Redactor Agonistes

The annual survey of salaries and attitudes of those who work in publishing made its somberer-than-ever appearance last July in Publishers Weekly. Reading Jim Milliot’s report in conjunction with the two-year anniversary of my departure from Random House, where I was a Senior Vice President and Executive Editor-in-Chief (a title I asked for after I literally dreamed it), and also in conjunction with the impending digital revolution in the dissemination of book-length texts, prompted me to look back, somewhat in sadness, at my former profession. Here is a small sample of the survey’s data: 38 percent of editorial employees said they felt insecure in their jobs. In my opinion, an additional 38 percent are in denial. About 60 percent of all publishing employers “experienced layoffs,” as the locution sometimes goes. (More layoffs have been announced since that survey was published.) The average annual raise was off 20 percent, and more than a third of all employees lucky enough to keep their jobs got no raise at all.

And here is the list of mostly non-arithmetical observations about mainstream publishing that these occasions have led me to compile. It is written primarily from the point of view of a medium- or senior-level acquisitions editor at a major trade house in New York City, the center of the publishing world. It applies principally to the publication of original hardcover books. Some of these observations have been observed before, but I hope to refresh them here. Some will be less familiar, I hope. These ideas are drawn from publishing as it stands — maybe I should say “stumbles” –right now; many of them may well not obtain when electronic-book-text digitization begins in earnest. That will happen in a financially and organizationally seismic way very quickly, I think — over the next decade –but I believe that this impending Gutenberg-level shift in reading culture, along with the economic disasters of the last two years, render the challenges of present-day hard-copy publishing all the more agonizing, immediate, and dramatic. At least in the abstract, and especially in this economic climate, most other professions pose some of the same problems for those who pursue them, no doubt. But the tectonically opposing demands on publishing — that it simultaneously make money and serve the tradition of literature — and its highly unpredictable outcomes and its prominence in the attention of the media have made it a kind of poster adult for capitalism and the arts in crisis.

For the most part, I have to say I’m glad to have left this all behind, except in the tranquility of recollection. But since publishing is essentially a casino, I do miss the thrill of gambling and the rare winning throw of the dice.

1. Publishing is often an extremely negative culture. If you are an acquiring editor and want to buy a project — let’s say a nonfiction proposal for a book about the history of Sicily — some of your colleagues may support you, but many others will say things like, “The proposal is too dry,” or “Cletis Trebuchet did a book for Grendel Books five years ago about Sardinia and it sold, like, eight copies,” or, simply and airily, “I don’t think many people want to read about little islands.” Three streams feed this broad river of skepticism:

A. Most trade books do not succeed, financially. Three out of four fail to earn back their advances. Or four out of five or six out of seven, depending on what source you consult. And depending on what kind of accounting shell game is being played in the back office. A medium-strong batting average in baseball — let’s say .305 — is Hall of Fame-worthy in publishing. Many books that do show a profit show a profit so small that it only minimally darkens a company’s red ink.

B. This circumstance in turn increases the usual business safety of self-protective guardedness. You’re more likely to be “right” if you express doubts about a proposal’s or a manuscript’s prospects than if you support it with enthusiasm.

C. The inevitable competitiveness among acquisitions editors will incline them to cast a cold eye on others’ projects. The “team” metaphor fits the editorial departments of publishing even less well than it fits other competitive businesses, though almost all businesses use it as a means of covering over the implacable Darwinian dynamics that keep the heart of capitalism pumping.

And this is only the beginning of the negativities that editors must face. Barnes & Noble doesn’t like the title. Borders doesn’t like the jacket. The author’s uncle Joe doesn’t like the jacket. The writer doesn’t like the page layout and design. Your boss tells you the flap copy for a book about a serial killer is too “down.” The hardcover didn’t sell well enough for the company to put out a paperback. The book has to wait a list or two to be published. Kirkus hates the book. Another writer gets angry at you for even asking for a quote. The Times isn’t going to review the book. And so on.

