Genius, based on a book by Scott Berg, emphasizes the dedication of Scribner editor Max Perkins to bring out the best in writers such as Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. With red pen in hand and a fedora atop his head, Colin Firth does a valiant job of taking the audience along for the bumpy ride that is the creative process from idea to book launch. At the same time, he reveals Mr. Perkin’s humanity as someone who wants words to empower and inspire. Selling books seems almost secondary.
Jump ahead about eighty years and you might hear authors shout “My how things have changed.” Their plaint is that corporate pressure to generate short-term profit keeps most writers from winning access to a team of focused editors, marketers and publicity gurus. Author and blogger Brian Klems seems to agree. In “Do You Have What Publishers Really Want?” (The Writer’s Dig, April 8, 2014), he explains that a good idea is only part of what an acquisitions editor or committee will consider. Other factors include: (a) large number of potential buyers (b) competing products (c) author’s plan to market and sell (d) credentials and (e) his or her platform, i.e. “a large, built-in readership.”
Based on my experience as the author of a decade-old nonfiction technical finance book and discussions with fellow writers today, the strong sense is that it’s a lucky few who have the kind of handholding that Max Perkins offered, along with his friendship and ex-office hours. I’m happy to have found a wonderful editor who is far from shy with her constructive feedback. However, I understand, as plenty of individuals with a passion to inform and entertain now know, commercial success frequently depends on an author’s business acumen. Assuming a good product, it may not be a traditional publishing company that provides the deep bench.