I thought I'd come to the wrong place. The lobby of the famous publishing company was the color of a hospital waiting room in a second-tier city. A pane of glass in front of the receptionist's desk reminded me of the ones ubiquitous then in Chinese restaurants: in the summer of 1977, crime in New York City was off the hook. As I slid my résumé under the glass, I felt like a heroine in a noir novel rather than an aspiring member of the literati.

I didn't know the job of book editor existed until I moved to New York and discovered that my services weren't urgently needed at any of the town's highly competitive magazines or newspapers. With no contacts other than the names of two of my father's acquaintances in the advertising business, I dropped off my vitae at the offices of every New York publishing house listed in the phonebook-sized Literary Marketplace.

Amazed that I got a call, I put on my best “interview” ensemble and trudged off to the decidedly dingy offices of Farrar, Straus & Giroux on Union Square. The area was so dangerous that a blind news vendor was shot in broad daylight the first week I reported for duty as temporary assistant to Robert Giroux, chairman of the board, known to all as Mr. G. Though I heard others call him “Bob,” I could not imagine doing so. I could barely type, a fact I'd done my best to disguise in the interview, in which I impersonated a more polished, better-read version of myself. The salary was $6,200 a year, though I'd be assigned to Mr. G. for six months only.

I could hardly believe he was “The Chairman,” but it said so in bold letters at the top of the stationery on which I typed his excruciatingly polite rejection letters. He looked more like a kindly college professor or even a Santa impersonator, with his twinkling eyes, his snow-white hair, his florid face and ready laugh, and his middle-aged girth. Dare I say it? He looked cuddly.

My eyes widened as I took in the titles on the shelves of his office, a veritable library of outstanding American literary works of the 20th century: books by Flannery O'Connor, one of my literary idols; Walker Percy, ditto; Edmund Wilson; Robert Lowell; Elizabeth Bishop; and Bernard Malamud, among other notables.

Though Mr. G's roster of authors at Farrar, Straus was world-class, he charmed all who knew him with an inherent modesty. He loved to tell me stories of his biggest mistakes, such as his failure to sign up Jack Kerouac.

As Mr. G's assistant, my job was not only to type and file and Xerox in the way of all publishing assistants but also to review manuscripts sent by literary agents. The semiretired Mr. G. only came into the office three or four days a week; I was often left on my own to read. Given that I was a temporary worker and a neophyte to the business, I assumed I would be reviewing only those submissions unlikely to make the cut. After all, FSG was known for having published more Nobel laureates than anyone else in the business. But Mr. Giroux entrusted me with novels from well-established agents such as Lois Wallace, and informed me that my reports were truly helpful in separating the wheat from the chaff.

As my assignment at Farrar, Straus drew to a close, I asked Mr. G. for a letter of recommendation, which I mailed to every editor-in-chief in New York. One landed on the desk of Kathryn Court, newly arrived on these shores and entrusted with taking Penguin Books more aggressively into the U.S. marketplace. Thus I began a new apprenticeship with a kind and savvy mentor.

Eight months after I'd joined Penguin, Mr. Giroux phoned to ask if I'd be interested in coming back. Honored, I imagined myself learning the arcane ways of editing and schmoozing with titans of literature. In contrast, my first editing assignment at Penguin had been helping Kathryn “Americanize” the measurements in Suzy Cookstrip, one of the first cookbooks in comic form. But what would I do once I'd grown out of the wonderful but sequestered corner from which Mr. G. conducted business? .

With regret, I told Mr. G. I was going to stay put. In the time I'd worked with him, I learned a great deal about the business and the benefits of publishing real quality. He taught me to trust my instincts for what would resound with the reading public and last beyond that season's catalogue. I had the nerve to turn down Mr. G. precisely because he'd given me a real gift—the confidence to say “no” in a way that opened doors.

He said he was sorry we wouldn't be working together again, and wished me nothing but the best of luck. When I'd run into Mr. G at literary conferences and awards ceremonies over the years, he always greeted me warmly as “one of my success stories,” as charming, witty, and avuncular as ever. After eight years at Penguin, I'd gone on to edit the Contemporary American Fiction Series at Vintage; to publish the first novel by crime novelist Michael Connelly and works by Edgar winner James Lee Burke at Little, Brown; and to help start the adult hardcover list at Hyperion. Burke's continual ascent up the bestseller list caught the eye of executives at Doubleday, who hired me as editor-in-chief in 1997.

But when Doubleday's parent company bought Random House, the world's largest English-language publisher, I was subsequently fired in a corporate shake-up. After 20 years in the business, it was time to take stock: Had I made the right decision the day I got the call from Mr. G? What if I had stayed at a smaller or mid-sized company, concentrating on working with writers as my mentor had, instead of climbing the ladder when opportunity arose? In truth, I found the job of editor-in-chief dispiriting, my days consumed by phone calls from unhappy agents and writers, endless meetings and personnel problems, and cocktail parties to meet yet another arrival from the German parent company.

The joys of working on good material with writers and colleagues who truly cared about the “product” had diminished considerably—and not just for me. By this time, Mr. G. had long since retired to his home in Jersey City, and before he passed away, Roger Straus sold FSG to Holtzbrinck, another German media conglomerate. The world had changed, and no one, no matter how many Nobel winners he or she published, was immune from the changes wrought by the digital revolution and the globalization of all forms of commerce, whether of books or cocktail trays. As I write, my former employer Doubleday has vanished altogether in a cost-cutting measure, its authors and employees—some of them, at least—reassigned to other divisions of the giant company.

Reading Robert Giroux's obituary in the New York Times in the fall of 2008 with great sadness and a keen sense of rue, I wondered if he would have been disheartened by the current state of his beloved book business. What a brilliant legacy he left behind, and how fortunate I'd been to hear the stories of Stafford and Tate, Bishop and Lowell, Kerouac and Malamud, as though they were friends from down the block. How privileged I was to have been introduced to book publishing by a paragon of kindness, honesty and true literary acumen.

Maybe I didn't go to the wrong office on Union Square that day, after all.

Author Information
Patricia Mulcahy now runs an editorial consulting company called Brooklyn Books. She can be reached at mail@brooklynbooks.com.