Monday, June 8, 2009

The inscrutable ways of publishers

I stumbled on Ved Mehta's Remembering Mr. Shawn's New Yorker: The Invisible Art of Editing (Overlook, 1998) at a library book sale -- 50 cents, such a deal! This book in Mehta's multi-volume memoir titled Continents of Exile deals with his years as writer for the New Yorker and his experiences being edited by William Shawn, one of the all-time greats. All writers and editors should read it for insights into their work.

It goes without saying that Mehta also has a way with a story, including this vignette about his adventures with book publishers:

I engaged in battles to get jacket designs in keeping with the spirit of the book. The battles eventually resulted in tasteful, if quiet, jackets, but publishers regard presentation as their preserve, and what they saw as my meddling seemed to have the effect of making them feel redundant. My interference was resented even more when it had to do with jacket copy. Yet the jacket copy that each of the publishers provided not only was completely at variance with the character of the book but was so badly written that when I showed an example to a colleague, Renata Adler, she exclaimed," It seems to have been written by a lower form of humanity!" The publishers and I went back and forth on several versions, and finally both just threw up their hands and told me to provide them with something.
This cracked me up because I have yet to get jacket copy from a publisher that looks like it was written by someone who actually read the book. I'm not sure that publishers even try to write good copy; maybe they send drivel knowing full well that the author will be compelled to fix it. I always have and thanks to Mehta, I now know I'm not the only one.

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