Alan Rinzler is a legendary figure in publishing. He began his career in 1962 as assistant to Robert Gottlieb, then the managing editor of Simon and Schuster.. He has worked as an editor at Bantam Books, where he was Director of Trade Publishing, Macmillan, Holt, and Grove Press. He was the creator and director of Straight Arrow Press, the book division of Rolling Stone Magazine, where he was Associate Publisher and Vice President during its formative years. During the course of his career, Alan edited an amazing list of the great writers of our time: Toni Morrison, Tom Robbins, Hunter Thompson, Jerzy Kosinski, Claude Brown, Shirley MacLaine, Clive Cussler, Robert Ludlum, Irv Yalom, Woody Guthrie, and Andy Warhol. Alan is currently executive editor of Jossey-Bass Publishing in San Francisco, a division of John Wiley & Sons. He’s also the Academic Director for Trade Book Publishing at the Stanford Professional Publishing Courses.
Alan is also a freelance consultant and developmental editor. One of the best. And we will talk to him about this later. If you want to see Alan in action, here is a list of his upcoming workshops. Also I highly recommend looking at his website and blog. It has lots of information and advice about freelance editing.
When I have a client that needs some good freelance work (and let’s face it, most of us can use it), Alan is the guy I recommend. I would like to do 3 interviews with Alan. The first will be a conversation about his life in publishing. We will then go on to talk about the role and the value of freelance editing in the work of a writer. We will also talk to him about his editorial work in publishing and try to get him to help us understand what publishers are looking for these days –and how they think.
Andy: Alan, let’s start at the beginning. How did you get into publishing and what were your first jobs there?
Alan: The year after I graduated from Harvard I was living on the Lower East side, writing terrible plays and loading trucks as a fur freight dispatcher in the garment business. My former English Tutor at Lowell House knew I needed direction, and said I should be in the book business, so go see this guy, who turned out to be Bob Gottlieb at S&S and he hired me.
Andy: When did you start doing editorial work?
Alan: Right away. Gottlieb saw me for the callow, jejune puppy I was, and tried to show me the ropes. He let me work with his authors like Joe Heller, Jessica Mitford, Sylvia Ashton Warner, Sybil Bedford, and Rona Jaffe. “Give the reader a break…” he had framed on his wall, so at his feet I began to stifle my ego and enter into the consciousness of the author to help them be clear, useful, and to struggle to put out the best they could. He also gave me the freedom to start signing my own ideas, since no author or agent was sending me anything. I began commissioning “youth culture” titles, since I was young and connected to that sixties revolutionary material from the inside. I brought in the likes of: Bob Dylan, Lorraine Hansberry, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Fair Play for Cuba, and other lefty, civil rights, rock and roll, so-called radical stuff. Then Bob and I had to break up our Oedipal relationship (I wanted to kill him, or was it the other way around?) so he got me a job at Macmillan, which led to Claude Brown (Manchild in the Promised Land), Vine Deloria Jr. (Custer Died for Your Sins), Castro’s Cuba, Cuba’s Fidel, Toni Morrison (The Bluest Eye), Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Shaft, and eventually Rolling Stone.
Andy: What was it like working for Rolling Stone?
Alan: Very scary. We had no idea what we were doing and nearly went into Chapter Eleven bankruptcy when we were just getting started. I opened the NYC office, then packed up my young family and moved to California. The notorious Jann Wenner was the boss of Rolling Stone then and now, nearly everyone who’d worked on the first few issues had walked out in a huff, so the situation was perilous and unstable. Jann and I were the only so-called grown-ups around for the first few years, so the office culture was treacherous and deeply crippled by too many self-indulgent and immature bad habits which shall remain nameless. We had no idea how to make a financial plan, no calculators or knowledge of managing a business with modern accounting methods So we’d line up green thirteen-column book-keeping sheets and budgets which were filled with math mistakes and preposterous financial projections. Nevertheless, through the kindness of grownups like Ralph Gleason, who persuaded record companies to advertise, and avuncular family friends with some money, and a lot of really good writers, we survived and did great issues. Eventually we published books by the likes of Hunter Thompson, Annie Leibovitz, Jonathan Cott, Joe Esterhaz, Ben Fong Torres, David Dalton, David Felton, Jon Landau, and others.
Andy: This was all back in the Sixties. I kind of had this image of publishing as a bunch of scrungy hippies, taking a break from the editorial work and going into the back room to get stoned. Lots of free love too. This is certainly the way it was when I was studying German Intellectual History back then. And publishing seemed to be a lot more fun than that. Is my R Crumb image of life in publishing back then a fantasy?
Alan: Not really such a fantasy. It was, in fact, a lot of fun in many ways. The corporate bean counters had not yet taken over at S&S, Bantam, Rolling Stone, and Grove Press. Consequently the editors had much more independence and power. The dark side of letting the lunatics run the asylum, though, was a lack of structure, control, and an unbridled recklessness that led to a lot of internal politics, competition, and nasty behind the scenes machinations.
Andy: Can you tell us some memorable stories about some of the great writers you discovered and edited?
