Harold Evans, the publisher of Random House, calls me at The New Yorker, where I work. “I’d like to have a word with you,” he says. “Can we have coffee sometime, perhaps?”
It is 1995, and Evans and I have met at parties given by his wife, who happens to be Tina Brown, who happens to be the editor of The New Yorker.
“How about today?”
“Let me check with my assistant,” Evans says. A minute or so later, he says, “Well, yes—can you come up right now?” The vowels, in his Beatles-esque accent, make the words sound a little like “coom oop.”
At the elevator bank of The New Yorker, I run into Nancy Franklin, later to become the TV critic for the magazine. We call each other “Nosy,” for “Nosy Parker”—the British slang term for a snoop. “Where are you going at this time of day, Nosy?” Nancy says.
“To see Harry Evans,” I say.
“Oh, no!” she says. And at this point, with a cold, sick feeling, I realize what’s going on: Tina now wants me out of the magazine and has persuaded her husband to offer me a job.
“You want to buy this book, Dan?” my boss, Ann Godoff, says, referring to the first work I’m trying to acquire at Random House, by George Saunders. “Well, do a P-and-L for it and we’ll see.”
“What’s a P-and-L?”
“I’ll walk you through it. What’s the advance?”
My only knowledge came from what I had been paid for my own books, so I thought surely I should offer more. “Fifty thousand dollars?”
“For a book of stories? But okay, what’s the payout?”
“Start with how much of the advance the author will get on signing the contract.”
“Thirty thousand dollars?”
“Twenty-five—half on signing.”
“Well, 25, I guess.”
“No—you have to have an on-pub payment.”
“Oh. Twenty for D-and-A? And five on-pub?”
“Nothing for paperback on-pub?”
“Oh. Ten for D-and-A, ten for on-pub, and five for the paperback?”
“Nah—it’s okay. You don’t really need a paperback payment. I just wanted to mention it. How many hardcovers are we going to print at the start?”
“Too much. Ten.”
“How many unsold hardcovers will booksellers send back?”
“Nah. Usually figure one third—in this case, 5,000.”
“It’s a shitty business, Dan. What’s the price?”
“Twenty-one ninety-five?” I say, using my own most recent book as a guide.
“Good. So how much will we earn against this advance?”
“We make about $3 for each hardcover sale, $1 for each paperback.”
“So if we sell 10,000 hardcovers, that’s $30,000.”
“And say 10,000 paperbacks. That’s $40,000.”
“Right—so the P-and-L probably won’t work. So we have to adjust the figures. But remember, you can’t change the returns percentage.”
“Increase the first printing to 15,000 and the second printing to 7,500?”
“That ought to do it. Isn’t this scientific?”
Now I have been senior literary editor at Random House for six months. I remain in many ways ignorant of the realities of book publishing. But it begins to dawn on me that if a company publishes a hundred original hardcover books a year, it publishes about two per week, on average. And given the limitations on budgets, personnel, and time, many of those books will receive a kind of “basic” publication. Every list—spring, summer, and fall—has its lead titles. Then there are three or four hopefuls trailing along just behind the books that the publisher is investing most heavily in. Then comes a field of also-rans, hoping for the surge of energy provided by an ecstatic front-page review in The New York Times Book Review or by being selected for Oprah’s Book Club. Approximately four out of every five books published lose money. Or five out of six, or six out of seven. Estimates vary, depending on how gloomy the CFO is the day you ask him and what kinds of shell games are being played in Accounting.
I am trying to acquire two novels, one completed and the second under way, by a British writer. Ann Godoff likes the finished book, or takes my word for it that it’s good, or she is in a good mood, and has authorized me to offer $100,000 for each book. On the phone to the agent in England, I say, with no guile, “We’re offering a hundred thousand dollars for both books.” He says, with acceptance detectable in his voice, “You mean $50,000 for each?”
I hesitate, but not too long. “Yes.”
“Done and done.”
