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Rough Trade

The sad decline of American publishing.

Once upon a time writers wrote and editors edited. Today most writers still write, but most editors don’t do much editing if they can help it.

Those who perform the actual task now have a separate title to accompany their lowly place in the professional pecking order. They’re called “working editors,” as opposed to the other kind, who may be more numerous. These toiling scriveners still do what their title implies: work on manuscripts. Editors like Ann Close at Knopf or Jonathan Galassi at Farrar, Straus and Giroux spend their days and nights toiling with pen and typewriter, engaging in detailed correspondence and dialogue with authors. They do much what Maxwell Perkins did for F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe. Their careers are like those of college professors with a vocation for teaching. Though their talents are deeply appreciated by a few, at the bigger houses they usually get turned down for promotion because of their low profiles. A working editor may earn $50,000, which isn’t much in Manhattan. He or she eats lunch at his or her desk.

The only visible reward for this difficult, anonymous work is usually a heartfelt thanks from an author on his acknowledgments page. For this reason, most in the trade aspire to the more glamorous position of “acquiring editor,” the one who goes prospecting for new works to publish. Acquiring editors, like Joni Evans of Turtle Bay Books, the imprint she was awarded by Random House, might be compared to record company talent scouts or rain-making partners at law firms, who bring in clients and leave the day work to weary associates. They hire assistants or free-lancers to do what textual emendation is necessary. They have little time for such busywork themselves, spending their days on the phone with agents, bidding in auctions for ghost-assisted projects by non-writing celebrities like Muhammad Ali and Marlon Brando, and dealing with powerful marketing and promotion departments. Their hunt for new material involves a lot of frantic schmoozing and gossiping, which may lead them to “brand-name” authors ripe for poaching. An acquiring editor earns upward of $100,000 a year. At lunch he or she can be found in the Grill Room at the Four Seasons.

Acquiring editors are not judged by the quality of the books they acquire. Often it doesn’t even seem to matter if their books make money. Instead they are measured by the number and dollar amount of the contracts they sign. “This is a business where everybody breaks out the champagne when they spend millions of dollars on a book,” says Lorraine Shanley, former editorial director of HarperCollins. “Go figure.”

Editors today, like authors, consider themselves free agents. Ambitious ones roam from house to house, changing jobs so quickly they’re often not around to answer for their purchases when the bills come due several years later. Aaron Asher paid a million dollars of Grove Weidenfeld’s money for Milan Kundera’s new novel Immorality before returning to HarperCollins, where he worked previously. He won’t be around to answer for his speculation if the book earns back only half its advance. For editors who do stay in one place, an overpayment of a few hundred thousand is often dwarfed by the acquisition of something even bigger. “The basic difference between editors who are coming in today and those who came in twenty-five years ago is that we had some serious ideas about the books we wanted to do,” says Ted Solotaroff, a retired editor who worked for many years at Harper & Row. “There was much more scope for an editor to pursue his passions and his interests. Today he is working on consumer books, rather than reader books.”

Consider Random House’s 1951 fall catalog, which was typical for the firm and the decade. It comprised a discriminating twenty books: fiction by William Faulkner, Truman Capote, Nancy Mitford, John O’Hara, and Par Lagerkvist, as well as the complete novels of Jane Austen, and several minor writers long forgotten. There’s also a volume about New York by Lloyd Morris, a book about Asia by James Michener, The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams, and The American Vest Pocket Dictionary.

The firm’s current spring list contains close to sixty books. There are some excellent writers—Paul Theroux, Anita Brookner, Norman Mailer, Ann Beattie—but they jostle against a dozen works of genre fiction: mysteries, spy thrillers, bodice-rippers, and historical epics. Seven works of serious nonfiction—a history of the U.S. Navy, Clark Clifford’s ghostwritten memoirs, a travel book about Africa by Peter Matthiessen, among others—are submerged by countless how-to books on barbecue, massage, ballooning, gourmet cooking, money management, and psychology, as well as coffee-table specials on fly-fishing, Winchester rifles, and country life. Guiltily buried in the back of the catalog, though prominently displayed in chain bookstores, are The Seventh Day Diet and Can We Talk?, an as-told-to memoir by Joan Rivers.

Of course, even high-minded publishers want to make money, and the best houses have always been willing to put out schlock that sells. But in the mid-century heyday of American publishing, a firm like Random House would publish a bit of flimflam to underwrite its worthier efforts. Except at a few independent-minded houses, of which Farrar Straus is the most prominent example, the situation is now reversed: the literature is an afterthought to the schlock, a garnishing of literary prestige to soothe the conscience and placate the ghosts. This shift is clear not so much from the number of good books that get published—which remains prodigious—as from the way the content of those books are treated. Today even the serious books that Random House produces are, like those of its interchangeable competitors, filled with ungainly and ungrammatical sentences, errors of spelling, typography, and fact. They are badly organized, long-winded, and repetitive to the point of unreadability. Like most books from the major publishing houses these days, they are edited haphazardly, if at all.

