Letter to a Young Man About to Enter Publishing
On Monday, Robert Silvers, a founder of the New York Review of Books, died at 87. Before creating the Review, Silvers worked as an editor for Harper's Magazine, where, in 1959, he edited a collection of essays called "Writing in America." This work was originally published anonymously, but has since been attributed to Silvers.
On Monday, Robert Silvers, a founder of the New York Review of Books, died at 87. Before creating the Review, Silvers worked as an editor for Harper’s Magazine, where, in 1959, he edited a collection of essays called “Writing in America.” The work below, “Letter to a Young Man About to Enter Publishing,” was originally published anonymously, but has since been attributed to Silvers.
You want to go into publishing because you love good books and would like to help produce them. Fine. You are entering an extremely intricate business whose ways will take you years to learn. I can only outline for you some of our present confusion.
Perhaps the first thing you should know about is the curious attitude of the American reader. There are plenty of experts around who will prove to you that he doesn’t like to spend much money on good books; that he would rather have bad books when he buys at all; that he prefers sporting equipment, drive-in movies, and television to either. For instance, Mr. Edward Weeks in the Atlantic Monthly:
If I had to guess I should say that there are about one million discriminating readers in this country today and what disturbs me as an editor is that this number has not increased with the population; it has not increased appreciably since 1920. What has increased is the public appetite for comic books, for murder mysteries, for sex, for sadism.
If you want some statistics, here are some from that excellent source, the London Economist:
Even before television, Americans had not acquired the habit of reading good books. It has been estimated that since 1946, spending on books and maps has declined from 15 to only 10 per cent of total outlays on recreation.
If you are not convinced, here is an even blacker view. It comes from Mr. John Unterecker, an English instructor at Columbia who recently examined the publishing business for John Wain’s Literary Annual:
The average American spends almost precisely the same amount of money on household stationery as he does on books. In 1956, the average man spent five times as much on radio, television, musical instruments, and records as he did on books and more than twice as much on “non-durable toys.” …
The American by and large prefers to books his daily newspaper which he reads quite carefully, picture magazines such as Life and Look which can reach respectively an adult audience of 32,100,000 and 27,000,000, and the Reader’s Digest which is read each month by 34,950,000 Americans over ten years of age.
The typical American regards reading as work and prefers in his free hours to be distracted by entertainments which range from hell-fire revival meetings through professional sports contests, to drive-in motion pictures, and for winter nights, television and radio. …
If typical Americans regard reading as work, the publishers have at least some idea of the untypical who regard it as a pleasure. As Mr. Dan Lacy of the American Book Publishers Council recently put it:
The basic nature of the trade-book audience is well known; it is largely urban; somewhat more women than men buy books; a dominant proportion of the rending public is in the higher professional and economic brackets; perhaps about 2 per cent of the people account for a vital percentage of trade-book purchases.
Who is to blame? Mr. Unterecker thinks, and not unreasonably, that some of the fault lies with the public schools who make literature “dull, difficult, and painful—dull, because it is made available only if it is harmless or has been rendered harmless by unmerciful bowdlerizing; difficult and painful because the student reads so little that he never really learns to read at all.” In four years of English, he points out, the normal high-school student is required to read no more than a dozen books; and these are too seldom taught in a way that will outmatch the appeal of the omnipresent comic books or the Mickey Spillane mysteries that pass around the locker-rooms.
It would seem, wouldn’t it, that you are headed for the wrong business? Perhaps you’d best go over to the personnel department at CBS. In fact, however, the publishing business has not been quite so bad as Mr. Unterecker might lead you to think. The men who run the publishing companies tend to complain about their troubles together but you may well find them doing it at their large country houses in the hills of Westchester or while touring rather grandly through the Italian hill towns.
It is only fair to say, however, that you can’t expect such opulence yourself for a long while, if at all. As a matter of fact, you’ll often find that a good deal of it was acquired when taxes were low and that somewhere in the background lies an inheritance or a family business more profitable than publishing. And frankly, it wouldn’t hurt a bit if you had something of the sort in your own background. The American publishing industry, as the Economist recently commented, “still treats editorial positions rather like lieutenancies in an eighteenth-century army.”
