You Can Judge Book by Its Cover/ Death to the Dynasty!/ Job Fair Just That | Media | Chicago Reader

You Can Judge Book by Its Cover/ Death to the Dynasty!/ Job Fair Just That 

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By Michael Miner

You Can Judge Book by It's Cover

They've queried the focus groups and pondered the shifting sands of popular culture. "I think there is an audience," says Jerome Kramer. "There are a number of data points out there--from Oprah Winfrey's phenomenal juggernaut to the affection being lavished on Amazon.com to the culture of monster bookstores that become as much a social hub as retail. We're saying these guys--John Irving, Wally Lamb, Anna Quindlen--they're as intriguing, certainly, as Brad Pitt."

Imagine a magazine that would put Brad Pitt on its cover. Now imagine its equivalent devoted to those personalities known as authors. This is the product for which Kramer hopes he can find an audience. The product is called Book, its first issue comes out this month, and Kramer's the editor.

Writers used to be A-list celebrities, I remind him. Hemingway, the obvious example, was more than a critically acclaimed novelist the public read too. He was the man. He showed up in newsreels just for being Hemingway. He was something in America that these days no writer is.

"I know," says Kramer. "One of the soapboxes I'll get on is the anti-intellectualism that has been a subtext--or supertext--of what's gone on in this country for the last 40 or 50 years. It would be nice to see that rolled back."

Is anti-intellectualism truly a through line of the last half century of American history? Or is it a scapegoat for the damage inevitably done in a democracy where half the people are below average? No matter. From his office in a second-floor flat on the same block where I live, Kramer is quietly girding for war against the yahoos.

He and his pal Mark Gleason, who lives in New Jersey, are coming at them with an idea so old it's new. They intend to encourage reading. "What we're trying to do with Book is decidedly not another kind of pointy-headed intelligentsia-oriented magazine--the ones that tend to find their homes on the east coast," Kramer assures me. "They're great magazines--like the New York Review of Books. But we're trying to do something more approachable by a wider audience. So people who may not think of themselves as passionately involved with books will get drawn in and find out that that universe is just as much fun to knock around in as Premiere for movies or Spin or Vibe or Rolling Stone."

But isn't it anti-intellectual to "celebritize" writers? I ask.

"Good question," he says, having asked it himself. "In March I gave this guy in Seattle an outline of what we were doing. His initial reaction was, 'I think it'll work real well, but I personally hate it.' But I don't think we're interested in fawning over people, creating celebrities. I was looking at the most recent Vanity Fair. There's a delightfully nubile thing on the cover. She's a nobody, but Vanity Fair is gambling she'll be the next big somebody. My aspiration would be, rather, that if people like to read good literature--good fiction or nonfiction or whatever--and if we can find something printed with a 5,000 run in Canada and it doesn't have a U.S. distributor but it's a hell of a good book, I'd like to bring that book to somebody's attention. I don't think that's celebritizing that book or author to a degree that will do it damage."

Kramer and Gleason met at Georgetown University in the 80s, moved on to Medill together, and decided "to conquer the world one way or another," as Kramer puts it. About a year and a half ago Gleason found the way. Last winter he quit his marketing job in New York to make it happen. "There seems to be an unwritten rule that when you cover books you do it in a straight-ahead, black-and-white manner," Gleason, who's Book's publisher, says over the phone. "We'll use a lot of color photography. When people ask what our competitors are, I say that in a direct sense there are no competitors. In a sense every publication is our competitor. But in almost all cases they do their book reviews in the back of the magazine and there's no art. We're going to bring books to the forefront."

Kramer was working for a trade magazine in Chicago. He quit in June to edit Book, demonstrating that in an age of modems two friends can launch a new product while living a thousand miles apart. It isn't always easy. Last Monday Kramer wanted to check the color reproduction as the first few copies rolled off the press and was obliged to catch a morning flight to Newark. The printer's in Saratoga Springs, New York.

The founders' long-distance relationship won't last. "The business plan was always based on multistage capitalization," Kramer reasons. "When we get to stage-two capitalization, the wheeler-dealer types looking at the figures will say, 'Why do you double costs by having a New York office and a Chicago office?' That's one of the main reasons we may be forced to join offices."

"Once we have staff writers and editors," says Gleason, "it makes sense to have the bulk of them in the New York area to meet with writers and editors here. That's where the bulk of the stories will come from. We'd like to have a small operation in Chicago--that's something we haven't worked out. But once this thing starts running along we'd like the critical mass here in New York."

