Editors: The New Disenfranchised

By Richard Curtis

Many of the pieces published in this column originally appeared in the 1980s or 1990s but have undergone revision to make them timely for today's reader. When I selected this 23-year-old essay I considered updating it, but as I reread it I was struck by its relevance to today's conditions. I've therefore decided to present it as originally published.

Just one background note. Up until the mid-1980s, hardcover publishers usually sold reprint rights to outside paperback publishers. But when both hardcover and paperback houses realized the advantages of merging the two formats under one roof, there was a spate of mergers and acquisitions, laying the foundation for the "hard-soft" publication deal that is the backbone of almost all book acquisitions today.

I've always liked editors but I never used to feel sorry for them. That changed when the acquisition of Doubleday was announced.

Until then, whenever I heard that a publisher had been acquired by some sprawling conglomerate, or merged with another publisher, or had simply given up the ghost and shut its doors, my first thought had always been, This is bad for authors. The displacement, the disruption, the disarray caused by these corporate earthquakes have been nothing short of calamitous. The publishing landscape of the past thirty-five years is littered with ruined books beyond counting and haunted by the shades of authors whose careers have been maimed and prematurely terminated.

But in the tumultuous last week of September 1986, when deals were concluded for the acquisition of Doubleday and New American Library, my first thought was, How terrible this all must be for editors. I spoke to a great many of them after the deals were announced, and I can assure you that few were not anxious and disturbed, if not downright scared. It had finally dawned on editors everywhere that there was no longer any such thing as job security at a publishing company.

What happened to Doubleday was a harbinger of things to come, for, as long as most publishing people could remember, the firm had symbolized bedrock stability— - a fortress impervious to the corporate wars that left almost none of her sister-houses unaltered. If anything, Doubleday had bolstered its foundations some years before with the acquisition of Dell Publishing Company, a major paperback house. After the acquisition, the shadow of change darkened the desks of everyone who worked in publishing, and anxiety lurked in every corridor. "Every time my boss buzzes," one editor told me, "I say to myself, 'That's it. They're letting my department go.'" This constant knot in the stomach exists for workers in every area of publishing, including sales, marketing, accounting, publicity, and art.

That the deals were good for the buyers and sellers, few observers question, although there are some aspects that could tarnish the splendor of the prizes. Doubleday's book division had been losing money for some years, owing in good measure (in my opinion at least) to its failure to adjust to the revolutionary change in the nature of our business that made the so-called hard-soft publishers the predominant beasts in the jungle. Indeed, one of the few divisions of Doubleday that was operating in the black, other than the New York Mets baseball team (which they subsequently shed), was Delacorte Press, which had always acquired hardcover and paperback rights together. At the time of the acquisition, Doubleday seldom, if ever, acquired books for its Dell paperback line. Nor did it bend in its rigid refusal to give authors a greater share of paperback reprint revenue than the traditional fifty-fifty split, something that other hardcover houses had yielded to in order to gain competitive parity when bidding for properties against hard-soft houses.

Bertelsmann, the German publishing group that acquired Doubleday, also owns Bantam Books, which controls the largest share of the paperback market of any American publisher. The addition of Dell potentially eliminated one competitor from the already shrunken list of paperback firms, and swelled Bantam's market share to a size that some observers thought might attract the attention of Justice Department trustbusters. It didn't, however: monopoly in publishing doesn't yet seem to be very interesting to our government. But a lot of Dell editors braced for pink slips. "I've got my résumés out," one editor told me. "When the other shoe drops, I'll be ready."

If you stood back and simply admired the deal, Viking Penguin's acquisition of New American Library was an excellent one all around. A few years before, Viking had united with England's paperback giant Penguin in order to give both companies stronger hard-soft capability in the United States. But Penguin lacked entry into the critical wholesale paperback market. And so, New American Library, which had been bought by an investment group a few years earlier, was seen as a perfect place for Penguin to enter that market. And Viking would, it was thought, be able to play hard-soft ball in the major leagues.

