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29 July 2009

Max Perkins never published toothpaste

Of late, I have been reading the National Book Award winning 1978 biography of this man, Max Perkins, the famed Scribners’ editor who saw authors such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe though the majority of their careers.


It’s fair to say he is one of the most renown editors in 20th century publishing and, erm, related entertainment media fields. In his day, Perkins was as well-known as folks like David Geffen, Judith Regan, and Si Newhouse — which is to say, not that famous, but certainly well-known and respected in certain circles.

By contrast with those folks, however, Perkins also had a connoisseur’s tastes, much like the folks that I actually seek to emulate in my own career, entrepreneur/editors like whoever the person is that stocks Colette in Paris or Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun or Oprah Winfrey (no Wikipedia entry required) or Nonesuch’s Bob Hurwitz or perhaps even art curator Walter Hopps.

(I may not be 100% serious about Oprah & I’d hate to be as much of a fuck-up as Hopps, but they’re still both kind of perfect as is.)

Anyway, the book is titled Max Perkins: Editor of Genius. It was written by A. Scott Berg. Here’s a nice passage:

    “Publishing companies, unlike toothpaste companies, do not produce identical products year after year. Each book is a brand-new product, with individual qualities and requiring individual attention. A toothpaste company creates a market for its products and then needs only to maintain that market. A publisher must make a new market for each book — several hundred, perhaps, each year. (This hard fact of publishing life partially explains why so few books are sold — in a nation of over 200 million people, a mere 5,000 copies is an excellent sale for a first novel — and also why publishing is not an especially lucrative endeavor.) Furthermore, while the toothpaste manufacturer can forecast his sales with some accuracy, the publisher seldom can, because each book — except for those by well-established authors — is a different sales problem. Sales may be unpredictably low — or the publisher may be surprised by sudden bounty. Books contracted for years earlier and labored upon in obscurity may suddenly skyrocket.”

If you, like me, are in a wildly unpredictable career path, and work with something that goes in and out of fashion — movies, food, music — passages like this are akin to warm milk on a chilly winter’s day.

I mean, dude, tell me about it!

Posted by Alec Hanley Bemis  

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