Scholastic Executive Editor David Levithan was about to join some young colleagues at the photo shoot for this piece when he was asked why the dress code seemed to be more formal than at a previous gathering. "Because this time," replied Levithan with a playful grin, "our bosses will see us."
The comment, issued on behalf of a generation of publishing editors that's rife with creativity even as it can be constrained by corporate hierarchies, spoke volumes. This is the first generation of editors produced by the potentially hamstringing forces of media saturation and corporate consolidation--yet is also the first to harvest the benefits of a robust digital culture and a post-merger list diversity.
Young talent is, of course, a force as old as the book industry itself. But over the last several years, a new layer has emerged, forged by the unprecedented change precipitated by mergers, like that of Penguin and Putnam. The rise of the superhouse has meant that editors must more than ever be corporate creatures, working within a system of constant financial evaluation and departmental bureaucracy. Yet the conglomerated house also allows younger editors opportunities that wouldn't have made it into the dreams of an earlier generation: Major League Baseball--type money for acquisitions; a mandate to experiment; and marketing and support staff so deep it may be larger than Bennett Cerf's entire Random House.
Add to this social changes like Nobrow culture and the commodification of the hip and you have the makings of a generational shift. Call them Gen Oprah: the first editors to grow up in an era when a big media splash is a virtual necessity but who hold on to the belief that a book's true measure lies between its jackets. They're sharp, idealistic and bookish but also consumer-minded, media-savvy and intensely aware that quality matters only if it's read. "For younger editors, the literary culture is less all-encompassing," said Riverhead senior editor Sean McDonald. "And so there's a different sense of the cultural space we have to fight for."
Seven years ago, PW sat down with "Publishing's Bold Apprentices," a group we deemed bound for prominence. Those men and women were, in a sense, pioneers. They were the first to break through publishing's historical clubbiness, the first to shred the traditional insulation from pop culture and the first to fully embrace their mission as the mixing of the editorially persuasive with the commercially profitable.
Now, with those dynamos deeper into their 30s and 40s (and--possibly--wiser for it; see Turk Reunion sidebar), our next group of editors, all 35 or younger and nearly all coming of age after the biggest phase of consolidation, find themselves facing more complexity than their predecessors--and with greater means to untangle it. For every instance, say, of added competition to acquire an established author, there's a new source from which to mine an undiscovered one.
With this in mind, we set out to find some of the young crop's finest. The intent was for something representative rather than exhaustive; of course for every editor here, there are many other young talents working alongside them.
We convened our group of ten in a bar in downtown Manhattan and asked them to speak informally about everything from the future of reading to the state of their careers. In the conversation (below), and in interviews afterward, they spoke of the dual but not contradictory roles of the new generation: of being editors and marketers, eagle eyes and shrewd saleshands, author champions and budget lobbyists.
It's axiomatic in today's post-consolidation climate that editors' lives are more commonly filled with the trappings of business. (See page 32 for veterans' take on these changes.) Editors involvement in P&Ls has long become common, while editors consult with the marketing department at all points in the publishing process, even before a book is signed.
But less documented is how these previously noneditorial corridors have become part of the path to creative publishing. The Turks' profiles suggest that consumer culture has attracted, and perhaps created, a new type of editor: one who hopes to understand not only how Americans read but why they buy. One young editor who asked not to be identified described "a kind of tension" with older editors in meetings when the conversation bent in this direction; another, Viking senior editor Molly Stern, said, "We need to think a lot more" about areas like what red states want to read, even if it makes editors vulnerable to the criticism that they're merely following the market.
"The business of culture has become so much more about the wisdom of how things go from the margins to the mainstream," said Crown senior editor Chris Jackson. "We're wrong as much as we're right, but we're thinking about it more. Young editors today are more like publishers." In the words of Little, Brown editor in chief Geoff Shandler, "You have to fight for a book or it will die."
Jackson would know about being right: he published Boondocks creator Aaron McGruder, the comics artist who became a political sensation before most in New York ever heard of him. Jackson also worked with Russell Simmons, who has made a career out of studying (or mining) crossover phenomena and the retailing of culture.
