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the Complete Review
the complete review - biography

I Never Had a Best-Seller

Jacob Steinberg

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To purchase I Never Had a Best-Seller

Title: I Never Had a Best-Seller
Author: Jacob Steinberg
Genre: Biography
Written: 1993
Length: 268 pages
Availability: I Never Had a Best-Seller - US
I Never Had a Best-Seller - UK
I Never Had a Best-Seller - Canada
  • The Story of a Small Publisher
  • With an Afterword by Thomas T. Beeler

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Our Assessment:

B : decent overview, with some good insights into (small-time) publishing in those times

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The LA Times . 23/5/1993 Chris Goodrich

  From the Reviews:
  • "Although Jacob Steinberg, Twayne's founder, does a fair bit of horn-tooting in I Never Had a Best-Seller, he tells a generally interesting story, one centering on the struggles an independent publisher must face in order to survive." - Chris Goodrich, The Los Angeles Times

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Jacob Steinberg founded Twayne Publishers Inc. in 1949, and I Never Had a Best-Seller is a publisher-memoir of his experiences running Twayne until 1973, when he sold it to conglomerate ITT (remaining involved with the company through 1974, but in a much-reduced role), with some additional before and after biographical material as well as an Afterword by Thomas T. Beeler chronicling 'Twayne Since 1972' (through 1992). Now a part of Cengage-subsidiary Gale, Twayne's Author Series remains its lasting legacy, and much of the focus of Steinberg's book is naturally on these, but there's also considerably more to it.
       Steinberg begins with an 'Autobiographical Sketch', already an interesting glimpse of growing up Jewish in New York City (and, for a time, Albany) between the wars, and how he came to study Chinese. Building on this, when he set up his publishing venture: "The original intent of the firm was to publish translations of Chinese classics" -- and, impressively: "Twayne's first book was to have been Dream of the Red Chamber, an 18th-century work by Tsao Hsueh-chin, regarded by many as the greatest of all Chinese novels". That proved overly ambitious -- as, surely, did the hope that this could be: "the book that was supposed to provide a solid financial basis for our enterprise" --, with the Twayne edition only finally appearing in 1958, but Steinberg proved very flexible from the outset.
       With John Ciardi on board as editor, there was an early pivot to poetry -- again an unlikely-sounding concentration to hope for much (financial) success with. It didn't stop there: there was a lithograph series, of works by Thomas Hart Benton, for example -- but that also proved to be a near-impossible sell (at the time: Steinberg bitterly noting that, after all that failure, by the early 1990s: "the extra-large lithos that we were offering at $10.00 retail ($6.00 to the stores) were going for $600-1000 ...). Steinberg also occasionally gets sidetracked here, as when uses I Never Had a Best-Seller as a pitch for artist-monographs, an area Twayne didn't get into but which he suggests, with a subscription-business-model, was entirely feasible: he uses the example of Kenneth Munowitz, going so far as to include The New York Times' review of a 1977 retrospective of the artist (never published in the newspaper, because of a strike at the time ...), and then includes a selection of more than two dozen color plates of the artist's work slap dab in the middle of the book (to prove it was viable ?). It is an odd (though certainly colorful) supplement to this publishing-biography ..... (It also contrasts oddly with what otherwise looks like a very cheaply-produced book, from the blandest of covers to the typesetting -- and surely upped the production costs considerably (and entirely unnecessarily).)
       Twayne even went so far as to try their hand at science fiction-publishing, but the big breakthrough came with their authors-series. Originally pitched to other publishers by Sylvia Bowman, Twayne finally was the one to pick up the project. They had already started a Twayne's United States Classics Series (TUSCS -- they loved their acronyms) -- hardback reprints of American classics --, with Bowman as editor, and then in 1961 started their critical studies of American writers, Twayne's United States Authors Series (TUSAS). A series on British writers -- Twayne's English Authors Series (TEAS) -- followed, and then one for authors from elsewhere, Twayne's World Authors Series (TWAS). These short, readable monographs proved immensely popular, mainstays of libraries everywhere; they remain useful introductions and overviews of so many writers, truly one of the great series in American publishing.
       Twayne continued to publish quite a variety of other titles as well. Of particular note are their efforts to bring Eastern European and Russian literature to English-speaking readers, with Steinberg devoting a chapter to 'Literary Diplomacy', as dealing with these countries in then-still Soviet times proved an interesting challenge. There is also some mention of two other admirable projects, their Library of Scandinavian Literature and then their Library of Netherlandic Literature; while neither wound up being particularly extensive, they're remarkable little lists of titles, underappreciated then (and now). (Dalkey Archive Press' National Literature Series is a more recent similar effort.)
       The Twayne bread-and-butter -- and the only books that survived -- was its author series. Twayne's admirable forays especially into publishing fiction in translation were relatively limited; Steinberg realized early on that specialization in a specific area, with a more or less guaranteed market (libraries) was the way to go. So also:

