He started out at Pocket Books in 1958. In the 41 years he's spent in publishing, Michael Korda has collected enough stories to fill a book—Another Life, his new memoir. Here, he talks about changes in the industry, the writer/editor relationship and being a good editor.
WRITER'S DIGEST: What are the biggest changes you've seen in publishing since you began?
MICHAEL KORDA: The editor has gone from being at the top of the publishing totem pole to being very close to the bottom.... That is a huge change, because it means for one thing, in 1967 or '68 when you submitted a manuscript to Bob Gottlieb at Simon & Schuster, if Bob liked you that's all you needed. The mechanism would be set in gear by Bob.
Today, the editor has to energize, persuade, cajole and threaten half a dozen or a dozen other people to read the book and like it. Behind the editor is a whole committee of people whose enthusiasm for the book... collectively is more important than the editor['s]. So, whereas you could gauge Bob's enthusiasm by meeting with him, or over the phone, you can't gauge an editor's enthusiasm today because you don't know where he is on the totem pole. How much clout he or she has with the marketing director. Whether they've had three failures in a row or three successes in a row. I think that's a big change.
However, I balance that by saying it's still a business in which an unknown person can write a novel and have it go immediately to #1 on the bestseller list, like Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain [which was] a very literary, very good and highly praised novel.
WD: What coming changes do you see in the publishing industry?
KORDA: Books may well end up being delivered electronically. I don't think that matters because it will still be a question of whether you want to read it or not. The truth of the matter is Gutenberg got it right! The book as an object is convenient, easy to pack [and] possible to put in your pocket—if it's a paperback.... [A]s a medium for containing information, entertainment and the written word, it's hard to beat. It doesn't require batteries or have to be plugged in. Yes, there will be alternative ways of presenting written text. But my guess is that our grandchildren will still be able to buy books.
WD: What do you consider a perfect relationship between the writer and editor?
KORDA: I've had some wonderful editor/author relationships over 41 years. Fraught as it was with the fact that he was a mentor of mine when I was a child, and that he was much older than I was, and that he was capable of being persnickety and difficult, I had a wonderful relationship with Graham Greene. I adored Graham, and adored his work. Even the books that toward the end weren't that good, I still thought they were good because they were Graham's....
I think everybody does best when the relationship is carried over a long time.... It has all the advantages of marriage over a one-night stand—you know each other better, and understand each other, and you're working towards something, which is supposed to be better... than [what] you have if you just do something once.
WD: What's the best thing about being an editor?
KORDA: The discovery of something genuinely new and exciting. Making it possible for it to be published by editing it and reediting it or by allowing it to be left alone. An editor should always know when something needs to be left alone. And then publishing it in some interesting and original and appropriate way, and finding it becomes successful.... You can actually make the good things happen.
WD: What's the best thing about being a writer?
KORDA: For me, the pleasure of writing is in the doing of it.... I like sitting by myself writing. I like the concentration.... I also, because I am a very introspective person—despite having a public side—am something of a loner. So, I'm quite content to be alone working on a book.
WD: And how do you work?
KORDA: I write on weekends. Once I start I tend to do about three or four hours a day.... The thing about writing books is if you keep at it, it adds up. The mistake people make I think is to write in fits and starts.... You have to write something every day, even if it's only a sentence. You have to move forward. It's the Ulysses S. Grant theory of warfare, which is: Provided you're always moving forward, even if it's only a foot a day...eventually you will get to Richmond. The thing is you mustn't move backwards and you mustn't sit still. You move forward. You move forward a sentence. A paragraph. Then five or six pages, and eventually, you will get to...where you want to be.
Marsha Marks is a former contributing editor of Campus Life magazine. She just finished a line of adult humor/inspirational books and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.