Michael Korda

Of Books and Ideas, Part II

VTR Date: December 6, 2007

Author and editor Michael Korda discusses his work and the business of writing.


GUEST: Michael Korda
VTR: 12/06/2007

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.

And this is the second of two programs with Michael Korda, author of many best-selling volumes of fact and fiction, and the long, long time Editor-In-Chief of Simon and Schuster, the distinguished publishing house.

Now, my guest’s own most recent best-selling book is Ike, An American Hero, a most compellingly readable biography of Dwight D. Eisenhower, America’s beloved World War II General and then President of the United States.

But I want to do this second program today with Michael Korda mostly about books … not just your own, Michael, but about books. And where is your head when it comes to looking at your industry, your profession today?

KORDA: Well, I think the miracle of it is that despite the enormous advances in electronic communication and devices. The book still seems to work as a device. I don’t mean to put down all the attempts to put books onto electronic reading machines.

But ultimately, when you take a book … this one just happens to be mine …

HEFFNER: (Laugh)

KORDA: … but never mind, when you take a book … you pick it up … you can move from page to page. You can read it again, you can store it, you can put it away, you can put it in the bag; it doesn’t need batteries. And you have to say, all things considered … that Gutenberg got it right. And that, in my opinion … the book is likely to stick around in its present form. Which is not to say that there won’t be ancillary devices on which you can read … there already are. But I think the book is here to stay with us.

HEFFNER: Now, I didn’t expect you to say anything else.

KORDA: (Laugh)

HEFFNER: But … you would have said that before McLuhan became as important as he did, and McLuhan prophesized the end of the Gutenberg galaxy. Now, are you simply saying we’ve staved that off a bit? Are you saying for good and for all, for all times?

KORDA: (Sigh) I would say … nobody can say for good or for …

HEFFNER: For all times.

KORDA: … for all times. But I would say I think the book is pretty permanently ensconced. I mean despite the gloom and doom that surrounds book publishing … but that’s always been true. Book publishers are, by nature, pessimists and always have predicted the end of the reading world as around the corner. Mark Twain was complaining about that.

The fact remains if you look at the numbers of books that are sold, it is astonishingly high. Now, they may not always be the books that you think people ought to be reading. They may not always be the best books … quote, unquote … of whatever they may be. But for example, if you look at the numbers of Harry Potter books sold, it is truly astonishing … it’s in the millions and millions and millions of copies. Now, forget whether you like Harry Potter or not. Forget that they’re children’s books, because that doesn’t really matter. What it demonstrates is that there still are out there millions and millions of people who will and want to read a book. If only they find a book that interests them. The big fiction best sellers today are commonly selling a couple of million … two million five hundred thousand copies … in hard cover.

Now, admittedly, I would be the first to agree that most of those books are not literature. But they never were. The fact remains that if there two million five hundred thousand people out there who will read a big, best selling novel, in hard cover … that’s a lot of people

If you look at David McCullough who writes wonderful, wonderful history and biography and is probably America’s most eminent historian and biographer, and twice winner of the Pulitzer Prize. David’s books sell, in hard cover, at very substantial prices, vastly more than a million copies. Who would have imagined, when you and I first had lunch in the far-ago 1960s, a hard cover biography of John Adams selling over a million copies. That’s a lot of books.

If you assume that for every hard cover book, and I would assume that this is so, there are two or three readers … because most people … a hard cover book is an object expensive enough that you pass it around. You say, I love this book, I’d really like you to read it, you’d love. And you pass it around. So two or three people read a hard cover book.

That’s three or four million hard cover readers for a biography of John Adams before it’s even in paperback.

HEFFNER: Now, given all that enthusiasm and given those numbers … what’s happening to our younger generation in terms of reading.

KORDA: Well, of course, you’re asking a man the wrong age that question. For all I know, reading could stop tomorrow. But … my experience …

HEFFNER: Has? Has stopped already?

KORDA: No, no. I don’t think it has stopped. But it could stop. (Laughter) But my experience is that young people are reading books and that … but their curiosity is aroused very often by things that are different from what arouses your curiosity and mine. Let me remind you that in the 1970s, to go back to a period nearer to us than the 1960s … when I first published Carlos Castaneda… everybody at Simon and Schuster said, “Nobody’s going to read this. It’s awful and it encourages drug use and it’s not going to work.”