One reason it can is that there seem to be plenty of bright young men like yourself with MA’s in English literature—or, simply, friends and relatives in publishing houses—who are willing to start work at about eighty dollars a week. I know of a young editor at a respected and profitable old house who put in an intensive first year during which he read hundreds of manuscripts, lured several promising young author friends to his publisher’s list, and supervised the publication of books in which his bosses had invested hundreds of thousands of dollars. Finally he was able to report to his wife that he’d been given a raise—to $90.50 a week.
It is not surprising that young editors, reading surveys like Mr. Unterecker’s, scraping along on less income than the waiters who serve up their expense-account lunches, brood and wonder if publishers are supposed to turn a profit at all. At first glance it seems impossible. The fact is—and it is one of the least understood facts of the trade—that the average hard-cover book published in this country doesn’t sell enough copies to repay the publisher’s investment in it. In its recent survey of the American book industry, the London Economist noted that “The publisher who sells three to four thousand copies of a book is fortunate if he recovers his out-of-pocket costs even on a relatively expensive book. … And the chart of a publisher’s sales is likely to show a plateau at or below the 4,000 mark.” Furthermore the publisher’s production costs—for paper, printing, and overhead—have doubled since 1940, but the prices of books have risen less than 70 per cent.
Strategy for Survival
What must the publisher do to survive? He has, you’ll find, several strategies which, if shrewdly followed, can make publishing profitable.
(1) He tries to find and promote books which will leap beyond the average and have large sales. If he succeeds it can make an enormous difference to his company: St. Martin’s Press, one of the smaller New York houses, was able nearly to triple its income the year it published a best seller called Anatomy of a Murder. But forecasting the public appeal of a book is a fearfully tricky thing to do, especially if it is a more or less serious book for the general reader by an author not widely known. It was perhaps not difficult for the publishers to predict that ’Twixt Twelve and Twenty, the “helpful talks to teenagers” by Mr. Pat Boone, would be a national best seller. But most publishers were surprised by the extraordinary sales of Lolita and Dr. Zhivago; and, just recently, Jacques Barzun’s House of Intellect, published in a modest first printing, became an immediate best seller. (Publishers, you’ll find, are more often surprised than they let on.)
Look at some of the explanations reported to Publishers’ Weekly this year for good book sales: Among the “greatest single helps” in selling their books, publishers mentioned ads and reviews in the New York Times; “publicity on such TV shows as ‘Today’’’; “merchandising kits” and “display racks” and circulars mailed directly to readers. One publisher said: “The best sales aid continues to be an intelligent reviewer in a strong medium—however there are fewer and fewer intelligent reviews in strong and weak media.” All of these publishers could well have been right, and yet each of the “helps” has often failed dismally, sometimes at great cost. Word-of-mouth recommendations by readers who have read the books undoubtedly play a crucial role and publishers continually puzzle over how they can get people to talk about their books.
But the fact is that the publishers know far too little about American readers and they have much less direct contact with them than they should. Other industries, richer and more concentrated, have worked out elaborate techniques (a) for sampling the public’s desires, (b) for effective advertising in many media, and (c) for merchandising in stores. The hard-cover publishing industry is weak in all three departments, especially the last. It is split up among hundreds of competing publishers who must operate at a low margin and have small budgets for advertising and research; it must distribute chiefly through a few thousand widely scattered and frequently inefficient bookstores which serve far too few people.
Depressingly enough, there were more bookstores operating in the U. S. in the late 19th century than there are today, although the population has more than doubled. A publisher’s secret estimate of the number of bookstores which stock a strong representation of the lists of the major publishers and do a reasonable job of selling might go as high as 300; probably it will be nearer 100, including the comparatively well-run chains of stores owned by Doubleday and Brentano. Of course publishers sympathize with the genteel book-lovers who set up small stores with inadequate capital in hopeless locations. But too often the whole situation results in a costly overproduction of books people don’t sec, know about, or want to buy. Overproduction is one of the publisher’s nightmares—another is the number of readers who walk the streets and might buy all kinds of books if only they passed a good bookstore; but they don’t.
