In the summer of 1989, the American Scholar published an essay of mine titled, with some exaggeration, “Mistah Perkins, He Dead.” The idea for the piece had been for me to explain, from my point of view as a working book editor, just what it felt like on the shop floor of the literary sausage factory—how books really came into the world and what the challenges were in keeping standards high and maintaining one’s equilibrium while the whole rackety and irrational machine clanked along. To a certain extent the piece did exactly that, but it also served as an occasion for me to vent some real anger about the direction New York trade publishing was taking. The year before I had felt forced to leave Viking Penguin, a place I regarded then and now as an editorial paradise, for the employee-owned W.W. Norton after the purchase of and botched merger with New American Library, a former and much unloved employer of mine. On top of that I had the sense that the publishing business had lost its bearings—okay, gone nuts—from all the corporate money available, a lot of it being spent, drunken-sailor style, at auctions skillfully arranged by literary agents. Some of the best editors I knew, friends of mine, were finding themselves unemployed, being in the wrong spot in the corporate shuffleboard game. It seemed to me that both literary values and sound business practices were suffering from a feverish competitiveness and loss of perspective that had infected the business.

I used the example of the patron saint of book editors, Maxwell Perkins, as a kind of stalking horse and yardstick to take the measure of all the changes in publishing since he’d transmitted his last manuscript in 1947. I opined that Perkins would scarcely recognize the business as it existed in 1989 and ended with a literary flourish I now regret: an allusion to “the heart of darkness” of contemporary publishing with Conrad’s famous line about Kurtz for my closing words: ”Mistah Perkins, he dead.” The piece received a lot of attention in the literary press because it was timely and candid, and publishing tends to be a mystery to civilians. The essay even had an afterlife, going on to be reprinted in a couple of anthologies and to be assigned, yikes, in publishing procedures courses, which must have shifted more than a few students to the magazine side. In the years that followed, when people would mention the piece to me, I would deflect with something like, “I’m feeling much better now.”

In 1998, nine years later, I placed myself right back in the corporate arena by accepting a job offer from Steve Rubin, the publisher of Doubleday, to become the editor-in-chief of its distinguished quality paperback line, Anchor Books. Some eyebrows were raised at this reversal, but the position was attractive to me for a number of reasons, chiefly my editorial love of trade paperbacks. (“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Thank you, Ralph Waldo Emerson.) As it happened I ended up working as a Doubleday editor for the next 22 years, and very happily too, before I retired at the end of 2020. My colleagues in every department were wonderful people and consummate professionals; the larger company the imprint was embedded in worked with unfailing efficiency; and by and large I was able to acquire the books I wanted and see them published in the way they deserved. I look back on those years with great joy and satisfaction and gratitude. No book editor could have reasonably asked for more.

So my second tour of duty in the precincts of corporate publishing bore no resemblance to any heart of darkness. But speed bumps and switchbacks and ironies there certainly were, a lot of them connected to the nature of corporate publishing and the inexorable trend toward consolidation that has continued apace. The first speed bump arrived not too long after I began at Anchor when Bertelsmann, the international media conglomerate that owned Bantam Doubleday Dell, as the company was then configured, bought the various Random House imprints—“Little Random,” Knopf, Pantheon, Vintage, Crown, and Ballantine among them—from Si Newhouse and Advance Publications. The vastly enlarged new constellation of imprints was now called Random House. About a year into my tenure at Anchor it was decided that having two separate quality paperback imprints like Vintage and Anchor competing with each other was inefficient, so Anchor was plucked from Doubleday’s grasp and assigned to the Knopf group. Given the choice of moving with the imprint or staying on as a Doubleday editor, I wisely chose the latter. Not long after that, the commercially lively imprint of Broadway lost its freestanding status to become part of something called Doubleday Broadway, and I became the Broadway editor-in-chief while continuing to acquire books for Doubleday. For a time Doubleday Broadway prospered, in some years spectacularly. And Random House writ large moved into a purpose-built new office building at 1745 Broadway, a place I privately thought of as the Deathstar.

