Blaming Michael Korda


It’s not that I actually blamed MIchel Korda for robbing editors of their power a few columns ago — rather I attributed the former Simon & Schuster editor-in-chief with causing the anti-editor dominoes to start falling in the 1970s.

Korda was the first influential publishing leader to say that editors at mainstream houses should acquire marketing savvy so they’d get out of their ivory towers and stop mumbling about literary values at sales conference. That fatal push into the commercial domain proved their undoing, I felt. Not to mention the loss of literary standards that had once made hardcover books worthy of their price.

But here is a current editor and publisher (quoted last time) and “a longtime former colleague of Korda’s” who writes in his defense:

“Dear Pat.

“… Michael Korda can probably speak for himself, but my understanding of his feelings on the subject was that Michael wanted editors to reign supreme – so they needed a range of talents in marketing and deal making to make sure their dominion wasn’t overtaken by these other functions. So I think his intent was to protect the editorial position, not debase it. Of course I knew him at a later stage in his career. Perhaps his thinking evolved.”

I’m glad to hear this point of view, because it sent me back to Korda’s 1999 memoir, Another Life, in which he notes that “wacky ideas proliferated as share prices rose” as early as 1961. Among them: “instead of editors choosing which books to publish by reading them, ‘sales experts’ would determine the right ‘product mix’ for each list.”

Korda put himself firmly on the editorial side back then, alarmed that publishers, increasingly sold to corporations, dismissed editorial talent in favor of the more business-oriented marketing departments: “As Wall Street beckoned, [publishers] became even more concerned to show that theirs was … a business for grownups, not one dominated by spoiled children in the form of editors and authors.”

Still, I never thought Michael Korda imagined he was “protecting” anybody but rather that he was tossing out a really bad idea in his typically glib fashion. By the 1970s, he was a major voice in publishing and could have fought for his editors. Instead he stripped them of editorial control and encouraged a caving in or pandering to anything that would make a book sell.

Of all people, Korda knew there was a reason editors were kept separate from marketing for more than a century of publishing history. No editor can help to improve the quality of a serious manuscript and its sales appeal at the same time. At some point, something’s got to give, and usually it’s the editorial standard by which books are supposed to be chosen in the first place.

Even by the late ’60s, Korda notes that the head of S&S would shut down skepticism about a book’s commercial success from the sales department by saying, “Are you an editor? No. Just sell the goddamn thing.” Korda loved this especially when it was said about his risky purchase of an unknown University of California book, “The Teachings of Don Juan,” which would become a smasheroo for S&S. Later, when Korda believed “the businessmen were taking over” in the early ’70s, he caved.

An Example

The first time I noticed the direct consequence of Korda’s decision occurred in the early ’80’s. Sitting in the office of a literary agent, I happened to notice a letter from a mainstream publishing house on the agent’s desk. The agent went out of the room for a few minutes, and a breeze from the window turned the letter facing my way (I couldn’t read things upside down then) so I found myself, you know, glancing at it.

Signed by the editor-in-chief, the letter conveyed the following:

“We think we would like to make an offer for your client X’s novel but are alarmed by the news of Uncle Henry’s terminal cancer in Chapter One. It seems to us this announcement will depress readers early in the book and alienate the very audience X is hoping to reach. If X would consider moving Uncle Henry’s news to Chapter 7, we will continue consideration.”

Another paragraph praised the writing and the structure of the novel. Only the matter of moving the cancer diagnosis was at issue. I was horrified. A major publishing house interfering with the author’s decision, not for any literary reason, only for a blatantly commercial one? This is what happens, I thought angrily, when you make editors develop so-called marketing savvy.

The agent returned, and I didn’t even apologize for reading the letter. “I can’t believe this editor would violate the creative process like this!” I said, champion of author’s sensibilities that I was. “The arrogance of it! How you must dread showing this letter to the author. I’m sure he’ll be furious.”

“Are you kidding?” the agent said. “Why, X would sell his grandmother to get an offer from this house. Of course he’ll make the change.”

So I got a little lesson there (they’ve all caved in!), but the point was, the editor never mentioned what kind of damage (if any, I grant you) moving Uncle Henry out of the first chapter might do to the integrity of the book.

I know that editors make far more intrusive demands today. Or they’ll say flat-out that the book is good – even that it deserves to be published – but they can’t make an offer because the house can’t sell it. (The word “sell” was never conceded to be a factor years ago.) Or they do make an offer but are reversed by the ubiquitous “pub board,” a group that’s also dominated by marketing people and concerns.

So I don’t blame Korda per se. But if he was hoping to “protect” editors by encouraging them to think of marketing and editorial concerns at the same time, he only accelerated their eventual demise.