Take one of the more promising nonfiction entries in the Random House catalog, Ken Auletta’s When the Good Times Stopped, billed as an account of the harm done to American broadcasting by the recent wave of corporate takeovers. The book’s editor is the firm’s editorial director, Jason Epstein, inventor of the quality trade paperback, one of the founders of The New York Review of Books, and the original guiding force behind the Library of America. Epstein is regarded by many as the Edward R. Murrow of publishing, but like all successful acquiring editors these days, he has far too much on his plate to spend time editing any one work. In working for a branch of a vast conglomerate owned by mogul S. I. Newhouse, Epstein has to spend much more time thinking about how to make money than he did when the firm was owned by its founders, Bennett Cerf and Donald Klopfer.

As a consequence, Auletta’s finished tome, a 990-page typescript with changes scrawled in the margins, was on the desks of serial-rights selectors at the major magazines and book clubs only days after he finished writing it in March. To edit it properly (Auletta is not, let us say, a natural writer) would have meant delaying it a year. This would have displeased everyone—the accounting department, the exhausted author, the busy editor—and served only those hapless souls who will end up trying to read the book. But then, most people who actually want to read about the subject will content themselves with what are likely to be well-edited excerpts in The New York Times Magazine and Esquire.

Editors at these magazines will edit Auletta because it’s their job. They are judged by their colleagues and rewarded by their employers primarily on the basis of their ability to edit prose. Thus they will do their best to make the Auletta excerpts concise, informative, and convincing. Thirty years ago the same was true in book publishing, but no longer. Though most book editors can recognize these attributes, they have little incentive to work heroically recasting manuscripts for weeks or months. “Editorial lapses are not heavily penalized in the marketplace, therefore people let them go,” says Starling Lawrence, an editor at W. W. Norton, one of the last independent houses. “The more commercial the book, the less perfection is required in such matters.”

Often the failure to hack down unwieldy manuscripts is the result of a rush to publication. “The publisher will have a hole in his list because other authors have not delivered on time,” says Charlotte Sheedy, a literary agent. “They will encourage the author to speed it up. Some authors buckle under the pressure. They often regret it later.”

Anyone who reads new books feels the effects of these trends. At the most basic level, books are shoddier than ever before. Kenneth Adelman’s 1989 book on arms control, The Great Universal Embrace, reprints page 23 where page 123 should be. Five crucial lines are dropped in Lou Cannon’s just-published President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime. In Possession, A. S. Byatt’s Booker Prize-winning novel, the protagonist’s name is spelled two different ways. I found two spelling errors before I had even finished the acknowledgments of E. J. Dionne’s Why Americans Hate Politics. Most of these books are published by Simon and Schuster, but similar gaffes can be found in those of most other commercial houses, where careful copy editing is becoming a lost art.

For lack of editing, books have also gotten far too long. Editors have largely abandoned the task of finding the slim book in the unwieldy manuscript, of discovering the sculpture in the raw stone. There’s not even commercial pressure to shorten books. The Book-of-the-Month-Club and chains like B. Dalton believe, in the words of one buyer, that “serious books should be weighty.” Among recent examples of door-stop unreadability: William Faulkner: American Writer by Frederick R. Karl (Grove Weidenfeld, 1,200 pages); The Power Game: How Washington Really Works by Hedrick Smith (Random House, 703 pages); KGB: The Inside Story by Christopher Andrew and Oleg Gordievsky (HarperCollins, 776 pages); Jackson Pollock: An American Saga by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith (Clarkson Potter, 934 pages); and The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power by Daniel Yergin (Simon and Schuster), bringing up the rear with a brisk 911 pages. Jack Germond and Jules Witcover’s book about the important 1980 presidential campaign, Blue Smoke and Mirrors, was a mere 337 pages. Their book about the less momentous 1984 election, Wake Us When It’s Over, was 567 pages. Rarely has a book been more appropriately titled.

Writers are loath to talk on the record about how poorly edited their books are because it reflects badly on them, and upon editors who are potential purchasers of future books. With an offer of anonymity, however, their frustration pours forth. One first-time author I spoke to is a reporter who was posted in the Soviet Union for a number of years. When she submitted her manuscript, the product of four years of work, her editor did nothing except advise her to change it from first person to third person. The author made the change, and several reviewers pointed it out as a major flaw of the book, which sold poorly and disappeared quickly from the shelves. “He never read it thoroughly and never line-edited it,” the writer says of her editor. “He was way too busy and overworked. There wasn’t a single mark on the manuscript.”

