A Publishing Memoir

Wednesday, Aug 26 1998
Words were more real than the world. I'd been an avid, sheltered reader since age 6, long on facts and fancies and short on ideas. So in 1965, when it came time to make a living, I thought words. As in the business of books. Back then, publishing was still a gentile - make that gentleman's - profession. Maxwell Perkins had shaped Thomas Wolfe's refulgent prose; Joe Fox made Truman Capote a celebrity. Bennett Cerf absorbed William Faulkner's scorn and consummated his triumphs. Those days are mourned by modern book lovers, who knew them not.

They keen that all the sweet little publishing houses have been folded into big impersonal corporations, which drown us in terrible books. But this isn't a new development; it had been going on a long time when I was there. Too many books were being published in the late 1960s, and not enough of them got sufficient attention from publishers; too few editors knew what they were doing. And little publishers were already being absorbed into big houses.

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When I went looking for a job, my only connection was a high school classmate's brother. Short, round, very Harvard, David had a creamy editorial cubicle in the famous chocolate-mousse-colored Random House Mansion. He was brusque with me. He pointed across town toward Eighth Avenue, where Random housed its non-editorial operations - in a dull, gray building called "Fulfillment."

I was quickly hired to fill book orders and was soon helping with publicity. I fell in love with publishing. Random was (and is) as prestigious as the business gets. It had absorbed several illustrious smaller houses - Knopf, Bollingen, Pantheon - and its author list included Truman Capote, Andre Gide, Carl Jung, James Michener and Peter Matthiessen. But it was also as hieratic as the sultanate of Brunei. You never went from Fulfillment to the Mansion, even literally. I went over to buy some books there once - not done, apparently - and everyone in Fulfillment was memoed to henceforth stay the hell out of the House of the Holy.

Random's acquisition this year by the German communications giant Bertelsmann evoked many pseudo-nostalgic yowls about the old days of wood-paneled, man-to-man publishing - mostly from those too young to know better. Few recalled that Random first lost its independence to RCA in 1966. But the new ownership didn't change the sultanate's protocols. After four months of searching, I found a PR niche minus the concrete ceiling at the nation's then-largest trade-book publisher: Doubleday & Co., a firm with a longer history, but far spottier reputation, than Random.

As a facile publicity writer (my old flap copy still disfigures certain reprint covers), I showed promise right up until that important company soiree where I drank too much '59 Taittinger and must have been too convivial for some of the great writers of our century: John Cheever, Langston Hughes, Babbette Deutsch, Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg, Yevgeny Yevtuschenko, Louis Zukovsky, Marianne Moore. Not to mention the publicity director who was serving as the hostess.

She banished me to the bowels of editorial, where I'd wanted to be all along. When you think about it, being a good editor requires a rare combination of talent: ample literary resources, good business sense and abundant tactful toughness. As with writing itself, no license was needed to edit. Many male Doubleday editors were book salesmen come in from the cold. Woman editors (then few) were mostly former secretaries. Pretense outranked qualification. One scholarly editor had skipped college. One was a high school dropout. What we shared was our love of books and our doubts that we could earn a living elsewhere or otherwise.

While individually no worse than any other clutch of humanity I've ever known, we editors were also the hirelings of coarse profiteers. So our books were often - like those of today, and maybe most books always - underadvertised, underedited and badly produced, and what we paid per average manuscript wouldn't feed a lean bachelor through a fat summer. No wonder writers tended to despise us, not that we didn't somewhat patronize them in return.

Though Doubleday was the last of the big-family publishing firms, its diffuse, bureaucratic management was years ahead of its time. Just like today's corporate bookworks, it poured out a river of print, some of which was noticed, most of which was not. "The trouble is, we don't publish books, we print them," said Sam Vaughan, my affable sometime boss. Right, and he never found a remedy.

It seemed to me then that Vaughan preferred good deals to good books; he openly mourned that we'd missed the hefty CIA subsidies which - according to an April 1966 N.Y. Times expose - benefited certain other houses no more unscrupulous than our own. Not quite true - there was a rumored intelligence connection to the Doubleday Cold War best-seller The Penkovskiy Papers. We usually settled for openly subsidized projects, however, such as the official histories of the University of California and of merchant bankers Brown Brothers and Harriman.

  • A Publishing Memoir

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