The editor as hunter-gatherer? As therapist-nag? As magic worker-meddler? Which of these is the best editor for a writer to have? Which is the most effective approach to editing an editor can take? Check all of the above whether writer or editor. For in fact these are only a few of the editor’s vital functions, suggests Alan D. Williams in his irreverent and witty quest for the answer to the question, What is an editor?
Is there no respite from all this role playing? No, but do not assume the editor is unhappy and put-upon.
In truth, being so many things to so many people is all part of the fun and games and challenge of editing. For as Mr. Williams wisely says: “The day that an editor picks up a manuscript without some sense of anticipation is probably the last day he or she should be at work.”
What Is an Editor?
An editor is so many things to so many people that this rhetorically questioning heading is virtually impossible to answer in any concise form. In addition, any one editor is likely to be cut from such radically different cloth from the next one that generalizing about character, somatotype, background, interests, or whatever would be as meaningless as grouping them by eye color. If form eludes us, then, function should be where we look for unifying aspects, and for those elements toward which writers peer in trepidation or hope, aversion or gratitude, contempt or respect and even affection.
Editors in publishing houses can be perceived as basically performing three different roles, all of them simultaneously. First they must find and select the books the house is to publish. Second, they edit (yes, Virginia, they still do edit, no matter what cries you hear about bottom lines, heartless conglomerates, and the defeat of taste by commerce). And third, they perform the Janus-like function of representing the house to the author and the author to the house.
The first function–the editor as hunter-gatherer–is the one most vital to the editor’s own reputation and advancement, a point writers might particularly keep in mind. Editors want books; they are not there to demonstrate condescension to submitted writings, despite the flash of indignation experienced by almost everyone receiving a rejection letter. Indeed, the day that an editor picks up a manuscript without some sense of anticipation is probably the last day he or she should be at work. Whatever the endless winnowing (and it is estimated that only one in fifty manuscripts or proposals is accepted), the highest moments of exhilaration in an editor’s professional life come with discovery and acquisition.
Authors know how they are individually discovered, but even they can have only an incomplete idea of how wide the plains of editorial search can be. Agents are of course the first conduit that springs to mind, and it is true that in the last fifty years more than 80 percent of all trade books were, by informal estimate, agented. (It is also a truism that it is as difficult to find a good agent as a good publisher, which supposedly presents the aspiring writer with a classic chicken-and-egg dilemma. But it should be remembered that the agent has many potential outlets and the acquiring editor but one, so that the former can play with many more possibilities and talents than the latter.)
The earth has circled the sun many times since a well-known publisher could display on his office wall a beautifully wrought needlepoint sampler reading “The relationship between publisher and agent is that of knife to throat.” Cultivation of agents occupies a significant portion of an editor’s waking hours, nor should this be thought of as seeking out dueling opponents. Instead, editor and agent are better perceived as two points of a triangle, the author obviously being the third. No one editor can conceivably “cover” all agents, so that as time goes by both sides gravitate more and more to the individuals they have successfully done business with before, and with whom they tend to have common interests. And yes, the burgeoning of these relationships not necessarily, but often, begins over that much-abused institution the business lunch, undisturbed by telephone or fax.
Of course, editors must cast their nets beyond the worlds of New York and California agenting, both for further gleanings and for their own fulfillment. Writers’ conferences, creative writing courses, university campuses at large, magazines both literary and popular, writers who know your writers, scouting trips at home and abroad, foreign publishers–these are only some of the fields to be tilled. Luck certainly plays a part, but even there, some skein of logical happenstance has usually put one in the way of meeting and acquisition. Simply living in a university town for many years afforded me encounters with a number of admirable authors. And it should be noted that after one published book, the unagented author, sometimes even at the suggestion of the publisher, more often than not ties up with an agent. Agents too are hunter-gatherers.
Special mention should go to the books that are thought up by editors, usually works of nonfiction. The word will go out that a certain writer is looking for an idea, and an editor may have just the right biography or current controversy in mind. Or the editor may conceive it in the first place and try it on a likely author. (A famous example was Cecil Scott of Macmillan suggesting the subject of what became The Guns of August to Barbara Tuchman.) Series are another device joining authors to contracts they had not anticipated, and they are often the product of the fertile mind of an editor or publisher. To renowned editor Jason Epstein in his Doubleday days goes credit for inventing a whole new genre of publishing, the trade paperback.