Ten years later, Penguin's parent company, Pearson Ltd., acquired the Putnam and Berkley groups, and though (at this writing) the various imprints are functioning separately from one another, anyone who has worked in publishing in the last decades of the twentieth century has seen what happens when corporate executives look at their holdings and ask, "Why do we need four companies competing for the same books? Let's eliminate some of them." And poof! Another competitor gone, and more editors canned while the Justice Department sleeps.

Job anxiety had infected the thinking of editors throughout the history of postwar publishing. But because many of you may be too young to have lived through the turmoil of acquisitions, mergers, overhaulings, phaseouts, reorganizations, disassemblies, and absorptions, or for those in the publishing business who are too close to daily affairs to step back and see the carnage through a panoramic lens, let me recite a partial roll call of companies that are no more, or are now just divisions or imprints of the companies that consumed them.

Appleton-Century-Crofts (a division of Prentice-Hall)
Prentice-Hall (acquired by Simon & Schuster)
Simon & Schuster (acquired by Viacom Corporation)
Atheneum (acquired by Charles Scribner)
Charles Scribner (acquired by Macmillan)
Macmillan (acquired by Simon & Schuster)
Little, Brown (acquired by Time Inc.)
Warner Paperback (merged with Little, Brown)
Avon Books (acquired by the Hearst Corporation)
Arbor House (acquired by the Hearst Corporation)
Fawcett Books (acquired by Ballantine Books)
Ballantine Books (acquired by Random House)
Times Books (acquired by Random House)
Pantheon Press (acquired by Random House)
Alfred A. Knopf (acquired by Random House)
Random House (acquired from RCA by the Newhouse
Bantam Books (acquired by the Bertelsmann Group)
Doubleday (acquired by the Bertelsmann Group)
Dell Books (acquired by the Bertelsmann Group)
Basic Books (acquired by Harper & Row, then deacquisitioned)
Crowell (acquired by Harper & Row)
Abelard-Schuman (acquired by Harper & Row)
Harper & Row (acquired by Rupert Murdoch's NewsAmerica
Playboy Press (acquired by Berkley Books)
Ace Books (acquired by Grosset & Dunlap)
Grosset & Dunlap (acquired by Berkley Books)
Berkley Books (acquired by G. P. Putnam's)
G. P. Putnam's (acquired by MCA, sold to Matsushita, then to
Seagram, then to Pearson Ltd.)
Pyramid Books (acquired by Harcourt Brace, renamed Jove)
Jove (acquired by Berkley)
Coward-McCann-Geoghegan (acquired by Putnam, then dissolved)
Dial Press (acquired by Dell, sold to Dutton)
Dutton (acquired by Elsevier, sold to JSD, sold to NAL)
NAL (sold by Times-Mirror to Odyssey Group, resold to Viking,
merged with Penguin)
Rawson, Wade (acquired by Macmillan)
Silhouette Books (acquired by Harlequin from Simon & Schuster)

This partial list is drawn from a thumb-through of Literary Market Place, the publishing industry's directory, and I could certainly go on and on. Taken as a whole, the list represents a pattern of seismic instability so severe that if I were an editor today I would strap myself into my chair just to get some work done.

Publishing is a social enterprise that calls for a large degree of organization, hierarchy, and interdependency, and so, by the very nature of what they do, editors are corporate creatures. It stands to reason, then, that the more attention an editor must devote to matters corporate instead of editorial, the weaker will be his or her attachment to books and authors. The emergence of the superpublisher in our century, a corporate entity whose goals only incidentally have anything to do with the quality of literature and the well-being of authors, has impinged to a greater and greater extent on the time, energy, thought, and care that editors are able to give over to books and those who write them, and as you will infer from the list above, the last couple of decades have raised the level of distraction to critical mass.