That's why very early on Twayne turned away from the crap-shoot called trade-publishing. We didn't have the money and couldn't compete with the big firms.
       I Never Had a Best-Seller usefully goes into much of the publishing nitty-gritty. The examples are somewhat specific to Twayne (and the times), but still offer fascinating glimpses of the publishing business. Steinberg goes on at considerable length at his efforts to find purchasers (as opposed, really, to an audience) for the Twayne titles, finding the greatest success in directly addressing libraries. He finds that some regular advertising works, while reviews rarely made much of a difference. He even goes into areas such as remainders -- something he apparently proved particularly adept at making money off ("I think I got rid of more than a million books"), and a side of the book business he clearly feels is under-appreciated for its (revenue) potential. (Admirably, he also argues strongly for authors receiving royalties on remainders -- a rare practice in his days.) Discussions of things like permissions are also of interest -- issues that are also still of significance today (which some publishers and literary estates would do well to heed ...).
       A chapter on 'Tsurris' (defined as: "Troubles, usually big ones") describes some of the problems he and Twayne ran into -- which includes some hair-raising missteps (as in the literal handing out of blank checks ...), though nothing fatal. Nevertheless, it's an interesting side-account of things that can go wrong in a small business, and specifically in publishing.
       Steinberg can harp a bit much on specific examples and incidents, complete with extensive documentation, as he reprints considerable amounts of correspondence where he could just as easily have summed things up -- though there's some entertainment and information value to seeing exactly what publishers, editors, and authors sometimes communicate (and argue) about. Overall, the book swings a bit too widely between minutiae and broad sweeps; a general chronology and something of a bibliography would also have been welcome.
       Thomas T. Beeler's Afterword, chronicling what became of Twayne in the two decades after Steinberg moved on is also of interest -- not least for the point that: "I must also add that I do not think that book publishing benefits from large corporate ownership" (as indeed Twayne has been reduced to a cash-cow set of authors-series, its many other worthy titles tossed by the wayside). Even the would-be benefits of corporate ownership -- deep pockets to tide things over -- often did not apply, as Beeler reports of how, during a downturn starting in 1979, when some 60 TWAS titles a year were being published, the ITT corporate overlords decided the best course of action was to cut back, leading eventually to the cancellation of 78 TWAS contracts -- a huge blow to the series and its reputation, especially among it authors. As Beeler notes, as an independent under Steinberg the cancellations are unlikely to have happened, with a different solution somehow found.
       I Never Had a Best-Seller is an industry-specific work, with a focus more on the business itself than the actual books; as such, it is likely of interest only to a limited readership. It's a bit of a shame that Steinberg doesn't write more about himself -- the personal parts, such as about his stints as a teacher or visits to Eastern Europe, are certainly colorful -- and even with regards to the business of publishing he can get carried away with some of the less interesting specifics from Twayne's history, but it's still a reasonably entertaining read overall.
       The Twayne authors-series are works that many readers will be familiar with, and presumably this book will be of greatest interest in what it has to say about them. Even here, Steinberg could have gone into some more detail about aspects of publishing them -- though there is quite a bit -- but then as it turns out Twayne published quite a bit beyond just them. There is a lot here, but those hoping for a true history of the Twayne authors-series will have to look elsewhere.
       I Never Had a Best-Seller does live up to its subtitle: it is The Story of a Small Publisher -- colorful and interesting enough, if not much more.

- M.A.Orthofer, 3 September 2021

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Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American publisher Jacob Steinberg lived 1915 to 2015.

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