Sitting in his small, light-filled office, Robert Weil, W.W. Norton executive editor and newly appointed editor-in-chief and publishing director of Norton's recently revived Liveright & Company imprint, offers a quick list of what he believes a good editor needs to do. "A good editor has to be self-starting; a good editor has to be self-reliant; a good editor has to produce revenue—the editor has to provide the vehicle for other departments to come onboard."
By any measure, Weil is not only a good editor but a great one. While his books and authors can range wildly from country-western singer Merle Haggard to multiple works by scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr.—Weil even published a book called Knitting with Dog Hair—he is best known for publishing serious works of literature and history and making money doing so. Whether it's African-American, Asian, or French history, genetics, literary criticism, biology, fiction, politics, or philosophy, Weil seems to have edited a critically acclaimed—and commercially successful—book in the category. He's had at least 12 books on the New York Times bestseller list (among them R. Crumb's The Book of Genesis Illustrated, The Hemingses of Monticello by Annette Gordon-Reed, and Elegy for Iris by John Bayley); his 1990 Route 66: The Mother Road by Michael Wallis has sold more than 500,000 copies, and the Annotated Alice and Annotated Sherlock Holmes have each sold well over 100,000 copies in their combined editions.
Pointing to works of history and cultural criticism like last year's Charlie Chan by Yunte Huang, which examines the history of the eponymous character, or the just published Paris to the Past, Ina Caro's history of French architecture (via 25 train trips), Weil said he uses publishing to learn more about the subject. "I do things that interest me. Every book is a kind of graduate course for me," he said. But it's a love of music, he quickly added, that guides his overall approach and informs his love of editing books. "My biggest inspiration for editing comes from my love of music and opera," he said, "the sound of language and the structure of language: it's all in the ear, in the melodies of words."
Not surprising. For the most part Weil's authors make up a literary all-star band. In addition to Gordon-Reed's 2009 National Book Award winner, The Hemingses, Weil has published six NBA winners and three NBA finalists. He's published 16 Pulitzer Prize winners (Michael Dirda, N. Scott Momaday, and Tina Rosenberg among them); seven Bancroft history prize winners; seven MacArthur fellowship winners, and the list goes on.
He scrambled to find a profession after graduating from Yale and considered teaching high school history. "I had no pedigree for book publishing," Weil told PW. But he got a job as an editorial assistant at Time Books in 1978 and said to himself, "I can do this, I love this." Two and half years later he moved to the now defunct Omni magazine, where he launched a book division, and packaged and agented a line of about 60 science books to publishers before moving to St. Martin's Press in 1988. He was hired by St. Martin's legendary president, Tom McCormack, after a four-hour interview. Despite St. Martin's reputation as a "commercial" house, Weil said that he had no problem publishing serious fiction (Henry Roth and Isaac Babel) and serious nonfiction (Roger Shattuck and NBA finalist Henry Mayer), including novelist and literary critic Bayley's memoir of his wife, Iris Murdoch, later made into an Oscar-winning film.
"You can't typecast a house," Weil said. "You had to do a lot of books. Tom taught you that publishing is a business, but there were no hierarchies there, and they let you do weird things."