In the last few years some of the trade publishers have been trying both to teach the retail trade to sell effectively and also to get in closer touch with the public itself by mailing circulars listing books to potential readers. These and other rather complex efforts by publishers to be businesslike seem mildly promising—although the trade has yet to come to grips with the shortage of good outlets. My point is: if you can’t work up interest in these questions, you’d better stay away from publishing. If you don’t learn’ a good deal about the problems of those who must design, advertise, and sell the books, everybody suffers, especially the author.
Temptation for the Mediocre
(2) Whatever his luck in bookstores, the publisher can still hope to sell his books to one of the large book clubs, sharing the royalties equally with the author. (The clubs generally rent the original plates and print their own editions.) Over five million people are obliged by their club membership to buy several books through the mail each year. In 1958 they bought 64.8 million books—more than twice the 28.2 million adult books sold in bookstores and by direct mail. Without their proceeds from book clubs—and also from sale of reprint rights which I’ll discuss later—most publishers of general books could not survive.
By far the largest of the clubs is the Reader’s Digest Condensed Book Club which has some two and a half million members and has been known to guarantee as much as $100,000 in royalties against future sales of a condensed book (which appears with several others in a one-volume edition). The Book-of-the-Month Club (with nearly 500,000 members) and the Literary Guild (about 600,000 members) can each regularly guarantee $20,000 to $40,000 against expected sales—no small sum in the publishing business. After these “Big Three,” the dozens of hook clubs decline in size and potential sales; nevertheless, publishers of highbrow books are very grateful for selection by the small Reader’s Subscription, which can sell three or four thousand copies of a book and retrieve its costs.
The Economist estimates that, in general, “the quality of the book-club selections sticks dismally close to the lowest common denominator.” Certainly this charge does not apply to a number of the smaller clubs like the Reader’s Subscription, the Mid-Century Book Society, and the History Book Club, or to the more fortunate choices of the Book-of-the-Month Club; but most editors would agree privately that it is true for too many selections of the big clubs. These have brought much money to the’ publishers but they have not made up for the shortage of good bookstores; instead they have, in general, circulated a very limited selection of mediocre books to very large numbers of people.
(3) One of the best—and least compromising—publishing strategies is to develop a profitable backlist of books which will keep selling from year to year. As the Economist puts it:
Every publisher cherishes his staples; his Bibles, his dictionaries, his cookery books. Between 12,000 and 13,000 books are brought out each year but the annual catalogue of books in print has almost ten times as many listings … the backlist accounts for half the annual business of the industry and it provides some publishers with as much as three-quarters of their business.
There is no telling what kind of book may keep selling over the years: medieval histories and apparently obscure novels may do far better than books which were best sellers in their day. Fresh from the university, you should be aware of two especially important staples: textbooks and juvenile books. The publishing industry knows its demography; it has delighted in putting out millions of textbooks for the large numbers of children born during the war and postwar years, some of whom are now entering college. And contrary to all predictions, the dreary fantasy of television seems to have driven many small children back to books instead of away from them forever. The juvenile book business is thriving (a classic like Dutton’s The World of Pooh sold some 200,000 copies last year) and, although they may not advertise the fact, several of the most distinguished New York publishers depend heavily on juveniles for their profits. It is even conceivable—or so the publishers pray—that the children will survive both puberty and their high-school education and go on reading when they grow up.
I’ll say no more about these traditional ways of turning a publishing dollar—or about the other fundamentals of the business I’ve not mentioned: movie and television rights (which are not very valuable), libraries, agents, mysteries, mail order, and remainder houses, to name a few. Each involves a complicated commercial world in which you’ll probably have to find your way, and I wish you luck. Instead, I’d ask you to consider a fourth strategy publishers use to make money, which, I suggest, is one of the most important for you to think about—the Paperback Phenomenon.
