By Catherine Wagley
By Catherine Wagley
By Wendy Gilmartin
By Jennifer Swann
By Claire de Dobay Rifelj
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Catherine Wagley
By Zachary Pincus-Roth
We weren't the only publishers flogging such tripe; it just tended to dominate our list. Some editors took this hokum quite seriously - Stewart Richardson touted John Allegro's The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross, which maintained Christianity had originated as a hallucinogenic cult. Others called them "kook books." They made us big money, but their success fostered an in-house impression that responsible publishing was a career-killer.
If Doubleday increasingly invested in mediocrity, it had little choice. The firm had a growing problem retaining A-list authors because of its antique paperback-reprint policy: Doubleday demanded 50 percent of all reprint profits. But modern mass publishing was already coming of age: Paperback reprint - along with the film deal - was becoming the real money in books, and some of our authors fled directly to aggressive little softcover houses like Dell and Bantam, who paid them a far more generous share. Or to the many wiser hardcover firms who also better spread the wealth.
To Doubleday, however, the 50 percent excise remained, like the Holy Trinity, a sacred mathematics. So for want of choice, our firm increasingly extended multibook contracts to low-profit authors no one else really wanted. Or to a shrinking handful of best-selling writers - Arthur Haley, attorney Louis Nizer, right-wing political fantasist Allen Drury (whose increasingly loopy books, I was told, we were contractually forbidden to edit) - with personal loyalties to individual editors.
By 1968, the world beyond Doubleday had blown apart. It was the year of the Tet Offensive, the bloodiest phase of the Vietnam War, with 30,000 Americans dead in combat that year. Hubert Humphrey's liberal establishment had sloughed off its credibility. Campuses were in lockdown. Hundreds of new voices were heard in the land: Bob Dylan, Richard Brautigan, Joan Baez, Jefferson Airplane, Eldridge Cleaver, Leonard Cohen, Ramparts magazine, Lou Reed. With my long hair, pale suede boots and sky-blue suits, I thought I was the only editor who noticed. But this wasn't altogether true. One young colleague also saw that the times they were a changin'; he proposed books attacking Darwin and unveiling Atlantis. Another, apprehending that it might appeal to all those hippies with their Sgt. Pepper uniforms, wanted to reprint the Nazi SS dress-code manual. On the other hand, Doubleday's most brilliant editor, Betty Prashker, then contracted for some early-'70s feminist classics - Kate Millett's Sexual Politics was one - which the more "respectable" houses were simply too chauvinistic to buy. She also took chances with important, then-unknown writers like novelist-poet Marge Piercy and Israel's Amos Oz.
I had my own big-book brainstorm. Shortly after the 1968 Chicago Convention riots, as enraged as if I'd been clubbed myself, I got a Chicago columnist to consider doing a book about Mayor Richard Daley. This one would be a stampede success, I told my betters. I was exactly right, sort of. Boss, a smashing success for Dutton publishers by Mike Royko, was a late-1960s publishing bombshell. Not for my firm, where editorial responses ranged from "Chicago books never sell" to "Daley would suppress it," but for New America Library. It was one of the most successful books of the decade.
It took me decades to realize just how badly I'd prepared our arid corporate ground for my idea, or how its lack of acceptance was the point at which my editorial career turned into just another job. As a consolation, another young editor and I developed a small line of fast-selling trendy paperbacks - not Thomas Pynchon, but not Edgar Cayce either. We imagined, as John Hartford and Mason Williams sold their hundreds of thousands of copies, that these books might solidify our positions - even get us raises - by earning Doubleday considerable multiples of our salaries. We were, of course, mistaking private-sector bureaucracy for venture capitalism: Our careers stayed flat. And the lure of dropping out grew apace.
Instead of haunting Elaine's for a glance at Philip Roth like my aspiring peers, I danced to Janis Joplin at the Filmore East. Instead of weekending at the office, I went to Woodstock. The anodyne effects of lunchtime and after-work drinking were enhanced by my secretary's homemade hashish munchies, kept in the belly drawer of my desk. I smoked five packs a day. I put on 30 pounds. Then I lost 50. Once a friend asked me why I'd been crying in the lobby that morning. Recalling the Valium and the fifth of booze I'd downed before bedtime, I said I had no idea.
I excused my self-destruction as revolutionary behavior. But I was obviously emulating certain male superiors: heavy smokers and drinkers as only gainfully employed men could be in those days. It's sobering to realize now how many senior editors whom I used to match, Negroni for Negroni, died off in their 50s. This dismal attrition had one positive effect: Along with the renaissance of feminism, the industry's widespread male dipsomania vitalized the woman editorial assistants who had to make the decisions while their superiors were at lunch or recovering from same.
To the best of my knowledge, of all my Doubleday contemporaries, only certain woman junior editors - Alice Mayhew, Lisa Drew and Diane Reverand, for instance - had the talent and endurance to develop into major industry leaders. Mayhew is today Bob Woodward's editor; Drew and Reverand have their own imprints at Scribners and HarperCollins, respectively. The only male compadre I've heard of since then was running a movie theater.
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