A Week in Books: The cannibal culture of corporate publishing

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The Independent Culture
MONDAY AFTERNOON in a large London bookshop, and a staff member totters under a pile of crimson-clad tomes. "Here's Hannibal," he sighs. The manager eyes this tiny fraction of Thomas Harris's million-strong print-run with more anxiety than gratitude: "Do you think it'll get stolen?"

Very probably. A bit of "slippage" seems a modest price to pay for the wave of hysteria that has greeted Dr Lecter's Third Coming. After a prolonged tease, cruelly orchestrated by the publishers, a few of the expectant scribes then succumbed to a nasty case of premature acclamation. As with so many artfully puffed but coyly withheld blockbusters, Humbert Wolfe's evergreen lines fit the facts: "You cannot hope/ to bribe or twist/ thank God! the/ British journalist./ But, seeing what/ the man will do/ unbribed, there's/ no occasion to."

I sympathise. Global media combines - in this case, Bertelsmann via Random House - now plan to position their biggest investments as hard news, while denying access to the product itself until the last possible moment. Belatedly, the poor bloody infantry of critics struggle through a blitz of hype to reach the actual book or film. Then they have to deliver a snap judgement under intense pressure. No wonder that faculties can sometimes fray. Publishers used to solicit reviews; now they spend their time wielding legal threats to postpone or prohibit any real criticism.

As it happens, a cool appraisal of Hannibal might well conclude that it was worth the wait (see Mat Coward on page 11). Yet space for the balanced critique dwindles year by year, squeezed between an event-hungry media engine on one side and the ruses of corporate PR on the other.

The next step towards eradicating free comment would be for the reviewing arm of a communications empire to guarantee an easy ride for the work of its producing arm. In Italy, some say that Berlusconi's fiefdoms already practise this cosy symbiosis. One best-selling British writer told me that he had jokingly praised this "corruption" to his US publisher. "You may call it corruption," intoned the suit. "We would call it synergy." I can guess what sort of "synergy" a cross-media giant would have in mind for its tame pundits - the kind, no doubt, that Hannibal enjoyed with that census-taker who went so well with a big Amarone.