As Editors Keep Specializing, Are Generalists Going Extinct?
Call it a healthy dose of editorial realism, or call it the Dilbert-ization of publishing. However you spin it, over the last few decades, it seems, that formerly abundant creature of the book-business veld — the free-ranging generalist editor, dismissive of pigeonholes and crossing categories at will — has been heading for extinction. Endangered by a rising per-title sales bar at many large houses, and pushed aside by a growing appreciation of the power of niche publishing, the old-school generalist is ceding ground as a new breed of category-focused editors grows more prominent, and perhaps more profitable, than ever. “A great publisher should have a vast curiosity and want to know something about a great many subjects,” says Richard Pine, President of Arthur Pine Associates. “An editor’s job is increasingly to know a lot about certain specific subject areas. I think that in the best of all circumstances the editorial team feeds the curiosity of the publisher.”
Yet in today’s world even publishers are finding themselves defending a narrowing patch of turf. “As a publisher, one can no longer be all things to all people,” explains Bill Shinker, Senior VP and Publisher at Gotham Books, the new Penguin Putnam imprint. “For a startup, it’s important to articulate to literary agents, authors, and one’s own sales force what you’re setting out to do.” Having created two lists from scratch (first at Broadway, now at Gotham), Shinker has been a pioneer of the custom-built imprint, and his first Gotham list lays down a carefully conceived program: “a very focused commercial list of general nonfiction in a number of categories.” Dilettantism clearly isn’t on the menu, and Shinker has brought in editors with complementary expertise. Executive Editor Lauren Marino focuses on health, fitness, and spirituality, while Brendan Cahill handles current affairs, history, and narrative nonfiction. “In almost any category, it helps to be an editor who understands that category and is conversant with the literature in that field,” Shinker adds. “If you’re editing a new book on affirmative action, you better know damn well what you’re doing.”
In a larger sense, specialization has been a response to a more niche-oriented marketplace. “It’s increasingly relevant for the editor to be connected to the community” of both authors and their target audience, says Kitt Allan, Publisher of General Books for Wiley. Allan believes that the move toward targeted publishing — “trying to find the right book for a specific set of people” — is crucial for a fragmented marketplace. Wiley’s trade program has grown out of the organizing principles of its professional and education groups, which tend to cluster more tightly around topic areas. Some editors focus on one or more categories (in the bookstore-defined sense of the word). Others target particular niches, which are more attuned to a certain kind of reader or demographic, such as the educational market, targeted to teachers and motivated parents. Niches such as education, children’s, and religion/spirituality are also organized into category teams that go across imprints, sharing market intelligence as they collect it.
Typecasting the Editor
Perhaps nowhere in the general trade has specialization taken root more firmly than in the world of cookbooks, whose jigsaw-puzzle-like production requirements call for both illustrated book savvy and recipe-writing chops. Wiley, for instance, has a whole cookbook division that publishes books for professional cooks, as well as general titles from brands such as Betty Crocker and Weight Watchers. “It’s a whole world unto itself,” adds Jennifer Josephy, Executive Editor for Cookbooks at Broadway. “It’s a question of going deep instead of broad.” Josephy had done cookbooks as a sideline for years at houses such as Holt and Little, Brown. But two-and-a-half years ago, the full-time cookbook slot at Broadway was too good to pass up. She now works with a half dozen Broadway editors, most of whom specialize in one or two areas. Still, reluctant to stay too narrowly focused, Josephy keeps the door open for other projects, which have included John P. Cooke’s The Cardiovascular Cure and several parenting titles. “But once you make this leap, you are typecast,” she says with a laugh. “I try and tell agents to send me some things that aren’t cookbook related.”
