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

(Page 2 of 2)

But a small corps of imprint editors - most notably, according to industry observers, Helen Wolff, Elisabeth Sifton, Seymour Lawrence, Richard Todd, William Abrahams, and a handful of others - has earned a repuation for creating the working environment and ambience of what one literary critic calls ``small, elegant, quality-line houses.''

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``The name Elisabeth Sifton on a book means something,'' acknowledges Richard Merrick, president of E.P. Dutton, who for years had his own imprint.

What it means to Helen Dudar, who writes about books and publishing for the Wall Street Journal, is that the book was published by ``a woman who has an interest in books of quality that will say something, but that may not make the best-seller list.'' And John Blades, literary critic and former book editor for the Chicago Tribune, adds that it ``means that it's not just a general, run-of-the-mill'' product of a big house; these imprints are ``a sort of personal statement'' and ``a mark of distinction that can also be a mark of quality. Of course, it's not always a mark of quality. They can put out as bad a book as anyone else.''

Still, the opportunity exists for an imprint editor to follow the same kind of personal star that Helen and Kurt Wolff journeyed under when they pioneered the phenomenon in 1961, with their ``A Helen and Kurt Wolff Book'' imprint at Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. Helen Wolff, now semi-retired, kept the imprint alive after her husband's death in 1963.

The Wolffs imported European authors to the United States; and over the years their meticulous, close editing earned the imprint a reputation for shepherding works of depth and quality.

The approach was built on no secret formula, Mrs. Wolff told the New Yorker in 1982, except that ``you really must care. I like to publish authors, not just books. One finds an author who has an exceptional talent, and then builds him up little by little.'' For Mrs. Wolff, this close attention meant poring over 6,000 slides with author Joy Adamson to make a selection for the book, ``Peoples of Kenya'' and keeping a box of chocolates handy to ``lighten the atmosphere'' whenever the author got upset about the way things were heading.

That scene isn't so different from one more than 20 years later when author James Conoway would roll out of bed in the rustic, New England home of his editor, Richard Todd, have breakfast, and then toil all day with Todd over the manuscript of an extremely challenging project, scattered all over the dining room table.

The book, ``The Kingdom in the Country,'' he recalls, ``had a lot of problems in the scope and focus that I couldn't have fixed with the sporadic attention of an editor.''

Conoway, who has worked in the past with highly respected editors at Knopf and elsewhere, adds that he can easily ``see the difference'' that working with an independent editor, single-mindedly devoted to his small cadre of authors, made to the finished product.

Not many imprint editors have the luxury of working in the cloistered surroundings of a house in the woods, but the general principle of close attention, and steady attention, prevails.

``It's important to bear in mind that this is not something new,'' he says. ``This is what publishing once was all about.''