That someone like Jackson, focused on the market but hyperaware of the margins, thrives at the country's largest publisher is testament to the shifting winds. Editors who a decade or two ago might have been at Grove or New Directions doing the outré stuff are now at big houses, and while indie editors like Soft Skull publisher Richard Nash remain forces, young editors at conglomerates are often the first place to look to for editorial innovation.
Others have made marketing their calling card, and not just metaphorically. Riverhead senior editor Sean McDonald doubles as his imprint's online creative director, where he has designed projects like Unstoppable.com, a game-themed site promoting author David Rees. "I've always specifically avoided just being an editor; that idea has always kind of scared me," he said.
The combining of disparate houses into one corporate entity has had an effect not just on the business side, however; as the conglomeration generation, young editors often oversee lists more patchwork than those of their predecessors. The notion of a specific type of book with which an editor is associated over a long career is nearly as extinct as the three-martini lunch (even if our bar-side gathering proves that the three-mojito dinner has ably stepped up to take its place).
"A lot of us are generalists. It's moving in that direction," said HarperCollins executive editor Tim Duggan. Many young editors are not confined by subject and will edit both fiction and nonfiction--under Duggan's belt you'll find a Pulitzer Prize-- winning biography of Hirohito; an exploration of global soccer; and two recent novels, one about dog-fighting in Mexico and the other about the ordinary life of a middle-class Englishman, that are as far apart as, well, England and Mexico. "More than ever, it's about taste, not genre," said Jackson.
Lines between literary and commercial get blurred further; one wouldn't be surprised to find parenting sitting alongside poetry on a young editor's list. Bloomsbury executive editor Gillian Blake, for instance, who, with Robert Sullivan and a Hemingway manuscript, is solidly literary, will still veer off with projects like Andrew Carroll's collection of letters from soldiers. "We all like to take a chance," she said. "One in 10 of our ideas will become the new thing that will be the trend for years."
The Discover Program
As much as editors itch for projects with established authors--in this era of constant deal reporting a big name is the holy grail no matter your age--young editors know discovery is their secret weapon. Editors have, of course, always been aggressive this way. But the pressure to find new authors, especially when it's harder to hold on to the ones you already have, has increased, and so today's editors are, at least early in their careers, more like magazine editors. They seek out ideas and try to match writer to subject instead of just passively vetting agents' proposals. "I'm constantly coming up with ideas, to the point where I think, 'Maybe I should be an agent,' " Broadway editor Becky Cole, who has signed up several titles this way, said with a rueful laugh.
Indie presses also continue to be fertile scouting areas. Where a young editor might have previously been at a small press and seen their author taken, now they're more likely to be ones doing the taking, as they look at the author's indie track record before making a bigger gamble. See under: Viking's Stern, who has signed up authors like David Benioff from a smaller house. Soft Skull's Nash lost David Rees, the author of Get Your War On, to Riverhead's McDonald--who as a former staffer at Arcade knew to look to the indie world.
The editors have another big weapon their forebears lacked: the Web. "We all got into publishing at a good time, because there was Salon and Slate and Suck and suddenly a lot of younger writers could get published and edited in a way they never could freelancing into Harper's or the New Yorker," said Shandler.
Not that digital media is regarded as a cure-all; most of the Turks stop short of predicting wondrous results for digitally enabled publishing. "When the mainstream media discovered bloggers, the presumption was that the blogger him- or herself should be the one publishing goes after," said Soft Skull's Nash. "But the bloggers are a filter." Crown's Jackson has a more succinct take: "You sign a blogger, you have a book of blog entries."
