I work in publishing. I like books and the people who read them.
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E.L. Doctorow on publishing, then and now
The New York Times Book Review: You spent your early years as an editor at the New American Library and the Dial Press. What are your fondest memories of working in publishing? What has been the most significant change you’ve witnessed in the field?
E.L. Doctorow: At New American Library, a mass-market reprinter, we were publishing books with a price of 50 or 75 cents or a dollar and a quarter for a huge novel, and distributing them in great numbers all over the country. Or we’d buy a good first novel that had sold maybe 2,000 copies in hardcover, and print a hundred thousand and put it in every airport and railroad and bus station in the country. That was wonderfully satisfying work. NAL’s list was eclectic — publishing Mickey Spillane, but also Faulkner; Erskine Caldwell’s “Tobacco Road,” but also Susanne K. Langer’s “Philosophy in a New Key.” We published “The Signet Classic Shakespeare,” of which I was the house editor, and a science list which fell to me to handle. It was all very exciting, reading these books, bidding for the reprint rights, entertaining proposals, and dealing with the likes of Ayn Rand and Ian Fleming. But the game changed with the advent of the trade paperback. Trade publishers were now keeping the reprint rights for lists of their own. And so the mass-market business changed, and some of the reprinters went to what they called “originals” — genre products like thrillers, romances and so on. You can still find good classic public-domain titles at the big paperback houses like NAL, but they’re not freely distributed as they used to be — they are mostly on educational lists so far as I can tell.
I moved over to Dial, a trade publisher, in the mid 1960s, and it was a very exciting place to be — not only because this was the Sixties but because your most creative juices were required just to keep that house in business. I was editing Mailer, James Baldwin. I published William Kennedy’s first novel, Ernest J. Gaines, Thomas Berger and a book by Joan Baez. But also a hoax called “Report From Iron Mountain,” a satirically inspired, dryly written presumed government study claiming that peace was not only unattainable but undesirable. This was during the Vietnam War, you see. The book was covered on the front page of The New York Times and hit the best-seller list.
Conglomeration — the acquisition of houses by large corporations — is the story of how things have changed. Trade publishing was never purely a business. How could it be when a house’s prime assets were the tastes of its editors? You floated the consequential books with the money you earned with the commercial things on your list. Publishing was a cottage industry. People loved to be in it and took its low salaries in return for its creative excitements. A house’s balance sheet could veer from good to dismal and back again from year to year. That’s because it didn’t offer products that were endlessly the same, like breakfast cereals or automobile tires. The hunches of its editors were very hard to quantify on a balance sheet. Now, wanting publishing to be a business like any other, the big conglomerates naturally like to increase their profit margins from one year to the next. There’s a pressure on editors to sober up and produce books that earn their keep. Oddly the conglomerates have more money to play with, and so, perversely, they may be less daring, less freewheeling. This is not true of the best of them, of course. Good books are still published with vigor and are still major acts of the culture, but the corporate ethos makes it probably not as much fun.
Read the full interview here.