And we sold phenomenal copies of The Teachings of Don Juan, his first book, which was a thesis for the University of California. Phenomenal copies. Because we had tapped in, accidentally, as it were, on something that was of great interest to kids at that time. Which was the paranormal, drugs, all the rest of that mishmash which was very important in the 1970s, was contained in Carlos Castaneda and in a very serious and readable way. And we touched millions of people with something that people over the age of 30 or 40 at Simon and Schuster couldn’t read at all and didn’t understand.

So, the same is true to day. Which is that the book business has to rely on editors who are 30 and 40 years old … at the oldest. And on Assistant Editors who are in their 20s. Not on the opinions of people who are in their 50s, 60s and 70s. This is true in every generation and it’s true in this case.

HEFFNER: And you don’t say, along with that … “God help us.”

KORDA: Well, God help …

HEFFNER: Or God help the industry …

KORDA: God help us in any case.

But … no, books, literature, history, biography, non-fiction of every kind … all of that needs to be re-invented once every generation.

Hemingway was an author that sprang out of his generation and was right for his generation and turned out to have staying power, which is not always the case. Though not as much staying power as others, perhaps.

But his books were shocking, strange and disconcerting to readers of a certain age, when they were first published. So, if the book business does not radically re-invent itself from generation to generation, then it will collapse.

HEFFNER: But, Michael, suppose one were to say to you, “but it is re-inventing itself, or trying to with these new cockamikey electronic devices that you seem to dismiss. Maybe that’s too harsh a word.

KORDA: I don’t dismiss them. But the device is not the issue. People will read a book that interests them in any form that it comes. The same arguments were made against the paperback book when it first came up. People said the print is too small, it’s sleazy, it’s cheap, the paper turns orange, nobody’s going to buy a book in a drugstore or at a newspaper shop … and it just will never work and never, never amount to anything.

But, of course, it opened up a whole new marketplace for reading. And it’s very possible these machines will open up another whole new marketplace for reading. The question is not what the machine is …but what we put on the machine. And, that’s why I am so cheered by the relative frequency, since I see you have it there before you … with which The New York Times best-seller list … lists in a very high place, week after week after week, books by authors I’ve never heard of. To me, that’s the best sign of health in the book business, is that there are young, unknown authors whose books are hitting the New York Times list.

Not because they have a long track record … I mean I’m delighted when Mary Higgins Clark goes to Number One because she’s a dear friend; I’ve edited her for 30 years or more … and, and I, I remain her editor, so I’m of course, delighted when she’s number one. But the good sign there is the books by people you and I have never heard of …that suddenly appear on the list. In very high …

HEFFNER: So you’re saying …

KORDA: … in very high places.

HEFFNER: So you’re saying that is an indication that the industry itself and its professionals are doing what they should be doing.

KORDA: They’re open to the new. If they’re open to the old, that’s easy. Anybody can say … it takes no great genius to say, I’d like to publish another book by Ellis. I’d really like to publish a David McCullough book. But, of course, who wouldn’t. They’re wonderful and they sell huge numbers of copies. But the book publishing business seems to be remarkable in it’s ability to remain open to new authors coming out of nowhere with new books that maybe unfamiliar to older readers and making them work on a very large scale and very large level. When it stops to do that, by the way, then it will need life support.

HEFFNER: Well, now, it may be that the person who is watching us has noticed that I’ve tried to sneak in the word “profession”, talking about publishing. You haven’t picked it up, you haven’t confirmed, denied, or any …

KORDA: Is it a profession?

HEFFNER: That’s what I want to know. What your position is.

KORDA: Well, I’m in it … or out of it now because I’m Editor-in-Chief Emeritus of Simon and Schuster which basically is to say that I’m retired, but still continue to edit old friends who are comfortable to be edited by me. And whom I enjoy editing.

But do I regard it as a profession? In the strictest sense, which is that a profession ought to set some qualifications … doctor is a professional because we know that a doctor has to go through certain stages to become a doctor. Though it’s often said what do you call the person who was at the bottom of his class in medical school? And the answer to that question is … “you call him doctor.”

HEFFNER: (Laugh) Right.

KORDA: (Laughter) But, book publishing has no such qualifications and yet I regard it as a profession in the sense that I regard being a theatrical producer as a profession; being a movie producer as a profession. I think that book publishing is not only a profession, but a fascinating and enormously insightful one.

I have just been re-reading a wonderful book … Justin Kaplan’s biography of Mark Twain. Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain, which he published many, many years ago and won him a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award.

