February 16, 2023

Thoughts on Stephen Rubin’s Words and Music

Traditional Publishing
Stephen Rubin

Last week I finished reading legendary publisher Stephen Rubin’s new memoir, Words and Music. The book chronicles his early career as a music journalist, reporting on the classical music and opera scene in New York in the 1960s and 70s. In the 80s, Stephen was recruited to be an executive editor at Bantam. He was quickly promoted to editor in chief, and so began his career as a publishing executive—a career spanning Bantam, Doubleday, and Henry Holt, all powerful houses that have published some of the most influential books in recent decades. 

The memoir is a who’s who of celebrity authors, many whose books Stephen acquired and published, including John Grisham, Bill O’Reilly, Dan Brown, and Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House. He was Jackie Onassis’s boss at Doubleday, had the pleasure of breaking up a fight Hal Lindsey was almost in (no surprise there), and has rubbed shoulders with political leaders across the ideological spectrum—sometimes with great pushback from his staff. The book is almost shockingly blunt about the inner workings and interpersonal politics that happen at the higher levels of Big 5 publishers. For me, this was almost like watching an episode of the Real Housewives of Publishing!

If you’re intrigued by the world of publishing at all, I highly recommend it. As someone who worked at an independent traditional publisher outside of the Big 5 world, I was fascinated to note many of the similarities and congruences across the industries—namely, that acquisitions is, as Stephen writes, as much of a “crapshoot” at the bigger houses as it was at my niche publisher, too. Perhaps even more so, because at least in education publishing I could look at an author’s speaking events and consulting schedule as a fairly predictable indicator of how sales might go. 

In fact, the memoir has prompted me to reflect on my experience as an acquisitions editor. I respect and agree with many of Stephen’s thoughts on various aspects of publishing, large and small—but I’ve also found a lot of nuance in my own experience of publishing. I’d love to share my thoughts with you here!

[Note: I’m so looking forward to an upcoming episode of the Hungry Authors podcast, in which I’ll get to chat with Stephen Rubin about many of these ideas! Stay tuned for more.]

Stephen Rubin on Book Buying:

“I still believe that if readers want a book, they will pay for it.” - Stephen Rubin, Words and Music

I have conflicting thoughts on this. Education books often have a higher price point than commercial nonfiction—often in the $30s and $40s. I was one of the editors at my company pushing hard for my books to be listed at lower price points in the $20s, or occasionally even under $20. This was because, for the bulk of my time as an acquisitions editor, I covered our Teaching Essentials list, which often marketed to newer teachers who wouldn’t have large salaries to cover professional development books. I still think lower price points for those books was the right move and served my audience better than needlessly charging in the $30s & $40s. And, despite the lower price points, I was still able to grow my list substantially multiple years in a row.

But… I also saw several instances of books sold at higher price points that sold well across various audiences, because they were simply on must-have topics, proving Rubin’s point.

Also to prove Rubin’s point: Prince Harry’s Spare, which I paid $36 for new in hardback.

Stephen Rubin on the Role of an Editor:

“All the terrific editors I have had the honor of working with always wanted to be in the background.”
“Thankfully, books are considerably more famous than their editors or publishers, which is exactly as it should be.” - Stephen Rubin, Words and Music

I think most editors would agree on this perspective. It was, actually, a perspective popularized by Max Perkins—who is now, ironically, one of the most famous editors for having discovered Thomas Wolfe, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Editors often feel as I know many teachers do: It’s not about me, it’s about my authors. It’s about the books. Every editor believes that what makes his or her job worth it is getting to work on great books that make a positive impact on readers.

I often note that many of the editors of books I admire are in the background. They don’t have professional social media accounts, they don’t have websites for themselves. You might only know their name if an author has included them in the acknowledgments section of a book, or if their name is included in the masthead on the book’s copyright page. Great editing is meant to be invisible, especially to the reader. It should make the author’s writing shine and provide the illusion of effortless beauty, like magic.

Even Jackie Onassis, as famous as she was, attempted in every way to give her authors more of the limelight and stayed hidden in the background. Rubin writes about warning a restaurant where they were taking an author that if they or their other customers made a fuss about her being there, he would ban any Doubleday employees from eating there ever again. 

