The Open Refrigerator

February 23, 2016 | 1 book mentioned 15 14 min read


A few decades ago I was sitting in a college seminar room listening to the professor discourse quite penetratingly on Thomas Mann’s monumental and once ubiquitous novel The Magic Mountain when my mind wandered to the question of just how this novel came to be published. Presumably, that callow and ignorant undergraduate in the basement of Goldwin Smith Hall thought someone — some editor — must have read the thing and recognized it for the great book that it was. And how hard could that have been anyway? Hell, even I knew it was a great book, if a bit long and occasionally opaque in meaning. I was a senior and the unpleasant prospect of graduation and the necessity to find some paying work was weighing on my mind. Why couldn’t I become that guy? I loved books, loved them even more than my other obsession, basketball. That might be a satisfying line of work.

covercoverAnd so it has turned out to be — albeit orders of magnitude more complex and riven with stress and uncertainty than my younger self could have imagined. Oddly enough, I now work in something called the Knopf Doubleday Group as a Doubleday editor, and our sibling imprint Knopf published The Magic Mountain in 1927. Its paperback line, Vintage, still has it and most of Mann’s other works in print. In truth it really wasn’t all that hard for Alfred Knopf to decide to publish The Magic Mountain. His relatively young and thrifty firm — started in 1915 on, no kidding, $5,000 worth of capital after a couple of years of apprenticeship at, yes, Doubleday and Mitchell Kennerley — had made its reputation as a publisher of literary books of high quality in translation, and in 1921 it had signed a contract with the German publisher Samuel Fischer for the exclusive rights to Mann’s works in English. The first fruit of that agreement was the 1924 American publication of Mann’s epic family saga Buddenbrooks. (Rather shockingly to me, the book had been published in Germany in 1901 and remained un-Englished for more than two decades. It was a larger and slower world.) The Magic Mountain was published in Germany in late 1924 and was immediately hailed as a masterpiece of modern European literature, so it was, as we say, a no-brainer for Knopf to continue with Mann. (Since Knopf did not read German he would not have read The Magic Mountain until H.T. Lowe-Porter translated it, but we can assume that he was guided by a reader’s report from someone who did — maybe his friend and informal adviser H.L. Mencken — as well as by the European reviews.) Their author-publisher relationship would ripen into a lifelong friendship and became one of the most storied such associations in American publishing history.

Sadly, The Magic Mountain, once a fixture of every middlebrow household’s bookshelf, has fallen off sharply in its sales and cultural currency, as has the rest of Mann’s oeuvre. He and it are too forbidding, demanding, and German for contemporary tastes. I just checked the sales pace of his Vintage paperbacks, as telling a data point on the matter as you can imagine.

I love being able to do that, as I love just about every other aspect of my job here in the heart of New York’s literary-industrial complex, for which, it seems, I have been selected to speak. As much as I’d like to conceive of myself as a sort of free-floating and entirely independent literary sensibility and quality inspector, the fact of the matter is that I am utterly a creature of corporate publishing. My first job in publishing was as a copywriter in the college textbook department of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, which had been transformed by the buccaneering William Jovanovich into a huge communications conglomerate that included, no kidding, Sea World as one of its holdings. (Insert Flipper joke here.) Then I became an assistant editor in the education department of New American Library, the large and once pioneering mass-market publisher owned at the time by the Times Mirror corporation. Two years later, I became an editor at Viking Penguin, the American wing of the truly global Penguin Books, owned by the Pearson Corporation. Eight years on, Penguin bought New American Library from Times Mirror, and not coincidentally I moved to the independent and, uniquely, employee-owned W.W. Norton for 10 years. A major player in the textbook market, no one could plausibly call Norton a small press — it had the resources to play with the big boys and occasionally it did. In 1998 I came to Doubleday, which was at the time part of Bantam Doubleday Dell, owned by the German communications conglomerate Bertelsmann. Within a year the Newhouse family-owned Advance Publications had sold Random House, which comprised the imprints Random House, Knopf, Ballantine, Vintage, Crown, Pantheon, and several smaller entities, to Bertelsmann and so we became Random House, the world’s largest trade publisher at the time, with publishing companies in more than a dozen countries. And just two years ago a joint-venture merger between Penguin and Random House was completed to create Penguin Random House, a staggeringly large (in publishing terms, at least) international behemoth with gross revenues of almost $4 billion annually. Whoa.

