or hire him to consult on your publishing-related business. I’ll look to never hear from him again.


Kelly Burdick is the executive editor of Melville House.