I admire that brand of editing and wholeheartedly embrace its mission. And yet… I often struggled to be in the background. Now, as I try to build a freelance business and drum up a platform to publish my own books, it seems nearly impossible. But I felt conflicted about this even when I had a full-time job at a publisher, when all of my peers and superiors were perfectly content not sharing the spotlight. Even then, I somewhat trepidatiously set forth to make a name for myself. Part of this was my personality; for an introvert, I’m actually quite social and enjoy making connections and influencing others. Part of it was also that I saw opportunities to make my job easier: I set about being active on Twitter and using social media to help me form connections with potential authors. And part of it was in response to what my authors requested of me: primarily help marketing their books. I saw that many of my authors struggled to build a platform and market themselves, so I set about learning how to do it so that I could teach them.

And, if we’re being really honest, part of it was my own latent desire to be an author myself. 

I see other editors who perhaps feel this tension between wanting to stay in the background and wanting to build a name for themselves. There’s Zibby Owens, editor, author, podcaster, and founder of Zibby Books and Zibby’s Bookshop. There’s Michael Hyatt, once the publisher and CEO of Thomas Nelson, now one of the foremost authorities on productivity and leadership in the U.S. There’s Toni Morrison, first a boundary-breaking editor at Random House long before she published her first book. 

And, of course, there’s Stephen Rubin himself. 

Maybe it’s true that the best editors stay behind the scenes. Maybe I’m not terrific. But there does seem to be a pathway from editing to authoring and thought leadership. At the very least, I’m not alone.

Stephen Rubin on Choosing What to Publish (Acquisitions):

“Trying to publish big-ticket bestsellers is the riskiest game you can play.”
“Figuring out what to spend for these books is a crapshoot. I do not care what scientific method you think will work—it won’t. You sit and ‘do the numbers,’ try to predict how many copies a book will sell, but ultimately it’s a shot in the dark, a spin of the roulette wheel. And you pray that you get more of these dodgy propositions right.” 
“A smart publishing decision is not always synonymous with a smart business decision.” - Stephen Rubin, Words and Music

Acquisitions—the process of acquiring new books—is notoriously difficult. Usually, acquisitions editors look at multiple components when deciding what books to acquire:

  • The size of an author’s platform
  • The author’s sales history
  • How compelling and timely the idea is
  • The strength of the writing

Every editor assigns a different weight to each of these factors. Earlier today, I was listening to an author gathering (hosted by my fabulous agent, Don Pape) with guest speaker, publisher Joel Fotinos of St. Martin’s Essentials. Joel said that there used to be more emphasis on the art of publishing, and now, as our world becomes more data- and algorithm-driven, weight has shifted toward the business of publishing. It’s certainly true that as the market becomes more saturated, publishers want as much quantitative evidence of future book sales as possible, in order to ensure a good return on their investment. 

And yet… Stephen Rubin was known for taking big risks, judging books more on the potential he saw in them. (I’m certainly going to ask Stephen more about this in our interview for the Hungry Authors podcast, coming soon!)

One small, almost throwaway comment in the manuscript I did find interesting: 

“As much as I would love to publish music books, I learned to steer clear of them, having been burned too often.” - Stephen Rubin, Words and Music

Every editor has this story, too—of a certain book or genre or author they really believed in and worked hard to acquire and support in every way… and it didn’t work out. I’ve heard many editors use the same word, “burned,” to describe the feeling when this happens, almost of betrayal. Occasionally, it is a betrayal on the part of the author. But often it’s just a betrayal of our own gut instincts when we realize we were wrong. It hurts, and it serves as a harsh lesson not to take similar risks again in the future. 

For authors, I realize that all of this makes publishing seem like a treacherous game to play. You never know what metrics will matter most to an editor or if your book will have the magic *vibes* they’re looking for. Some give up on the whole endeavor and turn to self-publishing instead. I don’t blame them, and as I’ve said many times, self-publishing is often the right path for many other reasons. 

But here’s the truth: I love publishing. I love the risks, I love the game. I love trying to dissect the decisions that get made. There’s a lot of trash that gets published by traditional publishers and a lot of worthy books that get passed over. But sometimes the publishing industry gets it right—as seen many times throughout Stephen Rubin’s memoir—and for some of us, that makes it worth it.