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.