Thursday, February 26, 2009

A Little Publishing History

A few days ago I wrote that we had just received the paperback edition of The Reserve, by Russell Banks. One of the central characters in that novel is based on the artist Rockwell Kent, a well-known artist in the early 1900s. The Reserve is published by Harper Perennial, a division of HarperCollins. It turns out, however, that Mr. Kent drew the original artwork for the colophons, or logos, for the publishers Viking and Random House.

Viking Press was founded in New York city in 1925 by Harold K. Guinzburg and George S. Oppenheim. The firm's name and its logo were chosen as symbols of enterprise, adventure, and exploration in publishing. Some of their original authors were August Strindberg, Carl van Doren, Vita Sackville-West, Mohandas Gandhi, and Bertrand Russell. Some of their recent books include Eat Pray Love (Elizabeth Gilbert), Three Cups of Tea (Greg Mortenson), The Secret Life of Bees (Sue Monk Kidd), Collapse (Jared Diamond), and People of the Book (Geraldine Brooks) in hardback editions. Viking is now part of The Penguin Group, owned by Pearson plc.

In 1925, Bennett Cerf and Donald Klopfer purchased The Modern Library, reprints of classic works of literature, from publisher Horace Liveright. Two years later, in 1927, they decided to broaden their publishing activities, and Random House was born -- the name deriving from Cerf's thought that they would be printing "...a few books at random." The story is that the colophon designed by Rockwell Kent was originally sketched out on a cocktail napkin.

One of the first actions by this publisher, after a court battle, was to win rights to publish an uncensored version of James Joyce's Ulysses in the United States. They also signed poet Robinson Jeffers and playwright Eugene O'Neill, among others. Through acquisition of another company, they obtained the authors Isak Dinesen, William Faulkner, and Jean De Brunhoff, author of the wonderful Babar series. They also published a "little" book for kids, The Cat in the Hat -- we all know what that grew into!

In 1960 RH acquired Alfred A. Knopf, one of the most prestigious publishers. RH is now a division of Bertelsmann AG, and incorporates a vast array of companies and imprints, including Knopf, Spiegel & Grau, Bantam Dell, and Ballantine. Some of the publisher's recent successes are Jon Meacham's biography of Andrew Jackson, American Lion; The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society; by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, and Cutting for Stone, by Abraham Verghese.

Shortly after Random House acquired Knopf, the company also acquired a textbook publisher, L.W. Singer. One of the editors at Singer soon became an editor for Random House and stayed there for twenty years. That editor was the soon-to-be author Toni Morrison, who published her first novel, The Bluest Eyes, while still an editor at Random. Her novel Beloved won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1988, and she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993, becoming the first black woman -- and only the eighth woman -- to win that prize. Her most recent novel is A Mercy (published by Knopf!).

Given that I'm telling publishing stories, I'll tell one of my personal favorite. In 1913, the publishing company Prentice Hall was started by Charles Gerstenberg and Richard Ettinger, who used their mother's maiden names -- Prentice and Hall -- for their new company's name. Isn't that sweet? (Full disclosure: I worked for Prentice Hall for almost 17 years.)

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