The Book Editors Who Came in From the Cold

Stop by any publishing party these days, and you could find that the editor you ran into last month is an agent this month. “It’s not a mini-trend,” said Susan Rabiner, an agent and former editorial director. “It’s the future.”

Publishing people tend toward hyperbole, but Ms. Rabiner may not be far off the mark. Why? Because the professional landscape has dramatically tilted. Editors were once indulged as eccentric, bookish creatures with an affinity for language; they are increasingly expected to think like compartmentalized, prosaic … businessmen. Some don’t like the new bottom line, and some wouldn’t know how to start. And sometimes, mergers get in the way of a steady job. In any case, traditional editorial functions–along with traditional editors–are migrating to agencies, which, when independent, make up the last free territory in American publishing.

That region has always lured the independent-minded. After all, anyone with a phone, some self-assertion and a high tolerance for schmooze can be an agent. You could be an agent, and so could your Aunt Mindy. But in the past decade, as publishing companies have merged and merged and the frenzy to sell has submerged what was once thought of as book publishing, the big owners want their properties to perform more like the rest of the entertainment economy: movies, videos, CD’s, software. That means new content is needed all the time–fast.

As the market has increasingly become a seller’s paradise, the designated buyers–editors!–find themselves trapped between the insatiable media conglomerate owners and their own best judgment. So: Sensitive but ambitious editors seeking shelter for their authors and their own instincts are increasingly finding it outside the walls of a publishing house. They set up do-it-yourself little protect-and-package-the-author huts: agencies. They become self-employed protectors of the faith: agents.

Here are the newest settlers on this frontier: Brian DeFiore and Craig Nelson, from Villard Books; Betsy Lerner, from Doubleday; Liza Dawson, from Penguin Putnam; James Fitzgerald and Todd Keithley, from St. Martin’s Press; Ira Silverberg, from indie publisher Grove Press; Mary Ann Naples, from Simon & Schuster; Susan Rabiner, from the former Harper Collins imprint Basic Books; and Elaine Koster, from NAL/Dutton.

It’s a reality that has perhaps found a pure expression in the newly minted DeFiore and Company Author Services, which just opened its doors March 17. Both a literary agency and book development company, DeFiore and Company will eventually have an editorial staff of four. Its founder, Brian DeFiore, 42, spent five years as editor in chief of the Walt Disney Company’s Hyperion publishing division before signing on as Villard’s publisher. In the wake of Bertelsmann A.G.’s takeover of Random House and Mr. DeFiore’s departure, Villard was eviscerated.

At Villard, Brian DeFiore published The Phish Book , by Richard Gehr and Phish, and acquired Good Girl in a Bad Dress , a memoir by LeRoi Jones’ daughter Lisa Jones. At Hyperion, he published Tanya Tucker’s Nickel Dreams ; New York Times television reporter Bill Carter’s Letterman-versus-Leno book, The Late Shift ; Ridley Pearson’s The Pied Piper and the homiletic blockbuster Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff , by Richard Carlson.

Now he’s an agent.

“I’m sure there are people at the heads of most publishing houses who would take offense at this, but I think that these days editorial talent is not something that’s valued,” said Mr. DeFiore. “People are looking much more for marketing talent and bureaucratic talent, for people who know how to cut budgets and work spreadsheets to look good rather than spending money to develop the material, believing in the long run that that’s where the value will be created.” He said he would like DeFiore and Company to do what “amply staffed editorial departments in publishing companies used to be able to do–chase down leads, develop talent, implement book ideas, take risks on things that are a few degrees less than perfect.”

Some editors are impatient with the whines of the apostate agents.

” Où sont les neiges d’antan ?” asked Alfred A. Knopf vice president Gary Fisketjon, who started in the business some 21 years ago. “Where are the snows of yesteryear? Waa waa waa . You make your fun, and that’s always been the truth. It’s a fraught time in publishing, no doubt, but it’s always fraught at one time or the other.” And the creativity complaint? “Bullshit,” he said.

But Mr. Fisketjon happens to work at one of the few remaining editorially driven houses that, though owned by a media giants, allow their editors to rely on gut instincts. “Thank God we’re not representative,” said Mr. Fisketjon. Most editors aren’t so fortunate.

