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August 22, 2000

Collecting Books

by Dee Entrekin

Another Life: A Memoir of Other People

Michael Korda, Random House 1999

The magnetism of interesting people draws the reader into Michael Korda's world as he opens the doors of the publishing business as only an insider can. He weaves the history of the dramatic changes that have taken place in publishing and bookselling during the past 42 years, filling the 530 pages with important authors, agents, and publishing personalities.

Korda's affability has to be a contributing factor to his success as an editor. From the famous to the infamous, from the Jacqueline Susanns to the Will and Ariel Durants, his social skills accommodated their needs, a man at home in any company. Graham Greene, R.F. Delderfield, Carlos Castaneda, Larry McMurtry, Paul Hemphill, Joan Crawford, S.J. Perelman, Susan Howatch, Bob Woodward, Tennessee Williams, Richard Adams, Richard Nixon, and Joseph Bonanno are just a few examples of the individuals he touched. He holds the reader spellbound with his candid reflections on the writers and his associates at Simon and Schuster.

Editor of chief of Simon and Schuster (S&S) and author of eleven books, Korda, in his youth, assumed that he would join his family's business of making films. (His family is the subject of his book, Charmed Life.) Circumstances and his decision to leave London to live in America brought him to New York and eventually to S&S. Publishing was still considered a cottage industry, owned privately, and often by the men who founded them.

His first assignment at S&S was as assistant to Henry Simon, younger brother of co-founder Richard Simon. Max Schuster was still presiding with his new partner Leon Shimkin. Even as a speed-reader, Korda's introduction to the slush pile of unsolicited manuscripts and inquires was daunting and endless. While many publishers return all unsolicited material unopened, this was not then the case at S&S. The slush pile rarely showed evidence of talent, but proof that "the country was full of crazy people armed with typewriters -- far more of them even than of crazy people armed with guns."

Editing a manuscript is different. The publishing house owns the manuscript, and the editor's job is to make it presentable to the public. Hours can be spent on a single page, or trying to discover what the writer is trying to say. Much of the editing is done at night and weekends because the weekdays are filled with meetings, matters involving the authors, agents, marketing people, and publicity people.

By the end of Korda's first year at S&S, he was attending board meetings, had edited two complete books for Schuster, and several for Simon. To his credit, he had bought a couple of books, one, The Forest People, by Colin M. Turnbull, a friend from Oxford, is still in print today.

Successful editors purchase most of their books through those agents who represent good writers and who can recognize new talent. The tight, fiercely guarded bond between established editors and their agents makes entry difficult for a junior editor. Korda, with perseverance, luck, influential friends, and hard work gradually establishes himself as a major editor in a highly competitive field.

Unlike the business of publishing, he views editing as a professional art, an inherent talent, "something you either can or can't do, though apprenticeship doesn't hurt." As in all areas of endeavor, there are those who profess that which they are not. He explains that editing nonfiction has limitations that do not apply to fiction. With fiction, "the only limits are set by the editor's energy and the author's willingness to live with big changes," keeping what is best -- its energy, sincerity, and the author's ability to win over the reader. Without these ingredients, it cannot be fixed.

His own writing career began in 1962 when he was asked to do a piece for Glamour magazine. After ten years of writing articles for magazines and newspapers, he was prompted to write his first book, which was commissioned by Random House. His parallel careers continued through the dramatic changes that were occurring in book publishing.

Leading the way was Random House when Bennett Cerf and Donald Klopfer took Random House public in 1952, with the other major publishers following. S&S was no exception. In 1976, S&S was sold to Gulf + Western, later changing their name to Paramount after their most famous asset. Finally, S&S was acquired by Viacom. The 80s brought further changes and acquisitions resulting in S&S becoming the biggest educational publisher in the world.

Bookstores were following suit, expanding while consolidating by buying the smaller or weaker chains, forcing the closing of most specialty and independent stores. What remain are superstores and a few dwindling chain outlets in shopping malls.

Even as growth was continuing in the 1990s, Viacom eventually sold the educational and textbook division. With only the consumer unit remaining, S&S was reduced to its 1986 size. What happens next remains to be seen. As for Korda, he remarks that the essentials at his level have not changed. "My curiosity to open up a new manuscript and read it remains -- strangely, after all these years -- undiminished."


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