Steven Pinker is in my office at Random House. I am trying to get him to consider writing a short, essayistic book in popular language on the question of Free Will.
Pinker decides that he can’t do this book, owing to contractual obligations to another publisher. He notices a book jacket on my desk for a collection of poems by Katha Pollitt. The title, fittingly enough, is The Mind-Body Problem. Pinker says, “Oh! You know, my friend Rebecca Goldstein wrote a novel with this same title. I’d like it if you could change the title of this book.”
“Well, you can’t copyright a title,” I say. “And wasn’t that novel published some years ago?”
“Yes, but I would appreciate it if this title could be changed.”
I tell myself that I choose to table this request, and that I will end up leaving Random House before Pollitt’s book comes out. As it happens, I do.
I am assigned to work with Michael Eisner on his autobiographical book, Work in Progress. I meet him a couple of times, and he is perfectly congenial. He tells me how foolish it was for anyone to call any movie anything like The Lemon Sisters—inviting, as it did, all kinds of review snidery. “On the other hand, we had a great success with a movie whose title had three words that each by itself should have spelled death at the box office,” he adds.
“What was it?” I say.
“Dead. Poets. Society.”
Atul Gawande has been writing wonderful pieces about medicine for The New Yorker. I have gotten in touch with him about the possibility of publishing these essays. His agent advises him not to do so, as collections of previously published essays generally don’t do well.
I see the agent at a party. I press my suit once again, in person. Either because I’m so persuasive (unlikely) or because Gawande doesn’t have the time to write an original work, they finally relent. The agent sends out a submission to a number of publishers.
On the morning of the closing, Gawande calls me because he wants to work with me but has heard from his agent that the acquisition will go to someone else. “I don’t want this to happen,” he says. I tell him that I am trying to get more money. Five minutes later, the agent calls and says, “I understand that Atul called you about the situation with his book.”
“Yes, he did—his book which I have been encouraging him to do for a couple of years now, and which I don’t want to lose.”
“Well, he didn’t have the authority to call you,” she says.
“That’s funny—that word has the word author in it,” I say.
Publishing is an often incredibly frustrating culture. If you want to buy a project—let’s say a nonfiction proposal for a book about the history of Sicily—some of your colleagues will say, “The proposal is too dry” or “Cletis Trebuchet did a book for Grendel Books five years ago about Sardinia and it sold, like, eight copies,” or, airily, “I don’t think many people want to read about little islands.” When Seabiscuit first came up for discussion at an editorial meeting at Random House, some skeptic muttered, “Talk about beating a dead horse!”
To make matters worse, financial success in frontlist publishing is very often random, but the media conglomerates that run most publishing houses act as if it were not. Yes, you may be able to count on a new novel by Surething Jones becoming a big best seller. But the best-seller lists paint nothing remotely like the full financial picture of any publication, because that picture’s most important color is the size of the advance. But let’s say you publish a fluky blockbuster one year, the corporation will see a spike in your profits and sort of autistically, or at least automatically, raise the profit goal for your division by some corporately predetermined amount for the following year. This is close to clinically insane institutional behavior.
The publisher of HarperCollins takes me to lunch and offers me a job as executive editor. I tell Ann Godoff, who has replaced Harry Evans as publisher.
“Who made the offer?” Ann says.
“Well, it doesn’t really make any difference, does it?” I say. “It’s a respectable competitor.”
“But you don’t really want to leave, do you?”
“Ann, I have one kid going to college and one kid who will be going in a few years.”
“Well, I got you a bonus this year, don’t forget.”
“I know, and I appreciate it, but still, there’s a real differential in this offer.”
“And we gave you a bonus for Primary Colors.”
“Well, no, actually, I never got a bonus for that.”
“Really. I was so ignorant that I didn’t know that I might have gotten a bonus for that.”
“I was sure you got a bonus. I’ll have to look it up and see what happened.”
“I’d like to stay, all things being equal, but they’re not. Equal.”
