January 23, 2003
No Purebreds in Publishing
ingering questions after the upheaval at Random House last week: What constitutes literary publishing? Is there such a thing as a purely literary publishing house? Is there a literary DNA or special skill set required to publish so-called literary fiction and nonfiction as opposed to broad mainstream books?
Some publishers can be driven absolutely crazy by the notion that they aren't considered literary enough. The reality is that there is no longer any such thing as a purely literary publishing house. Perhaps that idea was always partly illusion. I went back to Bennett Cerf, the legendary co-founder of Random House, and skimmed "At Random," his reminiscences, and found that he was very canny about mixing the literary and the popular for the bottom line.
If the smudging of the line between publishing the profound and publishing the popular is not entirely new, it has clearly accelerated. A publisher is a publisher is a publisher. Random House publishes W. G. Sebald, Salman Rushdie, John Irving and Charles Barkley, the ex-basketball player who once claimed to have been misquoted in his own autobiography. Alfred A. Knopf, very literary, has Toni Morrison and V. S. Naipaul, two Nobel laureates, but also Anne Rice, who taps the archives of the vampires for her novels, as well as Dr. Andrew Weil, the holistic health guru. Even Farrar, Straus & Giroux mixes Scott Turow with Nadine Gordimer. And so it goes at Little, Brown; Scribner; Doubleday; Bantam Dell; and HarperCollins. Diversity of a different sort.
Philip Roth and Robert Stone are the pride of Houghton Mifflin, but "Entertaining for a Veggie Planet," recipes by Didi Emmons, is alongside them on the house's list.
What started my thinking again about literary and not was the dismissal of Ann Godoff, the respected and experienced publisher of Random House Trade Group, who produced an eclectic and interesting list but didn't make enough money. She was also regarded as a literary editor, and brought that prestige to the group. Ms. Godoff was succeeded by Gina Centrello, a highly respected mass-market paperback and hardcover publisher, who started her career in paperback publishing and indicated that she would add more commercial fiction to the Random House list, but not trim the literary.
Making books can be a snobbish trade, although publishing houses are seldom assemblages of intellectuals, as the industry's mythology would have it. Still, if publishers don't have a special literary or commercial DNA, their editors often do.
Many editors are excellent in one genre but clueless in another. The hierarchy are the literary editors. As for publishers, paperback is d╚class╚ compared with hardcover. But wait. Didn't Sonny Mehta, the very literary publisher of Knopf, start in paperback? So, too, did Susan Moldow at Scribner, Carolyn Reidy and Jack Romanos at Simon & Schuster, Stephen Rubin at Doubleday, William Shinker at Gotham, Irwyn Applebaum at Bantam Dell. Not to mention that one of the first best-selling paperback authors was named Shakespeare.
So there are two conclusions. It used to be that serious readers could look at books' covers and their titles and tell the publisher, and now they can't. And that those who started selling masses of paperbacks are a hardy bunch who can be just as literary as, well, Cerf or even Alfred A. Knopf.
For instance, Ms. Moldow publishes Don DeLillo. More need not be said about her sensibilities. "Publishers and editors end up serving their own internal genie, that's true," she said, "and are getting more alike." She also publishes "The Joy of Cooking," by Irma S. Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker, and the works of Kathy Reichs and Linda Fairstein. "People sometimes want to curl up and just have fun with a book," she said.
Mr. Rubin, publisher of the Doubleday Broadway Publishing Group, said: "Those who grew up in paperback start with less fear of trying new things when they get to hardcover because there are fewer restraints in paperback publishing. Coming from paperback, you were spared the elitist attitude of some hardcover publishers."
"As long as a person's sensibility is well tuned, you can publish anything," he said. Among others, Mr. Rubin publishes John Grisham, not literary, and Jonathan Lethem, quite literary.
Or as Ms. Reidy, president of Simon & Schuster Adult Publishing Group, put it, "Everyone has to do a little bit of everything, or nearly so, and balance your list."
What makes book publishing such a crap shoot is that not everyone can successfully publish every sort of book. Mr. Shinker, publisher of Gotham Books, said, "Editors have flairs for particular genres sometimes, but publishers today have to be able to publish across a wide spectrum of writing, of categories." Of course, if this were actually possible, there would be a great many more happy faces in publishing houses and bookstores.
Mr. Applebaum, publisher of Bantam Dell, takes diversity one step further. He not only believes that publishers must publish a wide range of books to capture different audiences, but also has what some may find the confounding thought that there are readers out there who like to read at different levels at different times.
He once startled a sales conference by pronouncing that "as publishers of all formats for all kinds of readers, in lots of our minds it's not inconceivable that on any given day a customer might buy for herself a novel by Iris Murdoch" ˇ whom he doesn't publish ˇ "and Iris Johansen" ˇ whom he does. Mr. Applebaum publishes Danielle Steel and Stephen Hawking, Dean Koontz and Tom Robbins. His remark suggests the worthy thought that in its purest form, reading just for the sake of reading is perhaps as important as what one reads. Isn't that where publishing is headed?