Then came the anni horribiles that inaugurated the Great Recession, 2008–2009. The vice presidents of Doubleday Broadway were summoned to a conference room to be informed that the group was being dissolved. Broadway would henceforth become an imprint of the Crown Group, and Doubleday was to become part of something called the Knopf Doubleday Group, with Bill Thomas running our imprint and Sonny Mehta presiding over all. This was genuinely stunning news, but we all put our heads down and did our jobs like the professionals we were, and the Knopf Doubleday Group was shortly functioning as a cohesive unit, the different imprints with their varying editorial tastes and styles of publishing meshing quite seamlessly.

There was one further, truly humongous, Bob Lanier–sized shoe left to drop. In July 2013 Markus Dohle announced the merger of Random House and Penguin Books to create a new international publishing entity of a previously unimaginable size and scope: 250 separate imprints, 10,000 employees, $3.9 billion in annual sales, and control of one-quarter of the trade book market, according to the New York Times. Like Keanu Reeves as Neo in The Matrix, all I could do was exclaim, wide-eyed and gobsmacked, “Whoa!” The numbers were simply too large and abstract for a mere editor to get his head around, but I did take to referring to my employer in private as Cosmodemonic Publishing. In a couple of years the Penguin folks moved up from Hudson Street into 1745 Broadway; the crowded bookshelves in the lobby now included titles with the Viking, Signet, Penguin, Dutton, and Putnam colophons; and I could run into some old Viking Penguin coworkers in the cafeteria or elevators and visit them in their offices. Aside from that, the merger had little to no effect on the way my colleagues and I went about our jobs. But it sure gave you something to think about, if thinking was your thing.

It bears repeating that Penguin Random House is an exceptionally well-run company, and one, moreover, that treats its employees well.

It bears repeating that Penguin Random House is an exceptionally well-run company, and one, moreover, that treats its employees well. The immense logistical task of merging two such large and, not to forget, international companies was accomplished without a hitch, as far as any of us workers could see. Some employees found themselves to be “redundant,” as the British say, but nothing remotely like the mass layoffs that might have been feared took place.

But why, inquiring minds might ask, was the fashioning of the publishing behemoth that is Penguin Random House necessary? Well, growth is simply part of the imperative of corporate life, and Random House’s opportunity to buy Penguin was simply too enticing a quantum leap in size and market power to turn down. But it was the rise of Amazon as overwhelmingly the most powerful force in modern publishing, with its control of more than half the book sales in the United States, that quite literally sealed the deal. Equally predatory and indifferent toward its retailing partners (or prey, as some experience it), little inclined to take the points of view of its suppliers into consideration as it pursues its plans for planetary domination, Amazon haunts the dreams of publishing executives, especially in the areas of finance and sales. In the day-to-day scrum of doing business or some possible, even likely, tense corporate conflict and stare down with the behemoth, it is a perfectly rational calculation that a $4 billion company will have the advantage over a $2 billion company. That additional $2 billion might well prove the margin between survival and slow, inexorable, Bezos-engineered oblivion.

Understanding all this and feeling comfortable with it are two different things, a condition that breeds ironies. Every imprint of any size in New York trade publishing aside from Norton and Grove Atlantic is part of one of five very large corporate entities—and if the objections of the Justice Department can be overcome and Penguin Random House purchases Simon & Schuster (and what a mouthful that name will be), that number will be down to four. But people in publishing generally are of the progressive liberal persuasion, which means that they are temperamentally suspicious of large corporations and the power they wield, especially as they gobble up smaller competitors and market share. It’s not talked about openly much, but I suspect most of the employees of the Big Five share the cognitive dissonance I experienced at Penguin Random House, liking their employer but feeling nostalgia for a time when the Sherman Antitrust Act was actually enforced by the federal government. That most of the business books published by the large corporate houses are critical of big business and are often driven by tales of corporate perfidy, corruption, and greed proves the point.

