Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Articles about publishing's doom

I just read an interesting article by Boris Kachka in the online version of New York magazine about the demise of corporate-run publishing. People wring their hands about what may happen to publishing, but in the long view what will happen is what has always happened -- people who want books (or book-length collections of words) will get them. Smart readers who don't have all the time in the world to wade through dreck hunting diamonds will prefer books that have been vetted by intelligent gatekeepers.

Because of this, I certainly believe editors will always have jobs, but they may not remain in the New-York-focused edifices that were built in large part by trust-funded intellectuals in the 20th century. Don't believe me about the trust fund part? Bennett Cerf of Random House was independently wealthy through his mother's status as the heiress to a corporate fortune. Although I can't speculate on Michael Korda's wealth when he started out in publishing, as a child the former Simon and Schuster editor-in-chief went to the Institut Le Rosey in Switzerland, one of the most exclusive in the world (someone footed the bill). Roger Straus, co-founder and chairman of Farrar, Straus & Giroux (my former publisher, heaven bless its box-lined halls), was the son of a Guggenheim. By comparison Alfred A. Knopf was more of a working-class fellow, but only just; his parents were extraordinarily successful by the standards of the day, and he was a law student before switching fields.

Publishing was an exquisite profession for gentlemen of means with fine minds who didn't wish to idle away their lives. And one reason (of many) why publishing salaries remain low to this day is that a good number of the people who went into publishing also didn't need the money. A 93-year-old friend of mine worked for legendary Broadway agent Audrey Wood in the 1940s, brainstorming manuscripts with authors such as Tennessee Williams, Carson McCullers, William Inge, and Moss Hart. When I asked how she lived on the Upper East Side on a play reader's salary, she smiled and said "Oh but darling, my father sent me a small allowance. Everybody had one." Her father happened to be an Oscar-nominated cinematographer who had worked in Hollywood since the days when the MGM lion was a bony, beloved zoo castoff in a cage on the lot, and the movie sets were in tents outdoors. He had secured her job in publishing with one coast-to-coast phone call. Although working-class by Hollywood standards, he had one of the most generous contracts in the business, and this "small allowance" meant enough money for this young writer to live in style, including the purchase of a fashionable wardrobe, rent for the right address, and mad money for a lot of club-hopping. "We spent our evenings at Elmo,* the Stork Club or Twenty-One, and we went to the opening nights of each other's shows. Nobody paid to get in anywhere, and in publishing the books were always free." Sometimes she even offered to forego her modest pay -- "I think literary judgments are purer when one doesn't worry about how much one is making."

Yes, those particular and doubtless glorious publishing days may be waning, but so what? Some other lovely and nostalgic-in-the-future model will take their place, and I'm confident that it will be a durable one for a new era. Why? Because selective readers have both the means and the power to make it happen. It may not center itself in New York City (and hallelujah, saith some in this nation, especially those of us who consider Small Town America full of fine and green places to set up shop), and it may not be housed in a handful of specific, iconic buildings, but authors will write, editors will gatekeep, and words will find their carefully selected way to readers who have always cared, and who always will.

*El Morocco, not the Sesame Street character

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