And Justin was my predecessor at Simon and Schuster. Very good editor in his own right. I’m fascinated at the chapters on Mark Twain … not only learning the publishing business, but becoming his own publisher.

And later on, of course, with great success … phenomenal success, becoming Ulysses S. Grant’s publisher for what is, I think, the greatest non-fiction book in the history of American literature … Grant’s memoirs are the non-fiction equivalent of Moby Dick in the American literary canon, there is no other non-fiction that is as well written, and as well respected. And as constantly in print as Grant’s memoirs.

And it’s fascinating how Twain, in part, re-invented book publishing. And how modern his problems were in terms of securing reviews, in terms of print … deciding how many copies to print. In terms of getting poor Grant, who was dying of cancer, to finish the book on time. In terms of door-to-door selling, which Twain helped to invent.

The whole notion of the book club comes out of Twain’s decision to have people go round from door-to-door selling General Grant’s memoirs before, in fact, they were even written. And it was available in different kinds of leather and leatherette, at different prices.

And there was a time, in America, when outside the South there was no household that did not contain Grant’s memoirs. The Bible, the Farmer’s Almanac and Grant’s memoirs were the two … the three books that were to be found on the shelf of almost every American household north of the Mason-Dixon line.

And that is a fascinating story, but one which is heartening because in every generation somebody comes along to re-invent enough of the book publishing business to make it new.

The book clubs which were once a huge phenomenon … I mean your day and mine being a full selection of the Book of the Month Club, which I have been myself several times, was a huge deal. People ran up and down the halls of publishing houses shouting the news. And the Book Clubs suddenly vanished. People stopped doing that any more. They stopped agreeing to take one book a month for 12 months, chosen by six judges.

HEFFNER: Why, by the way?

KORDA: Well, in part, because the paperback book undermined that whole notion by making books available at much cheaper prices than you could get them from the Book of the Month Club. Or from the Literary Guild.

In part because the whole trend of American education was against reading what you were told to read by your eldest and betters, even if it was Clifton Fadiman. And people wanted to make up their own mind about what books to read.

In part because people no longer necessarily collected the books they read. So it wasn’t an advantage to them to be able to buy all twelve volumes of Will Durant’s story of civilization to put it in their bookshelves for $1.29 a volume. It simply … life changed.

And that was replaced by something which could never have existed twenty or thirty years ago, which is the Price Club. The costcutter, Sam’s Club, Costco. All of a sudden you have a new phenomenon which are clubs created by mass market retailers and clubs created by Oprah Winfrey that embody television and a book club. So in each generation a phenomenon has to be re-invented for that generation.

But that doesn’t mean that it’s worse or that it … that, that it won’t work. The Book Club has been reinvented, in part, as I said, by Oprah Winfrey. In a totally new form. Still works.

HEFFNER: Michael, one would have assumed years ago that Michael Korda would have gone into the mass-er of the media … why didn’t you? Movies. Your family. Movie people.

KORDA: Well, it’s part because everybody in my family was in the movie business … my father, my uncle Zoltan, my uncle Alex, my aunt Merle Oberon … my aunt Joan Gardner, even my mother was in the movies. So I grew up in the movie business and have written about it … extensively in Charmed Lives and in a couple of novels. But I also … I always had the feeling as a child … what is the point of going into a business where you’re going to be competing with your own father and your uncles, all of whom are brilliant at what they do and respected worldwide?

HEFFNER: Did you figure that out? Did you really as a kid?

KORDA: MmmHmm. Sure. Everywhere I went, people said to me, “Oh my God, your father is the most wonderful man. I remember when he won an Oscar in 1940 for The Thief of Baghdad, what a wonderful man your father is. Oh, your uncle Alex, oh my god, I remember when he won the first Oscar ever awarded for a foreign motion picture, for The Private Lives of Henry VIII. Your uncle Zoltan, he made the Four Feathers, he made, he made Jungle Book … what an incredible director.” Or they said the equivalent of that about my aunt Merle and my aunt Joan or my mother. It didn’t take much for me to say to myself, “Wait a minute. Whatever I do in the movie business, everywhere I go people are going to be saying, ‘Oh my God, you’re Vincent Korda’s son.”

You’ve got to go into something where people, whatever they say … will not say that. Because the, the, the step down from that is “Oh, he’s Alex Korda’s nephew, but he’s not as good as Alex was.” Or, “He’s Alex Korda’s nephew, but at his age, Alex had already made twelve silent movies in Budapest and was on his way to a great career.” No.

