the book publishing industry -- 10/16/23

Today's selection -- from Among Friends: An Illustrated Oral History of American Book Publishing and Bookselling in the 20th Century by Buz Teacher and Janet Bukovinsky Teacher. Major changes in the book publishing industry in post-war America:

“In 1958, nearly a decade before Valley of the Dolls, Simon & Schuster published The Best of Everything, a novel by Rona Jaffe about five young women who worked at a New York publishing house. Jaffe wrote it while she was an assistant editor at Fawcett Publications. The content was shocking for the time as it included affairs with married men, sexual harassment (which didn't have a name back then) and other topics not discussed in mixed company. But it did make publishing seem like an exciting place to work.

“I was raised in England and because my father was a Pan Am pilot I grew up traveling everywhere. Somehow, I was hired at Simon & Schuster in 1966 following my graduation from Barnard. I actually got the job via The New York Times employment section. I saw a classified ad for an entry- level permissions and copyright person, took a typing test and with a made-up resume I was hired by Patricia White.

“Founded in 1925 with one list and no separate imprints, S&S was a place of legends like Franz Werfel (The Song of Bernadette), Peter Freuchen (Adventures in the Arctic), William Shirer (The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich), Al Capp (Li’l Abner) and I could go on. At the office I heard so many stories: how Simon & Schuster aided in the 1933 escape from Germany of Felix Salten, the Austrian author of Bambi and other classic children's titles; how Payton Place author Grace Metalious, who dressed like a lumberjack, was urged by Kitty Messner at S&S to buy something more suitable for her author tour and showed up on the Today show wearing a lavender nightgown; how the file for an author known only as "Anonymous" was lost forever when his editor — the only person who knew his name — quit.

“Reporting to Millie Marmur, I held the new position of copyright and permissions editor: the lowest of the low, which also meant replacing everyone at their desks when they were out. I loved every minute of it and can never thank Pat White— who went on to co-found Rogers, Coleridge and White in London—enough for hiring me, apparently because I didn't want to be an editor. It was a great way to learn the business from the bottom up. One of my tasks was rejecting unsolicited manuscripts. In those days everyone read or at least paid lip service to the slush pile. At S&S, regardless of your entry-level description, you were expected to deal with 10 to 12 manuscripts a week, logging them in, ‘reading’ them, writing a polite rejection letter and returning the ill-fated oeuvre in its own stamped, self-addressed envelope. Another of my tasks was to periodically clean out the contract files to make room for new contracts. I quickly learned that those files were not treasured things. Along with a few other serfs, I had to visit what we called ‘The Submarine’ in the basement of 630 Fifth Avenue, where ‘making room’ meant throwing old contracts in the trash.

“The company was very disorganized, but it was ahead of its time in that many women were already in senior positions and heads of departments, although men dominated editorial, financial and administration. Women handled projects about gardening, cooking, decorating and childcare. The production department was headed by Helen Barrow. Bob Gottlieb was emperor and editor in chief, and we all worshipped him. My salary was $85 a week. I was moving in with a chap and sort of thought I'd get married, but I was promoted rapidly and enjoyed working. In theory it was boring to learn about copyrights and track down authors, but in practice it definitely was not.

"The Sower", Simon & Schuster logo, c. 1961

“One of my first jobs — okay, a bit tedious — was to apply for copyright transfers. I was told on my first day that the only reason to go to the 27th floor (Pocket Books, which had been recently acquired by S&S) from the 28th (S&S) was to visit the mailroom. All the original founders of S&S were gone— see Bob Gottlieb's Avid Reader— but lurking at Pocket Books were many of the company's elders: Herb Alexander, Doc Lewis and others whose names I do not recall. And the capo di tutti capi was Leon Shimkin.

“In those days, renewing copyrights involved major research to find the author or their heirs or estates in order to get official permission in the form of a signature to renew on their behalf. In a nursing home I found an aging sister of Henry Bellamann, author of the 1940 Kings Row (the movie starred Ronald Reagan — ‘Where's the rest of me?’) after months of digging, only to have the rights immediately reverted by the agent, as was his right, but he let the publisher do the work of keeping the copyright valid.

“Another part of my job was to deal with unhappy agents and authors, including Sid (S.J.) Perelman, who of course could never find his books in stores, and Joseph Heller in the days when Catch-22 was raking in the royalties and he always needed an advance from the Dell paperback edition. I had to clear every permission request— usually for high school literature textbooks—with Heller's wondrous agent Candida Donadio. No matter what they offered as a fee, she would instruct me to double or triple it. Candida was the premier agent of her time; in the 1960s she also represented Philip Roth and Thomas Pynchon.

“I left S&S because I was offered a job by Andre Deutsch, the Hungarian-born British publisher, with whom I had been negotiating contracts. All of my family was in England, so I went off for a year. I changed jobs a lot. It was the only way to increase my salary, and I learned so much. I once made a mistake and went to work for a horrendous man who told me to wait to call on people until the week I had PMS when my tits were bigger. That was at Quadrangle Books, the Chicago nonfiction publisher, which had become a subsidiary of The New York Times Company. They had lots of really good people, in particular Carol Southern who went on to do a splendid job at Crown with her own imprint and very serious nonfiction. I also worked at Henry Holt, a company founded in 1866, and at Viking, where I was offered a job by Irv Goodman.

“In my experience, publishing has been both characterized and influenced by change. The grand old guard exemplified by Harper, Lippincott, Holt, Little Brown, Dutton etc. had been roused from torpor in the 1920s and '30s by a group of smart young things who created their own publishing history in the face of what appeared to be a reaction against anything new. They were a colorful bunch and so different from each other editorially: Dick Simon and Max Schuster, Harold Guinzburg (Viking), Alfred and Blanche Knopf, Bennett Cerf and Donald Klopfer at Random House, George Delacorte at Dell. What they must have gone through to get their collective feet in the door! They invented returns, created books out of air (crossword puzzles!) and series such as Viking Portable Library for the World War II military. Editorially they were open to anything and everything. 

“Then came the acquisition of one publisher after another by the likes of RCA (Random House,) Raytheon (Atheneum), Gulf & Western (S&S), Morgan-Grampian (McKay), Musterlin (Phaidon, Universe), Elsevier (Dutton), Robert Maxwell (Macmillan), etc., all convinced that profits would skyrocket once the publishing houses were in the hands of real businessmen with MBAs. (Educational publishers shared this sentiment, hence their inclusion in the partial listing. Mostly those forays didn’t work, and now of course the vest empires such as Bertelsmann pretty much all have actual publishers at the ownership helm. 

“It’s difficult to believe in this day and age, but when I worked at S&S there was actually a kerfuffle over dress code. We didn’t even know there was a dress code, since micro-mini skirts were all the rage and didn’t seem to pose a problem, but the minute women started wearing pants to the office, all hell broke loose, It was 1970 and change was already in the air: 46 female Newsweek employees had just made the cover of their own magazine for filing a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission charging sexual discrimination. So we tried a version of the same tactic. After Bob Gottlieb’s assistant, Toinette Rees, was called to Shimkin’s office, reprimanded and sent home for wearing the first ‘trouser suit’ from England – a very elegant navy knit with a lacy jabot – we decided we would all wear pants on a pre-determined Friday, and we changed company policy."



Buz Teacher, Janet Bukovinsky Teacher


Among Friends: An Illustrated Oral History of American Book Publishing and Bookselling in the 20th Century


Two Trees


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