In the history of publishing, there have been few careers more distinguished than that of Robert L. Bernstein. We recently caught up with Bernstein to talk about his fascinating new memoir, Speaking Freely: My Life in Publishing and Human Rights (New Press), in which he shares insights on his publishing career, as well as his work in founding Human Rights Watch.
You started your career at a small upstart publisher named Simon & Schuster. What was your first job in the business like?
My entry into book publishing was a serendipitous event. A friend of my father knew Albert Leventhal, a v-p at Simon & Schuster, who thought that I wanted to be a writer. He was wrong. I was fresh out of the U.S. Air Force and had just returned from two years overseas in India, and I wanted to go into television and radio. At the time, I had a job for afternoons and evenings at WNEW as a receptionist, which paid $25 per week. But I kept the appointment, at which Albert told me I would hate radio and television and offered me a job as assistant to the office boy. The job paid $30 per week, so I said yes. Whenever I am asked about my start in publishing I claim I started at a new low: Office-Boy-in-Waiting.
As for the job itself, it couldn’t have been better. Simon & Schuster was friendly and fun. There was lots of social life in and out of the office. It was like a club. Jack Goodman, the editor-in-chief, sort of took me under his wing. He got me dates, sold me his convertible cheap, and took me to book launches. I got to write a few ads and worked on publicity. I even brought in a book. My then-girlfriend (now wife), Helen, had a friend who was dating a guy named Bob Heilbroner who was writing a book he called The Great Economists. I told him I thought I could get it published. Dick Simon loved the book. He retitled it The Worldly Philosophers, and it’s still in print today.
When you started at Random House in 1956, you were one of 80 employees. Tell us a little about the rise of Random House.
Random House started when Bennett Cerf and Donald Klopfer bought Modern Library, which was a line of reprints, from Horace Liveright in 1923. But a few years later, they wanted to publish new books, sort of at random—hence the name Random House. At the time, most of the main publishers in America were small. There was Alfred Knopf; Viking, run by Harold Guinzburg and Ben Huebsch; Farrar Straus; Simon & Schuster; Harry Abrams, the art book publisher. They all were Jewish, and all started in the late 1920s and 1930s. When I started at Random in 1956 it was doing $4 million in sales. When I became president, nine years later, after the acquisitions of Knopf and Pantheon, it was doing $30 million. When I left in 1990, after 23 years as president, our annual sales were over $800 million.
I was fascinated by the corporatization of the 1970s and 1980s depicted in your book. What was good about publishing’s corporatization, and what was not so good?
What was good? Very little, I think. Large corporations like RCA and IBM were buying up publishers in the 1960s because they thought the computer would be primarily a teaching tool—the thinking was that educational publishers would provide the software for the hardware owned by these corporations. In fact, Random House was purchased by RCA in 1966 not because of its authors, but because it had purchased L.W. Singer, a small and not very distinguished educational publisher. I remember once calling the man who I reported to at RCA and asking him if he had seen the New York Times Sunday Book Review—we had six fiction bestsellers and six nonfiction bestsellers that week. “I don’t take the Times on Sunday,” he replied. But we did get one enormous benefit from L.W. Singer: Toni Morrison was an editor there, and in the book I tell the unlikely story of how she became a Random House author.
Tell us a little about some of the people who were so important to you over your career.
As I write in the book, Bennett Cerf was a truly unusual man. He was actually a very savvy businessman, marvelous at making authors feel that Random House was not only their publisher, but part of their life. Donald Klopfer, Bennett’s wonderful partner, was equally important to me. Like Bennett, he knew many of our authors and he had a genuine open-door policy for the staff. Random House, in those days, was a warm, exciting, and nurturing kind of place. I was also very close to Ted Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, and believe he was a real genius, not only in his ability to both write and illustrate his many books, but also in how he was able to write about really important ideas, like the environment and the nuclear arms race, generally not tackled in children’s literature at that time.
I greatly admired the editorial groups. Bob Gottlieb, with his partners, Tony Schulte and Nina Bourne, moved into Knopf after Alfred Knopf retired and ran it brilliantly, a tradition Sonny Mehta has continued. Susan Petersen Kennedy did the same at Ballantine. Editors like Jason Epstein, Bob Loomis, Judith Jones, Toni Morrison, André Schiffrin, who of course went on to found the New Press, and so many others, each had their own space but were part of a whole.
Your human rights work, including the founding of Human Rights Watch, is remarkable. How do you see the role of publishers today in the human rights realm?
Publishers, of course, are deeply involved with human rights, since they publish so many stories of the abuse of human rights all over the world. Two recent works that come to mind are Malala Yousafzai’s I Am Malala and Laura Secor’s book Children of Paradise: The Struggle for the Soul of Iran. But another place where I believe publishers could be really helpful—and something that is being overlooked—is monitoring the use of books, particularly textbooks, that teach hate and spread misinformation. One example that has gone on for years is Saudi Arabia’s textbook program. They print textbooks for second to 12th grades and distribute them for free to 22 Arabic-speaking countries, and some of these books, among other things, describe Jews as “pigs” and Christians as “apes.” Another example is in China, where important historical events, such as the Tiananmen Square massacre, are ignored by official government publications. Combating state-sponsored hate speech and other dangerous misuses of books in schools is one way for publishers to get more involved today.
In the book, you write that the real value of publishing is greater than anything on a balance sheet. How do you see publishing’s future?
During my lifetime, the death of publishing has been consistently predicted, and of course, the Internet was going to wipe out the need for publishers. Yet, as this is written, I think publishing is flourishing. And I believe it will continue to expand. Those starving for knowledge will always find ways to be fed.