‘Publishing can be a bitter war’


Robert B. Silvers at the National Book Critics Circle Awards, 2012. Photograph by David Shankbone.

From Harper’s:

Publishing can be a bitter war between editors who love books and businessmen who love only money—but if you are lucky, it should not be.

If you could peer into the minds of the stockholders and senior partners who ultimately control publishing policy, you could probably make—as Hiram Haydn recently did—a rough division into three groups: (1) those who are willing to publish little more than “titillating rubbish” in order to clear a high and sure profit; (2) those who publish only books which meet their very high standards of taste—usually (although not inevitably) at considerable loss of their wealthy family’s capital; and (3) that large group of publishers who like to think of themselves as practicing the honorable profession of profitably publishing decent books for a variety of audiences, including some work of real distinction.

You’ll soon be aware of the jolly hypocrisy, the fat-mindedness and the belief-in-one’s-own bookjackets that can abound in the upper levels of the publishing business; but in fact while most of the leading publishers do publish for profit ‘each year a number of books which they wouldn’t boast about at parties, they are, to their credit, often willing to issue several books of poetry each year at a loss; to take long risks on writers they—or their senior editors—believe are talented; to put out books on public questions as a public service. And when such books succeed they are pleased indeed. They would be glad to publish more, and to concentrate more attention on them, if ways could be found to sell more of them to more people.

“Letter to a Young Man About to Enter Publishing”, Robert Silvers, Harper’s