Penguin Random House is phasing out the Old Guard.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Richard Baker / In Pictures via Getty Images

Penguin Random House, the biggest book publisher in America, is cleaning house.

CEO Markus Dohle departed in December after failing in his attempted megamerger with Simon & Schuster last autumn. Madeline McIntosh, head of U.S. operations, left in late January. Nihar Malaviya, an executive, has taken over and is currently steering the company through this post-pandemic period. Sales are down across the industry and costs of goods and services have increased. The publishing house is currently undergoing buyouts, which are the real transformation, despite the layoffs on Monday. Many influential editors have quietly decided to take the buyout, fearing being laid off later or no longer recognising the place where they have spent their entire careers.

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Many people who are leaving grew up in an era where editors were truly autonomous, and sometimes achieved fame equal to that of their writers. Their golden guts ruled the best-seller lists, and no one in accounting ever baulked at their expense-account lunches at The Four Seasons.

Viking editors Wendy Wolf, Rick Kot, and Paul Slovak are departing. Wendy Wolf has been there since 1994 and her writers have included Nathaniel Philbrick, John Barry, and Steven Pinker. Rick Kot has edited Barbra Streisand, Andrew Ross Sorkin, and Ray Kurzweil. Paul Slovak has worked with Amor Towles, Elizabeth Gilbert, and David Byrne. Victoria Wilson, who published Anne Rice and Lorrie Moore and wrote an 860-page Barbara Stanwyck book (volume one only!), is leaving the Knopf Doubleday group. Additionally, Ann Close, who edited Lawrence Wright, Alice Munro, and Norman Rush, is also departing. Furthermore, managing editor Kathy Hourigan, who has worked with Robert Caro on all his books since The Power Broker, is leaving as well. Longtime publicity chief Nicholas Latimer will leave, as will head of production Andy Hughes, who has given Knopf books their literary sheen for decades. Shelley Wanger and Jonathan Segal, two top editors, are also taking the buyout.

Certain uptown literati circles view this as feeding a Borzoi to a wood chipper. Writer Steven M.L. Aronson, who worked as an editor for Random House back when it was run out of the old Villard mansion on Madison Avenue, long before the era of corporate consolidation, says Alfred Knopf must be turning in his grave. I read the list of names to him as he sipped a margarita in the library bar of the Lowell Hotel on East 63rd Street one night last week. Sonny Mehta must be turning in his freshly dug grave. He stood as a bulwark against the kinds of things they are doing now. He protected these preternaturally gifted editors who truly advocated for literature — fine writing, fine editing — as long as he was there. Mehta’s death occurred in late 2019, and many people view these buyouts, along with Robert Gottlieb’s recent death, as one last convulsion. It is seen as the climactic purge before publishing undergoes a complete generational shift.

Sonny Mehta, the former Knopf editor-in-chief, attended the publisher’s 100th-anniversary party at the New York Public Library in 2015. Mehta passed away in 2019.
Rebecca Smeyne/The New York Times/REDUX took the photo.

Publisher Cindy Spiegel, who worked at PRH before relaunching her imprint independently, says, “It is unusual that these people have been in the same place for so long and haven’t moved around, and that feels like an old-fashioned, but good, thing.” They were part of a culture of a place and they helped make that place and give it its identity, and I don’t think you’ll find anybody at the same place anymore in 40 years from now.

The thing about book editing is that you don’t age out of it automatically when you get older. Gottlieb edited pretty much until he died at 92. John McPhee, who is 92, just published a book that deals with this very subject. He writes in Tabula Rasa, “Old people stay old due to old-people projects.” You are no longer old when you die.

The last links to a glamorous time of publishing’s past are leaving. Consider Shelley Wanger, an editor who is 75 years old and pronounced like wane-jerr. Aronson says, “She truly embodies the ultimate class act in trade publishing, and perhaps she is the last one.” She blends Hollywood and Upper East Side Wasp in her shiny pedigree. The producer Walter Wanger, who made Cleopatra and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, was her father; film-noir dames Joan Bennett, her mother, and Constance Bennett, her aunt; and her husband is David Mortimer, a grandson of Averell Harriman.

Wanger, as the articles editor at House & Garden in the 1980s, injected a high-flown literary sensibility into the magazine. She commissioned writers including Mary McCarthy and Luigi Barzini. She also worked for Vogue and served as the editor-in-chief of Interview magazine from 1987 to 1989. Then, as a book editor, Wanger collaborated with Edward Said on ten books, worked alongside John Richardson on his Picasso biography, and edited Joan Didion. Aronson says, “Shelley was the most important person in the last many years of Joan’s life, being a devoted friend and editor.”

Leon Wieseltier, who first met her when she was Bob Silvers’s assistant at The New York Review of Books, says, “She has succeeded with highbrow books and lowbrow books.” She is as committed to seriousness as she is to style. She is genuinely exquisite. I hope the top executives of these cherished houses know what they’re doing. We may forgive someone for having some doubt on that score.

Shelley Wanger, said to be a real class act.
Photo: Fairchild Archive/Penske Media via Getty Images

And then Jonathan Segal, Wanger’s Knopf colleague, is there. He is considered a singular force in nonfiction at 77, working as the go-to book editor for some of the top bylines in international-affairs reporting, including Roger Cohen, Nick Kristof, and Dexter Filkins. Segal has won the Pulitzer Prize for seven of the books he published. Gay Talese, who published Unto the Sons and A Writer’s Life with Segal, says, “I have never encountered an editor in my long career who was more precise, more astute, more demanding, and yet more encouraging.” Talese describes the scribbles Segal leaves in the margins of manuscripts, saying, “Nobody in publishing can write sentences in ink that are as tiny as his.”

Segal has worked closely with one writer, Robert M. Gates, the former Defence secretary under George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Gates characterises his editor as someone who is “endearingly curmudgeonly” and always keeps a bottle of vodka in his lower desk drawer for peacemaking or celebrating.

Segal arranged with PRH to continue freelance editing a few of his writers, which has raised some eyebrows in publishing. One industry insider says, “The corporation is using the cover they offer to some of these people as cover for themselves.” Oh, we’ll allow you to continue editing some of your writers so that it doesn’t appear as if everyone is being lost and the traditions of the company are being honoured.

Still, everyone agrees that PRH’s buyout, which PRH offered to employees over 60, is, by industry standards, quite generous. (The calculation largely relies on current salary and the number of years one has been with the company.) They first offered it in May, and the deadline to accept was June 20. Those who have accepted the buyout can stay until December 15; others will finish up as soon as this summer.

The old guard finds it slightly easier to say good-bye due to their hatred of the work-from-home era. One person who reluctantly accepted the buyout says, “It infuriates me to no end.” The PRH offices in midtown are still empty. An exec who dropped by recently says, “If you go in there, it’s quite shocking.” No one is there when you walk onto one of those floors. I piled up books in boxes. It appears to be a storage house.

Moreover, their jobs are not what they used to be. One young editor says, “Certain editors find what it actually takes to sell a book these days unappealing.” Iconic editors who have been doing this for years don’t suddenly want to start looking at metrics and social media, whereas you used to be able to just edit the book, go to the Century Club, and hand it off to your publicist friend.

A more diverse and technologically nimble group will open the ranks with their departure, even if it means losing a certain literary mystique. These boomers have been causing a whole generation of editors to tap their foot, waiting for them to clear out. The youngster says, “Knopf in particular has stables of people, almost like The New Yorker.” How do you still work here?

Well, they won’t for long.

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