The Gigawits

It’s the late Eighties, and I am calling on Tony Hendra, writer, performer, satirist, drinker, freelance schemer. While I do not remember the substance of our meeting, it’s a memorable moment: His office, in a residential hotel on Amsterdam Avenue, is possibly as close as I’ve ever come to absolute squalor and degradation. The place reeks of urine; horrible screams and moans echo up and down the halls; crack vials litter the stairwells. There, though, in a closet-size room, with a simple wooden desk, is Tony, cordial and undisturbed, finishing up a book. (Such conditions are perhaps not uninvigorating to him.)

And then there is John Evans: the mystery man of the Murdoch organization through the eighties and early nineties, when News Corporation creates the megamedia business. He is Murdoch’s Yoda. Or, depending on your point of view, Murdoch’s evil genius. People whisper his name. Few people ever see him. He is the disappearing executive – out the window, like Major Major in Catch 22. In 1991, Louis Rossetto, carrying around his plan for Wired magazine, somehow manages a meeting with Evans, and pronounces him the only man in the media business to “get it.” (Evans lobbies Murdoch to launch Wired; Murdoch declines.)

I do not know if this column merely provides an excuse to write about two of the more eccentric careers in the media business (a nostalgist’s view) or if it is actually about the revolution now taking place in book publishing. That’s the ostensible reason I am sitting at Michael’s with Hendra and Evans.

They are starting an electronic-publishing house. They believe the sudden seeming viability of a cheaper way to publish and distribute books means that independent book publishing can return and compete handily for writers, readers, and distribution outlets with the consolidated book behemoths.

They believe that books and book publishing can return to a 1920s model, when upstart independents (the Jews) challenged the nineteenth-century publishing Establishment (the Wasps).

I can’t get a decent answer from either of them as to why they sat out the nineties. As real entrepreneurs, maybe they had a hard time, I theorize, in an era of false entrepreneurs.

Next week, they launch their publishing company, now called Gigawit, with money from Evans and Evans’s friends, and a modest volume called The Gigawit Dictionary of the E-nglish Language. It is meant to be the first number – electronically and in paper form – in a more or less utopian publishing model: servicing writers (offering them health insurance!) and readers instead of book chains.

Their initial list will be of humor-oriented titles, but they see a broad catalogue of fiction and nonfiction to follow. It’s book publishing, just without the inventory, which makes all the difference.

Their premise is simple: While large, established publishers will be fighting to pay for their existing infrastructure, Hendra and Evans, with vast entrepreneurial experience, an entirely new cost basis, and freedom from the ennui and bitterness of the book industry, will make a revolution.

It might seem likely that, in this post- Stephen King new electronic age, every writer and would-be literary person (are there any anymore?) would be trying to invent a new publishing notion.

But as far as I can tell, Hendra and Evans are the first guys, the first New York media guys, to say “What’s stopping us?”

Possibly because we are sitting at Michael’s, surrounded by everyone else in the publishing business, this all feels like an oddly legitimate business conversation.

They are certainly unlike anyone in the consolidated, corporatized book industry – which may be the point.

Hendra is 58 and Evans is 62. For all practical purposes, they are vaudevillians in the new-media era. I doubt if there are guys like Hendra and Evans anywhere in the media business anymore. There isn’t a job description for their type.

Hendra, a small man with a large head, has had, as much as anyone, a central role in influencing the direction of popular culture – or he is one of the most marginal figures of our time (a pop-culture aristocrat or its most enduring Zelig). You pick.

Evans, a scruffy dandy, is one of the greatest publishing minds of the modern era – or he is one of the many second-raters Murdoch keeps around because second-raters are more loyal than first-raters. Pick.

They are both serious oddballs – even among oddballs, they have been notable in their inability or unwillingness to even approximately acculturate.

Could such characters be good for books?

Hendra emerges from a benedictine monastery in England in the early sixties. He is shortly transformed by seeing Dudley Moore, Peter Cook, and Alan Bennett’s Beyond the Fringe (“What a mind-blowing experience: I didn’t know authority could be attacked like that”). Straightaway, he joins a comedy troupe at Cambridge. Performing in the West End in the first year of Beatlemania, he becomes, rumor has it, Paul McCartney’s favorite comedian. In what commences a history of ill-advised leave-takings, he departs for New York while his troupemates, including John Cleese and Graham Chapman, become Monty Python. In New York, he opens for Lenny Bruce at the Café Au Go Go (playing the climactic night when the police cart Lenny off the stage). Soon he’s a regular with George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Lily Tomlin on Ed Sullivan and Merv Griffin. But he quits stand-up, and Bernie Brillstein gets him a job as a high-paid television writer, until he gets radicalized and announces he’s quitting television in a full-page ad in The Hollywood Reporter. He joins the four-issue-old National Lampoon and soon becomes its editor (he wages a struggle for his brand of provocative, political humor against P. J. O’Rourke’s Animal House T&A wit; O’Rourke wins).

