When you are reading the Acknowledgments page of a newly purchased book, and you come across effusive thanks from the writer to his/her editor, you can reasonably ask, “Just what does an editor do?” Is such a person merely a handy helpmate who corrects grammatical errors? Is the editor the person who keeps the writer’s creative rampages in check, so that eventually an actual book with a beginning, a middle and an end will arrive at the book store (or, in these times, on your iPad)? Is the editor a soul mate to the writer, without whom the poor sot may never finish the sanity-threatening project on which he/she has embarked?
All of these will do, and many others. If you are a writer yourself, you know the intellectual and emotional intimacy that can result between you and your editor. It can be a sanguine conversation or a grittily difficult one, and every shade of talk in between. A very good primer on what the relationship can be like is A. Scott Berg’s Max Perkins: Editor of Genius. Among others, Perkins was the editor for much of the work of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Thomas Wolfe.
There are few editors today who can claim to have edited such a list of major writers (either in terms of the quality or of the sales of their books). But one who can is Alan Rinzler. Having edited several of the books by Hunter S. Thompson, Clive Cussler, Toni Morrison, Tom Robbins and many, many others (including – full disclosure – two of mine) Rinzler occupies an almost unique place in contemporary publishing.
And he has much to say about the current state of that publishing.
For one, things look very good indeed, for a very real reason. “I don’t think people will ever stop writing or reading,” Rinzler says. “Human beings are hardwired to tell stories, compelled to write them…and to read stories for pleasure, information, inspiration – all the vital knowledge that we need to survive.” Every editor knows that the essential quality needed for a successful book is that it be written well. It’s the writer’s most important task, and has always been. What is new in successful books these days is the way they get published and sold, and Rinzler is very upbeat about current and future prospects in that realm, too.
“I was lucky to start out in publishing in the early 1960s when youth culture was a very important factor in book acquisition, production and marketing. Since I was young myself, I was able to make a connection with what was happening and that actually sold books.”
Rinzler’s rise was meteoric, starting with the mentorship from the legendary Robert Gottlieb at Simon and Schuster.
“After S&S, I went to Macmillan, and then Holt, which was owned by CBS at the time. So right away I had the kinds of resources that allowed me to sign up and develop books for the so-called youth market. A book about Bob Dylan and Joan Baez in their folk-music phase. A book on civil rights called The Movement, because I had been a member of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. And most importantly the first book written by a street kid growing up in Harlem, Manchild in the Promised Land ,which turned out to be a big NY Times best-seller.”
This youthful rise also included Rinzler’s editing and publishing Custer Died for Your Sins by Lakota Sioux Native American Vine Deloria Jr, and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of The American West by Dee Brown. Published in 1970, it remains the best-selling book that Rinzler has ever worked on, and has been translated into more than 20 languages. It is still in print.
“Meanwhile, I had always loved rock ‘n roll as well. I had done a book on Woodstock by the rock ‘n roll photographer Baron Wolman, who told his friend Jann Wenner about me. Jann was in the process of founding a little newsprint four-fold publication in San Francisco named Rolling Stone, and we met.”
Agreeing to come on board, Rinzler moved his family from New York City to the west coast, and Rolling Stone became world famous. “Jann and I both wanted to start a book division, which we did, and I was in charge.” The publishing arm was called Straight Arrow Books. “Ultimately we published about 50 titles, most of which are still in print.” Among the most iconic titles published by Straight Arrow are Hunter S. Thompson’s legendary Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, as well as Kerouac, the first biography of Jack Kerouac by Ann Charters.
When Wenner decided to move Rolling Stone’s operations to New York City, Rinzler demurred, having decided that the San Francisco Bay Area was where he and his young family wanted to stay. He went to work for Barney Rosset at Grove Press and Evergreen Review. “Rosset was another great American publisher,” Rinzler says, “who paved the way for a lot of things that were actually, in those days, against the law to publish, like Lady Chatterly’s Lover and Tropic of Cancer.”
Rinzler has continued on from there, to edit books for innumerable writers. He was for some years the west coast editor for Bantam Books, for whom he edited work by Tom Robbins, Jerzy Kosinski and Shirley MacLaine, among others, and until recently, Rinzler was an executive editor for Jossey Bass, the west coast imprint of John Wiley & Sons in San Francisco.
Much has changed in the way that writing gets published…and read. Two things, however, remain unchanged: the creative talent of the writer and the intellectual curiosity of the reader.
