The New York Review of Books is a publication both iconic and revered. Its publishing arm is changing the literary landscape by rediscovering writers whose work was thought lost.
The New York Review of Books is regarded as the paragon of book criticism. For writers and publishers, it is the most sought after space for a book review.
For cultural critics and political aficionados, it is one of America’s most respected literary journals for issues of literature, politics and cultural commentary. Founded in 1963, the twice-monthly magazine has been in circulation for over fifty years, publishing the likes of Susan Sontag, Truman Capote, Hannah Arendt, Gore Vidal and Joyce Carol Oates, among many other literary and cultural icons.
In 1999, the New York Review of Books founded a publishing arm called New York Review Books (referred to as ‘NYRB’). While it wasn’t the first publication to branch into book publication, it was certainly one of few. The Paris Review had a few titles under its belt; the London Review of Books (a former subsidiary to The New York Review of Books) produced a scattering of books, mostly offering its best writing, but these titles were published under the banner of another publishing house.
The NYRB publishing arm was premised on reprinting and, in a hopeful and ambitious literary project, reviving the work of out-of-print American and international writers, as well as providing new translations of classic European and Chinese works of literature. It has revived the likes of Leonard Gardner and his quiet 1960s novel Fat City – an elegy to the perils of surviving the unescapable and dominating American brand of masculinity – and will be offering a new translation to cult classic French novel, Patrick Modiano’s In the Café of Lost Youth (first published this year).
While some might question the viability of reprinting books in today’s digital age, the NYRB has proved many naysayers wrong. The reprinting of long-forgotten writers, many whose careers were apparently overlooked as they stopped publishing and entered seclusion, has returned them to the cultural zeitgeist. Renata Adler, the famed New Yorker journalist and critic, is one recent case in point.
The NYRB publishing arm was at first an extension of the magazine – a collection of writing from the likes of former contributors, including Joan Didion, Daniel Mendelsohn and Tim Parks – but has grown into an enterprise in its own right. And the critics agree. NYRB enjoys an unparalleled popularity from many of the leading American literary and newspaper publications, so celebratory that one commentator even suggested the NYRB Classics series was emblematic of ‘what the American people have been and can always be’.
The publishing house is divided into three imprint departments: ‘Classics’, which includes classic works of American and English writing republished, usually by writers who are elderly or deceased; ‘Collections’, which refers to either work that has been printed in the publication, writers associated with the publication, or work that the magazine has deemed worthy of publication; and ‘Children’s’, which is a series of reprinted children’s books.
Nicholas During, the publicity representative for NYRB, has, in his four years working at the house, had the pleasure of working with some of America’s best writers. During has represented the aforementioned Renata Adler, Linda Rosenkrantz and Eve Babitz (author of a swag of sultry 1960s novels about sin and sex in LA).
And, of course, the iconic Robert B. Silvers, the long-standing editor (and founder) of the New York Review of Books.
Since he started in 2011, During has seen the effect of reissuing the likes of John Williams and his now legendary novel Stoner, a translation by Anne Carson of Euripides’s best tragedies, and Janet Malcolm’s much praised but long out-of-print non-fiction book In the Freud Archives.
The NYRB is vastly different to the larger publishing houses. Firstly, it struggles to push its way into an increasingly diminishing marketplace. Not only is there a lack of living authors ‘who can tour, talk, smile’ for the publishing house, the changes in the book industry have had a significant impact on their position in the publishing market.
During cites two factors that have dictated many of the recent decisions of NYRB:
The biggest challenge is twofold: one, there are so many books being published that there is so much competition in book publishing; and two, there’s less book reviews than there used to be.
Of course, there is an irony in During saying this, given that The New York Review of Books is the publication backing the publisher, but book criticism nevertheless has been decreasing.
In the US most regional papers don’t have books sections at all. And the ones that do are very competitive, mostly because there’s a lot of books out there and newspapers are interested in what is new.
The hardest sell for the NYRB lies in the fact that what they are publishing is ‘nothing new’. As During says, ‘In the media being new is a big part of the game.’ Given how NYRB is currently competing with such recent big blockbuster novels – Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman; Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire (bought for two million by Knopf); Jonathan Franzen’s tome Purity – it’s not difficult to imagine why the NYRB sometimes struggles to stand out in an already overcrowded marketplace.