My 22 years of editorial work for a large and ever-expanding corporate publishing house has convinced me that the worst fears I gave voice to in 1989 about big publishing—specifically a race to the commercial bottom and a relentless quest for profits above quality—have not come true. The various imprints within the large corporate entities have managed to maintain their own identities and to publish in their own distinct fashion, as I have witnessed and experienced firsthand. The quest for bestsellers does drive the business to a powerful degree, but that was certainly true in the late ’70s and early ’80s as well, and hundreds of truly excellent works of fiction and nonfiction manage to get published without ever getting near the New York Times’s list.

But before the Stockholm syndrome takes over this piece entirely, let me register some real losses in the new corporate regime. First, a lament for the richness that has been lost from an age when the great names in American publishing stood on their own two feet financially, acquired and published books in their own style, and had their own idiosyncratic and unique identities. The great Yankee houses of Boston, Little, Brown and Houghton Mifflin, starchy and distinguished. Doubleday, the huge onetime General Motors of American publishing, which had room for classy Anchor. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, with the highest literary ideals matched with the lowest salaries in American publishing. St. Martin’s Press under Tom McCormack, the chaos principle in action and breeding ground for some of the brightest talents in publishing today. Bantam and New American Library, the two mass market giants who in their prime—to an even greater extent than the hardcover houses, in my opinion—helped to shape postwar American culture. That world was by no means perfect, as women especially can testify, and it was overwhelmingly white, upper-middle-class, and snobby as well, to its detriment and ours. But the old order had style and room for outsized personalities (Bennett Cerf, Roger Straus, Victor Weybright, Phyllis Grann, Dick Snyder, Ian and Betty Ballantine, Jason Epstein, Bob Gottlieb), and it performed its essential role in the creation of American culture diligently and sometimes brilliantly.

Large publishing corporations are, don’t forget, first and foremost, corporations. Their imprints may publish differently, but they all have to dance to the same corporate tune in the way they do business. The financial pressure on the top executives is unrelenting, and no opportunity seems missed to have meetings, lots and lots and lots of meetings. If there is one thing corporations are good at, it is increasing levels of management and new departments of dubious function, with the overall increase of overhead. At a certain point in my tenure at Penguin Random House I just gave up trying to understand a lot of the emails that arrived from corporate and would just hit delete, asking myself quizzically, “And the contribution this makes to the actual publication of actual books is... ?” However, one of the pleasures of working in the Knopf Doubleday Group was to observe Sonny Mehta deploy his brilliance, charisma, irascibility, inscrutability, and epic silences to foil the best efforts of Bertelsmann to make him and the group he commanded behave in the corporately desired fashion.

In my 1989 essay I made one assertion that is even more true today: Maxwell Perkins would have been utterly bewildered by the pace and nature of contemporary publishing and found it impossible to adapt to—and not just because he smoked and wore his hat in his office. His astounding accomplishments as a literary editor still shine brightly today, but there was something that has emerged recently that eluded his biographer A. Scott Berg and that gives contemporary observers serious pause. It seems Perkins served as Scribner’s editor for Madison Grant, the author of the notoriously racist eugenics tract The Passing of the Great Race (Tom Buchanan extols the book’s virtues in The Great Gatsby), and in the 1920s Scribner’s and Perkins published other books that raised the alarm against the supposed threat to Anglo-Saxon and Nordic culture from such immigrant groups as the Chinese, the Italians, and the Jews of Eastern Europe. Oops. One result of this belated discovery is that the Center for Contemporary American Fiction quietly changed the name of the Maxwell Perkins Prize that had been awarded to such figures as Nan Talese, Gary Fisketjon, Nan Graham, Eric Simonoff, Robin Desser, Binky Urban, Nicole Aragi (and me). Mistah Perkins, he canceled? Well, not exactly, but not exactly not. One thing we may hope for in the future of publishing, corporate or otherwise, is that its work force will demonstrate an ever-increasing diversity of the sort that would have given the Madison Grants of the world the apoplexy they deserve. There are definite signs that corporate publishing, by virtue of its high visibility and hence vulnerability to unfavorable comment, and also in response to strong internal pressure from its staffers, is in the process of doing exactly that. To say anything further would be to tear the scab off a big can of worms, to mix metaphors.

Gerald Howard retired from Doubleday at the end of 2020. He is under contract to Penguin Press for a biography of the editor and critic Malcolm Cowley.