Then there are editorial meetings, forums of electric inspiration, Athenian discourse, mutual support–also of backbiting, grandstanding, and the sort of compliments that are thinly veiled put-downs. They are, in short, strictly mortal conclaves. However, beyond the requisite items of agenda and record keeping, they vary as much from house to house as the individuals themselves, from a highly formal tribune of decision to a free-for-all devoted in considerable part to trade gossip. No matter what their nature, they tend to define editors in their singularity, especially in terms of what proposals, suggestions, opinions, and brain-picks they choose to bring to a meeting. Collectively, the editorial meeting says much about publishers in terms of the weight and credence given to the editorial sector as well as to individual editors, the process of decision, even the spirit and morale of the house. Though they are discreet in nature, ideally restricted to editorial folk except by invitation to colleagues in marketing, subsidiary rights, publicity, and other departments, prospective or aspiring authors can learn much about a publisher by some discreet querying of their own.
The second function is the editor as therapist-nag or magic worker-meddler. However he or she is regarded, an editor is, or should be, doing something that almost no friend, relative, or even spouse is qualified or willing to do, namely to read every line with care, to comment in detail with absolute candor, and to suggest changes where they seem desirable or even essential. In doing this the editor is acting as the first truly disinterested reader, giving the author not only constructive help but also, one hopes, the first inkling of how reviewers, readers, and the marketplace (especially for nonfiction) will react, so that the author can revise accordingly.
Two basic questions the editor should be addressing to the author are: Are you saying what you want to say? and, Are you saying it as clearly and consistently as possible? If these sound narrow at first glance, think further. They cover everything from awkward syntax and repetition, to the destruction of a novel’s impact through a protagonist’s behavior so unexplained and unmotivated as to be unintentionally baffling. All of this is of course subject to free and extended discussion and the author is the ultimate arbiter, as all responsible editors would agree. They would also concur that knowing when to leave things alone is as high an editorial skill as knowing when to suggest revision.
Does all this always work out in a glow of amity and constructive engagement? Certainly not, no more frequently than do love affairs. Overbearing, insensitive editors and mulish, unlistening authors, whether singly or in pairs, have caused many a shift of contract and failed book. Both species eventually tend to meet comeuppance and run out of partners. The more basic question, frequently alluded to in the press, and mentioned at the outset of this piece, is whether devoted editorial labor still takes place at all. This observer, at least, is convinced that it does, despite the undoubted increase in commercial pressure, the disappearance of the family (for which read: laid-back, kinder, gentler, in-it-for-literature) firm, and the swift currents of changing taste and accelerated technology. The fact is that the zest of the acquiring editor’s initial involvement can no more be separated from concern about the finished product than flesh and blood from bone. In that sense, the editorial animal remains unchanged no matter what the economies, working conditions, or amenity slashes. Editors do care, or they wouldn’t be there.
The eclectic nature of editorial taste, particularly in relation to nonfiction, deserves special mention. A wise man once remarked, only partly in derision: “A good trade editor can talk about anything for five minutes and nothing for six.” It is absolutely true that catholic interests are a more important qualification than any one college major, including English. It is also an ill-kept secret that a few reasonably adroit questions directed at a prospective author of known enthusiasms can seduce the answerer into thinking his questioners know a lot more than they really do. On the other hand, as time goes by, most editors become singled out for certain known passions of their own, be it horses, opera, horse operas, great battles, sports, cuisine, or horticulture. Again, this is an element of compatibility a reasonably inquisitive writer should be able to figure out ahead of time.
The third function–editor as Janus, or two-face–occupies most of the working editor’s office hours. (All serious reading and editing is done off premises, much of it nights and weekends; again, you have to love it to do it.) Unceasing reports, correspondence, phoning, meetings, business breakfasts, lunches, dinners, in- and out-of-office appointments leave active editors feeling like rapidly revolving doors as they attempt to explicate author and house to one another.
An editor is naturally the author’s first and leading advocate in dealing with his or her publisher. It begins with the editor’s initial enthusiasm for the project or novel and continues through acceptance by the house, negotiation of a contract, actual editing (where whatever real deepening of the relationship there will be tends to take place), and the publishing process itself, from copy editing, proofs, and production to sales and publicity. Throughout, the editor is usually attempting to bring as many relevant colleagues into the picture as possible, with the double purpose of interesting them in the book and author at hand, and of demonstrating to the author that a team of dedicated professionals, not just the editor, is devoted to the cause. Also, in this imperfect world, when late delivery, financial emergency, unexpected complexities of all kinds, intervene to prevent perfect fulfillment of a contract, it is the convinced editor who will argue the author’s case.
