Alan Rinzler: 44 years in Publishing

Tales from 44 Years in Book Publishing: Then and Now

Presentation by Alan Rinzler
Forum Organized by Karen Asbelle
Notes by Wendy Moseley

January 23, 2007

At the January forum, Alan Rinzler parted the gray clouds over the outlook for publishing raised from our November forum. Rinzler has been an editor for 44 years and obviously loves what he does. He chose to present his thoughts in contrast to the outlook given by Sal Glynn in November. Rinzler's perspective, he told us, is purely subjective, based on his experience as a "hard-core commercial editor."

Rinzler was lucky from the start: He began editing "at the top" with Bob Gottlieb at Simon & Schuster in 1962, and he helped to found Rolling Stone magazine. Rinzler is now an adult trade editor at Jossey Bass in San Francisco. In the interim, he edited for Macmillan, for Holt, Rinehart and Winston, and for Grove Press; and he was director of trade publishing for Bantam Books. Rinzler views the changes in publishing between 1962 and now as positive; changes in technology, for example, are making publishing very efficient and productive. He reminded us that in 1962 there were no copy machines or computers, and calculators were the size of typewriters (remember typewriters?). Now, with everything digitized, it is possible to transmit and reproduce vast amounts of information.

Rinzler sees the proliferation of chain bookstores as a plus because it means that more people are reading, which in turn means more books are published (and edited) today. He noted that in spite of concerns over the recent consolidation of publishing houses by conglomerates, more first novels appeared in 2006 than in 2005. He rejected the notion that a book can be unilaterally rejected by a conglomerate's imprints if one imprint initially rejects it. Rather, he said, the conglomerates are made up of fiefdoms that compete against each other.

The role of the trade editor remains the same, says Rinzler, in spite of all the changes: Editors are still desperately seeking books. He said he still worries about the next acquisition, just as he did when he began editing. Describing what he does, Rinzler said it is the editor's role to acquire and develop books that make money. He works on twenty to thirty books a year. His choices are limited by his interests and personality, but clearly, he wants his books on the best-seller lists. He must convince management that there will be money in the books he wants to produce, and at the same time be honest about how many copies to print. He must also convince Sales and Marketing that the books will sell, and he must make sure all the people involved in the process are the best at their jobs. The books he develops must earn a percentage of the budget he projects for their production if he wants annual raises in salary.

Rinzler said that, in a sense, an editor is an entrepreneur in selling his books. Rinzler sells to the trade--the booksellers--and works with media to ensure that his books are reviewed. A major change that Rinzler sees is the role that authors play in marketing: They now appear on television and go on book tours (unheard of in the 1960s). Because of this change, editors and publishers look for charismatic, energetic authors, but publishers also hire professionals who can train authors to present a positive image.

Rinzler's success as an entrepreneur is evident from the list of authors whose books he developed and edited: Claude Brown, Clive Cussler, Bob Dylan, Jerzy Kosinski, Robert Ludlum, Shirley MacLaine, Joyce Maynard, Toni Morrison, Tom Robbins, Hunter Thompson, Andy Warhol, Irv Yalom. How does Rinzler do it? He told us a fascinating history of Claude Brown's Man Child in the Promised Land. Rinzler discovered Brown's manuscript in a box under his desk when he first started work at Simon & Schuster. The manuscript was unsolicited and had been gathering dust in the box for over a year. Rinzler told of working on the manuscript for six months before even meeting the author. Through Brown, Rinzler met Toni Morrison, whom he thought of as "Claude's girlfriend." Morrison, however, had a ready-to-go manuscript, The Bluest Eye, which Rinzler published. Rinzler finds the book business more transparent now than when he worked with Brown and Morrison, because authors can scope out the market on the Internet, meet agents and editors at conferences, and check "Publishers' Lunch" and "Publishers' Weekly" to see what publishers are buying.

Over the years, Rinzler said, the most interesting part of editing has been working with writers. In most cases, Rinzler developed his books with his writers. To publish Dylan, Rinzler came up with an idea for a young folk singer book and simply approached Dylan, who was happy to do the book. Working with Thompson required goading him during a bout of writer's block after the publication of Hell's Angels. Robbins liked to read aloud and get intellectual feedback. Kosinski was writing about music but knew nothing about it. "Being an editor is like being a psychotherapist: There is a lot of transference. Depending on the needs of the author, the editor is seen as the stern father figure, the nurturing paternal support figure, or the enemy figure." About developmental editing, Rinzler said, "Some books need reorganization, some need cutting, some need bridges and transitions. Some books need polishing, some need focus, some need structure."

Rinzler's description of what he does refutes the assertion that editors are no longer needed. His response: "Writers must work with agents to find editors who really edit." Rinzler's passion for editing extends beyond his "day job" at Jossey Bass, where he edits only nonfiction, recently emphasizing neuroscience works. Rinzler devotes his free hours to working with fiction writers. "There is always some new creative person out there with a book in him or her," he said.

Rinzler is positive, too, about the future of printed books. He sees Internet access and downloading technology as the chance for more versions of more books. He stated firmly, "It will always be the case that books will be held in hands, read, put down, and carried around like a friend while you are reading." After listening to Alan Rinzler, it was hard to believe his adamant "No!" when asked whether he is a writer as well as an editor. (He is a published author, in spite of that answer.) Rinzler's positive, dynamic portrayal of the outlook for publishing convinced many of us that good change is in the air.


Wendy Moseley is a freelance editor and proofreader, and a lawyer in San Francisco. Moseley has written and edited materials ranging from non-profit public relations and for-profit advertising copy to appellate briefs and legal analysis, and she has proofread law review articles and a recent novel, Book of Business--A Novel of the Law by Will Nathan.



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