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The Old Guard Is Out at Penguin Random House

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

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

After CEO Markus Dohle failed in his attempted megamerger with Simon & Schuster last fall, he departed in December. Next to go was head of U.S. operations Madeline McIntosh, who left in late January. An executive named Nihar Malaviya has since taken over and is steering the company through this post-pandemic period, when sales are down across the industry and costs of goods and services are up. There were layoffs Monday, but what’s really transforming the publishing house are the buyouts currently underway. Many of the most influential editors have quietly decided to take the buyout, some for fear of being laid off later, others because they simply no longer recognize the place at which they’ve spent their entire careers.

Many who are leaving came up in an era in which editors were truly autonomous, and sometimes as famous as their writers. They ruled the best-seller lists with their golden guts, and no one in accounting ever balked at their expense-account lunches at The Four Seasons.

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

In certain uptown literati circles, this is like watching a Borzoi be fed to a wood chipper. “Alfred Knopf must be turning in his grave,” says 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. I read him the list of names 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 grave, and that’s freshly dug. He was a bulwark against the kinds of things they’re doing now. These preternaturally gifted editors who really stood for literature — fine writing, fine editing — they were protected so long as he was there.” Mehta died in late 2019, and many see these buyouts — taken together with Robert Gottlieb’s death last month — as one final convulsion, the climactic purge before a full generational shift in publishing is complete.

Former Knopf editor-in-chief Sonny Mehta at the publisher’s 100th-anniversary party at the New York Public Library in 2015. Mehta died in 2019. Photo: Rebecca Smeyne/The New York Times/REDUX

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

Here’s the thing about book editing: You don’t automatically age out of it when you get older. Gottlieb was editing pretty much until his death at 92. John McPhee, who is 92, just published a book having to do with this very subject. “Old-people projects keep old people old,” he writes in Tabula Rasa. “You’re no longer old when you’re dead.”

Some who are leaving are the last links to a glamorous time of publishing’s past. Consider editor Shelley Wanger (pronounced like wane-jerr), 75. “She really is the ultimate class act in trade publishing,” says Aronson, “and maybe the last.” Her shiny pedigree is a blend of Hollywood and Upper East Side Wasp: Her father was the producer Walter Wanger, who made Cleopatra and Invasion of the Body Snatchers; her mother, Joan Bennett, and aunt, Constance Bennett, were film-noir dames; her husband is David Mortimer, a grandson of Averell Harriman.

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

“She’s succeeded with highbrow books and lowbrow books,” says Leon Wieseltier, who first met her when she was Bob Silvers’s assistant at The New York Review of Books. “Her commitment to seriousness is as great as her commitment to style. There’s something genuinely exquisite about her. I hope the big new brains at the top of these cherished houses know what they’re doing. One may be forgiven for some doubt on that score.”

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

And then there is Wanger’s Knopf colleague, Jonathan Segal. At 77, he is considered a singular force in nonfiction, the go-to book editor for some of the top bylines in international-affairs reporting (Roger Cohen, Nick Kristof, and Dexter Filkins all work with him). Seven of the books Segal published have won the Pulitzer Prize. “In my long career, there has never been an editor who was more precise, more astute, more demanding, and yet more encouraging,” says Gay Talese, who published Unto the Sons and A Writer’s Life with Segal. (Describing the scribbles Segal leaves in the margins of manuscripts, Talese adds, “There is nobody in publishing who can write sentences in ink that are as tiny as his.”)

One writer with whom Segal has worked closely is Robert M. Gates, the former Defense secretary under George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Gates describes his editor as “endearingly curmudgeonly, always ready with a bottle of vodka stashed in his lower desk drawer for peacemaking or celebrating.”

Segal struck up an arrangement with PRH that will allow him to continue freelance editing a few of his writers, which has raised some eyebrows in publishing. Says one industry insider: “The cover they’re offering some of these people, isn’t really cover for them — it’s cover for the corporation. Oh, we’ll let you continue editing some of your writers so it doesn’t look like we’re losing everyone and we’re honoring the traditions of the company.

Still, everyone agrees that PRH’s buyout, which was offered to employees over 60, is, by industry standards, quite generous. (It seems to be calculated largely based on current salary and how many years one has been with the company.) It was first offered in May, and the deadline to accept was June 20. Those who’ve accepted the buyout could stay as long as December 15; others will finish up as soon as this summer.

One thing that’s making it slightly easier for the old guard to say good-bye is their hatred of the work-from-home era. “It infuriates me to no end,” says one person who reluctantly accepted the buyout. The PRH offices in midtown remain empty as ever. “If you go in there, it’s quite shocking,” says an exec who dropped by recently. “You walk on to one of those floors and there’s literally no one there. Just books in boxes piled up. It looks like a storage house.”

Besides, their jobs ain’t what they used to be. “What it actually takes to sell a book these days is unappealing to certain editors,” says one young editor. “Iconic editors who’ve been doing this for years don’t want to one day suddenly 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.”

Their departure will open the ranks to a more diverse and technologically nimble group, even if a certain literary mystique will be gone. A whole generation of editors has been tapping its foot, waiting for these boomers to clear out. “Knopf in particular has stables of people, almost like The New Yorker,” says the youngster. “It’s like, How do you even work here still?

Well, they won’t for long.

The Old Guard Is Out at Penguin Random House