Authors should, and usually do, appreciate the fact that one of the editor’s most crucial challenges is to be able to articulate, clearly and appealingly, the signal virtues of a given book. From editorial reports on through catalog copy, jacket flaps, and publicity releases, it is the editor’s initial core descriptions that implicitly explain why the book has been chosen in the first place and explicitly set the tone for how a book will be perceived both in and out of the house. Writing this copy is for most editors a true sweat–it is so much more pleasurable to skewer bad writing than to attempt, against all odds, to find fresh ways to lay credible encomia on the newest addition to fifty-five thousand annual U.S. titles. A related trial is the sales conference two or three times a year wherein the enthusiastic editor must stand and deliver to a skeptical audience of sales representatives a pear-shaped oration on the virtues of the titles he or she sponsors. It is the agony of the schoolroom book report magnified a hundredfold.
As for explicating the house to the author, this is often Janus’s more minatory side. Economics does indeed seem a dismal science when the editor must repeatedly explain why a full-page ad in the Times Book Review, color illustrations, a coast-to-coast tour, or whatever is unwarranted and/or unaffordable and why even some of the more modest requests cannot be met. The sotto voce diplomatic drumbeat beneath all this is that there’s one partner (the publisher) on one side, and many (all the authors) on the other, and that time, energy, and resources must be allocated accordingly. Like polygamy, it’s not equitable, but a fact of a certain kind of life. At the same time, when some extra effort is made on a book or author’s behalf–midnight oil burned by a copy editor, an imaginative publicity break or unexpected special market ferreted out–it is up to the editor to be sure the author knows about it.
Trying to define the role of the book editor in America without mentioning Maxwell Perkins (1884–1947) of Scribner’s can be likened to writing a short history of aviation without the Wright brothers, so pervasive is the image of the man who edited Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe, and so many others. Where is his like today? is the invariable echoing lament whenever his name comes up. There is justice in this, for few would compare themselves to Perkins, but it could be speculated, at the risk of sounding defensive, that if he were alive today, he would be spending far more time than he wanted cozening agents, working up competitive bids, scouting afar, and generally being distracted from the manuscripts at hand. He would thus have a much harder time being Maxwell Perkins, so to speak.
Be that as it may, Perkins still remains the beau ideal of his trade. Nobody remotely interested in the role of editors or their relationship to writers should fail to read Editor to Author: The Letters of Maxwell Perkins, edited by John Hall Wheelock. With their warmth, eloquence, total empathy with authors, and gentle but keenly persuasive suggestions, these letters stand alone as lasting beacons to those who would follow. In writing of Thomas Wolfe and Perkins, the English critic Cyril Connolly, talking about editors, generously found it “unnecessary to point out that American publishers are a dedicated group: they are loyal, generous and infinitely painstaking; they live for their authors and not for social climbing, or the books they want to write themselves; they know how to be confessors, solicitors, auditors and witch doctors’.”* So be it.
The future, as Mort Sahl says, lies ahead, and the role of editors, like everything else, is bound to change. Corporate pressures for economies in overhead and benefits are likely to lead to more outside free-lance editing and diminished house staffs. It’s a toss-up question as to whether more or less editing in general will be needed. On the one hand, entropic degeneration of the language, diminished devotion to accuracy, and word processor bloat all cry out for increased editorial ministrations. On the other hand, the legions crying “Who cares?” show no signs of fading away either.
Technology, ever the burr under the saddle of stasis, is bound to invade the editorial sanctum, a process long overdue according to recent jeremiads by Jonathan Yardley, Jacob Weisberg, and others who cannot see why editors have not turned en masse to the computer. The trouble is that so long as editing remains a suggestive rather than a coercive procedure, editing must always leave its clear tracks. The word processor itself is an inarguable blessing when it comes to writing or rewriting one’s own copy, but when someone else’s is on the operating table, seamless alteration would both insult and confuse. In that sense, until economical and user-friendly hardware and software for marginal comment, visible deletions, and the like are invented, the Post-it will remain a more significant aid to working editors than the computer. And editors themselves will remain subject to the “joy, fulfillment, grief, and frustration” of their craft, hoping that their ultimately invisible labors will make a real and positive difference.
The Evolution of the American Editor
MARC ARONSON is a senior editor at Henry Holt’s Books for Young Readers. As an editor of ‘multicultural” nonfiction for middle graders and young adults, he has specialized in introducing adult trade authors to children’s book publishing. He is also writing a New York University history dissertation on William Crary Brownell and turn-of-the-century publishing. Mr. Aronson created and teaches a course in the history of publishing at NYU’s Publishing Institute. Among the authors he has worked with are Bruce Brooks, Coretta Scott King, and Kyoko Mori.