2. If you work in the Editorial department of a publisher, you usually don’t know much about what goes on in Sales. That is, you can love a book you’re working on, all your colleagues can, perhaps uncharacteristically, share your admiration, your boss can talk the book up in marketing and sales meetings, but you don’t know what sales reps say about that book when they make sales calls. I’ve always suspected that salespeople’s and buyer’s biases and preferences play a greater part in a book’s fortunes than most editorial people want to allow themselves to understand. Reps and buyers are subject to their own “results” pressures, after all.

3. Genuine literary discernment is often a liability in editors. And it should be — at least when it is unaccompanied by a broader, more popular sensibility it should be. When you are trying to acquire books that hundreds of thousands of people will buy, read, and like, you have to have some of the eclectic and demotic taste of the reading public. I have this completely unfounded theory that there are a million very good — engaged, smart, enthusiastic — generalist readers in America. There are five hundred thousand extremely good such readers. There are two hundred and fifty thousand excellent readers. There are a hundred and twenty-five thousand alert, active, demanding, well-educated (sometimes self-well-educated), and thoughtful — that is, literarily superb — readers in America. More than half of those people will happen not to have the time or taste for the book you are publishing. So, if these numbers are anything remotely like plausible, refined taste, no matter how interesting it may be, will limit your success as an acquiring editor. It’s not enough for you to be willing to publish “The Long Sad Summer of Our Hot Forsaken Love,” by Lachryma Duct, or “Nuke Anbar Province, and I Mean Now!,” by Genralissimo Macho Picchu — you have to actually like them, or somehow make yourself like them, or at least make yourself believe that you like them, in order to be able to see them through the publishing process.

4. Financial success in front-list publishing is very often random, but the media conglomerates that run most publishing houses act as if it were not. Yes, you may be able to count on a new novel by Surething Jones becoming a big bestseller. But the bestseller lists paint nothing even remotely like the full financial picture of any publication. Because that painting’s most important commerce color is the size of the advance. The second-most important color is the general level of book-buying. The volume of sales of the No. 6 book on the New York Times fiction bestseller list in 2009 is significantly lower than the volume of the No. 6 bestseller five years ago. Four and three and two years ago, too, almost certainly.

It’s my strong impression that most of the really profitable books for most publishers still come from the mid-list — “surprise” big hits with small or medium advances, such as that memoir by a self-described racial “mutt” of a junior senator from Chicago. Somehow, by luck or word of mouth, these books navigate around the rocks and reefs upon which most of their fleet — even sturdy vessels — founder. This is an old story but one that media giants have not yet heard, or at least not heeded, or so it seems. Because let’s say you publish a flukey blockbuster about rhinoviruses in Renaissance Italy — “The DaVinci Cold” — one year: the corporation will see a spike in your profit and sort of autistically, or at least automatically, raise the profit goal for your division by some corporately predetermined amount for the following year. (The sequel to or second book after that blockbuster will usually command an advance so large as to dim a publisher’s profit hopes for it.) This is close to clinically insane business behavior and breeds desperation rather than pride and confidence in the people who work for you. Cut it out, I say, or get out of the business!

5. More randomness: Review coverage means far less than it used to –when, for example, a front-page review in the New York Times Book Review usually guaranteed a certain level of recognition and sales. This is true partly because of the thinning of the ranks of newspapers’ stand-alone review supplements and partly because the Internet has fragmented people’s cultural attention. But still, reviews do sometimes matter and matter greatly — sometimes a review will penetrate the general reader’s consciousness and give a real boost to sales and person-to-person advocacy. But stop for a minute and think how thoroughly hit-or-miss review assignments are, especially when they involve free-lancers. What if the person first asked to do the review of a first novel called “Now That’s What I Call Romance” –who would have raved about it and said, as one reviewer in the Times once said of a book I acquired, “I beg you to buy this book” — was trying to mend a broken heart and had decided to limit her reading to chocolate-dessert recipes. The person who ends up getting the assignment might also have a broken heart but accept the assignment as an opportunity to inveigh against the foolishness of romantic love and ridicule the novel’s very premise.