David Gernert, an editor-turned-agent who both represents and edits John Grisham, said he thinks “Brian’s got a great idea. It’s important in this publishing environment for agents to have a bigger role in their clients’ careers because publishers are stretched pretty thin, and one thing you find is that, through no fault of their own, a lot of editors in town have four times as much to do on any given day than they can possibly accomplish.”

There has been some speculation lately about the direction Mr. Gernert’s agency, the Gernert Company, may be taking. In January, he hired Betsy Lerner, who as executive editor at Doubleday edited Elizabeth Wurtzel, Patti Smith and Rosemary Mahoney. She said that “editors who are happy have a modicum of power and control,” then said that “agents seem to have more power and control as things are set up today.” Then she said, “This is the age of Jerry Maguire.”

“You get out of the whole corporate vise,” said Elaine Koster, formerly at NAL/Dutton and now … an agent. “When you’re working for a corporation–the meetings, the budget, the supervising. You can only do the creative work at night and on weekends. You’re constantly gobbled up. I used to call it the rat-a-tat-tat syndrome. When you’re an agent, you can concentrate on the important things, the author, getting the submission, the contract right. The focus you can apply is just magnificent,” said Ms. Koster.

“This speaks to the commercialization of the entire culture,” said New York University media studies professor Mark Crispin Miller. “You can see similar developments throughout the movie world. Publicists, lawyers and agents have attained tremendous power since about 1980. They used to be marginal–although crucial–figures who weren’t in the public eye. Agents are about making deals and stroking people, bluffing and seduction. And editors are rewarded more for closing deals than perfecting manuscripts.

“Today’s editor,” he said, “is already in training to become tomorrow’s literary agent.”

Yesterday’s editor agreed. “The real name of an editor is acquisition editor,” said Ms. Rabiner. “No editor survives by their editorial abilities. They are judged by their ability to find the hot new projects.” Two of Ms. Rabiner’s clients are best-selling authors she once published at Basic Books–Lawrence M. Krauss ( The Physics of ‘Star Trek’ ) and Iris Chang ( The Rape of Nanking ).

The irony, of course, is that, despite the high glamour quotient, “hot” and “new” often flame out before making it to the “backlist,” which is a publisher’s livelihood. (When Bertelsmann bought Random House, it bought a cash-cow backlist that reads like a Who’s Who of 20th-century literature, from William Faulkner to Toni Morrison.) A backlist can generate as much as 80 percent of the annual profits at a general trade house. “So much attention is paid to hotshot editors who have the book du jour,” said publishing consultant Liana Thompson. “What about all those editors who plug away year in and year out to create the programmatic books that are the foundation of the publishing program?”

According to former St. Martin’s Press editor James Fitzgerald, now an agent at the Carol Mann Agency, the long view became a little blurry. “You cannot create within a house anymore,” said Mr. Fitzgerald. “There’s no room to build.” So editors leave. Mr. Fitzgerald told a story about publishing Generation X , by an unknown writer named Douglas Coupland, at St. Martin’s. He paid around $15,000 for the book about twentysomething slackers, and then he and his assistant mailed posters and post cards to anyone they thought might appreciate the book. But before it caught on, St. Martin’s denied Mr. Fitzgerald the right to buy Mr. Coupland’s next book, Shampoo Planet .

“He only wanted 20,000 for his next book, but they didn’t want me to get involved with what they thought was an insignificant author,” said Mr. Fitzgerald. He recalled being told, “You can’t dedicate all your time to one author; you’ve got more authors.” Generation X sold 350,000 copies, and was published in 12 countries, and became a defining document for slackers.

Staying up late stuffing envelopes may not seem like much fun, but for the motivated editor, it beats playing run-and-fetch for marketing and sales departments. “Editors have always had to put together fact sheets about their books,” said Mr. DeFiore, “but these days editors have to revise a fact sheet three or four times during a sales cycle”–six months to a year. So, like an undeserving Sisyphus who cannot get the fact sheet off the desk, an editor goes at it over and over–once for launch meetings, once for presales meetings, once for sales conferences, sometimes for sales calls to big buyers like Barnes & Noble. “I don’t want to be a trafficker,” said Mr. Fitzgerald. “Now I meet the writers and prepare the stuff, edit it, come up with ideas, sit down and have a bull session. It’s more fun.”

“It’s become about the computers and the bookstores,” said Elaine Markson, a longtime agent. “If you’re an editor and you get a new manuscript and say ‘This is wonderful,’ the response is ‘What did he sell last?’ It could be the most wonderful manuscript you’ve ever seen, but the decision to buy becomes what the bookstores say.”

