“The real money in books was going to be made not by writing or publishing but by buying and selling the publishing companies themselves.” Thus Michael Korda writes in his new memoir, Another Life, about a deal that to him signaled a major turning point in the history of the American book business. It happened almost forty years ago, in 1960, when Alfred A. Knopf decided to sell his company to Random House. But the scale of that transaction is tiny compared with today’s deals, in both publishing and bookselling. The headlines of the past few weeks about the aborted attempt by Barnes & Noble (the nation’s largest book retailer) to purchase the Ingram Book Group (the nation’s largest book distributor) in a $600 million offering, and the German firm Bertelsmann’s announcement of reorganization as it begins to merge Bantam Doubleday Dell and Random House (it acquired the latter last year), have made this very clear. Such is the world of modern publishing, and such is the backdrop against which to read Korda’s book.
Korda, Simon & Schuster’s editor in chief for an astonishingly long-lived thirty years, would tell you that to understand the evolution of book publishing in this century, it doesn’t hurt to have read The Great Gatsby. Not because of the novel’s intrinsic quality, staying power or backlist profitability; not because it featured in the marketing hype for the Modern Library’s “100 best novels” of the century list; not even because the trajectory of the novel’s publisher, Scribner–from family ownership to merger with Atheneum to purchase by Macmillan to present incarnation as Simon & Schuster literary boutique–follows a typical pattern.
No, a perusal of Another Life, which is a gossipy, knowing and highly entertaining account of Korda’s decades in publishing, sends you back to Fitzgerald because he reminds you that so many who have shaped the industry were in essence Gatsby-like: larger than life, with big ambition and bigger dreams, whose primary means of attaining them was to reinvent themselves and reinvent the business along the way. In the early years of this century, these were largely young, well-educated sons of self-made men, Jews who could not break into the WASP gentlemen’s club that was book publishing then. Instead, they turned their backs on the establishment and founded their own.
Think Alfred Knopf and his indefatigable partner-wife Blanche; Bennett Cerf and Donald Klopfer (Random House); Harold Guinzburg (Viking); Horace Liveright (his eponymous firm, long defunct, originated the Modern Library, among many other innovations); Dick Simon and Max Schuster.
Although it may seem hard to believe now, what was truly revolutionary was, first, that these publishers didn’t wait around for books to come to them but actively ventured into the world to seek them out; and second, having bought a book, they then devoted a great deal of energy to figuring out how to sell it and make it “news.” By extension, they marketed their companies and themselves and often achieved a kind of celebrity in the process, which became increasingly useful in selling their books.
To those ends, Knopf’s father, an advertising man who was the first person to import a Rolls-Royce into America after World War I, schooled his son in creating an extraordinary public persona. Liveright spent lavishly on advertising and cultivated Broadway and Hollywood connections. Cerf became a television personality in the medium’s early days.
And Simon & Schuster, who obviously figure larger in this account than any of the other modern progenitors, understood that a book didn’t have to be a novel or a biography or a mystery or anything traditional at all. Instead, it could teach you to play bridge or how to do your taxes or–as was their very first publication–be a compilation of crossword puzzles with a pencil attached, and sell in huge numbers. Of Max Schuster, Korda writes: “Max understood, as very few people in publishing have, the power of simple ideas. Nobody was ever better at inventing books that filled a need…[books] born from Max’s passionate belief that you could learn anything, change anything, help yourself ahead in any way merely by reading the right book.”