“This is Random House, Dan. You know you don’t want to leave. Come on, tell me who made the offer.”
“I hate what they do,” Ann says.
“What? Publish books?”
I work at HarperCollins for so little time—less than two years—that it ends up feeling more like a walkabout than any kind of era in my working life. But a conversation that I have at HarperCollins with an agent stands out for its typicality. I’m trying to acquire a “Best of the Year” collection. The agent wants to “move” the series from its old publisher because he thinks the old publisher didn’t do enough to promote it.
“How many copies did it sell last year?”
“Fifteen thousand as in 12,500?”
“Yeah, about that. Twelve thousand five hundred.”
“Twelve thousand five hundred as in eleven?”
“Twelve-five as in twelve.”
“So it sold about eleven-five?”
Gina Centrello, who has replaced Ann Godoff as publisher of Random House, calls me and asks me to return to the division as editor-in-chief. It’s my impression that since Godoff’s departure some time ago, naming an editor-in-chief has become an urgent matter. I know, through publishing’s chronic gossip affliction, that Centrello has offered the job to one or two others, who turned the offer down. I don’t.
Manuscripts and proposals and file folders cover the floor of my office. When my friends Chip McGrath or David McCormick complain about the work he has to do, I always say, “I wish you could sit in my chair for ten minutes if you want to know what real hard work is like.” Or I must always say that, because one day when I’m having dinner with Chip, he says, “I wish you could sit in my chair for ten or fifteen minutes, and then you’d know what real hard work is.” Then he laughs, and I realize he’s mimicking me.
But the work is hard. In fact, I think it’s impossible to do an editor-in-chief’s job very well for any length of time. If I belong anywhere, it probably isn’t in publishing. But, then, I keep forgetting that this sense of dissatisfaction explains why work is called “work.” Like the teenager I was and in some ways still am, I grouse about and make fun of what I have to do and the people who tell me I have to do it, even when those people are me. For all kinds of reasons, I simply have not grown all the way up. And never will. But then again, I know very few people who have. The best most of us can do is manage intermittent maturity; this was especially important in the raising of my children and in my work as editor-in-chief.
My colleague Jonathan Karp leaves Random House to run his own imprint at Hachette. As executive editor-in-chief, I travel to visit Laura Hillenbrand, author of Seabiscuit, to try to persuade her not to follow Karp.
There is a flag on her lawn. I say how I admire her patriotism, especially given who the president is at the moment. When I get back to the office the next day, Gina Centrello comes into my office with an annoyed look on her face. “You said something negative about George Bush to Laura Hillenbrand,” she says.
“Well, just barely,” I say.
“You’re lucky,” Centrello says. “She’s going to stay with us, but she doesn’t want to work with you.”
“Because she’s a good friend of Laura Bush.”
Gina Centrello takes me to lunch and lets me know that she would like me to step aside as editor-in-chief. Why? Numbers, evidently. Prizes—lack thereof. My high salary. It comes back to me that Harry Evans, when he hired me, said, “You have five years to fook oop.” I have barely finished four years.
Centrello is a good publisher. She knows the numbers. And my numbers, insofar as they are mine, have been mediocre, at best. Later, the numerous prizes “my” authors win look to me like the work of an ironic deity—Elizabeth Strout wins the Pulitzer Prize for Olive Kitteridge, Colum McCann the National Book Award for Let the Great World Spin, and Siddhartha Mukherjee the Pulitzer in nonfiction for his book about cancer. In the meantime, I keep wondering if there are other, more personal factors at work in my being let go, but in the end, in such situations, it doesn’t matter, does it? When it comes to corporate life, especially at its higher altitudes, factors of all kinds tend to get tangled up with each other. And it’s impossible to untangle them, and pointless, and fruitless, to try.
Excerpted from My Mistake: A Memoir, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. © 2013 by Daniel Menaker.
*This article appears in the November 26, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.