“The book business,” Alan Rinzler says, “ has always only been marginally profitable.
“Even in the halcyon days of publishing, when I was fresh out of college, when Richard Simon was in one office and Max Schuster in another…when Alfred Knopf was down the street and Bennett Cerf was running Random House, most of the books being published by those titanic icons lost money.”
A business model, if there was one, was based on “the publisher’s passion,” Rinzler says.
“In those days, an editor would acquire a book because he loved it. He believed in it. But only a few books made enough to compensate for all those that failed. It was the old 20/80 rule.”
Book publishing has forever been an industry with very slim margins. “A profit of 5 to 6 percent meant that you were doing well,” Rinzler points out. This was largely due to the up-front expenses that traditional book publishing incurred: typesetting, and then printing and binding a book in long press runs; warehousing the books and having to distribute them to innumerable book stores around the country; marketing and publicity. All these caused out-of-pocket expenses that were incurred before a single book was ever sold. And then, as the unruly frosting on the cake, unsold books could be returned by the stores to the publishers for refunds…further expenses.
“Of course, this in no way affected the impact of the publishing industry on the general scene,” Rinzler says. “It had a very high visibility because it influenced ideas and social change. It reflected what was happening in politics, the arts and the culture.”
When the first shopping mall store chains (B. Dalton, Walden Books, et.al.) came along, there was much worry on the part of the traditional publishers about what this could mean to their sales and profits. “Those stores were originally considered low-brow warehouses,” Rinzler says. “Paperback reprints for a dollar each. A lot of people in the business predicted the end of traditional publishing and independent bookstores.” In fact, however, sales increased and profits soared for the top best-sellers because of far greater volume over so many new outlets.
And now, electronic digital publishing and distribution, and self-publishing are changing the scene in ways that are even more dramatic. “Gradually, although kicking and screaming,” Rinzler notes, “traditional book publishers and sellers are being dragged into the 21st century.”
“And one of the biggest factors in this has been the rise of Amazon. Their brilliant new idea was to sell books on line and through the mail directly to buyers, in ways that traditional publishers had never before done. Also the idea of discounting certain titles, or offering chapters of a book for free, the result often being that readers buy the books in much greater volume…because they know what they’re getting.”
There’s an authentic revolution in book publishing that has greatly impacted the author’s potential to receive a greater share of the profits. In traditional publishing, the author’s royalty has always been 10-12-15% for a hard-cover; 7-1/2 to 10% percent for trade paperback; even lower for certain kinds of mass publishing. Now, with the advent of the Kindle, the iPad, and many quite legitimate digital and print-on-demand self-publishing programs, an author can receive as much as 70% of the retail price as royalties.
The growth of electronic publishing has brightened the future for individual writers in ways that provide new incentive for true writing talent, and new enthusiasm among readers of good books. With electronic publishing, more books that are well written are finding the light of day, and delivered much more quickly into the hands of avid readers. Traditional publishing is, to be sure, still doing fine. The printed book will not soon disappear, if ever, but the market share of ebook to print has grown from 5% to 30% over the past few years and is projected to surpass 50% of all book sales within two or three more.
“Yes, I think this is the best time ever for an author,” Rinzler says.
“The balance of power has shifted from the gatekeepers to the artists. Now the author is in a position to take control of the means of production, which has almost never been the case in the history of publishing. They can control the content, the design, the appearance, the production itself…and also, by the way, receive a much larger share of the profits from all that.”
Rinzler breaks into a grin.
“I understand that an author may want to do things in the traditional way, having the imprimatur of that important publisher’s brand name on the spine of his or her book. But to me, that’s like having a spot on the roster of the 1947 Yankees. Now I always ask my writers, ‘How much time have you got? How much patience? How much tolerance for frustration? Rejection? Or for just plain being ignored?’”
Rinzler’s questions reveal the reality, for most writers, of dealing with traditional publishing. And that’s why, he continues, self-publishing has now become such a viable alternative. What once was the worst thing for a serious writer to do, now offers very great potential value to that writer. No longer is self-publishing an embarrassing admission of defeat by authors whose work does not attract a traditional publisher. Now writers can hire their own developmental editors and jacket designers and skip over the big wait.
“If you’ve gone for a year or two with no positive response from traditional publishers, self-publishing begins to look pretty good,” Rinzler says. “And of course, there’s the precedent of self-published books becoming best sellers. Miracles do happen!”