Others say that Ford had simply grown unhappy with Fisketjon’s editing. Cormac McCarthy left Fisketjon, too, but he stayed with Knopf and had Mehta edit him. When Ford decided to leave, says the source, he left Fisketjon a phone message explaining his move. It was never returned. He sent a follow-up e-mail, which Fisketjon answered with a surly note. Only Ford and Fisketjon know what exact words were exchanged (and both refuse to comment on their relationship after the move), but Ford later told someone that “Gary has to learn he’s no longer in high school.” This was business, after all.
Tom Wolfe kept FSG afloat in its last decade of independence with The Bonfire of the Vanities, but Jonathan Galassi shrugs off making him a lowball offer earlier this year. Little, Brown paid about $7 million for his next novel, a Miami race parable, after Galassi reportedly balked at an early request for $5 million. “We went through a court dance,” says Galassi. “Everyone acted their part, and the result could have been predicted from the beginning.”
Wolfe says his divorce was cordial, noting that 42 years is a lot of loyalty—which, by the way, is a two-way street. “Making a living as a writer is much more like Protestantism than Catholicism. In the Catholic Church you built up your bank account through some good works, even if you’ve had terrible sins.”
A close friend of Wolfe’s says it wasn’t about Galassi, it was about Roger Straus, the charismatic old-line chairman of FSG who died in 2004. After Bonfire, Random House had offered Wolfe millions to leave Straus, but he’d refused. With his old friend gone, Wolfe relied on his most trusted surviving confidante: his agent, Lynn Nesbit.
Writers looking for a boost from a new publisher would do well to remember the cautionary tale of one Salman Rushdie, exhibit A in the case of Editor v. Agent. Sonny Mehta was his editor; they shared virtually identical tastes and backgrounds, and each had helped the other’s career. Enter Rushdie’s agent, Andrew Wylie, in the late nineties, pitching what would become Rushdie’s 1999 novel, The Ground Beneath Her Feet. “Wylie held Sonny up,” says a publisher at another house. “Sonny said no and [Wylie] said, ‘Well, cheers, we’re leaving.’ Despite low sales of Rushdie’s previous novel, Holt paid $2 million for the new one (plus some paperback rights). It promptly tanked. Rushdie eventually returned—not to Knopf but to Little Random. His career has never been the same.
Many agents contend that, with younger editors being laid off or jumping around to start new imprints, the job of nurturing an author has been left to them. “You hear every day of an editor changing houses,” says longtime agent Mort Janklow. “J. R. Moehringer [best-selling author of The Tender Bar], I sold him to Hyperion.” Two of Moehringer’s editors left the house. “Then Bob Miller decides to leave. This is a young man who writes a book about abandonment! Who does he turn to? The departed publisher?! I take care of him.”
Meanwhile, morale among many editorial staffers is dipping to all-time lows. Forget literary taste; everything is cost-benefit analysis. “What I’ve heard from editors is, ‘My judgment doesn’t count any longer,’ ” says Kent Carroll, who left his company, Carroll & Graf, after it was sold to a mini-conglomerate, and who now runs the boutique Europa Editions. “There used to be a reason to get into publishing,” says Carroll. “Whether they know it or not, they all want to be Maxwell Perkins. It’s a kind of secondary immortality. They didn’t flock to publishing because they want to publish Danielle Steel.”
“Some people say there’s not enough marketing done for a book, and I think that’s total bullshit. You do the marketing that works, and not much is working right now.” —PETER MILLER, DIRECTOR OF PUBLICITY, BLOOMSBURY
One key advantage of corporate publishing was supposed to be its marketing muscle: You may not publish exactly the books you’d like to, but the ones you publish will get the attention they deserve. Yet in recent years, more accurate internal sales numbers have confirmed what publishers long suspected: Traditional marketing is useless.
“Media doesn’t matter, reviews don’t matter, blurbs don’t matter,” says one powerful agent. Nobody knows where the readers are, or how to connect with them. Fifteen years ago, Philip Roth guessed there were at most 120,000 serious American readers—those who read every night—and that the number was dropping by half every decade. Others vehemently disagree. But who really knows? Focused consumer research is almost nonexistent in publishing. What readers want—and whether it’s better to cater to their desires or try harder to shape them—remains a hotly contested issue. You don’t have to look further than the pages of The New York Times Book Review or the shelves of Borders to see that the market for fiction is shrinking. Even formerly reliable schlock like TV-celebrity memoirs doesn’t do so well anymore. And “the next thing,” as Publishers Weekly editor Sara Nelson notes drily, “is not bloggers writing books.”