The evolving nature of the book business over the past half-century, as experienced in one up-and-down career.
When Harper & Row published Godwin’s (Flora, 2013, etc.) first novel in 1970, publishing houses were still relatively genteel places. The author had a personal relationship with her editor there and a long-term one with Knopf’s Bob Gottlieb, who published her next four books but lost her to Viking when he didn’t offer enough money for A Mother and Two Daughters, which proved to be her breakout best-seller. Godwin has nothing against commerce, which makes her a measured observer of the “next era of publishing,” which began for her when she lunched with Penguin CEO Peter Mayer four days after he fired the president of Penguin subsidiary Viking. In the increasingly corporate publishing world, she writes, “I was one of the many authors to be caught in the tumult while it thrashed about in search of a new business model.” Despite A Southern Family’s success for Morrow-Avon, she found “the new publishing ethos was firmly in place” when she submitted Father Melancholy’s Daughter in 1990. The text and title were both judged too long; Carolyn Reidy (Avon’s president) said it wouldn’t earn out its advance. Reidy was right, and when The Good Husband also failed to earn out for Random House, Godwin returned part of the advance to pay for ads and hired her own publicist for Evensong and several subsequent books. And so it has gone for writers in the 21st century, when, fellow novelist Caroline Leavitt told Godwin, “an author has to brand herself.” The author is more bemused than outraged by these developments; her engaging memoir, similarly, is interesting primarily for its mildly gossipy anecdotes about various publishing executives and glimpses of stories begun and abandoned or morphing into other novels.
No blindingly brilliant insights into the seismic changes that have transformed publishing but an agreeable memoir that captures its pleasures and pitfalls.