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Imprint editors carry on `what publishing once was all about'

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IT'S an image that Maxwell Perkins - editor of Thomas Wolfe, Ernest Hemingway, F.Scott Fitzgerald - engraved in the pantheon of publishing: The sympathetic editor, doggedly faithful to his writers, taking up the cudgels for the books he edits, from authors' rights of style to their right for shelf space, staying with the book till the reader cuts the pages.

If the best observers are right, this image has become lacquered over and shuffled into the numbing complexity of modern publishing.

But a number of editors have escaped, or at least partially avoided, the conveyor-belt syndrome by earning something called an imprint - the publishing equivalent of having your name hoisted up on the sign outside the store where you work.

At their worst, imprints are a sop to the editor's ego and the ultimate vanity publishing; at their best, they can give authors and their work a small sanctuary from mass-market publishing and thus, perhaps, pay dividends to the serious reader.

One can hear ``a sort of echo of good old Maxwell Perkins'' (as Little Brown executive William Guthrie puts it) in the best of the imprint editors.

``In an age of dwindling attention from editors in major publishing houses, where editors often spend a great deal of time making deals, and far less editing books,'' says author James Conoway, ``imprint editors are by necessity going to be deeply interested in the literary quality of the books they publish.''

Editorial imprints are generally small, personalized operations within much larger concerns. They usually bear the name of the editor in charge; and the list of books under the imprint editor's wing almost always reflects the philosophy, concerns, and publishing style of the editor. The imprint's logo can be found on the spine and frontispiece of the books they publish. Instead of having a book pass through their hands and on to other corporate departments, imprint editors usually stay with each book from the author's imagination to the reader's eye.

Imprint editors are a tiny factor in the output of any publishing house. Richard Todd, an imprint editor at Houghton-Mifflin, produces only about six titles a year, while the company itself turns out at least 100.


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