Also, some 150,000 books are published in the United States every year. Let’s — once again without any real foundation — be really draconian and say that only 10 percent of those books would be in any way appealing to generalist readers of some intelligence. Let’s take 50 percent of that 10 percent, for no reason at all, just to be even meaner, and we end up with 7,500 books. That means that on average one hundred and fifty more or less worthwhile books are published every week in this country. Let’s cut that number in half, just to make the floor of our metaphorical abattoir really bloody. That makes seventy-five decent books a week. (By the way, that number is about twice the rough and generous estimate I’ve made based on actual experience.) How are seventy-five at-least-half-decent books going to receive serious and discriminating reviews in the few important places remaining for serious reviews every week? To say nothing of getting attention from prominent publicity outlets, like NPR and Charlie Rose and Jon Stewart? They’re not. They’re simply not. These statistical circumstances make publishing into a kind of grand cultural roulette, in which your chances of winning any significant pot are very, very small.

6. The sheer book-length nature of books combined with the seemingly inexorable reductions in editorial staffs and the number of submissions most editors receive, to say nothing of the welter of non-editorial tasks that most editors have to perform, including holding the hands of intensely self-absorbed and insecure writers, fielding frequently irate calls from agents, attending endless and vapid and ritualistic meetings, having one largely empty ceremonial lunch after another, supplementing publicity efforts, writing or revising flap copy, ditto catalog copy, refereeing jacket-design disputes, and so on — all these conditions taken together make the job of a trade-book acquisitions editor these days fundamentally impossible. The shrift given to actual close and considered editing almost has to be short and is growing shorter, another very old and evergreen publishing story but truer now than ever before. (Speaking of shortness, the attention-distraction of the Internet and the intrusion of work into everyday life, by means of electronic devices, appear to me to have worked, maybe on a subliminal level, to reduce the length of the average trade hardcover book.)

7. To be a very successful editor or publisher, to get to the top, hard work and intelligence and even a wide range of interests and enthusiasms are not enough. As with other media businesses, you have to have some kind of charisma and confidence (often bordering on arrogance and pushiness), even though the majority of your acquisitions will probably fail financially. Among about ten or fifteen others (full disclosure: a few of them friends): Sonny Mehta of Knopf, Morgan Entrekin of Grove Atlantic, Libby McGuire of Ballantine Books, Susan Kamil of Random House, Michael Morrison of HarperCollins, Nan Graham of Scribner, David Rosenthal of Simon & Schuster, Lee Boudreaux of Ecco Press, Michael Pietsch of Little, Brown, Tim Duggan of HarperCollins, and (even fuller disclosure: my own publisher) Jon Karp of 12, come to mind. And you have to understand that even though you are formally separated from the literal sales force, you are still above all fundamentally “in sales.”

8. You must almost entirely give up reading for pleasure.

9. Many of the most important decisions made in publishing are made outside the author’s and agent’s specific knowledge. Let’s say your house publishes a comparatively modest number of original hardcovers every year — forty. Twelve on the etymologically amusing “spring” list — January through April; twelve in the summer; sixteen in the economically more active fall. Well, meetings are held to determine which of those books your company is going to emphasize — talk about most, spend the most money on, and so forth. These are the so-called lead titles for those seasons. Most of the time, the books for which the company has paid the highest advances will be the lead titles, regardless of their quality. In many cases, their quality is a cipher at this planning stage, because their manuscripts haven’t been delivered or even written or even begun yet. But why should the literary quality of writing figure heavily into this prioritizing? It’s not as if the millions of readers being prayed for are necessarily looking for challenging and truly enlightening reading experiences. I wish they were and hope they someday will be.

I say “specific knowledge” because writers and agents surely have to realize that companies must generally practice this kind of emphasis triage. But they and you, as the editor, silently collude in trying to ignore the obvious when you tell them that the first printing of your book will be three thousand copies, that it will not have full-color galleys, that no advertising or tour is planned, and that it has been assigned to a publicist who up until yesterday worked in the Xerox department. Why the collusion? Because this is a business fuelled largely by writers’ need for attention, and no one wants to crush any writer’s dreams before a book is even published. Especially since every now and then they actually come true.