An examination of the social, cultural, and economic influences on American editors and editing, Marc Aronson’s informative, entertaining, often provocative essay takes you from when editing as we know it began–the structural changes editor Ripley Hitchcock made in Edward Noyes Westcott’s novel David Harum (1898)–to a surprising and fascinating look at the innovative ways in which editors will work with writers as the new century approaches. “Editing ” will enter the twenty-first [century] with an electronic bazaar”. We will all be editors when we choose to be, and, I’ll bet, that will make us appreciate all the more those teams of hackers, pencil pushers, and typists who take the first crack at shaping our info-glut: the masters of multimedia, the captains of the cyberstream, the editors of the future.”
The Evolution of the American Editor
Editing in America began with an auction. Agents were changing the rules of publishing around 1898 when Edward Noyes Westcott’s David Harum was published; but the auction that transformed publishing was not for that book but in it. Westcott, a banker from upstate New York, had written a novel about a shrewd local named David Harum. Cracker-barrel philosophy written in dialect (think of Joel Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus) was very popular, and Westcott had every reason to believe he would find a publisher. But he had no luck until his manuscript came across the desk of Ripley Hitchcock at Appleton. Hitchcock, an authority on etchings and the author of a series of popular histories, was an editor who was willing to take a risk. He recognized that the horse swap in chapter 6 of the manuscript was really the first chapter of the book. The editor moved it, transferring five chapters in the process, and made cuts and stylistic revisions throughout. His editing worked miracles. David Harum was the number one best-seller for 1899. In March and April of that year up to 1,000 copies a day left bookstore shelves. The book reached a total sale of 727,000 hardcover copies by 1904 and 1,190,000 by 1946, with another 241,000 out in paperback.
The work Hitchcock actually did on the manuscript was not unusual–other editors had also made suggestions for radical cuts and had turned rejected manuscripts into hot sellers–but there were two crucial differences this time: the book sold at a record-breaking pace, and people found out what the editor had done. Hitchcock became known as the man who had ‘made” David Harum, and the book transformed his career. The editor and his wife adapted the book for the stage and shared profits with the house (Westcott died before the book was published); it was then turned into two movies, one of which starred Will Rogers. Forty years after publication, the New York Times Magazine was still running features on the book and the editor who was responsible for it. In his long career Hitchcock also edited Stephen Crane and Theodore Dreiser, but his reputation, and modern American editing, turned on David Harum.
Following the success of David Harum the editor began to become a public personality, and by the 1930s a cultural mythology had formed around editing: the editor as savior, finding the soul of a manuscript; the editor as alchemist, turning lead into gold; the editor as seer, recognizing what others had missed. Another image of the editor was already in place in Hitchcock’s day: the editor as friend. Taken together, editor as miner-magician and editor as boon companion, we have the classic image of the “editor of genius’ that crystallized around an editor of the twenties, thirties, and forties, William Maxwell Evarts Perkins. But to really understand Perkins we have to start earlier, at least one hundred years earlier.
The first American authors to write best-sellers, men like Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper, broke through in the 1820s. Though New York was not yet the publishing mecca it would become, a few proto-agents set up shop in the city and groups of publishers, authors, and critics gathered around bookstores, beer halls, and restaurants to swap ideas and invent books. By the 1830s, recognizable publishing had taken shape in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and Hartford (home of subscription publishing), and print was available in many formats, from cheap reprints to morocco leather. Twenty years later, in the 1850s, the United States had the largest literate public in history, and publishers put out books that ranged from sentimental love stories and children’s textbooks, which sold in the hundreds of thousands, to fiction from sure money losers like Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, and (after he stopped writing sea adventures) Herman Melville.
Publishing was growing into an important industry and was contributing to American culture, but there were no editors in the modern sense. In part, this was because, until 1891, British imports had no legal copyright protection. Established houses followed “the courtesy of the trade” and paid English writers a royalty, but many new houses got their start with cheap reprints of Dickens and Thackeray, which required no editorial intervention. At Harper, free-lance house readers helped out on acceptance and rejection. Those called “editors’ sometimes steered writers toward more lucrative themes and subjects, but they spent more energy on promoting authors than shaping texts. Robert Bonner, owner and editor of the New York Ledger, was a brilliant publicist who paid top dollar for the works of popular female novelists. Bonner’s most extravagant move was to decorate a railroad parlor car with a gold wreath emblazoned with the name of one his best-selling authors. The Fanny Fern car rolled across America spreading the author’s name far and wide, even after she died. Editors were also expected to write “puff pieces’ that would run in the press as objective criticism.
