Elegy for the Publishing Industry

Recent wave of editorial layoffs reminds us that the book world we loved is gone

A decade ago, Penguin and Random House merged in a blockbuster deal. In December 2022, the courts blocked that megamouth behemoth from swallowing up Simon & Schuster. A federal judge finally noticed that publishing houses had become essentially a turducken, which creates a stranglehold for authors, agents, competition, and readers. The continued contraction of publishing houses ensures fewer real editors. There are even fewer of the glorious old guard this week, as a recent round of layoffs at Penguin Random House specifically targeted employees older than 60. Reports indicate that buyouts are coming as well at HarperCollins and Hachette. The blood-letting in publishing continues.

The editors who are leaving represent decades of experience, thousands of pages of margin notes, and millions of books sold. Remember when you fell in love with Joan Didion’s Slouching Toward Bethlehem? How about all the gelato you sampled while devouring Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love? Hope you have a good memory, because the editors responsible for signing and shaping those books are gone.

Worse than losing the institutional memory in publishing is what it means for writers and ultimately readers. Before publishing was corporate, publishing houses allowed editors to take chances on authors who might not be bestsellers. When Cormac McCarthy died in June, Dan Sinykin eulogized both him and the glory days of boutique publishing. Joyce Carol Oates tweeted that McCarthy’s career would be impossible today: “true that most writers of McCarthy’s generation, & younger, were supported by editors & publishers through early careers of modest sales, careers-in-the-making that probably could not be replicated today.” Yeah, her editor just took the retirement package too.

There was a real romance to working in boutique publishing back in the 1990s, although the romance wasn’t especially lucrative. When I started at a much-storied publishing house in 1995, my salary was lower than my previous job.They had just fired someone for selling sealed boxes of books from the printer to a dealer at The Strand. She did it to pay for childcare. One of the few perks for the assistants was our “slush lunch,” when we read un-agented submissions and ordered lunch paid for by the publisher. Those lunches were the most food I’d get all week. Once there was a cleaning strike in our building and we ran out of toilet paper on my floor.

The lows were obvious: it was embarrassing to Xerox manuscripts in a dirty copy room when just months before I’d been a grad student teaching a writing class at NYU. It was exhausting to read manuscripts all day and piles of bound galleys at night. Like many broke assistants, I reviewed books for both Publishers Weekly and Kirkus, which was technically wrong but paid for years of Gristede’s. I read and loved many submissions—Memoirs of a Geisha comes to mind, pretty often actually—but they generally ignored my recommendations. It was humiliating to be a brilliant reader but a shaky editor, at best, when finally given a shot.

The highs were fantastic, though. There were hundreds of interesting manuscripts to read and I read most of them. My talent for speedreading made for some delightful compliments. I regularly talked to authors I loved, like Richard Powers, and they once assigned me to spend a day assisting Tom Wolfe. Yes, TOM WOLFE. And there was a chance to find a manuscript in the slush. There was always a chance to find a new writer and, quite a few times, I did.

After five years of mediocre editing at a palace of writing, I tried agenting. I had a client list like a Broadway Becky Rose. But that didn’t work either, and it wasn’t all my fault. The publishing houses merged in Soviet-style blocs. Handselling to the few remaining independent bookstores slowed to a trickle and celebrities clogged the NYT List and all the real estate at Barnes and Noble.

Years later, there are barely even Barnes and Nobles. Celebrity authors cancel their own books for no good reason. I’m clear-eyed about the heyday of publishing. Terrible pay kept out promising editors who weren’t to the manor born, which limits the voices of the authors represented and published. But it’s hard not to miss the days when people read, and hard to imagine publishing without adults in the room.

In 1908, carriage makers threw down their spokeshaves when the first Model T rumbled down a cobblestone street. In 1961, milliners wept a tear when the dashing new President, John F. Kennedy, didn’t wear a hat during his inauguration. Industries change; writers and actors are currently on strike as AI threatens to take over Hollywood. But publishing isn’t just changing. It’s gone.

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Rebecca Kurson

Rebecca Kurson writes about literature, pop culture, television, science fiction and music. Her work has appeared in Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, Observer, The Federalist and Rodale's Organic Life.

2 thoughts on “Elegy for the Publishing Industry

  • July 25, 2023 at 12:22 pm

    Thank you for this thoughtful and well-written piece. I enjoyed it very much. As a fellow veteran of publishing in the 1990s, I have witnessed many of the changes and feel a good deal of the nostalgia evoked here.

    Clearly the business model has changed radically, but, with 788.7 million print book sales in 2022 (per Publishers Weekly), is publishing gone?

    • July 25, 2023 at 12:37 pm

      Definitely not, but the publishing INDUSTRY as we knew and loved (and hated) it has gone.


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