And what do I think about this, and how does all this stunning and obviously inexorable consolidation in my part of the publishing world affect my work as a book editor? In answer to the first question, I am enough of a nostalgist and publishing geek to look back with longing to the so-called golden age, when the great houses — Knopf; Scribner’s; Random House; Viking; Doubleday; Farrar, Straus and Giroux; Henry Holt; Simon and Schuster; Pantheon; Harper Brothers; und so weiter; and the mass-market giants Bantam, New American Library, Fawcett, Pocket, and Avon — stood firmly on their own financial feet and had distinct editorial identities and idiosyncrasies. I came on the scene in the ’70s just as the wave of mergers and buyouts was gathering force, and I witnessed enough traces of the old order to have taken its measure. But I’m enough of a realist to understand that things happen for a reason. Clearly the forces that have shaped trade publishing for the past four decades dictate that houses must go big or go away. These forces may be deplored, but they will not be argued away or resisted.

As for the second question, my work as an editor is both entirely unaffected by these huge changes in corporate alignments and profoundly in sync with them. What do I mean by these seemingly contradictory assertions?

At the simplest, most basic level, I’ve been reading for a living for 37 years. I arrived at New American Library with a literary and intellectual sensibility formed by the unruly rebellions of the ’60s and the spiritual deflations of the ’70s, with a taste for the novelists and thinkers who had either helped to cause or best reflected and interpreted those rebellions and deflations. I’ve read thousands of books and proposals since then, and I believe I am a better reader than I was at age 27 — I know more because I’ve read more and my judgments are (I sure hope) better informed and more mature. But at the primal level where reader meets text and experiences emotions ranging from boredom and impatience to I-love-this-and-have-to-have-to-publish-it excitement, I think I am still that young man in the hunt and on the make, always searching for the big wow. This process takes place in the private arena of the mind and is entirely unrelated to the corporate arrangements of my employer. It is, quite literally, where I live, where I feel I am most myself.

As for the editing of those books that wow me when happy circumstances dictate that I get to acquire them, that process too takes place in a private arena. When I encounter a sentence that is inelegant or ungrammatical or inefficient or ambiguous in meaning, or a scene in a novel that is implausible or overdone or superfluous, or a plot that drags or goes off course or beggars credulity, or a line of exposition that falls short of the necessary clarity, or feel that some subject is missing and requires coverage, I point those things out to the author and with a carefully calculated mixture of firmness and solicitude suggest ways they might be remedied. I do this usually at nights and on weekends, sometimes on my bus ride to and from work, very occasionally in my office on slow days with my door closed (yes, I have an office with a door that closes), with a complete absence of business calculation beyond the largest context — that a book that is bad or just not good enough is a book that will embarrass me and my employer and be poorly received and will not sell.

But as I read those submissions and edit those manuscripts, on another cognitive plane I am reality testing what I am reading. What other books — the fabled and often tiresome “comp titles” — are like this one, and how did those books sell? (We are always fighting the last war.) Is it too similar to something we published recently or are publishing in the near future, or to a book some other house has or shortly will publish? Are there visual images in the book that might be utilized on the cover? What writers of note can I bug for prepublication blurbs? Is there something about the author, some intriguing or unusual backstory, some charisma radiating off the page (and maybe the author photo? Don’t act so shocked) that suggests that he or she will be a publicity asset? What might a reasonable advance be, given the amounts that have been paid recently for similar books, or might reason for some reason be thrown out the window? (A friend and colleague of mine refers to this feeling as “Let’s get stupid.” More on this matter shortly.) What colleagues in the company, in the editorial department, in marketing, publicity, and sales, could I ask to read the book to drum up support for it? What is my “handle” going to be — the phrases or brief sentences that briskly encapsulate a book’s subject matter and commercial appeal? These and all sorts of other questions will be popping up in my brain, and inevitably there is some crosstalk and bleed-through between the two cognitive spheres. If you want total purity in these matters, go join an Irish monastery and work on illuminated manuscripts, not a New York publishing house. Or at the very least a quiet and scholarly and well-endowed university press.