Not Such Strong Motion
Perhaps the most common idea people have about young editors post-consolidation is they are always changing employers, in an effort to get a little more clout (or money). But a closer review shows this is not the case. In fact, the era of the superhouse seems to have inhibited the tendency to move. Very few of the 10 editors we spoke with have switched employers more than once, and three have never switched at all. Why the lack of wanderlust? One reason is simple: with consolidation, there are fewer companies to move to. But the lack of turnover also hints at something deeper--that the increasingly interdependent modern house rewards those who stay put. "I think probably all of us have been offered similar jobs elsewhere," said Viking's Stern. "And we think, 'I'll have to learn another art department?' "
Stability is perhaps a defining trait--after all, these editors stayed still in the a dot-com boom. All the editors were then in their 20s and watched contemporaries flit around opportunistically. But these editors resisted, making their success both the Darwinian result of, and evidence for, their indomitability, and establishing them as people who transcend easy fads--even if it implies that they're a little more likely to play by the rules. (Perhaps tellingly, unlike the previous class, where about one-third of the group got its start in journalism, academia or other fields, nearly all of the new class have spent their whole careers in the book industry.) Besides, with publishing divisions continuously reshuffling, young editors say movement has often come to them. Knopf Books for Young Readers publisher Nancy Hinkel, who has worked at the company for almost her entire 10-year career, said, "This place has changed so much since I started. I think for a while I got my fill of change just walking into the building every day."
The elder who warned us to be careful of what we wish for (somehow we're betting it wasn't a hungry Turk) may have had in mind today's young editors. For their skill at riding the choppy waves of consolidation while landing new authors, these editors have earned, like a reality-show contestant who's just won the chance to perform a death-defying feat, a dubious reward: the responsibility of scoring new readers. It's something earlier generations didn't give much thought to--they either weren't the type or there were, presumably, plenty of readers to go around anyway. But these editors feel the pinch--and respond creatively.
Sometimes they'll combine their editorial work with new marketing ideas. Levithan's PUSH, a teen-oriented line that publishes only first-time writers, has as an online bulletin board that has drawn untold numbers of teenage posters and potential readers. Young editors should be leading the mission, he said, because "we're attuned to all the outlets of text that are out there, places like Friendster and Myspace." (Levithan knows firsthand the benefits of being attuned--when he got his start at Scholastic as an intern in 1992, the Baby Sitters Club franchise was running out of gas because "everyone on staff had already offered all their stories from childhood. And here I came along," Levithan recalled with a grin, "and I had a fresh childhood to mine.")
For many, finding new readers means editing new types of books, smart subgenre publishing like practical nonfiction, pop culture and areas aimed at a new tween category: the post-college, pre-suburban reader. Broadway's Cole has sharp titles like 30 Things Everyone Should Know How to Do Before Turning 30, which speak to an audience publishing once ignored. Or digital culture and edgy memoir--Riverhead's McDonald nation-builds by appealing to those who go for the shimmering theories of Steven Johnson (who once belonged to a previous Turk, Eamon Dolan), and those craving the pharmaceutically inflected lessons of James Frey's A Million Little Pieces. It's a book that a stuffier publishing culture would have had to leave to a Barney Rossett, but which young editors are now publishing--at big houses--with the encouragement of their bosses.
Of course new readers and writers are only the tip of some editors' concerns. "My big fear is not that there are 90 million readers instead of 95 million, but that all 90 million are reading the same nine books," said Shandler.
Perhaps to combat this, young editors are also more likely to see themselves in global terms. As a rule, they're less locked into relationships with existing authors (increasing the odds for an import) and less trained to think in terms of certain markets (helping them with exports). Blake, for instance, works with several British authors as part of the harmoniously transatlantic Bloomsbury. Hinkel runs the U.S. operations for David Fickling Books, a joint children's venture with Random U.K.
In 1910, Maxwell Perkins, at 25 perhaps a bit of a Turk himself, cold-mailed a letter to Charles Scribner explaining his reasons for wanting to leave the New York Times for a job in publishing. "I know that people generally, and with considerable reason, suspect a newspaperman to be wanting the quality of steadiness," he wrote. "They do not think him capable of settling down to a regular and unexciting life. I want to tell you that I am anxious to make this change because of my desire for a regular life."
Reading Perkins's letter nearly a century later, it's striking how much certain qualities of youth--ambition, pluck, savvy self-promotion--still get you far in publishing. But as editors hurry off from a photo shoot to cram in a pre-holiday roster of reading, agent lunches and marketing meetings, it's clear that a regular life just isn't what it used to be.