10. Speaking of the need for attention, if it hasn’t become clear by now, you must be prepared to suffer transference from your writers as much as any therapist is by his or her patients. Usually, writers, like anyone else who performs in public and desires wide recognition, no matter how successful they become, have an unslakeable thirst for attention and approval — in my opinion (and, I’m embarrassed to say, in my own case) usually left over from some early-childhood deficit or perception of deficit in the attention-and-approval department. You will frequently find yourself serving as an emotional valet to the people you work with. It can be extremely onerous and debilitating, especially given the ever-decreasing number of your colleagues and the consequent expansion of your workload.

11. All business and cultural successes spawn retroactive specious credit-taking. But because front-list publishing outcomes are so very unpredictable, the false and highly proliferative retroactive credit-taking in this enterprise can achieve a farcical if not surreal dimension, as it no doubt does in the other media, especially TV and movies. Sales departments will claim credit for dark-horse bestsellers that they miserably undersold when they made their initial sales calls. A publisher who didn’t want to acquire a book will often gladly accept and even court admiration if the acquisitions editor somehow overcame his or her resistance and the book was acquired and then worked. Publicity departments that didn’t bother to pitch a book with any conviction at all will run to get onboard when the train picks up speed and then say, out-of-breath though they may be, that they were onboard all along. This is all just human nature, but too often it dilutes the credit that should go to the persistent, passionate, long-suffering, and occupationally more and more vulnerable acquiring editors.

12. When an editor friend read the foregoing 11 points, he said, somewhat plaintively “Well, it’s still more fun than a lot of other jobs.” And you know? He’s right. For all my Eeyore-ism, he’s still right, at least for now, and here are a few reasons why:

A. As an editor, you learn a huge amount about the world, especially if you acquire and edit nonfiction.

B. Despite their often intense neediness, writers are often fascinating and stimulating company.

C. There are intermediate victories in publishing that help to reduce later defeats — like getting a good, smart, “selling” blurb for a book; getting intelligently positive early reviews; winning an auction; winning an auction as an underbidder (extra-sweet!); etc.

D. Invitations to conferences and panels (if you like that kind of thing).

E. A primer — Capitalism 101– for those literary and bookish types who don’t know much about businesses.

F. And most important, within its plentiful samenesses, every day brings with it some highly variegated tasks and challenges. Every single book is its own unique enterprise, every agent his or her own kettle of fish, every writer an education (sometimes in dysfunction), every book jacket a distinct and different illustrational project.

So okay — it’s hardly hod-carrying. A book is still and I hope always will be, in pixels or in print, an object of reverence in our culture. And helping to bring a good book to light has great rewards. But still I won’t take it all back. Being a book editor is often, on balance, a rum game. The arts — high and low –have a way of moving forward, backward, or to the side which leaves their servants perpetually scrambling to catch up with and make sense of their direction and their very nature.  Profit, when it gets into bed with them, doesn’t like the unpredictability of the arts. It tries to rationalize them and make them financially reliable. Can’t be done.  But our brains need to narrativize events in retrospect, so, particularly now, with everything and its brother “monetized,”  publishers and editors come up with explanations and stories that help them believe that they knew what they were doing.  It’s true that some people seem to have a “knack.”  Perhaps the best examples come from the recent past of the previously and similarly decomposing business of popular music — people like Ahmet Ertegun, Jerry Wexler, and John Hammond.  Did you know that Bob Dylan was referred to as “Hammond’s folly” for a while, when the first album for Columbia didn’t sell well at first? But for most of its acolytes and supplicants, front-list hardcover book publishing is an ever more mercurial — and now almost certainly obsolescent — master.

Author of the novel The Treatment and two books of short stories, Daniel Menaker is former Executive Editor-in-Chief of Random House and fiction editor of The New Yorker. His reviews and other writings have appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, and Slate.

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