Nobody really knows how an editor works besides his or her authors and possibly his or her assistant. Yet I am quite certain that, allowing for differences in personal style — some editors go for close-in textual work, some prefer to hover somewhere above the text and make broader observations and suggestions — the process described above is close to the way that my fellow New York editors operate. And there really are not too many of us. I would say that, taking in the six major corporate houses and the handful of sizable independents, that there might be something like 250 editors at a rough count working in adult trade publishing. It’s a fairly clubby group. Most of us know each other either personally or by reputation, and we watch each other’s activities, especially acquisitions, obsessively, aided by our very own digital town crier, the website Publishers Lunch. The society of editors has, of course, its doppelgänger or shadow world in that of the literary agents with whom we deal and whose functions — chiefly the discovery and care and feeding of writers and creating the market for their wares — overlap considerably with ours. Let’s put the number of agents who count (sorry, but we think that way in this town) at 150, and you can grasp how really small-town and incestuous and ingrown the literary ecosystem of New York publishing is. In such a small and hyperconnected world, fueled by the twin forces of ego (our sense that we are at the top of the heap) and insecurity (our sense that we might vanish any year now under some technological Anschluss, that we are in economic terms pissants compared, to, say, the computer-game industry, and how many people in this country care about books anyway?), the arrival of a literary property that holds the promise of both review and publicity glory and substantial sales, can instantly engage the forces of irrational exuberance. And that brings me to the subject without which no consideration of the work of the New York trade editor can be complete: money.

Lord, we have a lot of it. And lord, we need a lot of it. I work in a 50-story mixed-use office and condominium complex in Midtown North, bordering on Hell’s Kitchen. When I approach this building arriving at work in the morning or returning from one of those storied publishing lunches, I look up at it and start doing calculations in my head as to what our offices must cost to rent, and to heat and light and air-condition, let alone the expense of paying the salaries and the benefits and the T&Es of all the people working here. Then I add on the cost of our humongous and totally up-to-the-minute warehouse and fulfillment center in semirural Maryland and all the folks who work there, and I ask myself what have I done to help my company cover the truly enormous nut that one day’s operation must entail and try to avoid the obvious answer that, whatever it is, it is not enough. So I head through the revolving door and up the elevator and tank up on the not-at-all-bad Flavia coffee in the common area that looks like it was decorated with fixtures from the set of some late-’60s Polish science fiction film and start answering the e-mails that have piled up since the day before. Welcome to my world.

What is both odd yet understandable is that the response to the inexorable financial thirst of corporate publishing houses on the part of its editors is less the exercise of thrift and discipline in the matter of acquisitions than a profligacy that is sometimes truly jaw-dropping. I am the son of Depression-era parents, part of the last generation of Americans to be told to close the refrigerator door because it wastes electricity, and I have to say, this really bothers me. Especially when I do it myself. Because, you see, we are all English majors, and while few of us are truly innumerate, finance and accounting are not where we live, and agents have become immensely skilled at orchestrating competitive bidding situations, even for first novels by complete unknowns, the results of which sometimes reach so many hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars that the amount begins to feel abstract, even as what Lord Keynes called our animal spirits become aroused and engaged and the amount goes even higher. Plus, by the way, we are not crazy, or at least not always. We publish into a winner-take-all marketplace where one or two high-risk/high-reward properties can make a publisher’s fiscal year, so there is a definite financial logic to this sort of behavior, even if, as often happens, we are disastrously wrong. And this inflationary dynamic extends backward from the megasellers, actual and merely hoped for, to the books we term midlist, to the point where only a small percentage of the books we publish end up earning out their advances. We’re leaving the refrigerator door open most of the time, and a hell of a lot of electricity is being wasted.

That’s New York publishing for you, the literary home of the wider Gotham disease that Tom Wolfe dubbed the Big League Complex. This suggests a sports analogy to me. There has been an American publishing industry for a little under two centuries, once widely dispersed across a number of urban centers, but now almost entirely concentrated in New York; let’s call it the major leagues. Over the past 70 years there has arisen, for reasons too complex to unpack here, an increasingly widespread and professionalized creative-writing industry, and just as the major college athletic programs groom and showcase top-tier talent for drafting by the National Football League and the National Basketball Association, so do the MFA programs groom and showcase top-tier literary talent for the New York publishing houses. There are these days about as many uncredentialed walk-ons in our literary fiction as there are walk-ons in major league baseball.

coverIn 2013 Chad Harbach, author of the widely acclaimed novel The Art of Fielding, holder of an MFA from the University of Virginia, and a founding editor of n+1, published in that magazine an acute anatomy of what he characterized as the two dominant cultures of American fiction, “MFA vs. NYC.” By “MFA” he means the university-based degree-granting system, which now numbers an amazing and, to a book editor, unnerving 1,269 such programs. By “NYC” he meant not only the New York-based publishing houses and the prestige-conferring magazines such as The New Yorker and the Paris Review, but the whole society of writers and editors and agents and publicists and booksellers and, yes, even MFA teachers who make their home and their living here. Broadly and reductively described, the MFA world runs on credentials and degrees and connections, a highly networked “system of circulating patronage,” as Harbach puts it, largely detached from commercial imperatives. Broadly and reductively described, the NYC world runs on money and prestige. NYC is, of course, also highly networked, and one can cite many NYC-ish writers whose prestige is decoupled from their sales, but by and large and in the end we are all highly aware of and finally judged by the metrics of the market.

