Does a fifty-year-old book on publishing have anything to offer the radically different publishing environment today? Cass Canfield’s The Publishing Experience, on his career at Harper from 1924 to 1986, is such a book. While his brief vignettes of many prominent authors are most fascinating and worthwhile quite on their own, along the way he also offers some precepts that guided his work, which still ring true decades later.
The Editor as Family Member
One of the
most remarkable stories he tells highlights the role some editors can have as mentors, guides and even protectors of their authors. Canfield was editor for Edna St. Vincent Millay, the American poet and playwright. After twenty-six years of marriage, her husband, Eugen Jan Boissevan, died, and Millay fell ill. Her doctor and friends wondered if she was suicidal. As they conferred together, it astonishingly fell to Cass, her editor, to decide if she should go home or be hospitalized. He decided she should be able to go home if she wished and drove her there himself. She lived another year, dying of a heart attack.
Not Being Awed by an Author
Though Canfield said he had succumbed more than once to publishing the great name, the powerful personality, once he was able to resist the temptation. He was in England and a sudden opportunity arose to go meet Georges Clemenceau, who had led a victorious France in World War I. The former prime minister had a manuscript on the wars between Athens and Sparta that was designed to illustrate the conflict between France and Germany.
Canfield met “The Tiger,” as he was called, in France and became the first English-language publisher to see the French manuscript. He was told to go downstairs, take the day to read the book and come back upstairs, presumably to make a large offer. Even with limited facility in French, Canfield thought the manuscript was dreadful. He made his way back upstairs and somehow stammered a negative response to Clemenceau and his agent without actually saying no. It was a good thing. The book tanked in the US when it was finally published.
Canfield also traveled to Mexico to meet Leon Trotsky, the exiled Russian revolutionary who found himself on the wrong side of Stalin. Canfield was escorted through what seemed to be several unnecessary layers of guards to see Trotsky, who was working on a biography of Stalin. A few months later, in August 1940, Trotsky was murdered by one of Stalin’s agents in the very room they had met. Sometime after that, the blood-spattered manuscript was shipped to Harper’s office in New York. But since Russia had shortly thereafter become an ally in the fight against Hitler, whether for patriotic or pragmatic reasons, Canfield hesitated to publish it. After the war was over and Stalin was clearly an enemy to the US government and in the minds of the public, Camfield then published Trotsky’s biography to great success.
The Element of Chance
Luck and skill are clearly combined in publishing. Canfield wrote, “The element of chance in trade publishing is less than in poker and about the same as in baseball” (p. 45). To illustrate, he wrote, “The break is what the trade publisher is always waiting for, like the racetrack enthusiast. One followed my seeing a startling photograph in Life a few years after World War II. This showed a shark coming head on toward a man equipped with a device of which I had then never heard, an Aqualung. As I gazed at this picture it occurred to me that the diver, who the caption identified as Jacques-Yves Cousteau, might possibly be persuaded to write a book. . . . The Silent World . . . was published with considerable éclat in many countries” (pp. 48-49). The luck to see the photo and the skill to recognize its publishing potential was a wonderful combination.
How to Minimize Risk
Canfield admits to dozens of errors in publishing judgment over the years. Is there any solution? Can risk be minimized by following trends? Is there a secret formula for assessing and predicting public taste? Canfield strongly feels there is none. Following the leader can make you a day late if not a dollar short. What then is an editor to do? “In the course of this discussion of chance in trade publishing,” he wrote, “I’ve come up with only one safeguard for the editor: to look for quality” (p. 54).
That’s a watchword in any decade.