Of course, some publishers have always played up their category role. Storey, for instance, specializes in gardening (it actually owns the trademark “America’s Gardening Publisher”), while also holding a strong presence in horses, building, crafts, and cooking, plus a new juvenile imprint that publishes into the same categories. “Our editors live the Storey lifestyle, and it comes through in the books’ editorial content,” says Janet Harris, Storey’s Publisher. Editor Gwen Steege, who acquires both gardening and crafts books, is a master gardener and weaver, and pulls writers and photographers to Storey because of her connections and expertise. And category focus doesn’t hurt the bottom line, either. Harriet Pierce, Director of Sales and Marketing for the Harper Design International program at HarperCollins, says a strong specialty focus can only help keep the ship afloat during rough economic weather. “Whether it’s an economic downturn or not depends on what your list is these days,” she says. “Certainly, if you’ve got the right list, right now you’re not experiencing a downturn at all.”
As others are quick to note, the closing of the wide-angle editorial lens can also be chalked up to consolidation. “Because of the size of houses now, many editors have less and less hands-on connection with the mechanics of how books are sold,” says Dan Green, President of the Pom agency. “Since they’re no longer cheek-by-jowl with the people who sell books or market books, many of them will stay with only that kind of book that they know about.” Others agree that consolidation has taken a toll on the generalist ranks. “In the past, you might have eight or ten editors in a department who all worked on a variety of projects,” says Zack Schisgal, who was recently named Senior Editor at Ballantine. “Today, you’ve got 80 or 150 editors in a dozen imprints in a publishing house. Having some of them specialize might be the best way to make sure people aren’t stepping all over each other for the same kinds of things.”
Bumping up sales expectations at the major houses has also forced some editors to more closely heed the bottom line. “I think the main limiting factor for what editors acquire and publish has to do with what their publishing house can publish well and how that house defines ‘well,’” says Keith Kahla, Senior Editor at St. Martin’s. “A number of the majors aren’t interested in publishing anything of which they are likely to sell less than 50,000 hardcover copies.” At St. Martin’s, editors can publish books that sell in quantities of 6,000 on up, as long as the advance and other expenses are kept in line with the expectations of the book. “A broader range of types of books are immediately available to an editor,” Kahla says, adding that eclecticism has plenty of virtues. “From a publisher’s point of few, the advantage is sheer agility — a staff that is both eclectic and generalist allows them to shift away from certain kinds of publishing when the market for that type of book begins to recede, and move on to another area that might be on the rise without major disruptive shifts in the staff.”
‘No Limits Whatsoever’
The specter of specialization is not too welcome over at Bloomsbury, either. “We certainly don’t fit that paradigm,” says Karen Rinaldi, Editorial Director at Bloomsbury USA. “I always think that it provides a false sense of security when one tries too hard to control the way publishing should happen.” That philosophy is helping drive aggressive plans to broaden the program at Bloomsbury’s US operation, where the current catalog now spans memoir, cultural history, first fiction, and gift books. A gregarious editorial outlook can help reel in off-the-beaten-path projects, while outfoxing larger publishing houses. “The two editors we have do both fiction and nonfiction,” says Alan Wherry, Director of Bloomsbury USA. “There are no limits on them whatsoever. Our mandate is to make profits by building a successful publishing house where editorial drives the ship with strong marketing backup, and where editors are encouraged to pursue their passions and to follow their instincts.”
In the end, what may be new isn’t specialization per se, but how one balances the sometimes conflicting demands of modern publishing. “Editors have always developed specialties of one kind or another,” says Peter Ginna, Editorial Director for the trade division at Oxford University Press. “You snowball-like develop a list in areas where you have a certain expertise.” Ginna has gravitated toward American History, partly due to the fact that within the larger history category, the American market is vastly larger than, say, the market for works on medieval France. His colleagues on the academic side, he notes, are even more prone to specialize, as most OUP titles need to have surefire backlist appeal as textbooks. The problem is that too much specialization can “cause you to be too conservative or to think in pigeonholes.” But that drawback is not enough, he argues, to counter the benefits of knowing precisely what one is publishing. Chasing after wayward enthusiasms can mean failing the ultimate litmus test of a good editor: the ability to read a manuscript and know instantly what kind of reader will get excited about that book and why. Says Ginna, “That’s the danger of dilettantism.”