The Lurid and the Excellent
In 1958, 258 million paperback books for adults were sold as compared with 28.2 million hard-cover adult “trade books”—i.e. books of general interest sold in bookstores (as distinguished from texts, technical works, etc.). Most of the paperbacks were reprints from hard-cover books and the royalties, split equally between the original publisher and the author, were an important source of income to both. As the decline in the sales of hard-cover novels over the last ten years makes clear, the public now prefers its fiction in paperbacks; when considering a work of fiction by an unknown author, the publisher must usually reckon on losing money if he cannot arrange a reprint—or a book-club—sale. But, beyond that, the enormous predominance of paperback over hard-cover sales has been forcing hard-cover publishers to reconsider many of their old assumptions: How important are hard covers on books?
Certainly many publishers and writers on American culture have scarcely known what to make of the Paperback Phenomenon. Mr. Weeks, for instance, acknowledges that the general level of paperbacks has improved since the days when the racks were crowded with “lurid, large-bosomed beauties” but it seems to him “regrettable after one hundred years of public education that we have produced such a demand for the lowest common denominator of emotionalism.” On the other hand, Mr. Peter Drucker, the well known business consultant and expert on the American future, recently said of paperbacks that there had been a “great shift in their public market and content: history, foreign affairs, art, and religion are rapidly becoming staples.”
If Mr. Drucker and Mr. Weeks seem to disagree, don’t let it bother you; it is just the sort of dispute about worthiness that one finds in the publishing business. Neither of these busy men, I suspect, has actually counted down the list of more than 6,000 paperbacks and ticked off the good, innocuous, and bad, and neither have I. Nor, incidentally, has our old friend Mr. Unterecker, but he does have something to say about the Paperback Phenomenon which you should consider carefully:
America now has 1,200 bookstores selling [a representative selection of] hard-cover books. But in the last twenty years paperback booksellers have increased in number from several dozen to, early in 1958, just under 100,000. These 100,000 outlets—newsstands, soda fountains, department stores, bus and railroad terminals—make it possible for the publishers to print immense editions. Not all these editions are of good books (7,277,000 copies Of Grace Metalious’s sex-larded Peyton Place are now in print) but many of the paperbacks are excellent.
And more important, good, bad, and indifferent, the soft-cover books are gradually swinging the non-reading American into the habit of reading. Because he feels, I think for the first time, that the book is somehow not sacred. Literature, that terrible and dull thing which he had been forced in high school to read far too slowly and which he had been made to respect as something a little out of his reach, becomes, on a drugstore display rack, almost as attractive in its garish, enticing cover as Life, Look, or Reader’s Digest. And because it costs very little more than those publications it becomes … something that can be used and thrown away. If he doesn’t respect literature, he often discovers—to his surprise—that he likes it.
Books consequently which no one in his right mind would have considered publishing in editions of over 3,000 copies in hard covers suddenly, as paperbacks, find a [large] audience.
It is this new audience for books and its developing reading habits, therefore, which seem to me ultimately responsible for some of the growing trends in American writing and publishing. No writer or publisher can now ignore this audience and everybody is feeling out rather carefully its interests.
Mr. Unterecker is rather more optimistic this lime and I think he is right to be, although, as you note, he does not go into the fascinating (if not frightening) question of how well many of these books, especially the “excellent” ones are read. And unfortunately he does not go on and discuss the significant differences between Cheap and Quality Paperbacks:
Cheap paperbacks sold from those ubiquitous wire display racks, are published mainly by some half-dozen large, independent reprint houses (New American Library, Bantam, Pocket, Fawcett, Dell, etc.). The average first printing of the books is about 150,000–175,000 copies, and the royalty on a 25-cent book will start at a penny and mount along with sales. Wartime editions for servicemen helped to establish the format and create the public appeal for these books; until the early ’fifties, nine out of ten were fiction, and although some excellent titles got into print the business relied on a hard core of Westerns, mysteries, and sexy thrillers. Since then a clean-up movement has taken place and although the hard core is still there, some of the paperback publishers have found that the classics, modern psychology, anthropology, reprints of good novels, and innocuous light books can at least compete profitably with the tortured blondes. But if they have been converted to the classics and to the salability of Freud, Jane Austen, Ruth Benedict, and Salinger, they are still slow to put out recent books, especially non-fiction. For the present, at least, sales of cheap paperbacks seem to have reached a plateau of about 250 million a year.
