Daniel Menaker, “longtime book editor,” has shared a paean in Slate “In praise of the publishers who move units and readers.” And after the “15 years I was at Random House, almost five of them as editor-in-chief,” he’s naturally in a position to know whereof he speaks. Intimately. Cosily.
Among many objections that Menaker has to the zeitgeist is the opinion Barry Eisler, who told the Guardian that the signatories of the Authors United letter to Amazon were in “the top 1 percent” who “have no interest at all in improving publishing for everyone. Only in preserving it for themselves.” Menaker insists that “This is simply not true.” Isn’t it? Sounds to me like Eisler nailed it.
And he makes great (word) play about a business that aims to “move not units, but people.” He declares that: “In my judgment, there are between 20 and 30 editors and publishers in New York who—along with experienced and discriminating publicists, marketers, and sales reps—have over the decades regularly and successfully combined art and commerce and, in the process, have supported and promulgated art. They are in fact the main curators of our life of letters. They have somehow survived the grinding—tectonic—friction between creativity and business and made a go of both. They are cultural heroes, actually.”
Maybe there are. But by the way, why New York? Is that because the Big Apple has earned its rep all too well of being a company town for a small group of industries, high finance being one and publishing another? Because the Noo Yawk Shitty publishing culture is as incestuous and self-protective as Hollywood Babylon?
“It’s not incumbent on those who defend the publishing industry/business/art and book reviewers to justify the gatekeeping services they perform, however imperfectly,” Menaker concludes. “It’s incumbent on those who want to fire the gatekeepers and tear down the very gates themselves to explain what, if anything, will replace them.”
Unfortunately for Menaker, you can legitimately object that the onus is on the Big Five to justify themselves. If they are such a healthy cultural force, why are they forming price-fixing rings with Apple? If they support creativity, why are they sustaining terms that mean they get richer authors get poorer? Why is Menaker’s own former employer sustaining the writer-abuse mill that is Author Solutions? (And remember that as well as exploiting authors, Author Solutions also typifies just about every vice in self-publishing that Menaker protests against.) And why do Penguin Random House and its Big Five peers continue to turn out abysmal dreck? Many small and independent publishers do not, agreed, and produce exactly the kind of well-curated lists that distinguish their heritage. But the Big Five?
One thing that really does alarm me about this whole article is that I see a lot of defense of publishing and its culture and business model, but I don’t see anything about editing. And as a writer, I would always welcome the contribution of a good literary editor, who can go through a manuscript with an objective eye and turn a good book into a great one. Many literary reputations have been built on astute editing, and often the best service an editing or publishing gatekeeper can do for an author is to paint the targets on the backs of their darlings so the author knows what to spike. But Menaker doesn’t allude to it at all. Pity. Because otherwise, the silver tongues of Mordor’s minions are as ready as ever to defend the Black Gates.