But During says that given the fact that many of their books have already been published (in one form or another), this lends NYRB some uniqueness.
All the same, there are a few living authors that NYRB has resurrected from obscurity. Recently, readers contacted During after the reissuing of Eve Babitz’s 1960s novel Eve’s Hollywood. He explains:
Sometimes [my] job is simply…sending out catalogues, press releases, books…but then people respond saying, ‘Oh, I love Eve Babitz and have always wanted to write about her but never had the opportunity. The fact that it is being reissued now gives me that reason.’ I hadn’t heard of Eve Babitz before the editors told us we were publishing Eve’s Hollywood. I’m now thrilled that we are.
Since the book’s publication, Babitz has been profiled in Vanity Fair, the New Republic and New York magazine.
Adler is another good example of the NYRB’s publishing model. In 2015, a collection of Adler’s best essays and criticism was published by NYRB, offering them to a new generation of readers, including her infamous treatise on the perils of reading New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael’s reviews. The acclaimed essayist has achieved renewed praise, enjoying a growing resurgence in recent years, which not only extends to the publisher but to the publishing values it represents. As Adler remains one of the publisher’s few living authors, her revival has been a success story for During – working as a publicist for a popular and living writer.
During hastens to add that Adler’s re-emergence in the literary world – from being interviewed by the likes of BuzzFeed to celebratory write-ups in the London Review of Books – is really owed to her pre-existing legend.
‘I would say that Renata’s resurgence isn’t so much anything we did in this office, it would have happened independently from us,’ he says. ‘As soon as people heard we were reissuing Speedboat and Pitch Dark [in 2013] they were getting in touch and requesting review copies and were clearly very excited.’
Adler has since appeared in countless magazine interviews, received a deluge of publicity requests, and has been hailed as one of the greatest New Yorker contributors of the last fifty years. This is in spite of her having published an infamous dossier – called Gone: The Last Days of the New Yorker – on the decline of the magazine after its long-standing editor William Shawn was dethroned.
While the Classics series is a major imprint for the publisher, the NYRB’s children’s books series have also flourished. The imprint, started in 2003, was an attempt to resurrect long out-of-print titles and offer them to a new generation of young readers. The series includes both classic and contemporary titles, covering books from kindergarten to young-adult novels.
‘The Children’s Collection has done really well for us, too,’ During says. ‘The D’Aulaires’ Book of Norse Myths is a big hit for us, so is Esther Averill’s Jenny and the Cat Club series…The NYRB hardcover series has strong sellers as well.’
As for the selection, editing and production process of their imprints, the NYRB operates with an impressive team and a strong social-media engagement. The website’s clean interface and well-catalogued, comprehensive titles even feature a tab where followers of the publisher can send in requests for out-of-print books to be considered for publication. During suggests that the cover art really helps galvanise the appeal of the books, making ‘each book in the series stand out as a physical object’.
During says the publishers have the attitude that each book should be a ‘work of art’, accentuating its literary and cultural merits, in its own right. ‘Most people don’t look at a publisher’s colophon [logo] while deciding whether they want to buy or read a book,’ During says. ‘We’re a little bit different here because the Classics really is a series. We look at every book as a work, an artwork, that somebody cared about and created whether it was 2000 years ago or forty years ago, like Renata’s novels.’
The publishing house’s attitude is very much like that of its founder – the New York Review of Books. In the only editorial ever written for the New York Review of Books, the editors of the magazine said ‘they do not pretend to cover all the books of the season or even all the important ones’. The New York Review of Books instead wanted to ‘publish the sort of literary journal which the editors and contributors feel is needed in America’.
Since its first publication in the early 1960s, the New York Review of Books has become the quintessence of contemporary literary criticism. Much like the publication, the publishing arm holds the same esteem and values. It is not necessarily about publishing the most popular or expected books but filling a gap in the market by offering both American and international writers and then recirculating work that still offers important commentaries on life today. This is especially true of the successful imprint Calligrams, which publishes work from previously untranslated Chinese writers.
‘My old boss, Peter Workman, said that we all needed to work hard because the authors put their life into the books that we were then going to publicise, market, sell,’ During says. ‘We owe them our work and attention and effort. Even if you didn’t agree with them. Even if you didn’t like the book they made. I think there’s a lot of truth to that. And it doesn’t matter if the author is dead now or alive, really. We owe it to them to get attention for their work.’