Quality paperbacks are an altogether different story. They were introduced in America as recently as 1953 by a young man at Doubleday and Company, the largest hard-bound publisher of all. Incorporating some of the features of the
English “Penguins,” he issued a line of firmly bound, nicely covered, paperbacked reprints called Anchor Books which were published for about a dollar in printings of about 20,000 at a royalty of 6 to 7½ per cent, and were supposed to appeal to college students and their teachers, in particular, and to eggheads in general. Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station, David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd, and A. E. Taylor’s Socrates were some of the first titles, and the trend has been for the books La be more specialized and abstruse, rather than less.
Doubleday was able to draw on its own large stock of titles for some of the Anchor Books, but for others they bought the rights from competing publishers. The publishing trade soon observed that the books were selling out in the college bookstores. Within two years a half-dozen New York publishers had entered the field with Anchor-like editions of their own and today there are literally dozens of quality paperback imprints which have issued some 2,000 titles; last year their sales reached some eight million copies—far less than the 28.2 million hard-cover trade books sold to adults but impressive considering that six years ago none were sold at all, and that demand is steadily increasing.
Cohen at Versailles
The quality paperback boom has proved much more durable than many publishers had thought—some of the original skeptics have now introduced lines of their own. At small colleges the books have in effect made possible the sale of general books where only textbooks were once sold, while at Harvard the average student is buying twenty paperbacks a year. Many young people seem to have become impatient with hard-cover books; at Columbia the bookstore clerks found that the paperbound edition of a book of scientific philosophy was outselling the hardbound edition four to one, at the same price. Increasingly the books are moving off campuses into big-city outlets and even into some of the magazine stands that carry cheap paperbacks. The publishers are aware that the current college generation is becoming used to quality paperbacks. Nevertheless they tend to worry. The field is crowded: they remember that after the war the cheap paperback field included imprints such as Eagle Books, Pony Books, and Bart House which are long extinct. And they wonder how many highbrow books of history, art, philosophy, science, religion, etc. are left which will be suitable for wide distribution. No doubt it is admirable that Rudolph Carnap’s difficult Meaning and Necessity (Phoenix) and Maud Bodkin’s Archetypal Patterns in Poetry (Vintage) are now available to the student at low prices; but what, the publishers arc wondering, lies beyond Carnap and Bodkin? How will it all end?
The most striking suggestion of how it might all end carne last spring in a speech delivered to a group of publishers by Arthur A. Cohen, the founder and president of Meridian Books, a company which publishes mainly quality paperbacks, over 140 of them, including Jung, E. M. Forster, Baudelaire, Robert M. Hutchins, and Mary McCarthy.
“The thesis to which I will address myself,” Cohen began, “is that paperbound publishing seems destined to obliterate cloth trade publishing as we presently know it.”
In saying this to the hard-cover publishers, Cohen was somewhat in the position of a Jacobin announcing his program on the steps of Versailles; the argument he made in this speech and in subsequent memos is too long to quote to you in full but it deserves your attention.
The great trouble with the quality paperbacks, Cohen said, is that the publishers were seduced by the success of the original Anchor Books formula and assumed there must be some necessary connection between scholarly books of profound—not to say ponderous—significance and the quality paperback binding. In recent years the formula has become harder and harder to follow: “The mediocre book is now made to masquerade as definitive; it has become increasingly common for a minor work by a major author to be advertised in reverse—the name large and the title small.”
And for Cohen this has been a great mistake. Far from being limited to the original highbrow formula, he thinks that the quality paperback format presents an opportunity to publish many kinds of books, at low prices, for very diverse audiences. The potential buyers of new novels, biographies, and other popular books, have, he points out, just as much difficulty buying hardcover books on their salaries as do the students, teachers, artists, and intellectuals who have bought so many scholarly and “difficult” quality paperbacks.
