Random House editor Dan Menaker ’63 laments state of book publishing, a fun but frustrating industry

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Sobering news for Swarthmore students: while our education here “rewards attention to complexity, nuance, precision, and book-learning… intellectual accomplishment and sophistication can actually impede advancement and success.” That’s how Daniel Menaker ’63, Editor-in-Chief of the Random House Publishing Group, began his talk on Wednesday afternoon, a look at the highs and the lows of working in the publishing industry.

Menaker began by discussing his “three screen theory.” When movies arrived, they were an incursion on reading time, but only a minor one, since people still had to dress up, go out, and purchase tickets in order to see films. “Television posed a more important threat to literary culture,” claimed Menaker, “television was to literature what TV dinners are to dinner.”

But television pales in the face of the latest threat to the industry, the computer screen. Neither movies nor television use the printed word, but the computer does, and “I fear a great deal of the appetite for reading is being satisfied and dulled by this third screen.” Menaker explained that “this hypothesis is not something I just dreamed up… studies have shown that time spent with actual books has decreased measurably.”

This has led to a downturn in book publishing, and “in the face of these circumstances, trade book publishing must look increasingly for hits.” It also has to look for easy access: “if your book isn’t in the front of a bookstore, there?s a good chance it?s sort of nowhere… companies have to pay to get that placement.”

From Menaker’s perspective, today’s literary culture does not reward complexity. Looking at the best-seller list from the New York Times, he noted that Norman Mailer was the only author there whoM he would consider literary. While the non-fiction list is “a little bit better… the press of controversy, topicality, the Iraq war, those matters saturate this list… readers are not turning to these books for aesthetic pleasure and literary edification.” He mourned the fact that publishing today is quite often “about content, not literature.”

Menaker sees the same thing happening in magazine publishing. He worked at The New Yorker for twenty-six years, starting as a fact-checker and moving up to being a senior editor specializing in fiction, so he also has substantial experience from that side of the literary world. Of the three most literary general-circulation publications, The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, and Harper’s, “all three are subsidized publications that make little or no money.”

Small literary magazines also run “on a shoestring… they are all wonderful refuges, but they are precarious.” It’s the same with university presses. Although most of them are subsidized by their universities and don’t have to worry about money as much as Random House, Menaker told the story of a university press which used to rely on a popular poet to keep it in the black. When he left to sign a contract with Random House, the press ran into problems, as the university involved now expects its press to make money, but according to Menaker, this is not an easy proposition.

“In trade publishing… you’re going to have to learn to compromise your literary ideals more than ever before.” Menaker explained that “if you’re truly a demanding reader… you may find it hard to get ahead.” While everyone expects to have to work on “junky” books at the beginning “you have as a goal work that is something more than pure commerce.”

Menaker claimed that “the kind of thinking that you’re taught to do here can serve you really well.? He gave the example of Art Buchwald’s recent book “Too Soon to Say Goodbye.” Originally it was titled “Too Early to Say Goodbye,” but Menaker changed the title, pointing out that “Soon” was superior in terms of poetic meter. “It is tremendously exhilarating to have something work.”

Menaker does claim to enjoy his job, since “it’s wonderful to participate in the planning and strategy sessions for good writers… there is also real fun to be had in working with books more squarely in the realm of popular appeal.” He also pointed out that “if you want to balance this dour conversation,” you could look at the example of a 2003 Swarthmore graduate who is a publicist at Random House “and is having a great time.”

Sometimes Menaker is afraid that printed books are a medium “bound for the La Brea tar pits,” but he reflected, “I’m not sure that we’re not facing a change in reading habits that is natural… books are a relatively recent invention and it may be that they are a historic fact. The physical book may be a thing of the past.” With Sony’s e-book and with turmoil over copyright created by the “unpoliceable Internet,” these problems will have to be faced soon, and then “we may be facing what is called a paradigm shift.” When asked further about this, he said that that question was one of the reasons he was glad to be old. “I’m glad to pass that question back to you… you’re the ones who are going to tell us what the new model will be.”

When Menaker opened the floor to questions, people were very interested in more details about the commercialization of the industry. When asked about Amazon.com, Menaker explained that the links to other books that people enjoyed “are, I believe, paid for by publishers.? When asked what would happen if a big publisher like Random House refused to participate in the pay-for-placement game, he said, “it would be an interesting experiment but not one I want to try.”

Menaker also has to fight for titles and jacket of his books when the people at the bookstores tell him it won’t sell. He showed us a book jacket of “Nobodies,” a book about minimum-wage labor in the United States, and explained that “I had to fight for the title… some people thought it was too negative.? With all of this, he assumes that he spends eighty percent of his time on non-editing matters and twenty percent on editing.

The owners of Random House care about the bottom line and return on investment, as they must. The way business sometimes works, said Menaker, if one year is good because of a blockbuster, the owners will “take the profits and peg them higher for the next year,” even if that’s impossible.

When asked about the fixed costs in book publishing, Menaker guessed that it costs five to seven dollars to make an average book, which is sold to retailers for twelve to thirteen dollars, which can then be sold for eighteen to twenty-three dollars.

Menaker thinks that given the problems in the trade publishing model, “we may see the return of niche and boutique independent publishers… working from the idea of the long tail.” Whereas Random House loves to find instant hits, a “long tail” book would be one that would sell a steady number of copies for many years down the line. Many niche interest books fit this economic profile.

With all of this, why has Menaker stayed in publishing? He harked back to his days at Swarthmore, when he had a rock-and-roll show on WSRN. “Nothing gave me more pleasure than to pick the hits… trying to anticipate what the culture will respond to, when it works it’s exhilarating.” It’s also exceedingly difficult. Picking three out of ten books that work financially is an exceptional “batting average,” so to speak, but when you hit a book out of the park? The thing about publishing is that “the high moments are very high indeed.”


This article was edited at the request of the speaker.

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