Mr. Silvers, Will You Peek at My Books?

“Occasionally, Bob wanted to know a bit more about a book than was explained in the brief synopsis in the catalog,” said Jon-Jon Goulian, one of Mr. Silvers’ former assistants, in an e-mail. “He would gently press them for more information, and his questions were met with either awkward mumblings or an awkward restatement of the catalog copy or simply a bold, ‘To be honest, I don’t know the answer to that,’ and Bob was always diplomatic about this, never embarrassing them, usually saying something like, ‘Yes, well, one can’t read everything; there just isn’t time,’ and then he would quickly go on to the next book.”

(Though Mr. Silvers declined to comment for this story, he did confirm that he expects a certain level of preparedness from publicists. “It helps to know what’s in the books,” he said.)

Still, despite Mr. Silvers’ forgiving nature, many publicists fear the meetings the same way they feared oral exams back in college—which is to say, they study for them.

“I tried to read as much of the front list as I could, which is hugely daunting,” said one former book publicist, who met with Mr. Silvers regularly for over five years during the 1990’s. “I grilled the editors of the books mercilessly about their content, I looked at all the other presses’ catalogs, I went through back issues of The New York Review. … If we tried to bluff our way through something, he would just look at us really suspiciously. He could always tell. Eventually you’d just have to say, ‘I don’t know.’”

If you could “remotely hold your own with him,” this publicist said, you were doing a good job, because Mr. Silvers is an unparalleled polymath who is not only fascinated by every topic under the sun but usually an expert on it.

“Especially when they were new on the job, [the publicists] were always taken aback at Bob’s interest in the Forthcoming Monographs listed in the back of the catalogue,” said Mr. Goulian. “These were highly specialized works, often former dissertations, primarily intended for scholars, and presumably of little interest to a more general readership. Also, they were often still in the manuscript stage, not due out for many months, little more than a mess of paper on an academic’s desk. ‘Uh, I don’t think you’d be interested in those, Mr. Silvers,’ [the publicist would say. And he’d respond,] ‘On the contrary! Everything is of interest. For instance I see here you have a book coming out on Walter Benjamin, and we have a piece on Benjamin in the works. When can we get it?’”

Often, if he finds a book that relates to a Review assignment in progress, Mr. Silvers takes out a sheet of letterhead, scribbles a note to the writer and has an assistant FedEx the galley with the note. For publicists, this is a great victory, and the mission is considered a success even if ultimately the book sc
ores only a footnote in the eventual piece.

There is good reason for this, considering that The Review—with its astonishing circulation of 137,450—tends to give more space to academic writing than any other popular publication. “The stakes are very high, because you know that getting a review in there will matter a lot to the author, to the editor, to everyone,” said New York Times film critic A. O. Scott, who worked as Mr. Silvers’ assistant for a year in the late 90’s. “It also is a place where the editors genuinely care about the books and understand them. My impression was that it was a high point for [the publicists], but also the most demanding performance that they would probably have to give.”