Great Editors–Robert Loomis at Random House

My decision to use my blog to focus on the unsung heroes of publishing–the editors in the trenches–has sent me on an adventure of websites and book reading and rather intense study. But I am loving every minute of it. It’s just not all happening as quickly as my self-imposed blogging schedule might like. But I’m learning along the way about what makes great editors, and I want to pass what I’m learning along to you.

In any case, my trail led me from Maxwell Perkins (see Part 1 and Part 2 of my homage to him) to Bennett Cerf (one of the founders of Random House publishers, more about him later) to Robert Loomis, legendary editor at Random House who retired in 2011 after 54 years.

Right there. That should make him a hero.

You’ve probably not heard of him. But chances are, you’ve heard of some of the people he edited, such as Maya Angelou and William Styron (Loomis edited Sophie’s Choice, among others).

Indeed, the title of an article in The New York Times about his retirement announcement captures his essence: “Nurturer of Authors Is Closing the Book.”

The New York Times article says that upon hearing of his retirement, Maya Angelou said in an email, “Robert Loomis has been my editor since 1968. He has guided and encouraged me through 31 books. I can’t imagine trusting a manuscript in the hands of anyone else. I am not finished writing, so I cannot let him retire.”

That’s the kind of relationship great editors have with writers. The writers need those editors. They love them. They entrust their works and words to them. They know those editors make them that much better as writers. As the article title says, great editors are nurturers of writers.

In fact, from The New York Times archives is this tidbit from “Making Books; Familiarity Breeds Content“:

But while the news accounts go to the authors and editors who pop from one publishing house to another, the less celebrated but more interesting tales are those of continuity and loyalty. Sometimes they even become the stuff of literary legend.

Which brings us back to Ms. Angelou. Her editor is Robert Loomis, an executive editor at Random House, one of publishing’s hall of fame editors. “We are an item,” Ms. Angelou said. ”I would go with Bob if he left and went to a university press. He knows what I hope to achieve in all my work. I don’t know anybody as fierce, simply fierce, but he’s as tender as he’s tough.” . . .

Here’s an insight to a writer-editor relationship. Ms. Angelou said: ”He’s a nuisance. He asks these questions: ‘Why did you put a semicolon there, to give the thought some breath? Is that the word you really want?’ I’ve said to him many times you’re bullheaded, I’ll never speak to you again and then I send him night letters or telegrams telling him he’s right.

”When he finished the manuscript of my last volume he said: ‘Maya, thank you. This is great.’ In 33 years he never used that word for me. Great is good to him.”

In fact, Bennett Cerf, co-founder of Random House (did you know they were so named because they printed “random” books?), counted on the relationships his editors had with their authors to bring those authors into Random House and onto their publication lists. If Random House was able to lure an editor away from a competitor, often that editor’s authors came along.

at random

In his book, At Random: The Reminiscences of Bennett Cerf (Random House, 1977), Cerf describes great editors like this:

A good editor, I think, like a good author, has to be born with some of the necessary talents, like a good memory and some imagination. But he also needs to have acquired a fairly broad range of interests, a working knowledge of the English language and a good supply of general information–the more the better–so that he can understand what an author is trying to do and be of help to him in doing it. An editor has to have read widely enough to be able to recognize and appreciate good writing when he sees it. . . .

An editor has to be able to get along with authors–which is not always easy. When the relationship is a good one, an editor can be extremely helpful by serving as a kind of sounding board for an author’s ideas and intentions, and by making suggestions aimed at sharpening and clarifying what the author wants to say. Also, the editor can be of value in pointing out parts of a manuscript that should be cut out because they are repetitive, or dull, or unnecessary. (219)

Being a good editor means caring about books, caring about language, and being a constant learner. Being one of the greats takes perseverance, relationship-building, honesty coupled with kindness, and a big dose of nurturing.

All of that because of a deep desire to help an author write the best book possible.

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