For my birthday a few months ago, Tom kindly gave me a copy of My Mistake by Daniel Menaker. The book is a memoir. Menaker, now in his 70s, worked at The New Yorker as a fact-checker, a copy-editor and then as fiction editor for 26 years, before, as he describes it, being palmed off by editor Tina Brown to her husband, Harry Evans, who was then running Random House US. He worked in book publishing for the next 13 years, mainly at Random House, acquiring and publishing literary poetry, fiction and non-fiction books, by Joe Klein, Billy Collins, Nassim Taleb, Scott Spencer, Elizabeth Strout, Siddhartha Mukherjee and Colum McCann among others. He is a writer of fiction as well as other non-fiction himself.
I really enjoyed the whole book, which manages to be self-deprecating while making it clear that the author knows what epiphenomenalism is, and that the correct spelling of a key evolutionary biologist’s name is “Dobzhansky” rather than “Dobzhinsky”… and that such knowledge is important. It’s witty and sad and ultimately rather joyful. There were a lot of people mentioned in it that I didn’t know of, and it’s very much a book by someone who’s a literary America insider, but I, for one, didn’t find that a problem. I particularly enjoyed his insights into and his perspective on the business of corporate publishing of the kind he was engaged in at Random House.
There are several sections that I could have used as examples. There’s a conversation explaining the arithmetic of acquisition that was awfully like one I have had many times – in fact, here’s a version of the same sort of stuff, but from our own, rather than a corporate, perspective. But the section – with omitted parts marked by ellipses just so that it more or less fits our blog post format – that I asked the author for permission to quote (permission he kindly gave) was this one:
“Oh, publishing! Publishing is an often incredibly frustrating culture. And a negative one. If you are an acquiring editor and want to buy a project – let’s say a nonfiction proposal for a book about the history of Sicily – some of your colleagues may support you, but others will say, ‘The proposal is too dry’ or ‘Cletis Trebuchet did a book for Grendel Books five year ago about Sardinia and it sold, like, eight copies’ or, airily, ‘I don’t think many people want to read about little islands.’
Three streams feed this broad river of negativity. Most trade books don’t succeed financially. Three out of four fail to earn back their advances. Or four out of five, as I think I said somewhere back there, or six out of seven, depending on what source you consult. Some books that do show a profit show a profit so small that it only minimally darkens a company’s red ink.
This circumstance in turn increases the usual business safety strategy of self-protective guardedness. You’re more likely to be ‘right’ if you express doubts about a proposal’s or a manuscript’s prospects than if you support it with enthusiasm. And, finally, the inevitable competitiveness among acquisitions editors will incline them to cast a cold and sometimes larcenous eye on others’ projects.
Those three acquisition-time negativities are only the beginning of the negativities that editors must face. Barnes & Noble doesn’t like the title. The author’s uncle Joe doesn’t like the jacket. The writer doesn’t like the page layout and design. The publisher tells you that the flap copy for a book about a serial killer is too ‘down’. The hardcover doesn’t sell well enough for the company to put out a paperback. The book has to wait a list or two to get printed. […] The New York Times isn’t going to review the book.
And so on.
If you work in the Editorial Department of a publisher, you usually don’t know much about what goes on in Sales. That is, you can love a book you’re working on, all your colleagues can – maybe uncharacteristically – share your admiration, your boss can talk the book up in marketing and sales meetings, but you don’t know what sales reps say about that book when they make their sales calls. I’ve always suspected that salespeople’s and wholesale buyers’ biases and preferences play a greater part in a book’s fortune than most editorial people want to allow themselves to understand. Reps and buyers are subject to their own ‘results’ pressures, after all.
Further, genuine literary discernment is often a liability in editors. And it should be – at least when it is unaccompanied by a broader, more popular sensibility it should be. When you are trying to acquire books that hundreds of thousands of people will buy, read, and like, you have to have some of the eclectic and demotic taste of the reading public. […] It’s not enough for you to be willing to publish The Long Sad Summer of Our Hot Forsaken Love by Lachryma Duct, or Nuke Iran, and I Mean Now! by Generalissimo Macho Picchu. You have to actually like them, or somehow make yourself like them, or at least make yourself believe that you like them, in order to see them through the publishing process.
To make matters worse, financial success in front-list publishing is very often random, but the media conglomerates that run most publishing houses act as if it were not. Yes, you may be able to count on a new novel by Surething Jones becoming a big bestseller. But the bestseller lists paint nothing remotely like the full financial picture of any publication. Because that picture’s most important color of commerce is the size of the advance. The second most important color is the general level of book buying. I’d bet that the volume sales of, say, the number 6 hardcover book on the New York Times fiction bestseller list in 2013 is, partly but not entirely owing to the advent of ebooks, significantly lower than the volume of the number 6 bestseller five years ago.
It is my strong impression that most of the really profitable books for most publishers still come from the mid-list – ‘surprise’ big hits bought with small or medium advances […]. Somehow, by luck or word of mouth, these books navigate round the rocks and reefs upon which most of their fleet – even sturdy vessels – founder. This is an old story but one that media giants have not yet heard, or at least not heeded, or so it seems.
Because let’s say you publish a fluky blockbuster about rhino-viruses in Renaissance Italy, The Da Vinci Cold, one year. The corporations will see a spike in your profits and […] automatically raise the profit goal for your division for some corporately predetermined amount for the following year. (The sequel to or second book after that blockbuster will usually command an advance so large as to dim a publisher’s profit hopes for it.) This is close to clinically insane institutional behaviour and breeds desperation rather than pride and confidence in the people who work for you.”
You can order My Mistake online here, or, if you’re in the US, here.