Alan Rinzler: 44 years in Publishing

Tales from 44 Years in Book Publishing: Then and Now

Presentation by Alan Rinzler
Forum arranged 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 by our November forum. An editor for 44 years, Rinzler obviously loves what he does and chose to present his thoughts in contrast to the grim outlook offered by Sal Glynn in November. Rinzler described his perspective as purely subjective and based on his experience as a “hard-core commercial editor.”

After graduating from Harvard College, Rinzler began his editing career in 1962 “at the top” with Bob Gottlieb at Simon & Schuster, and he was one of the founding members of Rolling Stone. He edited for MacMillan, Holt, Bantam, and Grove Press. Now an executive editor at Jossey-Bass Publishing, an imprint of John Wiley & Sons, 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 being published (and edited) today. In spite of concerns over the consolidation of publishing houses by conglomerates, more first novels appeared in 2006 than in 2005, said Rinzler, who also rejects 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 one another.

The role of the trade editor remains the same despite all the change. Editors are still desperately seeking books. Rinzler still worries about his next acquisition, just as he did when his career was just beginning. Rinzler said it is the editor’s role to acquire and develop books that make money. He works on 20 to 30 books a year. While his choices are limited by his interests and personality, he clearly wants his books on 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 he acquires 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 continues to want to see annual increases in his salary.

Rinzler said that, in a sense, an editor is an entrepreneur selling his books. He 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, which was unheard of in the 1960s. Because of this, 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 editor and 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.

Rinzler found Claude Brown’s manuscript for Man Child in the Promised Land 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 worked on the manuscript for six months before even meeting the author. Through Brown, Rinzler met Toni Morrison, whom he had initially thought of as “Claude’s girlfriend.” Morrison, however, had a ready-to-go manuscript, The Bluest Eye, which Rinzler published. The book business is 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.

The most interesting part of editing is 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,” said Rinzler who, in addition to his activities in publishing, is also a practicing psychotherapist in Berkeley.

On 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.”

Rinzler is optimistic, too, about the future of printed books. He sees Internet access and downloading technology as the chance for more versions of more books. “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 Rinzler, it was hard to believe his adamant “No!” when asked whether he is a writer as well as an editor. (In spite of his denial that he is a writer, Rinzler is listed as author of more than half a dozen books including the book on Dylan and a couple of computer books on local area networks.) Rinzler’s view of the outlook for publishing is dynamic.


Wendy Moseley is a freelance editor and proofreader, and a lawyer in San Francisco. She has written and edited materials ranging from nonprofit public relations and for-profit advertising copy to appellate briefs and legal analysis, and she has proofread law review articles and fiction.



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