Alan: Working with Hunter Thompson, the Prince of Gonzo, nearly killed me, and did leave permanent scars that I hope are not life-shortening. For three of his books (Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, The Great Shark Hunt, and the Curse of Lono), we stayed up all night for weeks doing terrible stuff and taping our interviews, which we then transcribed and edited into book form. Discovering Toni Morrison was really something. Claude Brown had just written Manchild, which was hugely successful and still sells 43 years later. He had a big crush on his English teacher at Howard, Toni Morrison, then a cute divorcee with two small sons who were working as face models in the advertising business. She lived in a tiny house on the landing flight pattern at JFK Airport so when the jets thundered over us a few hundred feet up, the cups and glasses would all rattle. Claude wanted to marry her but she kept him at arm’s length, until finally admitting she had “this novel” she’d been working on for years that turned out to be The Bluest Eye and the rest was history. Toni has become such a diva now, however, that I have to admit she stopped returning my calls a few years ago. Oh well. Dylan was impossible to edit, going on and on, but Andy Warhol was a peach. Every idea I had was “fabulous” and we’d put it in his “Index Book”, including pop-ups, early plastic recording of group grope interviews, “terrific art”, photos, spin-out balloons, a 3-D cover and other mixed media bells and whistles we’d brainstormed and slapped together at his silver-foil “factory”, while dodging 24 hour film crews and the first generation Velvet Underground.
Andy: What was the most important book that you were responsible for publishing?
Alan: Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, a beautifully written elegiac revisionist history of the American Indian, which was number one on the NY Times best-seller list and sold millions around the world, changing the universal perception of the Native-American and revising American history for the better.
Andy: What job was the most fun?
Alan: The one I still have. No kidding. Not so glamorous, but for seventeen years, I’ve worked with people I love and respect who are totally honest, ethical, and upfront – which turns out to be the most important thing about any office culture. Jossey-Bass is a place where I can be myself without fear or embarrassment, and still feel accepted. This is my best and last job.
Andy: We all know that publishing has changed over the past 40 years. I have always seen it as a decline from a sort of “golden age”. That it has become dominated by corporate culture, the obsession with unrealistic profit expectations, a fetish for media driven mass merchandising values, and a disregard for quality books with more modest audiences. What do you think about this? Are the barbarians at the gates (or inside the gates?) Or have I been selling books in Berkeley for too long?
Alan: When I had my first office with a window in 1962, Max Schuster was down the hall and Alfred and Blanche Knopf across the street. They had just been acquired by TV personality and “random” publisher Bennett Cerf. But those guys were none of them golden paragons of intellectual literary art. S&S had started reprinting and making a lot of dough from the New York Times crossword puzzles. Knopf and Cerf had a reputation for hustling books that made money, and that has always been the name of the game. I don’t think the quality of writing or number of good books per year has declined. It’s always been hard to find great art that made money too. I do agree totally, however, the pressure for quick profits, and return on investment that the book business has never been able to achieve, has put excessive pressure on serious people to come up with mass market books that sell fast but don’t build into long-term back-list titles. So there’s a tendency to pay huge money for the blockbuster sure things, if you can land them, at the expense of the more marginal, mid-list proposals with promise. Having said that, however, you know that last year more first novels were published than ever before, and all publishers today would like nothing more than to find a new author with a great future. So ultimately I deplore B list celebrity book publishing, the proliferation of mediocre repetitious rip-offs and imitations, and victim memoirs for the Oprah market. Nevertheless I think it’s a wonderful time for the book business, filled with tumult and turbulence, panic and alarum, challenges and opportunities, and big changes coming towards us like a tsunami.
Andy: So tell us some ways in which the book business is different today. What about the impact of the chains, of mass media, of the Internet?
Alan: Book chains were at first heralded as the death of good writing and intelligent publishing, which turned out not to be true. Book chains made it possible for more people to find books where they shop and work. One result was that best-sellers moved up from thousands to millions sold, good for everyone. The bad news was only for independent stores, which is a tragedy, with one half nationally already gone, closed and boarded up like Cody’s. And by the way, this still upsets and makes me sad every time I see or think of it. There are some wonderful independent book stores left where I live in Berkeley, including Moe’s, Mrs. Dalloway’s, Diesel, Pegasus and Pendragon, with Book Passages and others nearby. But it’s tough, I don’t have to tell you of course, to survive and compete without a lot of us forsaking the few bucks discount and supporting our neighbors.
As for the internet, it’s good for the author to be able to go directly to the reader, for information, inspiration, ongoing feedback and marketing. Publishers have been too slow to realize this as well as to fully embrace the value and potential opportunities of digital publishing with new content, old content repurposed, and new diverse platforms that deliver titles on Ebooks, cell phones, MP players, laptops, and who knows what next?
Andy: I also have a bad feeling about the state of literacy in America. Again my own sense about this comes from the change of reading habits that I saw over the 30 years at Cody’s. It really seems that the Internet has had a huge impact on the way readers read. Reading requires patience and a long attention span. It is the medium where ideas can be expressed in all their complexity and with nuance. I’m wondering whether the Internet has created a world with attention deficit disorder. Got any thoughts about this? Am I a hopeless dinosaur? How are these new behavior characteristics manifesting themselves in publishing decisions?
Alan: Yes, Andy, you are a hopeless dinosaur but charming and funny, so we love you anyway. Kids still read, just in different ways and forms. Reading will never die, it’s hard-wired. New evolutionary and neuroscientific research tells us that we have to tell and read stories or the species won’t survive. Never fear, there will always be print books and also more and more digital versions and types. And hey, as an editor I’m all for the discipline of having to fit thoughts into short forms like the 140 character tweet. Try it, it’s not that easy to do well.
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