“We live in a moment when editors are the most embattled figures, where we do have to spend more and more time in meeting and keeping the machinery well oiled and running,” said one editor who used to work for the Penguin Putnam Group and now works for another large trade house. “The day-to-day routine is about keeping the paper flowing smoothly. It crowds out editing.”

“Often as an editor, I was stuck between a corporate agenda and wanting to do things on behalf of my authors,” said Mary Ann Naples who worked on commercial fiction and nonfiction, including the West Coast best seller Potatoes Not Prozac , by Kathleen DesMaisons. “It was uncomfortable and demoralizing.” So Ms. Naples recently partnered with former William Morris agent Debra Goldstein to form a literary agency called the Creative Culture Inc. Among her new clients is best-selling author Laurie Beth Jones ( The Path: Creating Your Mission Statement for Work and for Life ) and Peter Love, a new literary thriller writer.

“There’s no long-term thinking anymore,” said agent Ira Silverberg, who as editor in chief of the independent publisher Grove Press did dark, edgy books (William Burroughs) before signing on with Donadio & Olson. “It’s not about the long life of the author, trying to work with an author’s backlist, trying to get course adoption, to get old titles from the back to the front of the store,” Mr. Silverberg said. “They’re investing in books, not authors. We are the continuity. The editors aren’t anymore.”

Mr. Silverberg already boasts a clientele of literati that include the estate of Jacqueline Susann; Dennis Cooper, author of Guide ; Jonathan Coe, whose last novel was The House of Sleep ; Gioia Timpanelli, author of Sometimes the Soul: Two Novellas of Sicily .

Corporate measuring sticks don’t make things much better for today’s editors. “The publishing industry is ever more performance-oriented, and the performance relates rather less to the quality of what one is publishing than to the bottom line,” said Peter Mayer, the former longtime chief executive of Penguin Books, an old-school executive of surpassing sensibility. Mr. Mayer now runs the Overlook Press, an independent house he founded with his father in 1971.

“I know that big industry–and publishing is today a big industry–tries to find ways to measure whether what one is paying some person is coming back to that company in an appropriate way. I don’t think any creative industry can be measured in that way,” said Mr. Mayer. “Publishing is an instinctual business, and that’s basically how you do it. You work with people, you spend time with them, you have a sense that they are doing things in the right way–or not doing things in the right way–acquiring the right books, packaging them in the right way, editing them in the right way. It’s just called spending time with people.”

But time is increasingly at a premium. “Publishing houses are ferociously understaffed,” said Liza Dawson, who worked with commercial writers like Ed McBain and Faye Kellerman before setting up Liza Dawson Associates last summer. “The burden on your average editor is extreme. Most houses have decided they can get along with fewer editors–not do fewer books. When I started out,” she said, “I was doing 12 to 15 books a year. The average editor now edits closer to 24 a year.”

It’s possible that at publicly traded companies–say, Viacom–some editors are making their own misery by shooting for the ever-bigger bonus based on the ever-larger sales numbers. Which means “crashing” books–especially big-ticket celebrity items–before the book is really ready. Everyone may get their bonus, but 1998 smiles turn pretty quick into 1999 frowns when all the unsold, unripe books get returned.

When things don’t work out for an editor, is the place or the person to blame? “Many agents today are editors who didn’t make it,” said Roger Straus, founder of Farrar, Straus & Giroux. “Nowadays, in the corporate culture, it is more important for a person to have an M.B.A. than an M.A. in literature. You’ve got a better chance of getting a job. After all, at the top of the pyramid, editors are in the managerial business.”

That may be, but the climb used to be called “an apprenticeship,” which basically meant that a young bookish type bowed and scraped at the side of an older bookish type for several years while absorbing institutional gossip and learning an impossible trade.

“Publishers used to be in the business of discovering writers, and promoting art,” said Ms. Markson. “They had a responsibility that was a cultural responsibility. The responsibility today is business first. And culture last.” She noted that better salaries could be had in another industry. “I think it would be very hard today to be an editor. I’m fearful for the young that come in and find it unpleasant. To them, she said, she would ask: “If it’s not about art any longer, or culture, or the beautiful things, and it’s only about money, why the hell are you in this business?”