Many houses were small enough that the author and the publisher, whose family name ran on the letterhead, communicated directly on projects. During the Civil War, for example, James T. Fields, editor of Atlantic Monthly and a partner in Ticknor & Fields, was forced to suggest that one of his authors make a radical change in an article. “Ticknor and I both think,” Fields chided Nathaniel Hawthorne, “it will be politic to alter your phrases with reference to the President, to leave out the description of his awkwardness and general uncouth aspect. England is reading the magazine now and will gloat over the monkey figure of “Uncle Abe.”” In the heated Civil War debates it fell to the editor/publisher to tell an author not to call the president a monkey. After the failure of Moby Dick, Melville wrote a novel about publishing. In Pierre, it is the firm of Wonder & Wen that writes to an affluent popular author asking for his next book, and the firm of Steel, Flint & Asbestos that takes up the matter when the author becomes disreputable.
An author’s reputation was very important to publishers throughout the nineteenth century and even into the twentieth. Publishers felt it was their duty to ensure that American fiction would be unimpeachably moral in content, tone, and expression. Editing for morals can seem very different from Hitchcock’s editing for market, but actually the two were related. American readers wanted moral books; those are the ones that sold. There was no surer way to kill a book than for it to be deemed “objectionable.” The editor who could monitor an author’s moral tone was also protecting the author’s market share. Since many books were serialized in magazines owned by publishing houses before they came out as books, editors used what they presumed to be the virginal sensibility of the typical teenage girl as the gauge for their publications. Like network television a century later, if the magazine couldn’t sit out on the coffee table to be enjoyed by the whole family, it could not be published. Houses had two ways of getting this kind of moral imprimatur, by hiring editors in-house who held those values, or by engaging a wide network of free-lance readers who were in touch with the sensibilities of many different groups of tastemakers. Charles Scribner’s Sons followed the first approach and eventually made a home for Max Perkins; Macmillan used the second and gave a lot of editorial assignments to well-read or socially prominent women. In both cases these editors remained largely invisible to the general public.
Monitoring morals involved more than just selecting authors and supervising plots. During the nineteenth century, language inspired some heated controversies. Conflicts over proper usage, vocabulary, and spelling were fought out in the development and sales of new dictionaries, grammar books, and especially translations of the Bible. At issue were the claims of tradition (say, the King James Bible) against those of academic experts (who had duller but more accurate translations to offer), the language of the street versus the language of society, but also how, and toward what ends, language would be shaped in America. What kind of society should America be? An ordered one in which language follows tradition and so, it is hoped, do people’s lives? Or an open-ended society in which language and behavior change from year to year? Similar conflicts came up in the 1960s as people raised the claims of Black English and debated which four-letter words should be included in dictionaries. We still have some traces of these imbroglios in discussions about gender and language. But the earlier debate was front-page news and had a direct impact on publishing houses, which had to choose who their readers, advisers, editors, and authors would be. Surprisingly, many houses chose the liberal academics or their allies over the elitist traditionalists.
By Hitchcock’s day one last wrinkle had been added to the editorial mix. New magazines, financed by an explosion of consumer advertising, built their readership to record levels by publishing authors who employed a more ‘realistic” prose style. Some book editors who had been trained as journalists went after the same market. These new editors were more like corporate middle managers than moral monitors. They wanted American authors and they followed the latest fashions in public taste. These editors paid for authors who could deliver hard-hitting, lively prose on deadline. Turn-of-the-century writers’ magazines recognized this trend and started to print articles on how to write to sell, and to issue profiles of leading editors and what they would buy. Authors complained that editors would take only well-known authors, how-to pieces, or human interest stories, while editors rejoined that they would be happy to publish great literature if only someone would write it. Between morals and market, people began to develop the idea that a house needed editors as well as publishers and that editing was a craft that could contribute to the success of a book. According to some publishers, like Alfred A. Knopf, this was a terrible mistake and led directly to the decline of publishing.
Max Perkins arrived at Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1910 to work in the advertising department. William Crary Brownell, the literary adviser to the house, wrote books with titles like Criticism, Standards, and Victorian Prose Masters and was one of the fifty Americans who are periodically elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in recognition of their cultural prominence. Authors felt that approaching him was like entering a church, and Brownell saw editing as a form of cultural mission as well as a hard-headed business. Perkins shared Brownell’s sense of the importance of books but made a major shift by decreeing that “the book belongs to the author.” The young editor believed that editing involved a sort of compact to uncover and shape an author’s talent, no matter what that took. This tireless, even heroic, devotion to the author and to the book was the hallmark of elite editing from the twenties to the forties.