Yet, as Harbach admits, NYC is where a good part of the MFA sets its cap, for here is where the big payoffs and the lasting glory are to be earned. So to complete the sports analogy, one might propose that the AWP (Association of Writers & Writing Programs) = NCAA (no explanation needed). Both have a limited number of top drawer competitive programs where the truly talented gravitate, and those programs are devoted to preparing the truly talented for their sometimes highly compensated entry into the big leagues. NYC does not formalize this process with anything like a draft (though that would be quite an amusing thing to contemplate); in its place is a system of recommendations whereby the marquee writing instructors pass along their most promising students to their agents, who bring those young writers and their work to editors with all the smarts and salesmanship and market knowledge at their command. When the stars are in alignment — when the right book hits the market at just the right time with just the right spin and buzz — the payoff can be immensely lucrative, approaching and in some cases exceeding a million dollars for a first novel by a hitherto unknown writer. (Such news is usually greeted by a soundtrack of bitching and moaning and gnashing of teeth by hitherto known writers.)

On occasion the books so singled out will earn back their advances, and their authors will go on to notable careers. But just as many a number-one draft pick will, despite their heroic compensation, struggle as a professional athlete and slowly fade into obscurity, the good fortune of such a young writer can prove temporary and illusory. The excitement that accompanied the first novel’s acquisition somehow does not carry over into the reception by the reviewers and the reading public; the sales disappoint; and in a New York minute, yesterday’s hot property becomes today’s expensive liability.

We’ve traveled a long, long way from the storied four-decade publishing association of Alfred Knopf with Thomas Mann, nostalgia for which is a fairly useless emotion in our Godzilla vs. King Kong world of death-match throwdowns against Amazon and Apple and Google and the Justice Department and adversaries yet undreamt of. So whither “the art of literary editing” in such a world? (It’s really a craft and a profession, but let it pass.)

My crystal ball is cloudy, but it seems to me that unless the creation and dissemination of written artifacts of literary intent becomes a fully digitized and DIY enterprise — and it might, every typing man and woman his or her own imprint — the exercise of informed taste and judgment, the expert guidance, and the infectious enthusiasm that are the editor’s stock in trade and unique contributions to the publishing enterprise will remain indispensable. For all the wrenching changes in trade publishing in the past decades, I know that my colleagues and I pretty much go about the thing in a fashion very similar to the way the editors I watched and learned from were doing it in the ’70s, and they were doing in a fashion very similar to the editors they learned from. Sometimes I think we’re like blacksmiths or bespoke cobblers — how many ways are there, really, to shoe a horse or a human?

coverBut here’s an ironic and unexpected note to finish on: it seems that Alfred Knopf took a somewhat dim view of editors and did not regard them as so central to the publishing process as many (including editors) would have it. In his generous review in 1950 for The New York Times Book Review of the marvelous collection Editor to Author: The Letters of Maxwell Perkins, Knopf gives full credit to Perkins for his almost superhuman tact and patience and graciousness and his central place in the creation of the American literary canon of the first part of the 20th century. This was something, of course, that he would have witnessed in real time as a competitor to Scribner’s, which employed Perkins. But towards the end of his review Knopf registers this demurral: “Perkins’s influence on his own authors was clearly all to the good, but his influence on other publishers’ editors and consequently on American publishing, as a whole, has been something else again.” He goes on to argue that, for one thing, novelists in an ideal world would deliver their novels to their publishers without needing or expecting Perkinsesque editorial aid and comfort, and for another that publishers themselves have become so focused on the business aspects of their enterprise that they have become too dependent on editors to tell them what they should publish rather than reading the books themselves. He concludes, “I can only hope that this trend may be reversed, that the harassed publisher will consider hiring instead of an editor, say, a very competent business manager and thus become freer himself to spend more time with the people who write books for him and for others. For we have seen only one Perkins in a generation.” That must have been a fun review for the editorial staff of Knopf to have read on a Sunday morning in March 1950.

And with that mixed and chastening message, farewell for now from the Knopf Doubleday Group.

This essay is excerpted from the forthcoming anthology Literary Publishing in the Twenty-First Century, edited by Travis Kurowski, Wayne Miller, and Kevin Prufer.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

is vice president and executive editor of Doubleday. In 2009, he received the Maxwell Perkins Award honoring his career discovering, nurturing, and championing American fiction. His essays and reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, Bookforum, n+1, Tin House, Slate, and other publications.