The most obvious, as well as detrimental, manifestation of this shift of editors' attention is job-hopping. As their love of books and authors is battered by all the firings and hirings, reorganizations, streamlinings, office politics, shuffling of responsibilities, and the buying and selling of the companies they work for, editors feel fewer compunctions about accepting job offers from other publishers. It's hard to feel company loyalty when corporate logos change with the frequency of automobile styles. Low wages have always prevailed in the editorial profession, but higher pay is not in itself a compelling lure for an editor contemplating a move to another company, unless it is coupled with a promise of greater job satisfaction. But if an editor is not getting such satisfaction, he's going to think a lot about his salary. It behooves us to think about how a $35,000 a year editor must feel when he listens to the complaints of authors making many times that amount. "Few of my authors make less money than I do," an editor told me, "and none makes less than my assistant."

The vicious cycle is accelerated as more and more editors, looking out for Number One, jump to other publishers or leave publishing altogether for more lucrative, satisfying, and stable jobs. Even those remaining in publishing find themselves burdened with corporate responsibilities that take them away from what they love most dearly to do - acquire and edit books. Thus, the industry eventually becomes bereft of dedicated editors, and the vacuum is too often filled by people who are more adept at playing corporate games than at developing writers.

In turn, such people place more and more emphasis on buying winners instead of breeding them: acquisition without cultivation. Less and less attention is paid to developing writers; instead, everyone asks how much it will cost to buy and sell them. The publisher that proves itself most capable of acquiring will become the most successful. But the price is dear: When authors are deprived of the time to grow, creativity will be snuffed out. It's as true of literature as it is of agriculture or forestry.

The cycle spins yet faster and higher as other publishers try to emulate the successful ones. Abandoning the philosophy, the tradition, the taste and judgment, and the people that got them where they were, these houses join the chase to try to capture frontlist hits. Even when they snag them, however, they lose a little bit more of their character if not their soul.

The soul of a publishing company is its editors, and when a publishing company alters its fundamental attitudes about books and authors, the sensibilities of its editors must, of necessity, change as well. With promotions and increased corporate responsibilities comes loss of contact with the intimate places in an author's heart where literature is born.

The rest of the editorial staff, as well as the staffs of the other departments that fuel publishing companies, carry on as best they can in the midst of this furious turbulence, but they do so in a constant state of apprehension. How difficult it must be to concentrate, to plan, to pay attention to the work at hand, when upheaval is only one announcement (or even one rumor) away.
Editors today have more in common with authors than they do with the publishing companies that employ them. Both are disenfranchised, and both have become fodder for the relentless march of the takeover.

Post-script: In 1998, as I was reviewing the proofs for the book in which this essay appeared, it was announced that Bertelsmann, owner of Bantam-Doubleday-Dell, had acquired Random House, a company that embraces Alfred A. Knopf, Ballantine Books, Crown Publishers, Del Rey Books, Fawcett Books, Pantheon Press, Schocken Books, Times Books, Villard House and several other publishers.

That was over ten years ago, and the list of mergers and acquisitions since then is easily as long as the one above. And so is the list of the disenfranchised.

This article was originally written for Locus, The Newspaper of the Science Fiction Field. It's reprinted in This Business of Publishing: An Insider's View of Current Trends and Tactics Copyright © 1998 by Richard Curtis. All Rights Reserved.
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  1. thanks, Richard. obviously I'm linking to this.

  2. Hi Richard,
    Well, the more things change, the more they stay the same. It is amazing to me that you could take an article from so long ago and print it as if you wrote it yesterday. Sigh. As an author, I hope that the publishing industry finds a way to be more supportive of both the author and the editors (and the agents, of course!) who make their existence possible. As a reader, I hope that they continue to put out books that I want to read, rather than just the "safe" blockbusters by established authors. Thanks for sharing this.
    Deborah Blaje (Mindy's pal)

  3. Er, that would be Deborah BLAKE. Sigh again. Anyone want to represent an author who can't spell her own name? Sign up here...

    What can I say--it's Friday:-)