Donald Lamm Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The Changing World of Publishing: Conversation with Donald S. Lamm, Chair, W.W.Norton Publishing Co., by Harry Kreisler, 2/5/98

Photo by L. Carper

Page 3 of 10

What Does a Publisher Do?

What is the role of the publisher in the book industry?

Well if by "publisher" you mean the head of the house, that is a rapidly changing definition. If you go back to what some of us would call the golden age of publishing, (the 1930s and 1940s, even into the 1920s), it was the publisher and that publisher's taste that really determined the dimension of the list, the nature of the books on the list.

And here you're talking about people like Alfred Knopf, Bennett Cerf, Charles Scribner?

Not so much Charles Scribner because by then that was a firm already two generations, maybe three generations old, and they had a great editor named Maxwell Perkins who probably left more of an imprint on the firm. But yes, you can even go down the names of some of the publishing houses that have survived. Harcourt and Brace were two editors who defected from Henry Holt's firm and founded their own firm. Simon and Schuster were two recent graduates of Columbia University. If I'm permitted, there's a little story I can tell you about Simon and Schuster. They had edited the Columbia newspaper and were otherwise involved in writing projects at the university. So they thought, both of them being fairly well heeled, that it would be fun to start a publishing company. When they set up it was in two small rooms in an office building on 57th Street. And they stayed around long enough that day to wait until the gilt letters were painted on the door, and it said, "Simon & Schuster, Publishers." And then they did what publishers do best, they went to lunch. When they came back, tacked under this newly gilded name was a little note saying, "of what?"

Let's talk about publishing in the sense also of a publishing company. I think you've said in some of your writings that you perform a gatekeeper function, a screening role in this area between the consumer of material and the writer. Tell us a little about that role and the responsibilities that go with it.

Well, essentially a publisher has to deal with one finite fact. You can publish only so many titles in a year and publish them effectively. That number, incidentally, is going down for nearly every publishing house in this country. We, I believe, in the aggregate produced some 57,000 of what we might generally call books ten years ago. Close to that number five years ago. Probably closer to 42,000 now. So one of the things you have to do is ration your enthusiasms. And, as a publisher, you hope to have a band of editors who will complement each other in their tastes, who will not create a firm that is interested in only one kind of book.

In trying to define the state of the mind of the publisher, you refer to, "... an infatuation with books and the people who write them."

Oh dear, did I say that? I confess that that is perhaps an arch way of phrasing the most common response when I interview a candidate to join the firm. The common response to my question about why [a candidate is interested in] publishing is "I love books." Now it is changing, in this age of greed, a little bit. At least initially it is often countered with, "I'm interested in books and I think I can make money publishing them." Then I have to very quickly point out: not bloody likely.

You've also said, "The judgment in publishing ought, in my view, to reflect three factors: taste, intuition, and experience."

Well, I still believe that. I think that if you look at a publisher's catalog you certainly find the latter, experience. Publishers tend to replicate good moments in their history. So if a publisher has had a great deal of success publishing exciting war novels and there still is a demand for war novels, or for a Tom Clancy or a John Grisham, they tend to look for authors who in some way or another carry on in that spirit. So much for experience.

Taste is harder, really, to factor out these days because the role of the individual publisher as taste-maker has been diminished. As you go from one publishing house to another, there is much more commonality between the selections on Publisher A's list and Publisher B's list and so on. Very few publishers have a very clear profile anymore. But still, taste does operate. For example, at Norton we were very much inclined to publish political memoirs. We're not so much inclined anymore but that is a defining element, just as another defining element of Norton that is beginning to fade is publishing works in psychoanalysis and psychiatry for the layman. So there is a change there.

And finally, on the matter of intuition, when I'm really asked how a publisher makes a decision, I do it with a gesture, a finger raised to the wind.

Next page: Changes in Publishing

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