A personal touch in publishing

``I like publishing to be transparent,'' says Elisabeth Sifton. ``I don't think most people know who publishes what, and I think that's great. They know Thackeray wrote `Vanity Fair,' but they don't give a fig who published it.'' Her observation is undoubtedly true (Do you know which publisher produced the last book you read?), but Ms. Sifton's comment is a touch ironic because her name has just now begun to appear on the books she acquires and edits, along with the name of the publisher for whom she works, Viking Penguin.

Elisabeth Sifton Books is one of the latest in a growing number of personal imprints sprinkled through books today. Just to name a couple of others, William Abrahams has his imprint on the books he edits for E. P. Dutton, and Joan Kahn has hers on the books she does at St. Martin's Press. There are many more. In Sifton's case, it all came about because of her company's recognition of her editorial abilities and because of her personal commitment.

She joined Viking Press as an editor in 1968 and rose to editor in chief of Viking Penguin, which the company became when its hard-cover and paperback arms were united. In January 1984, after she had served as editor in chief since 1979, the Elisabeth Sifton Books imprint was announced by Peter Mayer, executive chairman of Viking Penguin.

What this meant in practical terms was that Sifton could act as a one-person publisher within the corporate context of Viking Penguin. She could acquire books virtually on her own decision, edit them, and influence how they were designed, produced, and marketed. The results, which included ``Putting Up with the Russians'' by Edward Crankshaw, started showing up in bookstores this fall. The latest is Don DeLillo's new novel, ``White Noise.''

It is a formidable opportunity, as Sifton is quick to admit. ``It means that I have an immediate responsibility and responsiveness,'' she says. ``I can go out to lunch and make a deal right there.'' She is not subject to editorial reviews, although she is responsible to Alan Kellock, president and publisher of the company.

``Plus,'' she says, ``I have a personal commitment which is the traditional standard of publishing. This is sometimes lost in modern publishing because of the immense problems of selling books in the contemporary marketplace. I realize a large company today, like Viking Penguin, needs all its staff to do the work that must be done, but what I am able to do is to use all the resources these people represent to support the books I produce.''

In other words, Sifton can make use of the strengths of a big publisher and at the same time nurse each of her books through the publishing process with full personal attention. ``It's rather like a blend of ancient wisdom and modern skills,'' she says.

Among Sifton's first books are ``The Collected Letters of Jean Rhys,'' and titles by Jonathan Spence, William Gaddis, and Terrence Des Pres. These authors are of the same caliber that she worked with as editor in chief.

``Peter told me to go on doing just what I'd been doing,'' Sifton says. ``Actually, in 1985, I'm doing more books that I like, and as a result I'm feeling very pressed. I told Peter I wanted to do only 10 or 15 books a year. This year I'm doing 20.'' In that unpredictable way publishing has, several books unexpectedly showed up at nearly the same time.

When asked how having her own imprint compares with serving as editor in chief, Sifton is stumped. ``I can't really say,'' she notes. ``It's like comparing apples and oranges. That was a terrific apple, and this is just a wonderful orange.''

A regular monthly column in the Book Review.

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