Starting with F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose first novel he acquired over Brownell’s objection, Perkins worked with a memorable sequence of important authors such as Ernest Hemingway, Ring Lardner, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Taylor Caldwell, and, especially, Thomas Wolfe. There is no more resonant image of American editing than the story of how Perkins crafted Of Time and the River out of the four-hundred-thousand-word tangle of unnumbered pages packed into three cartons that Wolfe submitted to him. Wolfe acknowledged his help in the book’s dedication to “a great editor and a brave and honest man, who stuck to the writer of this book through times of bitter hopelessness and doubt and would not let him give in to his own despair.” Perkins was not eager for the publicity, but his role in editing Wolfe’s books became so well known that critics began to question how much Wolfe had actually written. Bernard De Voto accused ‘mr. Perkins and the assembly line at Scribner’s’ of essentially creating Wolfe’s books. Wolfe himself helped to shape the Perkins legend by turning the editor into Foxhall Edwards, a character in You Can’t Go Home Again.
Perkins, and other “heroic” editors like Pascal Covici and Saxe Commins, pushed editing to (or even past) the line where it became necessary to an author’s success. Did they go too far? These editors took on mammoth editing chores single-handedly while conducting intense, even melodramatic friendships with their brilliant but often self-destructive authors. And, all the while, they had to try to make the books commercial successes. In the mix of what we might now call genius and alcoholism, absolute devotion and codependency, hard work and burnout some of America’s greatest fiction was published. But the editors did at times become too attached to their own importance, altering works without the author’s permission and distorting the writer’s text.
In the thirties, editing was expanded in other ways by women, many of whom were agents. Elizabeth Nowell, for example, did as much for Wolfe’s magazine pieces as Perkins did for his novels–or even more: she selected, cut, and revised sections of his sprawling manuscripts to fit magazine word limits, negotiated fees, and even advised him on contraception so that he wouldn’t have to worry about getting his lovers pregnant. Simon & Schuster was notorious for hiring secretaries on the basis of their appearance, but women became crucial to the industry as a result of their (often unacknowledged) intellectual merits. Female “executive assistants’ often did much of the copy editing and detail work for their better-known bosses. Women also began to carve out a territory of their own as in-house editors of children’s books. The most dramatic expansion of the editing pool, though, had to do with religion, not gender.
Starting in the teens, a series of new publishing houses appeared founded by young Jewish men, most of whom had graduated from Columbia University. These included houses that were founded as, or later became, Alfred A. Knopf, Simon & Schuster, Random House, Viking, and Farrar, Straus, Giroux. The new Jewish houses moved editing in two directions: toward an expansion of free speech and toward a wider public that had been disdained or ignored by the Protestant elite. The new houses were not likely to sign up the stalwarts of mainstream America, who were already aligned with older houses like Appleton, Harper, or Scribner’s. Instead, they looked to Europe and to the radicals of Greenwich Village for authors. This led to a series of censorship battles, including one turning point in 1923, when the New York State Assembly actually passed a censorship law only to have the Senate defeat it, and another in 1933, when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of James Joyce’s Ulysses.
Other houses found new books by expanding their lists. The first books that S & S issued (albeit under a dummy name) were crossword puzzle books. Though tax guides had first appeared during the Civil War, and how-to manuals have existed in various forms since colonial days, S & S transformed that category of publishing with all-time best-sellers like How to Win Friends and Influence People. The company’s approach was summarized in its motto, “Give the Reader a Break.” While for some houses editing for morals was giving way to a search for avant-garde authors, for others the old sense of cultural mission was being supplanted by a well-organized effort to address more pragmatic needs. Either way, the new houses brought new editing styles to the industry.
Max Perkins died in 1947; while the myth of the heroic editor persisted, it no longer described the day-to-day reality of trade publishing. Perkins himself had grown discouraged, feeling that materialism was ruling America and that some book people were choosing expediency over literary values. Others sensed this as well. According to one character in Dawn Powell’s 1942 novel, A Time to Be Born (reissued in 1991 by Yarrow Press), “the test of a publishing genius ” is the ability to keep ahead of the times, to change your whole set of standards, overnight, if needs be.” If we can believe this savvy, if cynical, author, the real values of the old-line houses and the herculean efforts of the great editors were also being mimicked by clever hypocrites with their eyes on the market. While Perkins remained the model for eager young entry-level editors until very close to the present day, a whole new brand of publishing began before he died that more frankly courted sales and changed the rules of the game entirely: paperbacks.