Hendra writes and directs National Lampoon’s Lemmings at the Village Gate, hiring a weirdly arrogant preppy guy called Chevy Chase and the equally weird and unknown John Belushi. Lemmings becomes Saturday Night Live; Hendra, for this, that, and the other reason, doesn’t go with it.

Leaving the Lampoon in 1978, he launches a series of ad hoc parodies – Not the New York Times, in the middle of the 1978 newspaper strike; Off the Wall Street Journal thereafter – inventing a mini-genre. He returns to London and helps create the political satire Spitting Image (perhaps the most successful satire of all time, running for eleven years in the U.K. and now, in its current iteration, getting moguls jailed in Russia). He departs a year later (“It turned into a nightmare, which is all I ever got from television”). He stars in the film This Is Spinal Tap, possibly the last word that need be said about rock and roll (whenever you are with Hendra, a stranger at the bar will say, Hey, don’t I know you from somewhere?). He returns to the U.S. Tries and fails to start a new humor magazine. Writes a book called Going Too Far about the history of comedy. Finds himself in the room on Amsterdam Avenue, where I visit him in the late eighties. Briefly, he becomes the editor of Spy, where he discovers, in addition to financial disarray, a bunch of “24-year-olds who were suicidal that they were no longer working for Kurt Andersen.”

He gets married again. Has three new children (he has two grown children from a prior marriage). Stays home (writes a screenplay and an occasional story about wine or dogs for this magazine). His wife, Carla Hendra, rises to the top of the heap at Ogilvy. Now he has a large apartment and a summer house. With the children in school, his wife encourages him to go back to doing whatever it is he does.

John Evans spends the sixties hanging around the flesh spots of the Caribbean and the Mediterranean. In the early seventies, he delivers a boat from Venezuela to the 79th Street boat basin and decides to stay in New York. He gets a job at an ad agency, then starts selling classifieds for The Village Voice. In short order, he’s running the Voice’s classified pages and turning them into the most profitable per-line-rate pages in the business. He creates the back page of the Voice, the single most commercially successful page of print in the country: “Classified advertising celebrates small things. I saw you on the F train. You were reading Tolstoy, I was wearing blue. It is a vibrant place where people can reach out to one another – usually for prurient reasons.” Murdoch buys the Voice in 1977 and elevates Evans to publisher. Between 1977 and 1984, when the Voice is sold, its profits increase from $230,000 to $10 million. After the sale of the Voice, Murdoch gives him a big chunk of News Corp. to run, including its seventeen magazines (TV Guide, Elle, Premiere, and New York on the consumer side; Hotel & Travel Index and Travel Weekly on the trade side) and its incipient electronic business.

Evans becomes, through the late eighties and early nineties, possibly the most successful publisher of electronic information ever – creating a travel-database-publishing operation that sells for nearly $1 billion and that, arguably, saves News Corp. in its near-bankrupt days in the early nineties.

Evans, elusive, often incommunicado – he moves his office to Secaucus – joins the first generation of electronic-media pioneers. It is possible to make the case that Murdoch’s acquisition of the Internet provider Delphi in 1993 is the spark that sets the Internet afire.

But Evans fades out. Leaves Murdoch (one result is that News Corp.’s electronic business falls into disarray). Takes a powder. Evans becomes the father of a new baby, too.

I can’t get a decent answer from either of them as to why they sat out the nineties. As real entrepreneurs, maybe they had a hard time, I theorize, in an era of false entrepreneurs – that is, young people, without experience, fronting for financial interests. Perhaps the Internet itself, which is, after all, just a pipes business with various sideshows attached to it, wasn’t terribly motivating for them.

I hesitate to say they are back. Certainly it is not clear that anyone wants them back. But this week, Hendra goes on “Imus” to begin promoting the firm’s first book, and to proclaim himself the impresario, the Liveright-Cerf-Weidenfeld, of a new publishing era.

Again, I don’t know if I am memorializing two fundamentally small-time characters who have chronic difficulties with authority or if I actually believe they can have an impact on the book industry.

On the other hand, I don’t know anyone around books who doesn’t believe that something big could happen now. But at the moment, the people doing the big things are technology guys or retailers. On our side, the side where there are people who actually read and write books, mostly people are trying to stay out of the way of the big bang. It’s likely that if you’ve been in the book business for any time, all entrepreneurial and certainly revolutionary urges long ago died in you.

But just assume that book publishing as we know it, with the need to manufacture and store great numbers of physical books and to call on thousands of unaffiliated bookstores, no longer justifies itself (it is not, as they say in business school, rational). Now, if you can publish without manufacturing and storing and making sales calls, why not do it yourself? Start clean. This is going to happen. Someone is just going to do it. So? Who?

Hendra and Evans. It could be them. It could.

E-mail: michael@burnrate.com

The Gigawits