Over the last week, many lit bloggers have been linking to and commenting on this column by Robert McCrum in the UK Observer. McCrum reports that publishers are increasingly buying novels on the basis of synopses or sample chapters, and makes a compelling case that this practice is symptomatic of the publishing industry’s problems and sure to exacerbate them. The column has been intelligently commented and expanded upon by Sarah, The Literary Saloon, and others too numerous to itemize.
The piece brought to mind Gerald Howard’s classic essay in this vein, “Mistah Perkins–He Dead: Publishing Today,” which appeared in The American Scholar in Summer 1989. It’s too long and detailed to do full justice to here, but here’s a bit of what Howard (then editor at Norton, now at Doubleday) was saying about the industry fifteen years ago:
The American publishing business today is in a tremendous state of confusion between its two classic functions: the higher-minded and more vocally trumpeted mission civilisatrice to instruct and edify and uplift the reading public and the less loudly advertised but, in the nature of things, more consistently compelling mission commerciale to separate the consumer from his cash. Happy the publisher (and happy the author) who can manage to make a single book fulfill both functions! The real art of publishing consists not in reconciling what are, in a capitalist system, quite simply irreconcilable imperatives but in orchestrating the built-in tensions in a harmonious fashion. However, the two-way road in publishing from the bottom line to Mount Olympus travels right across a fault line, and that is where the serious editor lives and plies his trade. To put it bluntly, the tectonic plates are shifting, there’s an earthquake going on, and all that moving and shaking you’ve read about is making it hard to attend to business–or even to be certain, from day to day, just what our business is. The delicate task of orchestrating tensions becomes more difficult still when the walls threaten to collapse about you….
The point that I wish to make is that book editing is not now and never has been a pursuit that permits a narrow purism. F. Scott Fitzgerald characterizes his film producer hero Monroe Stahr in The Last Tycoon as one of the few people who can hold the whole complex equation of filmmaking in his head at once; it might be said that good editors do something similar with the publishing equation. Their ministrations extend equally to the narrow compass of the page of text where the reader will experience the book and the wide cultural and commercial arena where the book itself must find its way; their fealty is equally to the spiritual, emotional, and financial well-being of the authors they publish and the firms that employ them. One might say that the effective editor is on comfortable terms with God and with Mammon. The great Max Perkins also published Taylor Caldwell and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. Probably the most remunerative book ever published by Alfred A. Knopf was Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet (over 8 million copies sold in this country alone, and climbing still), and the ultra-prestigious firm that bears Knopf’s name is known in the book trade for its top-of-the-culinary-line cookbooks and for the commercial