Paperbacks had been a part of American publishing at least since the 1840s, but the houses that issued them were disdained and fiercely opposed by the hardcover houses. ‘story papers,” dime novels, and “pirate” reprints were never treated as mainstream books. It took a more widespread acceptance of ‘middlebrow” culture, as well as the persistence and market research of Robert Fair de Graff, to make possible the advent of modern paperbacks in 1939. While changes in American society helped to give a new respectability to cheap books, the houses themselves made room for a new type of editor. Frankly seeking a mass readership, some houses hired editors from lower-class backgrounds, and even a few who had not gone to college. Market wisdom began to compete with the old school tie as a reason for hiring an editor.
At first these paperbacks were cheap reprints of hardcovers that were sold in new locations like drugstores and newsstands. Genre fiction, such as detective stories, westerns, romances, and later science fiction, was a natural for paperback since it could be put out cheaply in large numbers with relatively predictable sales. By the early fifties, though, NAL’s Mentor list, Penguin, and most famously the Anchor list Jason Epstein founded at Doubleday added trade paperback lines that were sold through regular bookstores and included more ‘serious’ titles. In all cases, paperback houses had to play by hardcover rules, stressing their literary interests, their respect for the main and original publisher, and their deep concern for an author’s welfare. Paperback editing involved knowing who was publishing what and how they could be approached.
In the sixties, NAL moved publishing another step when it started to commission books with built-in movie tie-ins, but editors were already well aware of other media. As early as 1944 S & S was bought by Marshall Field, who also owned television and radio stations. Editors first realized the importance of author appearances on television in 1958, when Alexander King’s monologues on Jack Paar’s Tonight show made two of his books number one best-sellers. By the early sixties a hardcover editor had to be concerned not only with the merits of an author’s work but with the other lives it might lead: would it go into paperback, could it be made into a movie, might the author (or, in the case of Bennett Cerf, the publisher) appear on television? Mass-market paperback editors began not only to buy books from hardcover houses but also to invent entirely new kinds of fiction, like gothic mystery and romance and later bodice rippers, that might never appear in hardcover.
In some houses the income from these new paperbacks helped to support smaller sellers, allowing upscale editors to concentrate their attention on literary value. Trade paperback editors were especially favored by this trade-off. In the fifties, for example, NAL was very proud that it could call Erskine Caldwell, and later Mickey Spillane, “the world’s best-selling author,” but it also gave a forum to new black writers like James Baldwin, Richard Wright, and Ralph Ellison. This balance, however, went only so far. At one point, Victor Weybright, copublisher of NAL, regretfully informed the house literary adviser that he could not publish a book unless it would have a minimum sale of 75,000 copies.
According to Ted Solotaroff, who worked there at the time, NAL still balanced trade and mass market successfully in the mid-sixties. If this was so, part of the credit must go to the mood of the much-maligned sixties. Great Society spending on libraries, as well as the entry of the baby boomers into high school and then college, increased the market for serious and challenging works. The counterculture may have been a product of television news and rock records, but every self-respecting radical had a shelf full of well-thumbed paperbacks including everyone from Herbert Marcuse and Eldridge Cleaver to Carlos Castaneda and Wilhelm Reich. The editor who acquired and published radicals had risked court challenges in the 1920s; by the 1960s he or she had a good chance of buying a best-seller.
Civil rights even entered publishing itself in the sixties and seventies as houses made their first, short-lived efforts to hire nonwhite editors. However, because editing requires a college education yet offers very low entry-level salaries, most intelligent, motivated people from low-income backgrounds wisely pursued more lucrative professions. To this day editing remains one of America’s least integrated professions. On the other hand, women have come near to, or have even broken through, the very highest glass ceilings in publishing. Not only are many, perhaps most editors female, but women are frequently in very senior roles, such as editors-in-chief or publishers. While this is particularly true in children’s books, publishing is one of the few industries in which the profile of the typical customer (for fiction, a college-educated, middle-class woman from the Midwest) matches that of a typical manager. You might say that, in publishing, women have come close to controlling the means of production of their own reading. In that sense, editors may be more in touch with the sensibilities of their readers today than they have ever been.
The very success of paperbacks in the sixties and seventies, along with the increased visibility of all forms of media, made publishing houses attractive to Wall Street. Many prestigious hardcover houses, faced with the power of paperbacks and the overtures of potential buyers, had to find new money to stay independent, merge with other houses, or go out of business. As a wave of takeovers washed over publishing, the lifetime job security that old-line houses had offered to editors and authors gave way to a free market in which both jumped from house to house seeking a better deal. Agents, recognizing that houses needed bankable names, became more adroit at using the old technique of an auction to get top dollar for their authors. Big advances, which often did not earn out, only increased the financial pressures on publishing houses, which were now often small units in large, cost-conscious organizations. ‘return on investment” went from being an unfamiliar term in a book, which an editor might query, to being the crucial fiscal marker that could determine whether he or she even had a job.