I decided whatever I was going to do and I did not pick out book publishing … I, like my subject General Eisenhower … I did not … did not pick out a military career, he simply wanted to go to someplace … Annapolis was his first choice where he could get a college education for free, because that was the only way he was going to get to college. And …

HEFFNER: And Editor-in-Chief Korda?

KORDA: And I went into the book business because all my life I’d been a big reader, ever since I could read at all … I loved books, I loved buying books and I figured there must be some kind of business behind this into which I could fit. I never thought it out much more than that. And chance, of course, played a very large part, because a role opened up for me at Simon and Schuster.

I had been, my first job when I came to this country in 1957 was at CBS reading scripts. And that seemed like a pretty good deal, except it didn’t seem to be leading anywhere. And so when a chance opened to become Henry Simon’s assistant at Simon and Schuster I, without hesitation, took that step and from moment one, I thought to myself “Yes, this is it. Now I get this. I’m sitting here … they’re paying me to read a book.” This is like, if you like delicatessen … (laughter), you know, it’s like becoming a tester …

HEFFNER: Not quite.

KORDA: … a tester of delicatessen meats … they’re paying you to eat pastrami. Here I am being paid to sit and read a book. Something that I had been doing all my life for nothing. In fact I’d even been buying the books. And that seemed to me a miracle. And it still seemed a miracle to me 48 years later when I retired from book publishing … I would still wake up in the morning and say, “My God, they’re paying me to do something that I want to do anyway.”

HEFFNER: It would be difficult for me to see someone in that position today because it would be difficult for me to see, from what I do know about young people, people who are reading now the way you were reading then.


HEFFNER: Not just because of your family.

KORDA: I think they do. There I think, with all due respect, that you’re wrong. I think people read with a passion. They will never be the majority of the American public. This is not a book oriented country. And, and our cultural life is too diverse and too showy and too noisy to give the book first place. I believe it’s perfectly true that per capita, the Germans, the French and the English, or the British, rather … read substantially more books than we do. That’s made up for the fact that the Canadians seem to read less. But …

HEFFNER: There on this side of the Atlantic …

KORDA: (Laughter) I know that. But then they’re split up … remember that the Canadians have English readers and French readers so they’re a special case.

But nevertheless, there are and I suspect will always be millions of people in this country who want to read a book. And who do read books. Is the book industry as big or as profitable as the movie industry? No.

Although it also does not have the disastrous failures of the movie industry that you know, carry $100 million dollars away with … when one picture fails.

On the other hand, if you look at the movies made, you have to also realize that a substantial number of them would not be made if somebody hadn’t written a book in the first place. An awful lot of them are based on books. Brokeback Mountain was a wonderful movie, the script for it was done by my friend Larry McMurtry and his partner Diana Osana and I was overjoyed when they won every possible prize for it. The fact of the matter is, however, that it is from a short story that was published in a book. And, and that’s good, that’s healthy. I think it’s wonderful that HBO is making a big, long, mini-series of David McCullough’s 1776 and of John Adams. I think it’s great when history is made seriously on television, as it used to be …

HEFFNER: Indeed.

KORDA: … 20 or 30 years ago.

HEFFNER: Indeed.

KORDA: And is at the same time great entertainment as well as enlightening. So I think that the place of the book industry remains firmly fixed in American life. I mean whether you’re Valerie Plame, the CIA agent who was “outed” by the Bush White House or whether you’re the Chairman of the Federal Board of Reserve … whoever you are … you haven’t said your word about your life and your career … what happened to you … until you’ve written the book.

The first thing that Bill Clinton did when he left office was to write “his” book. Mrs. Clinton wrote “her”. We all recognize that somehow getting it in this (holds up the book) form is the authentic document. “Now we have it. This is what he or she said happened, we can read it.”

It engenders debate. It engenders news; it engenders tremendous attention if it’s from somebody famous who’s had an interesting career. But it’s the central thing that we’re looking for. We’re not looking or people to leave the Presidency and to appear on television and in one half an hour try to explain why they did what they did during four or eight years. We’re waiting … all of us … for “the book”. You don’t write the book, it’s as if it never happened.

HEFFNER: Michael Korda, what can I say other than from your lips to God’s ears …

KORDA: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: … and keep it that way.

KORDA: I hope so.

HEFFNER: And thank you so much for joining me, again, on The Open Mind.

KORDA: Thank you so much for having me.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.