Dial M for Murdoch

Publishers and writers are inveterate enemies. It is a combat decreed by nature, like the eternal war between dogs and cats, oil and vinegar, teenage girls and their mothers. Any real writer, no matter how mercenary or corrupt, cares something for the craft that publishers regard as at best a pretext for marketing (much as television networks think of programs as the intervals between commercials). Even a Washington Post reporter must occasionally want to write an honest story that does not end up on the editorial spike, while the most erudite publisher can scarcely help resenting every penny squandered for the advancement of literature.

In the early days of commercial publishing, when some writers might have claimed to be gentlemen, few publishers pretended to be anything but tradesmen. Alexander Pope, to show his contempt, administered a laxative to a famous London publisher, and Samuel Johnson was fond of telling the story of the publisher who married his printer's devil—a pretty girl, once the ink was scrubbed off. The first Macmillan, according to legend, had to walk half-way across Britain to start the career that made his fortune, but his grandson Harold became not only Prime Minister, but a Tory wet enough to raise the taxes on every man who made an honest living.

In the earlier part of this century, publishers were still not quite respectable, including the press lords whose pretensions G.K....

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