Bennett Cerf’s Oral History of Publishing
The name Bennett Cerf conjures up a lot of different things. There’s the guy who edited book after book of jokes, puns and other funnies, and by virtue of growing up with those books, that’s the Cerf I knew best and first. There’s the Bennett Cerf who was a regular staple on the game show WHAT’S MY LINE, sharing panel duty along with Mr. Hackett, Miss Kilgallen, Mr. Allen, Miss Francis and other 1950s and 60s-era celebrities.
But none of those Bennett Cerfs would have existed without the main one: co-founder and publisher of Random House, which he and Donald Klopfer founded in 1927, two years after purchasing the Modern Library and deciding “…we were going to publish a few books on the side at random.” Suffice to say that proved to be an understatement, otherwise the company wouldn’t have survived to be the corporate behemoth we know today. And a few years before Cerf’s death in 1971, he sat down with Robin Hawkins of Columbia University’s Oral History Research Office to record dozens of hours of interviews on his life, on publishing and the changing times. Much of that material formed the basis of Cerf’s posthumous 1977 memoir AT RANDOM, but to have these raw, unfiltered audio interviews and text transcripts is rather mind-blowing.
Cerf, of course, presided over a publishing house during its so-called Golden Age, when company heads could pay attention to every trace detail of a book’s life and an author’s career. More interesting is how towards the end of his life, Cerf was arguably responsible for helping to bring about the sometimes awkward merger of publishing and corporate values that prevails so strongly today. 50 years ago this year, in 1958, Cerf took Random House public. Two years later he bought Knopf from his old friend and fellow Columbia graduate Alfred A. Knopf, disheartened because his son decided to start his own publishing company (Atheneum) instead of working for his father. And in 1965 Cerf sold Random House outright to RCA to the tune of $40 million – a move primarily designed for RCA to take hold of the company’s education division, with trade as an afterthought (sound familiar, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt?) Cerf stayed on as board chairman, eventually ceding that position in 1970 to Kopfler in advance of his death the following year. And just a decade later, RCA would finally rid itself of its troublesome publishing arm, selling it to S.I. Newhouse in 1980.
But to bring it back to Cerf, his interviews don’t just recount the facts and figures of his life and career but bring home the parallels between then and now. Take his comments on author auctions:
Q: Have you ever had an editor come to you with a certain
such proposal and you said, “Well, look it, this just isn’t
Cerf: Very often. These things are put up for bidding, you
see; and some of these gullible publishers fall for wily
Q: No, they’re getting the best for their author.
Oh, the agents are brilliant. I’m not blaming the
agents for getting just what they can. I’m saying though
that they put a big book up for bidding and there are always
publishers who will start bidding. Then it becomes a game.
Very often you will buy a book, not because you think it’s
a good book but because you hear Harper’s, Scribner’s,
Doubleday, and Viking were after it. It becomes a contest.
I always have likened it to fraternity rushing in colleges.
One day somebody will bring along some pimply-faced, hideous
little brat and you tell him, “What do you mean bringing
that nasty little poop around here?” Then the next day you
hear that three other houses are rushing him, and immediately
it becomes absolutely imperative that you get this kid into
your own fraternity! The same thing happens with books.
The word gets around that there is hot bidding for a book,
and you want to get in on it. You don’t want to be left
behind. You don’t want to be forgotten. In fact, I’ve often
bawled an agent out for not sending me a book that I’d
heard was going to be a big prize. He’d say, “I knew that
you’d not want this book. It’s going for too much money
and it’s not your kind of book.” But I’m hurt that I’m left
out. I’m a fool about things like that.
Or on author advances that had to be given back:
Q: I think it would be interesting from a publishing point
of view to see how much money, in the past twenty or thirty
years, publishers have given in advances that they’ve never
gotten back.Cerf: It goes into many millions.
Q: I know that it does, but I’d love to find out.
Cerf: Random House alone, I would say, in its whole history,
has probably lost a million dollars in advances for books
that either we wouldn’t take when they came in because they
were terrible or never came in at all–where the author
just walked off with the money. Dorothy Parker, just before
she died, announced that she had advances from five different
publishers for books that she had no intention-of ever
With a firm like Doubleday that publishes so many
big books, heaven knows how much money they’ve lost. I
know a couple of people that they’ve given huge advances to
and have never heard from them again. Actors and such who
plan to write their autobiographies–but never do. That
isn’t as prevalent as it used to be, but there was a time
when everybody was trying to sign up every movie star for books….Often, however, you’ll give a big advance and never
get anything back at all. That’s part of the game. You
must expect it. When paperback people are screaming about
the big advances they pay, I always point out to them that
they are getting properties that are already proven
successes. A hard back publisher, on the other hand, may
never get the book he’s contracted for, or, when he does
get it, may find that it’s not what it was supposed to be
or that the synopsis didn’t work out. Sometimes when you
get the book, it has no more resemblance to the synopsis
that you’ve bought than the man in the moon.
And even though I could quote from the more than 1000 pages of transcript in near-perpetuity, I’ll stop with Cerf’s comparison of business and baseball:
I believe that you pick your succession
when you’re still around being active. Many businesses go to
pot because the owners seem to think they’re going to go on
forever; and when the people who run the businesses vanish from
the scene, there’s nobody ready to take over. Until they train
somebody, these businesses are in trouble. But I have always
likened publishing or any other business to a baseball team.
The New York Yankees I always use as an example. The reason
that they stayed champions year after year was that smart
people there were building up the succession. While they were
the championship team and playing magnificent ball on the field,
they were already picking the successors to the active players
so that when the pitching staff collapsed after one year, and
Reynolds and Raschi and Lopat, who were the star pitchers of
the Yanks, all seemed to lose their stuff at the same time,
they were ready with five new pitchers–Ford and several others–
to step right in as replacements. It was only when they stopped
doing that, when CBS bought the Yankees and ended the regime,
that the world championship team collapsed, and now there
was nobody to take its place. It will take them years to come
back because the team is shattered and the succession has been
The more things change, indeed…