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Random House Hires Newsweek's Former Editor: Can Two Stones Tied Together Float?

Newsweek's former editor, Jon Meacham, needed a public relations win after a bruising year. Yesterday, Random House gave it to him by making noise over his being hired as an editor at the famous publishing house which also happens to be his publisher.

What's remarkable about this piece of non-news is that it seems to have been accepted as a boon to Mr. Meacham rather than a sign of a dubious strategy on Random House's part. First, let's look at Meacham's move. Then, later, we can explore Random's strategy within the tectonic shifts taking place around the book business. Here, let's suffice it to say that Meacham's new sinecure is more of a sign of the collapse of the editorial leadership as a viable career.

This isn't first time Jon Meacham was offered a job at Random House. During a leadership shake up in 2007, it was reported that Meacham had been offered the top editorial post at Random. His response was categorical: "They'll have to blow me out of here," Meacham says of Newsweek. "This is home."

The job eventually went to Kurt Andersen, a Random author like Meacham who had also been a magazine editor and, curiously enough, is also the host of a quirky show on public radio. In the New York Times story announcing Andersen's appointment, he was quick to minimize the responsibilities and maximize the impression that the job was window dressing:

"It's a consulting arrangement," Mr. Andersen said when reached at home yesterday. He added that Ms. Centrello told him, "If I can find them two or three books that they publish a year, she'll be ecstatic."
There's no indication that Meacham's role will be as limited as Andersen's, although Meacham too has a lot of outside commitments, including writing more books and hosting his own PBS show, Need to Know. So it's a good bet Meacham's role will be similar to the one Andersen had. Or, perhaps, having seen Andersen move the needle very little, Random House is trying again with more firepower.

This time Meacham won't be the only marquee-level magazine editor working at the imprint. Three weeks ago, Random announced that Ruth Reichl, the former head of Gourmet and a bestselling author for them, would become an Editor at Large.

The hiring does put Random House in the unprecedented position of employing three of its best known authors. (What will it be like when any of the three's agents call up for their next multi-book deal?) It also raises the question of what sort of strategy lies behind the double-dipping.

It's not that bringing newspaper and magazine editors into a publishing house is anything new. There's been a steady stream of refugees from the magazine world to publishers for decades. At the top end, Jane Amsterdam took a brief sabbatical after leaving Manhattan, Inc. -- the path-breaking business magazine that she edited for Clay Felker -- at Knopf before taking the helm of a very different New York Post. When that gig ended, Amsterdam retreated from the media business.

Harry Evans, too, had two different stints in the book business. One as the head of Atlantic Monthly Press and a second, more memorable role, as the publisher of Random House where he famously acquired Marlon Brando's autobiography, published the sensation Primary Colors and brought in some Hollywood publicists to liven up the place.

Not that the three ring circus really did much to transform the book business, except possibly for contributing to the rise in advances paid for authors the publishers feel can attract publicity. That brings up the big question about the Random strategy.

Editorial ingenuity no longer resides inside the publishing house. What a highly-skilled and imaginative editor can do with a book project is relatively limited. That's not comment on Reichl, Meacham or Andersen's talents let alone the dozens of other smart and ingenious book editors. Instead, it is recognition that the modern media world is horizontal, not vertical. Book publishers have dominion over a small patch of distribution. But their influence on the media, meaning their ability to package, time and connect authors and ideas with larger outlets like television and magazines has ebbed.

That's the mystery of hiring these people. Gone are the days when Meacham or Reichl could book a lunch with a few peers and establish new author as the next big thing. (Who would you go to anyway?) Now projects come to the publishers pre-packaged and ready to sell. It's the publishers job to amplify and coordinate the fame an author already attracts.

Yes, Reichl and Meacham probably have better contacts and antennae than most book editors, but not necessarily at such a premium. Which makes you wonder if these recent announcements are more about Random protecting the dignity of its franchise authors than actually employing them in a meaningful way.

Let's not obscure the bigger issue here. The advent of electronic books, which moves print closer to other media, also raises the question of whether the books remain the receptacle of ideas. Publishers remain in denial about the massive effect e-books will have on their business. Print will not disappear for a very long time. The center of effort and the preponderance of influence will shift away from print very soon.

Listen to Stephen King quoted in USA Today:

Novelist Stephen King, who says he does nearly one-third of his own reading on an iPad or Kindle, sees e-books becoming 50% of the market "probably by 2013 and maybe by 2012."
If that comes to pass, the print publishing industry will be a rump business. As an influence on our culture, it has already slipped. The influence of literary fiction is waning and books on history and criticism are getting fewer by the year. Meacham, Reichl and Andersen are three of their generation's leading voices. That should argue for the strength of books as the last bastion of real ideas. However, if in hiring all three, Random House is building a Potemkin village then this may signal more weakness than strength.