The Sunday Conversation: Robert Weil

Robert Weil, formerly executive editor at W.W. Norton & Co., is at the helm of the company’s recently revived imprint, Liveright & Co., well known for publishing great early 20th-century writers. Liveright’s new editor in chief and publishing director, scheduled to appear on a panel about the nuts and bolts of publishing at this weekend’s Festival of Books, talks about Norton’s surprising move and other issues facing the book industry.

Let’s talk about how and why the Liveright imprint was revived.

Just a little bit of context: Liveright was the most renowned and prestigious press in America in the 1920s and early ‘30s. It introduced Hemingway, Faulkner, the first edition of “The Waste Land.” It had an extraordinary past, and it was bought by Norton in the early 1970s. We always maintained the backlist, but we never launched a frontlist, and it was always the dream of our chairman, Drake McFeely, to relaunch Liveright. He was very kind in asking me to do it, and we’ve just published our first two hardcover books in the last month. [“The Social Conquest of Earth” by E.O. Wilson and “Kingdom Come: A Novel” byJ.G. Ballard]

What’s the company’s goal?

The company’s goal is to demonstrate its belief that books of quality can find an important home in this environment. And we believe that with so many other places kind of dumbing down lists and believing that you just have to do Hollywood-related books, that there’s a stronger market than ever for strong quality nonfiction and fiction. And by creating this additional imprint, it’s one way of expanding literature and strong nonfiction and really demonstrating that good books remain very much alive.

Are you then going against the grain of where the industry has been heading, in the sense that it has deemed great books uncommercial?

I don’t know whether we could say we’re going against the grain, but we haven’t changed our mandate. And we’ve found — especially now — that there’s a very strong market for books of quality, that we don’t have to worry about which fad is in or which movie is coming out. We believe that the printed word and words themselves have an enormous power, which can only be enhanced by the Internet and the Web. The Web and e-books are nothing to fear, but to embrace as part of what we are doing.

Is your business strategy to continue building a backlist that won’t die?

That is one of the major considerations. Traditionally, the backlist has always enabled companies to last. More recently there is a belief that you just have to get the instant quick bestsellers. But if you understand traditional publishing economics, it’s the backlist which has often allowed the company to take risks.

Liveright had an excellent track record in publishing work that would stand the test of time.

It’s a little humbling to follow Horace Liveright. He and Alfred A. Knopf were the two greatest publishers of their day, perhaps the 20th century. He experimented with things. He published Pound early. Listen, Faulkner wasn’t always Faulkner. By the 1940s, all of Faulkner was out of print. Often you have to take a very long-term view of things. He [Liveright] died so early he wasn’t able to see the fruits of his success. He died of alcoholism. It has not been my problem. I’m obsessive about work, and for me it’s all about the writers and the craft of editing. It’s the passion about writers and ultimately, I think that’s very good business. Writers love to be edited. And books are not a commodity. Some people have called books a product. A book is not a product. It’s a creative work that should endure.

How do you know what will last?

I judge it by whether I consider it to be great writing, ideas which touch me, which affect me, which move me, which have the potential to change the human condition. I like to think that I can wake up in the morning and through the books that I do, that I actually have a chance to change the culture. I feel that’s a privilege. In the ‘90s when I was working with John Bayley in England and I saw him taking care of Iris Murdoch, who had Alzheimer’s, and I said, “John, you have to write about this because I’m so moved by what you did.” He wrote a book about Alzheimer’s — the first book was “Elegy for Iris” — which I think changed the way people viewed people who were afflicted with Alzheimer’s. And sure enough, Hollywood did a movie on it, which starred Judi Dench.

What kind of edgy things will you be doing?

I’ve been publishing Robert and Aline Crumb for several years now, and I’m doing a book with them in October called “Drawn Together,” which is 40 years of their collaborative art. One I’m really high on next year, I’m doing a book called “The Fabliaux.” The fabliaux were 160 pieces of early medieval doggerel written in the vernacular, and they generally portrayed the other part of life. It was the lapses of the clergy, it was infidelity in the home, it was women imagining what went on in sex. It was very lascivious and prurient, and they all exist in written form but they’ve never existed in one book, so I’m designing them like a bible, with a little ribbon, and a major introduction that compares it to Chaucer, and they’re filthy. It opens up an entire chapter of Western humor that we didn’t know existed. The stuff is quite outré, it’s quite outrageous, but it has very much influenced the Western canon.

I think I hear a new cable channel series in the making.

You can only go by your instinct. And I think I’m half-nuts. I don’t know if “The Fabliaux’ will work, but I’m excited by them. So why not try it? It will come out a year from June and it will be a big event.

Do you have a specific business response to the rise of e-books?

We embrace the e-book as a complement to the printed book. At the same time I have to say we are very, very concerned about the existence of the actual bookstore. We feel it’s an imperative to support the bookstore as it exists as one option we can never lose.

What can you do to help make that happen?

We have great relations with all accounts, actually including Amazon, but we don’t write off smaller accounts just because they might be independent. Norton is the biggest independent publishing house, and it’s part of our heritage and part of our fabric. So we really identify with bookstores out there who are struggling to make it. And we offer our authors to them and to existing bookstores. It’s much harder to offer an author online. People want to meet an author. That being said, I love promoting books online.

What do you think the greatest threat is to publishing these days?

Every generation has mourned the loss of the real great book. I think we have to encourage places to train editors how to edit. I think we’re losing touch with the craft of editing. That is one concern is losing touch with the printed word. Of course I worry that the Internet creates a different consciousness in terms of reading a book, but we have to adapt to this really massive revolution in cognition.

Don’t you think that change in consciousness includes a society that’s increasingly attention deficit disorder-ridden, and how does that affect publishing?

I think books can often be shorter, and they have to be snappier. In general, we’ve seen society somersaulting toward sensationalism. And I’m not so sure that’s always a good thing. If you watch television or listen to the news, we’re drowned in sensationalism. There’s this abject desire to face the extreme, and I think that’s a little out of hand. And I like to put the brakes on that, to decelerate that trend rather than accelerate it, and show that ideas and feelings in books matters.