Soon, if all goes well, Kramer will set off for New York to make America smarter, and my block will lose a visionary. Tom Wolfe, who looks a little like Brad Pitt if you look only at the lank hair, appears on the cover of Book's first issue, and inside there's a discussion of his big new novel, with which Wolfe "may be taking his final shot at literary immortality." There's a profile of Wally Lamb, who wrote a 900-page novel, I Know This Much Is True, plagued by the reasonable fear that it might be beyond him. Chicago author Stuart Dybek has a short piece, Anna Quindlen talks about the fiction she loves, and several reviews show up in the back of the magazine.

The paper's slick, the cover price is a serious $4.95, and Gleason says the press run will reach or exceed 100,000 copies. On September 22 Book goes on sale at big chain bookstores across the country.

"We are capitalized to the point where we can do a few issues," Gleason says. "We don't have enough capital to get all the way to profitability, which we think will take three and a half to four years. But we already have discussions going with stage-two investors--bigger money. We're talking to smaller investment firms as well as a couple of magazine-publishing companies. What we would hope to do is a joint venture."

Were you able to pay your writers? I ask him.

"We paid them, and we paid them well," he says.

Death to the Dynasty!

"If you deal with these guys you won't be a fan," said a reporter who's covered the Bulls throughout the glory years. "You can't. Because it's demeaning covering these guys."

He remembered a conversation he had with another Bulls reporter when Michael Jordan retired to play baseball in 1993. "It was a very joyous occasion for us--and the opposite when he decided to come back. For me it was the worst beat in town. You had to go with the flow, but that doesn't mean you've got to like it."

The flow was strewn with indignities reporters suffered in silence because the public surely didn't care. "You feel a little bit dirty. You feel demeaned. You know these guys to be jerks--the public doesn't. And it's not right to tell them everything-- they're fans. And if you're a fan you're better off knowing as little as possible. So everybody pulls their punches."

The reporter is no fan. The more championships the Bulls won, the easier it got not to be one. The last team he found himself rooting for was the '95 Northwestern football team, which to everyone's astonishment went to the Rose Bowl. "It was so refreshing," he said. "There were no prima donnas on that team, including the coach [Gary Barnett] and the star running back [Darnell Autry]. I needed that shot, after dealing with so many assholes making millions of dollars and they don't need anybody anymore."

The Bulls this reporter got sick of sound an awful lot like the team portrayed in the excerpts the Sun-Times ran this week of Roland Lazenby's new book, Blood on the Horns--in which Phil Jackson is less sympathetic than he's usually made out to be, Jerry Krause is less unsympathetic, and no one smells anything like a rose. "Everybody falls in line on that team with what Jordan wants to do," the reporter told me. "The locker room opens when Jordan wants it to. Go to Bulls practices--even during the playoffs, when they are required to have media availability--and they blow it off. When the curtain goes up, most of the players you want to talk to are off the floor and out the back door. Phil Jackson, rather than talking to us when practice ends, he goes up to his office and keeps us waiting a half hour to an hour. They put up an extra curtain there so that all routes were completely cordoned off. You have 20 or 30 reporters huddled in the hallway, hoping someone will stick his head through the curtain.

"Luc Longley of the starters is very cooperative, and almost all the reserves. But Michael rarely makes himself available at the Berto Center, Pippen rarely, Rodman never--and these are the main guys. I'd say the whole tone of the team is still set by Michael Jordan, and that includes Jackson's posture on certain things. His posture was dictated by how Michael felt. The Bulls [management] can't win for losing. Krause is getting ripped now, but he got ripped when he brought in Jackson. He can't win. Jordan doesn't care for Krause--and if Michael doesn't, nobody's going to. Bulls management doesn't play the game. If they did, they wouldn't be getting hammered as much as they are. They go about their business and don't get into any pissing contests with the coaches or players. They obviously are very guarded in everything they say, and that has put them at odds with a lot of media people."

Jackson's already gone, and this reporter thinks the dynasty's history. He believes Jordan and Pippen have made public statements about leaving too strong for them to go back on. It's over, and he's glad it is. "It looks like we're palling around with these guys, and nothing could be farther from the truth," he said. "Some of this stuff could make for a nice sensational story, but to what end? We cover this stuff because there are people out there who enjoy it. So we try to enhance their enjoyment of it rather than detract from it."

Job Fair Just That

"This will be our fourth job fair," says special events coordinator Doris Brooks of WVON. "It's been a disappointment for both sides. We've had companies say they've set up appointments for large numbers of people and the people don't come. And we've had people say the companies just take resumes and names and never get back to them."

WVON's next job fair is October 3, but anyone who wants to go to it will have to register next Friday at Malcolm X College. Applicants not deemed "job ready" will have to attend workshops and learn how to look for work. Brooks attended the mayor's recent job fair and noticed how many people had brought their children with them. "You don't go to job fairs with children!" she says. "They were completely unprepared." o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Mark Gleason, Jerome Kramer photo by New Jersey Newsphotos.

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