Many authors, of course, are far from innocent victims of the publishing process. It’s not hard to learn which editors have a reputation for making books better, but writers often are more tempted by big bucks than by the prospect of extensive rewriting, which will have little impact on their sales. “Authors can’t have it both ways,” says Nicholas Lemann, a nonfiction writer. “If they’re going to choose based on top dollar, they forfeit their right to complain about the quality of the publishing.” Many authors, in fact, long for an editor like Alice Mayhew or Michael Korda of Simon and Schuster, who are renowned not for their editing but for their ability to conjure best sellers out of their hats.

For an author, working with Simon and Schuster is often a Faustian bargain. It almost certainly means more money, strong backing in advertising and promotion, a big first printing, and thus a better chance at best-sellerdom. Since its takeover by Gulf + Western (now Paramount Communications) in 1975, S&S has put itself in the forefront of bidding wars, winning the lion’s share of the million-dollar advance books of recent years, including Ronald Reagan’s autobiography and various novels by Jackie Collins and Jack Higgins. But going with S&S also means working with editors who for the most part don’t pay much attention to what’s in the books they print. Unlike Random House, Simon and Schuster has never had a distinguished reputation as a publisher of literature. Recently, however, it seems to be making a push to live up to the assertion of Dan Green, the former head of the tradedivision, who told The Wall Street Journal in 1984 that “there is no level below which we will not go.”

This gleeful bottom-feeding is evident in both Simon and Schuster’s fiction and nonfiction lists. When Philip Roth abandoned his longtime publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux for a $1.8 million, three-book contract with Simon and Schuster, he got a taste of the approach with his novel Deception. The work was promoted with a cheesecake cover depicting a man’s hand grasping a woman’s naked midsection. “We wanted to give this one commercial appeal,” John McKeown, the head of Simon and Schuster’s consumer publishing division, told The New York Times. “We wanted to get across the sexiness of the book and link it to Portnoy’s Complaint.” The book failed to do terribly well, not least because flesh is not what turns on Roth’s customary readership.

The novel that made the biggest stir this year was Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho. Editors wanted the novel because of its prurient appeal, which they judged worth a $300,000 advance and played up in their spring catalog. When details of the novel’s sordid contents first leaked out in Time, they hoped to ride out the storm and profit from the furor. Weeks before copies of the novel were due to be shipped to bookstores, however, they were reportedly overruled by Martin Davis, the chairman of Paramount, who determined that the bad publicity was harming the firm’s reputation. S&S chairman Richard Snyder then claimed he had only just learned about the novel’s contents and blamed the decision to publish it on his subordinates. (The book was picked up by Sonny Mehta, the new chief of Knopf, who penciled in a few minor changes and issued it as a Vintage paperback, putting only a small dent in the firm’s vaunted literary reputation.)

Simon and Schuster’s other notorious judgment call this spring was Kitty Kelley’s Nancy Reagan: The Unauthorized Biography. Editors cannot have failed to notice the book’s thin documentation, unwarranted assertions, and innuendos, like the famous reference to Nancy’s “luncheon” with Frank Sinatra. But having paid out a $3.5 million advance, Simon and Schuster hyped exactly the salacious bits an honest editor would have questioned by treating them like atomic secrets. Having thus guaranteed sales in the millions, Kelley’s editor, Alice Mayhew, refused to take a position on whether the contents of the book were factual. “That is not my role,” she told Newsweek. Contractually, the author and not the editor is responsible for factual accuracy. This practice is not so much to save money (university presses have manuscripts peer-reviewed for a few hundred dollars) as it is to protect books from being robbed of their sensationalism for the sake of accuracy.

Mayhew went beyond disclaiming responsibility for the Nancy Reagan fiasco. She shamed her author publicly by publishing in the same month Cannon’s painstaking account of the Reagan presidency, which contradicts Kelley on dozens of points, such as Nancy’s influence on arms control and the firing of various Cabinet members. Cannon’s years of careful research were in turn undermined by the publicity boom that greeted Kelley’s revelations. He says he considered a lawsuit because he was promised that his book and Kelley’s would not be published simultaneously, but author and publisher are now resolving their differences. No one at Simon and Schuster seems bothered by the contradictions. According to Snyder, “To publish is to disseminate. Our aim is to present both sides.”

This is not an isolated case. Mayhew, who made her reputation with Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s All the President’s Men and has since cornered the market for blockbuster Washington books, is also the editor of two new books that relate contradictory accounts of the U.S. invasion of Panama: Woodward’s The Commanders and Kevin Buckley’s Panama: The Whole Story. Woodward accepts the Pentagon version of what happened in the failed coup attempt in October 1989: that Defense Department officials didn’t back it because they didn’t believe it had a chance to succeed. Buckley, by contrast, argues that General Maxwell Thurman thought the proposed coup was part of a plot masterminded by Noriega to provoke the use of military force by the United States, and that he badly botched an opportunity to help depose Noriega once it happened. Woodward calls the SOUTHCOM estimate of 202 civilian dead in the American invasion “[not] far off the mark.” Buckley says few even in the Pentagon believe the 202 number, and credits estimates of 1,000 deaths.

