Robin Desser, a young fiction editor at Alfred A. Knopf, used to come into her office every morning and hear the sound of typewriter keys coming from the room next door. The sound reassured her: It meant Ashbel Green was in there working on something.
Mr. Green is 79 years old, and he has been a part of Knopf since 1964, editing somewhere in the neighborhood of 500 books over the course of his long, celebrated career. The Royal brand typewriter Ms. Desser heard from her office has been with him for 20 years, and to this day, his assistant prints out his e-mails because he doesn’t have a computer.
Earlier this fall Knopf announced that Mr. Green, an exemplar of elegance, decency and seriousness that many in publishing say has become rare in the industry, announced that he would be leaving the house at the end of December, retiring from the business after almost 50 years.
In these past few months, Mr. Green has been busy tying up loose ends: Though agents have all but stopped calling him with new proposals, he and his colleagues have had to figure out what to do with the stable of writers who have come to rely on his understated, unobtrusive editing style.
Some of these writers—about 15 in all, primarily people with whom he has developed personal friendships over the years—will remain under Mr. Green’s stewardship, and he will edit their books from home. The rest are being assigned to other editors, most notably a young man named Andrew Miller whom Knopf editor in chief Sonny Mehta hired several months after Mr. Green declared his intention to step down.
The fact that Mr. Mehta hired Mr. Miller is a testament to the instinct and promise the young editor showed during the six years he spent at Vintage, an imprint of Random House that publishes many of Knopf’s hardcovers in paperback. This is not just because Knopf is such a prestigious house, but because it’s a prestigious house that has only seen two new senior editors join its staff in the past 10 years.
Indeed, in an industry where editors and executives seem to pass through one revolving door after another at a dizzying pace, Knopf is known as a place of uncommon stability, its literary standards enduring and uncompromising, and its employees fiercely loyal to Mr. Mehta and the house.
“People at Knopf tend to stick around quite a long time,” said editor at large Gary Fisketjon, speaking from his house in Tennessee. “I’ve been there 17 years and I still feel like I’m on the junior varsity team.”
Before he recruited Mr. Miller, the last time Mr. Mehta brought someone new aboard was in 2000, when Deborah Garrison replaced Harry Ford, the poetry editor who died the year before at the age of 80. Three years before that, Mr. Mehta hired Jordan Pavlin, then 28, who joined Ms. Desser and George Andreou as one of only three editors on staff under 40.
Nowadays, Mr. Miller is the youngest, and at 32, he still looks 21. His intellect is formidable, though, according to his colleagues past and present, and with one major acquisition already under his belt just three months into his tenure—that’s Tiger Hunting, by John Valliant—he is universally acknowledged within Knopf as a rising star.
A dashing, shrewd history enthusiast known for the stellar reader reports that he’d submit to Knopf editors while he was at Vintage, Mr. Miller has intellectual interests that conveniently align with Mr. Green’s—so much so that come January, he will inherit about 15 authors from Mr. Green’s list. As a result, the two men have spent the past three months working together closely from their adjacent offices to ensure a smooth transition.
“A lot of it is just getting in touch with [writers],” Mr. Miller said. “Having someone like Ash leave is a big, big thing, and you don’t want people to feel like they’re going to be cast adrift.”
Among the authors Mr. Miller will inherit from Mr. Green are the historian Max Hastings, Forrest Gump author Winston Groom and Princeton professor Gary Bass. While there are many others, Mr. Miller stressed that he is not taking over Mr. Green’s list in its entirety.
“Some [authors] are going to Jon Segal, some are going to Sonny,” he said. “They’re being spread out all over.”
Mr. Miller declined to say what his salary will be at Knopf, and it would be a mistake to suggest that he is replacing Mr. Green—“he is irreplaceable,” as several Knopf editors put it—but a baton, nevertheless, is most certainly being passed, and training is unmistakably under way.
Last week, for instance, Mr. Green brought Mr. Miller out to dinner with Henry Petrovski, the Duke professor whose new book, The Toothpick, is one of six that Mr. Green edited for Knopf’s fall list.
“I’m just introducing him to people as they come by,” Mr. Green said. “That was the only dinner so far, but we’ve done lunch and there’ll be more to come.”
On Monday, he said, the two of them went out with Edward Tenner, author of Why Things Bite Back, and a few days before that they went to an agent’s office with Mr. Mehta to meet with an author whom Mr. Green could not identify due to a confidentiality agreement.
Preparation of this sort has been going on ever since Mr. Green made his announcement at the end of the summer, and it will continue until his last day*.
“That week I was e-mailing and contacting a fair number of writers,” Mr. Miller said. “There are a couple more months before he goes, but there are a lot of books, a lot of writers to pass along.”
Mr. Andreou, now a senior editor, said Mr. Miller is “apprenticing to the master.”
“I think that this effort to conserve Ash’s legacy speaks to his special status,” he said. “I think that’s why Andrew is working with him in this unusual way.”
“I’m not aware that we’ve ever had an arrangement like this, as far as I know,” Mr. Andreou went on, noting that when he replaced Elizabeth Sifton as senior editor—he was her assistant when she left the imprint in the early 1990’s—he inherited some of her authors, but “not the working capital of a full career.”
“This is a great innovation at Knopf,” Mr. Andreou went on, “because there has, by tradition, been no middle class. We don’t have a ladder. There are assistants and there are senior editors. There’s no means of career development of the kind that one finds in most other places. There’s tradition, and somehow it works for us.”
*This sentence has been corrected from an earlier version.
Follow Leon Neyfakh via RSS.