Harold Evans, former president of Random House, was editor in London of The Sunday Times for 14 years where he established the investigative journalism which uncovered the Kim Philby scandal and focused worldwide attention on the plight of the victims of thalidomide. He is the author of several books, including "The American Century."
As a young editor, I was once admonished by the publisher of the company I had just starting working for. It occurred at a marketing meeting where I was describing a book that I planned to publish as "literary." I had always been led to believe that such a word was a compliment, but the publisher informed me that such a term was negative, that no one read literary books, and that I had already sentenced the book to a dismal fate from which there could be no reprieve. In the end, the book did just fine, but the experience underscored the enormous hurdles that an editor confronts in publishing books that might stand the test of time.
In fact, one of the most glaring misconceptions that saddles the American publishing industry today is the nomenclature that separates "literary" from "commercial" books. Like the corporate executives who guide the movie business, too many publishing heads concentrate their financial resources on so-called commercial properties--thrillers, celebrity books, how-to guides--at the expense of quality fiction and nonfiction. Yet my experience as a book editor for 22 years has largely shown that this path may be far less profitable than its alternative.
When dealing with matters of aesthetic taste or artistic creation, no management consultant, marketer or corporate honcho can accurately predict what might ignite the word-of-mouth momentum that propels a book onto the bestseller charts. And with the vast diminution of the traditional role of the editor, sales and marketing executives have increasingly come to believe that they can harnass the growth of book consumption, perhaps as reliably as Starkist or Bumble Bee can chart tuna consumption. But books cannot be confused with cans of tuna, and the errant belief that literary taste can be homogenized to appeal to the lowest common denominator can only exacerbate the perilous financial condition of so many publishing houses.
Just as independent films produced by serious filmakers have earned profits beyond their initial expectations, so too have supposedly "small," eloquently written books by intellectuals (as nasty a term as "liberals" these days), literary novelists or scientists, for both big and small companies alike. Consider the success of such unlikely bestsellers as "The Perfect Storm," "Longitude" and "The Red Tent"--books that were all bought with modest advances and launched with middling print runs. The fact that eloquently written, original books can still, despite all obstacles, spring onto the bestseller lists, reflects the unique power of the writer to say something profound, the vision of an editor, and the inextinguishable demand of the public for works of enduring quality.
Ironically, I do not feel that we have diverged that far from the 19th century when "properties" written by "literary" writers, like Dickens, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, were who run American publishing houses, we must once and for all banish the errant notion that "commercial books" are, in fact, the only path to commercial success.
Robert Weil is executive editor of W.W. Norton, an independent employee-owned publishing house. Among the authors he has worked with are Roger Shattuck, Peter Gay, John Bayley, Robert Conquest and the late Henry Roth.
While the changes in this business have forced everyone who works in it to make adjustments, there has been no loss of the love for a good story. Readers want to gain something from the books they curl up with; they want their investment of time to go beyond entertainment. They want to take something away from their experience. Books need to be substance disguised as product. Books need to reach out to readers, to teach them, to provide entertainment within the structure of a strong narrative, especially in the world of nonfiction.