In the eighties, as many publishing houses were subsumed into a new group of international conglomerates, the individual editor became less and less familiar to the public. Editors who were known at all gained fame more for their own novels, their social lives, or their media appearances than for their labors on texts. With millions of dollars riding on big-name authors, it became more important to a house that a book appear on a list than that it be in perfect shape. Editors simply had less time to edit and had to concentrate on hot new acquisitions. The actual work of line editing then fell to a variety of people, including assistants, agents, copy editors, writers’ groups, book doctors, packagers, and well-meaning friends. In some respects this diffusion of editing to many out-of-house helpers was similar to the turn-of-the-century networks of free-lance readers. Today the editor is asked to think like a publisher, taking on many other tasks in addition to editing; as a result, authors and agents are pressured to turn in more polished work. Editing in the day of the media conglomerate looks more like antebellum “puffery,” or the ‘reading” of the late nineteenth century, than the “heroic” labors of the middle twentieth.
What is the future of editing? The skills of identifying authors, negotiating with agents, recognizing the strengths and weaknesses of texts, guiding a manuscript through the politics and perils of a house, and adding body English to its passage into the marketplace will continue to be important to publishing. The distinct image of the editor as the one person who discharges all of these functions out of some combination of professional pride and personal passion may not survive. Publishing, it has been said, goes through a standard twenty-year cycle including an initial phase, in which there are many small houses; a middle period, when these upstarts collapse, merge, or are bought out by larger houses; and a final stage, when the large houses falter, breaking apart once again into many small units. Today’s large conglomerates may be about to break up, but there is another alternative that would create new possibilities for editors.
The Japanese model of commercial organization–many small, often-competitive units working within a loose larger structure–is gaining popularity as a way to organize former nations like what was once the Soviet Union, as well as large corporations like IBM. This structure is especially attractive for publishing now because computer networks make it increasingly possible for authors to share and edit each other’s texts, while the design capabilities of work stations blur the boundaries between editors and designers. Some publishers already mate editor, author, designer, and computer as a team entirely devoted to one project. The image of a house as made of distinct departments that report “up” to publishers and CEOs may give way to congeries of teams that share jobs and are responsible only for what they produce. In that loose structure groups of authors, such as a consortium of MFA students and faculty, or the members of a writers’ group, might craft their texts electronically and function as a sort of allied imprint of a major house. Taking the current idea of an imprint to an extreme, a house would offer only technical support, distribution, and marketing, while the acquisition and editing of books would take place entirely in these semiautonomous teams whose only responsibility would be to meet some agreed-upon fiscal goal.
Instead of integrated hierarchies, publishing houses would be archipelagoes of diverse units, each with its own strategy and agenda. As multimedia options, including cybertexts, interactive home computers, and electronic books, become more prevalent, houses would offer the expertise, capital, and access to a broad band of media options that creative people will need. In exchange, the creative teams would be the avenue through which houses would keep in touch with the rapidly changing tastes of a public increasingly attached to the electronic media. Under these conditions, editing would come to mean anything that could be done for a book on a computer, including turning it into a multimedia extravaganza.
In the electronic-networked world of future publishing there will be as many editing styles as the distinct units require. Fully computerized editing programs could take quantified focus-group studies, mix them with marketing figures, and generate genre paperbacks from text through bound books untouched by human hands. On the other hand, small literary lines that rely on the taste and devotion of motivated individuals will be able to revive the editing of Perkins’s day for those authors who require it and those readers who enjoy the results.
If editing ended the nineteenth century with an auction, it will enter the twenty-first with an electronic bazaar. As the tenth edition of this book is transmitted to your hand-held electronic page, you, the reader/editor, will have the option to compare all of the editions and edit the raw text for morals, language, market, art, mass taste, or some future alternative, and to clip in whatever art you like. The electronic editor will give you those selections, like rhythm buttons on electronic keyboards, and then offer you what some team has chosen as its own, time-saving best choice. We will all be editors when we choose to be, and, I’ll bet, that will make us appreciate all the more those teams of hackers, pencil pushers, and typists who take the first crack at shaping our info-glut: the masters of multimedia, the captains of the cyberstream, the editors of the future.