Mayhew herself declined to comment, but an editor who has worked closely with her says she believes the reason Mayhew never worried is that she never read the Buckley book. According to the source, Mayhew has no chance to read many of the thirty to forty books per year that bear her imprimatur. To spare hurt feelings, she mentioned only one other author: the deceased physicist Heinz Pagels, whose book The Dreams of Reason: The Computer and the Rise of the Sciences of Complexity she is certain Mayhew never read.

Although Mayhew is reported to work on problems of structure with big shots, she farms out most of the nitty-gritty work to three minions. When an author gets a letter and a marked-up manuscript back from Mayhew, he may or may not be aware that the marginalia and suggestions are not hers. One first-time author who signed with Mayhew says that he met with her only once in the five years he worked on the book and that he found it extremely difficult to reach her on the phone. But when he finally submitted a completed manuscript, he received it back with editing he thought was superb. He was ready to acknowledge having misjudged her when he discovered that the comments represented as hers were those of a free-lance editor retained for the project.

When TNR economics editor Robert Kuttner did his first book, Revolt of the Haves, with Mayhew in 1979, he says that he found their relationship cordial but that his manuscript was scarcely touched. “It suffered from not being edited,” Kuttner says. “It is fifty pages too long, and has stuff in it that is too technical. At the time I naively took it as a vote of confidence.” “If you’re not Bob Woodward or Kitty Kelley, then you run a great risk of being forgotten altogether,” says one fellow editor.

According to one author who has worked with Mayhew, “Your status with Alice has to do with how big an advance you get from her. She’s not interested in books under $70,000.” Those who are ignored may be better off. Sally Bedell Smith spent three years on a biography of CBS founder William Paley, and had written about two-thirds of it, when Mayhew pushed her to complete it in six months for inclusion in a thin autumn list. Though Smith says she wanted the book finished and doesn’t think it suffered, the haste shows. An editing process that ordinarily takes nine months was completed in less than three. One former editor calls the 782-page biography “hideously rushed.” George Anders, a Wall Street Journal reporter, contracted with Mayhew to write a book about Kohlberg Kravis & Roberts and the leveraged-buyout business. Author and editor disagreed about organization and timing. When Mayhew found out that Anders was going to be beaten by another quickie book on the subject, she insisted that he rush his out. Rather than meet her terms, Anders repaid his advance and took his project to Basic Books. This kind of treatment has won Mayhew the nickname “Malice Mayhem.”

Retired Washington Post columnist Philip Geyelin contracted with Mayhew to write a book on King Hussein. Mayhew recently canceled it, telling Geyelin’s agent, Ron Goldfarb, that Hussein was no longer important enough after the Gulf war, and since the book was three months late he would have to repay his $100,000 advance. According to one Simon and Schuster insider, however, Mayhew killed the book because Snyder believed it would lose money. “It’s a big factory,” says Cannon. “What you have at work is the same kind of judgment that goes into making Sony Trinitrons.”

A better comparison for American publishing might be the Detroit automakers, circa 1973. Unlike Sony, Simon and Schuster shows every sign of being more interested in how many units it sells than in how well the appliances work. The publishing giants are technologically backward and allergic to innovation. As in Maxwell Perkins’s day, most editors mark up text longhand, rather than by computer, which would save months of production time and prevent many of the errors that creep in when keypunch operators retype what authors have already written and edited on personal computers. The anachronism is emblematic of an industry that values the appearance of tradition over traditional scrupulousness.

What it shows is that in many ways publishers are not market-driven. Rather, they lazily assume that the market for their products will always exist and see no reason to waste money on bettering them. And their decision may be semi-rational. There’s no Japanese competition to force American publishers to beef up their quality control. Pressure to produce better books ought to come from consumers. But the problem is that many of the people who buy books are exactly that—consumers, and not readers. They buy books for status, not elevation. The Pollock biography will probably sell more copies as a coffee-table ornament than as a diverting, instructive read. Like a pre-energy crisis Chevy Impala, it looks like a lot of car for the money.

Many editors are trying to improve editorial standards, but in a post-literate era it’s an uphill struggle. A story is told about Bob Loomis, an editor at Random House, who spent two days a week for thirteen months laboring over the mammoth, unreadable manuscript of John Toland’s The Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire and fashioned it into a best seller. When it came time to negotiate the contract for Toland’s next book, a biography of Hitler, Random House’s offer reflected the cost of Loomis’s time. Random House was outbid by Doubleday, which didn’t bother with editing. The book became a best seller anyway.