I've been in the book business for 35 years, although until recently I didn't know it. I thought I was a writer. Of late, editors, publishers, literary agents and booksellers have set me straight.
This is how it all began:
In the early 1950s, working at the New York Times as a copy boy, I began my first novel, and it was accepted for publication by G. P. Putnam's Sons. I received an advance of $1,000--I was thrilled. Ted Purdy, the editor-in-chief, took me to lunch at the Yale Club. He said: "We believe in bringing a writer along slowly, book by book. You keep writing what you think is right for you. We'll keep publishing it. Don't worry about sales and money. They'll come to you--and us, we hope--over the years."
The Yale Club was a properly austere place to voice such thoughts. I was inspired but not surprised, for at Cornell I had studied under Vladimir Nabokov and sat at the feet of Dylan Thomas when he visited to read his poetry and bed the stray coeds. I knew what a noble calling I had chosen.
Blushing, I muttered appropriate vows and shook Ted Purdy's hand. He was my editor and Putnam my publisher, I believed, in the same way that Maxwell Perkins and Scribner's had been for Hemingway and Fitzgerald. I was part of a grand tradition. Like every young writer, all I wanted was to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Thirty-five years down the road, there's still a way to go. And the grand tradition is now exemplified by the following letter of rejection, sent this past summer by the vice president of a major publishing house to the agent of an old friend I will call Mr. X:
"It is with abject apologies that I am writing now regarding Mr. X. . . . He has written such a beautifully executed and highly original novel--and such a terribly difficult one to sell in these absurd times.
"I can see this garnering magnificent reviews and no sales because . . . it has become so difficult to generate a sales momentum on quality fiction. I think this is the kind of book that deserves to be important on someone's list . . . I would love to know who the clever editor and the smart house are who buy this."
How did we get from Ted Purdy's fine cadences in the Yale Club to "these absurd times"? (And why do the times always get blamed for the attitudes of those who inhabit them?)
It didn't quite work out with me and Putnam. Walter Minton, the publisher, brought out my youthful novel with a bright bold note on the front cover that said: "Guaranteed to please you--or exchange for another book." Thrilled no more, I had words with Walter. Putnam became my ex-publisher.
I still wanted to recapture the dream and stay with my theoretical latter-day Max Perkins and Scribner's, but the editors wouldn't cooperate. They kept moving to other publishers in a quest for more exciting stock options.
With my third novel, I wound up at McGraw-Hill under the editorial wing of a Cornell chum, Bob Gutwillig, but he soon left for a better deal at a paperback publisher. He was replaced by Frank Taylor, a literate man that I grew to love; but he left too. I stayed on against the current, as it turned out, for writers were peripatetic in the '60s too, hunting for higher advances and better paperback-royalty participation.
Around that time, literary agents clawed their way to positions of new influence and power. Swifty Lazar, a Beverly Hills-based agent, set the trend with a book by Irving Wallace; Swifty conducted what I believe was the first significant big-bucks book auction among hardback publishers.
In the following years, such auctions, and the multiple submissions that usually preceded them, became de rigueur. One heard, for the first time, the phrase: "a six-figure floor." We writers and our agents salivated. We didn't grasp what was to follow.
Conglomerates began buying trade-book publishing houses, although authors and editors never could figure out why; we knew how ridiculous these small companies were as modern business enterprises, for these were the days of the three-martini lunch and that special relationship between publishers and semi-destitute authors desperate to finish their next books.
Indeed, in 1967, after my New York apartment and most of a manuscript about the Six-Day War burned to ashes on a winter night, I hurried to lunch with Frank Taylor, stuttered and finally begged, "Can Mother McGraw advance me another $5,000?" The sub-rights editor soon complained in a memo to Frank, "He's treating us like a bank!" Frank replied, "I think that's acceptable in our profession," and later said to me, "Publishing is still struggling to find a way into the 20th Century, for which we can all be grateful."
He was fired soon afterward. Disgruntled, I opened myself up to a fantasy named Howard Hughes, and we needn't go into that again.