It is a well-worn tradition at Knopf: a top editor or executive decides to leave or is eased out of a senior position but remains at the company in a new role, which tends to be narrower in scope and less demanding but is as distinguished as an honorary doctorate. Late late year, for instance, longtime nonfiction editor Ash Green, who’d been with Knopf since 1964, retired but retained about a dozen authors from his roster whom he meant to edit from home. Before him, longtime Knopf editor in chief Robert Gottlieb (who is this paper’s dance critic) was similarly made an editor at large, a position he still holds today.
On Monday morning, Vintage Anchor editor in chief Marty Asher, a diminutive 63-year-old Jewish man with silver hair who favors tweed coats and is said to carry himself with a Socratic demeanor, joined that circle of veterans. An announcement sent to his colleagues Monday said that, effective immediately, Mr. Asher would be stepping down as editor in chief of the paperback powerhouse after 21 years. From now on, the announcement said, Mr. Asher would spend his time leisurely acquiring and editing hardcovers for Knopf, the prestigious adult trade imprint from which Vintage Anchor draws many of its titles. (Mr. Asher, incidentally, was already working on one or two titles per year for Knopf– his acquisitions include Dan Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness and Sam Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation.)
It was news and it wasn’t: Mr. Asher, known for publishing iconic paperback editions of novels by Cormac McCarthy, Richard Ford, Haruki Murakami, Nicholson Baker and Philip Roth, had not been to work in several months, and had basically handed control of the imprint over to his number two, LuAnn Walther, and his protégé Ed Kastenmeier. Still, the announcement-which came directly from Knopf chairman Sonny Mehta by way of a staff– wide memo-brought to a close a foggy four-month period during which industry insiders who caught wind of Mr. Asher’s absence wondered what was behind it and when he would return. Even people within Random House-indeed, even people within Vintage Anchor itself– did not know for sure why Mr. Asher was not at work or whether he was planning on coming back.
The mystery surrounding Mr. Asher’s future at Vintage Anchor was not publicly addressed at the office, but insofar as there was a party line, it was that he was on sabbatical as part of a program Random House instituted a few years ago whereby employees are allowed, in addition to their normal vacation time, a month’s paid leave for every 10 years that they spend with the company.
Mr. Asher started at the house in 1987, when he was hired by Mr. Mehta, who had just been given jurisdiction over Vintage by Random House’s then-CEO, Bob Bernstein. Vintage had been part of Random House’s flagship division. At that time, the imprint was run by Carolyn Reidy, now the president of Simon & Schuster, but she fled her position not long after hearing that Mr. Mehta was going to be her new boss. That was when Mr. Mehta hired Mr. Asher, who had been having great success running the lucrative Book-of-the-Month Club.
Mr. Asher went on to have an enviable two-decade-plus run as editor in chief, during which he and his publisher, Anne Messitte, managed to quadruple Vintage’s profits. When Bertelsmann, the parent company of Bantam Dell Doubleday, acquired Random House in 1998, Mr. Asher’s oversight expanded to include Anchor, a rival paperback house, and the joint company came to be called Vintage Anchor.
Mr. Asher first went on sabbatical in February. Around this time, one of his two assistants left her job to pursue a Fulbright scholarship in Argentina. At first, an attempt was made to find a replacement, and résumés were gathered. But shortly thereafter, sometime before the monthlong sabbatical drew to a close, Mr. Asher’s wife fell ill and had to undergo major back surgery. She would require intensive rehabilitation, and Mr. Asher delayed his return in order to take care of her. The search for a new assistant was put on hold.
Ms. Walther, meanwhile, took on additional editorial duties and pretty soon was running the imprint as a de facto editor in chief. Within the Knopf group, Mr. Asher’s absence was discussed, but only in whispers. Some were under the impression that Ms. Walther was there to stay, and others, including Mr. Asher’s assistant (the one who did not go on a Fulbright), did not know what was going to happen or whether the changes in leadership enacted since February were temporary or permanent.
That might be because there was nothing to know. Though some within Knopf may have jumped to conclusions a few months back, Pub Crawl could find no evidence to suggest that Mr. Asher himself knew what he was going to do with his career until a few weeks ago. He discussed a few possible arrangements with Mr. Mehta over the course of several conversations, and it is unknown whether coming back as editor in chief– that is, picking up where he left off instead of changing his job description– was among them.
By last week, Mr. Asher had definitely decided to leave Vintage, and Knopf publicity director Paul Bogaards asked him over the phone to compose a public statement addressing his choice. Mr. Bogaards got two sentences out of the press-shy Mr. Asher: "I will miss the day-to-day interaction with my Vintage Anchor family. At the same time, I am thrilled to be working with the best hardcover team in publishing." Mr. Bogaards passed on the comments to reporters on Monday.
It’s unclear what, if anything, will change about the way Vintage Anchor is run or the books it produces now that Ms. Walther is officially in charge as editorial director. One change already in effect, however, is that unlike Mr. Asher, who reported directly to Mr. Mehta, Ms. Walther is reporting to the publisher, Ms. Messitte. In light of this, it seems likely that Ms. Messitte, who served alongside Mr. Asher as publisher for more than a decade, could enjoy more control over the imprint than she did when Mr. Asher was around.
Jason Epstein, who founded Vintage in 1953, was stunned by Mr. Asher’s resignation on Monday. "It’s a real blow to Random House," he said. "It’s a real loss, I think. He was one of a kind. It’s a hard thing to keep that list up, to keep it interesting. And he did it. He’s a very even-tempered guy. He never gets excited-he does his work and goes home. He was just what you wanted."
Ecco publisher Dan Halpern, meanwhile, said in an e-mail that Mr. Asher is "one of the true visionaries in our business." He added: "His taste and intuition to find books that matter is not unlike the abilities of Tiger Woods on a good day, reading the green to find the true path on the 18th hole to the waiting drop."
Neither Mr. Asher, Ms. Messitte, nor Ms. Walther responded to repeated requests for comment.