The Rattle of Pebbles

Mouseman; drawing by David Levine


Trade book publishing is by nature a cottage industry, decentralized, improvisational, personal; best performed by small groups of like-minded people, devoted to their craft, jealous of their autonomy, sensitive to the needs of writers and to the diverse interests of readers. If money were their primary goal these people would probably have chosen other careers. They might, for example, have become literary agents, many of whom have prospered as authors’ royalty guarantees have risen sharply in today’s highly competitive market for saleable talent. But most publishers and editors I have known prefer to think of themselves, as I do, as devotees of a craft whose reward is the work itself and not its cash value.

Today the book business stands at the edge of a vast transformation, one that promises much opportunity for innovation: much trial, much error, and much improvement. Long before another half-century passes, the industry as I have known it for the past fifty years will have been altered almost beyond recognition. In the 1920s a brilliant generation of young American publishers fell heir to the cultural transformation that became known as modernism and nurtured it with taste, energy, and passion. As Einstein’s generation introduced once and for all the themes of modern physics and as Cézanne, Picasso, and their contemporaries had done the same for painting, the writers of the early twentieth century had cre-ated once and for all the vocabulary and themes of modern literature. Much elaboration would follow, but the fundamental work had been done and could not be done again. My career in publishing has traced the long, downward, but by no means barren slope from that Parnassian moment.

The cultural flowering of the 1920s was an act of liberation—or so it seemed at the time to its makers—from a culture whose moral, aesthetic, and intellectual failings had become intolerable. The transformation that awaits writers and publishers today is much different and will have far greater consequences. It arises not from cultural despair and aesthetic rebellion but from new technologies whose cultural influence promises to be no less revolutionary than the introduction of movable type, a vec-tor of civilization which these new technologies, after half a millennium, have unceremoniously replaced in the last dozen years. The implications of this epochal event have been noticed only in passing, as those of Gutenberg’s innovation were unforeseen by its own contemporaries.

Twenty years ago when my children and their friends came of age I advised them to shun the publishing business, which seemed to me then in a state of terminal decrepitude if not extinction. Today I would offer young people to whom books are precious the opposite advice. The transformation that awaits them foreshadows cultural ramifications that can hardly be imagined but that promise a lifetime of creative adventure as intoxicating in its much different way as what awaited the generation of Horace Liveright, Alfred Knopf, and Bennett Cerf…

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