The quality paperbacks, Cohen insists, are not tied to subject matter. The important things about them are these: Their production is simpler and cheaper; they have more outlets: the accounting, processing, shipping, merchandising involved in their publication all lend themselves to money-saving mechanization; and the capital and time saved allowed for the development of a “more imaginative editorial program.”
Certainly a number of publishers are now edging away from the original Anchor formula: Viking’s Compass Books and Grosset’s Universal Library are reprinting some modern novels and popular books. Macmillan is launching a poet’s series; Anchor and Harper’s Torchbooks are introducing extensive programs of publishing in the sciences; Grove’s Evergreen—which has already published many excellent works of modern fiction in paperbacks—will do a series on contemporary art; Cohen’s firm will soon issue “Meridian Fiction”—“reprints directed at those who think there is something between Spillane and Lermontov”—as well as a history text series and a paperback magazine edited by Saul Bellow.
But the question still remains whether new books of general interest can be published originally in paperbacks. Since the difference between the cost of producing a quality paperback book and a hard-cover book is small, it is often necessary to sell three or four times as many paperback books in order to make a profit at the lower price. How can so many unfamiliar paperback titles be sold—competing as they must with reprints of famous books—without the benefit both of advertising and the displays and helpful salesmen one finds in bookstores? And with a price so low and sales so unsure how can the publisher provide the author with a decent royalty, or his book with effective promotion?
These and other questions have made many old-line publishers—some of whom have large investments in their hard-cover inventories—very doubtful of Cohen’s vision of the future. As of now, they point alit, it would be impossible to launch profitably most serious new books in paperbacks alone. Ami they note that attempts to put out new books in both hard covers and paper have not been highly successful.
But Cohen is confident that distribution and production of the books will improve—that answers can be worked out. In not much longer than a decade, he thinks, “most if not all popular fiction will appear in higher-priced paper covers.”
Something new will be devised [he wrote recently]. ‘There will be a shake-up and a shaking out; staid and tired publishers will succumb or merge; new publishers will rise and new techniques of communicating cheaply will be explored. The demise of anything ineffective, cumbersome, and unprofitable can only be a boon—particularly when our ability to communicate is at stake.
Whatever the outcome of this controversy, it seems to me a healthy one because, in one way or another, it might lead to a wider and more profitable distribution of good books. In any case, it brings me to a final point: Publishing can be a bitter war between editors who love books and businessmen who love only money—but if you are lucky, it should not be.
If you could peer into the minds of the stockholders and senior partners who ultimately control publishing policy, you could probably make—as Hiram Haydn recently did—a rough division into three groups: (1) those who are willing to publish little more than “titillating rubbish” in order to clear a high and sure profit; (2) those who publish only books which meet their very high standards of taste—usually (although not inevitably) at considerable loss of their wealthy family’s capital; and (3) that large group of publishers who like to think of themselves as practicing the honorable profession of profitably publishing decent books for a variety of audiences, including some work of real distinction.
You’ll soon be aware of the jolly hypocrisy, the fat-mindedness and the belief-in-one’s-own bookjackets that can abound in the upper levels of the publishing business; but in fact while most of the leading publishers do publish for profit ‘each year a number of books which they wouldn’t boast about at parties, they are, to their credit, often willing to issue several books of poetry each year at a loss; to take long risks on writers they—or their senior editors—believe are talented; to put out books on public questions as a public service. And when such books succeed they are pleased indeed. They would be glad to publish more, and to concentrate more attention on them, if ways could be found to sell more of them to more people.
As I’ve tried to suggest to you, the ways that now exist to diffuse books in this swiftly changing, rich, and increasingly educated society are laggard and far from ideal; the challenge to you now is not only to pursue excellence—although that is certainly the most exciting part of the publishing business—but to find better ways to give excellence a wider and more profitable chance to be known.
Subscribe to Harper’s Magazine to read “Writing in America.“