Publishing Trendsetter is a production of Market Partners International and Publishing Trends.

A Publishing Career by the Books: Reading My Mistake, Hothouse, and Lord of Publishing

All too often I read articles proclaiming “the death of the novel,” “the death of the book,” or other such dread-inducing pronouncements. But everything that dies was once alive, and given the tremendous (and unsuccessful) effort to declare books dead, they must currently be wide-eyed, scratching out holes in their coffins, wriggling up through the still-loose dirt. I’ve seen that the undertakers and gravediggers are often those who remain rooted in the pre-digital past.

homeI recently read three books by or about established publishing veterans, at the summits of their careers during publishing’s mid-century glory days. I couldn’t help but notice that their advanced ages colored their opinions, as both their reflections on the recent past and their outlooks for the future are grim. Lord of Publishing (Open Road, 2013), an autobiography by Sterling Lord (93), charts his career as a literary agent, representing authors including Jack Kerouac and Ken Kesey. My Mistake (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013) by the sprightly Daniel Menaker (71), another autobiography, tells of his rise from fact checker to Fiction Editor at The New Yorker. The third, Hothouse: The Art of Survival and the Survival of Art at America’s Most Celebrated Publishing House, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux (Simon & Schuster, 2013) by Boris Kachka, tells the story of the publishing house Farrar, Straus and Giroux with an emphasis on the personal histories of Roger Straus and Robert Giroux, who, if they were still alive today, would be 97 and 100, respectively.

Menaker raises a point particularly relevant to young publishing hopefuls: many publishing employees, regardless of their impressive qualifications and job performance, are left with little hope of advancement. There are only so many jobs for which you are paid to read, and you aren’t the only person who wants one of them. To be successful in publishing, to earn promotions and a livable wage, you have got to be lucky.

Hothouse_JacketThe publishing career trajectories of Lord, Straus and Giroux emphasize that this fact is truer now more than ever. All three started out in the military, and although over time they proved themselves to be highly capable, if they had not caught a few breaks early on, any of them (barring Straus, who was a member of the Guggenheim family) might be best remembered as diligent assistants, or not at all. After all, it’s not every day a soldier transitions from the front lines to the front page, publishing a widely read magazine like Sterling Lord.

If you are lucky enough to break into publishing, maybe at the point when you are beginning to establish yourself a bit, you’re going to have to give up your life as you know it. Lord writes, “you have to love books, or writers, or both, so much that you put them ahead of almost everything else.” He speaks of long nights reading manuscripts, and in one chapter, he goes through all four of his marriages, each of which ended in some part due to the constraints of his career. Giroux, too, sacrificed much to work with books. He passed on both a fellowship to study at Cambridge and a film critic position at The Nation because he was interviewing for jobs in publishing. Initially, he got none of the jobs for which he interviewed, and it was only after years spent anonymously compiling books while working for CBS’ radio division that he finally got his break, landing a job at Harcourt.

The high barriers to entry and constant competition in the publishing industry result in a culture of negativity. According to Menaker, at least eighty percent of books fail financially. Therefore, you’re more frequently right if you assume that a book is doomed to be pulped, and this certainly impacts levels of enthusiasm. Further, there’s no surefire way to predict success, and the big winners that keep publishers afloat often take off due to “pure randomness.” One might think that having good taste would enable one to determine what would sell. Menaker, though, says that “good taste, no matter how refined it may be, will limit your success as an acquiring editor.” Is Fifty Shades of Grey in good taste? You see what I mean?

img-lord-of-publishing_175614494686All of these men were successful throughout their careers, and it follows that not all of their reflections cast publishing in such a negative light. Many who enter the industry do so with the best of intentions, so it is at least comforting to know the aforementioned pessimism is not permanently ingrained. Giroux was motivated by the possibility of discovering a “literary masterpiece,” and Straus was intent on developing a “full-blown intellectual apparatus.” Menaker talked about the day-to-day upsides of publishing jobs: learning a lot, and working on highly varied projects. Recapping a conversation with a cab driver that seems too convenient to be true, Lord ends his book by explaining how to achieve a rich, fulfilling life, his own life and career in publishing providing the perfect example.

As I acknowledged the implicit biases of Lord, Menaker, Straus and Giroux, I must also acknowledge how my own age shades my perception of the industry. I am young and hopeful. But based on everything I’ve learned while working at Publishing Trendsetter, I believe my hope is well-founded. People are reading on more platforms than ever before, people are writing on more platforms than ever before, and it seems every day readers and writers are connecting in new ways. Despite all the talk of publishing’s Dark Ages, it may just be that the glory days have yet to come.

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