IT'S an image that Maxwell Perkins - editor of Thomas Wolfe, Ernest Hemingway, F.Scott Fitzgerald - engraved in the pantheon of publishing: The sympathetic editor, doggedly faithful to his writers, taking up the cudgels for the books he edits, from authors' rights of style to their right for shelf space, staying with the book till the reader cuts the pages.
If the best observers are right, this image has become lacquered over and shuffled into the numbing complexity of modern publishing.
But a number of editors have escaped, or at least partially avoided, the conveyor-belt syndrome by earning something called an imprint - the publishing equivalent of having your name hoisted up on the sign outside the store where you work.
At their worst, imprints are a sop to the editor's ego and the ultimate vanity publishing; at their best, they can give authors and their work a small sanctuary from mass-market publishing and thus, perhaps, pay dividends to the serious reader.
One can hear ``a sort of echo of good old Maxwell Perkins'' (as Little Brown executive William Guthrie puts it) in the best of the imprint editors.
``In an age of dwindling attention from editors in major publishing houses, where editors often spend a great deal of time making deals, and far less editing books,'' says author James Conoway, ``imprint editors are by necessity going to be deeply interested in the literary quality of the books they publish.''
Editorial imprints are generally small, personalized operations within much larger concerns. They usually bear the name of the editor in charge; and the list of books under the imprint editor's wing almost always reflects the philosophy, concerns, and publishing style of the editor. The imprint's logo can be found on the spine and frontispiece of the books they publish. Instead of having a book pass through their hands and on to other corporate departments, imprint editors usually stay with each book from the author's imagination to the reader's eye.
Imprint editors are a tiny factor in the output of any publishing house. Richard Todd, an imprint editor at Houghton-Mifflin, produces only about six titles a year, while the company itself turns out at least 100.
For the editors, the chief blessing of an imprint - aside from the pleasure of seeing one's name in lights - is the editorial freedom that most have, the opportunity to assemble ``a coherent batch of high quality books with a recognizable, identifying `something' about them,'' as imprint editor Elisabeth Sifton of Viking Penguin puts it.
Imprint editor Richard Todd relishes the chance to ``spend more time with writers and less with committees'' and ``to work at home. I don't know if I could edit a book in the office.'' In addition, ``I'm not forced or even pressed or asked to do something I'm not interested in.
``I don't want to romanticize this too much, though,'' he adds, pointing out that many an in-house editor has similar editorial freedoms.
The imprint phenomenon is widely viewed as a potentially brilliant idea - even if it has often been exploited for a variety of nonliterary reasons.
``Imprints were over-proliferating for a while, but they're settling down now,'' observes Roger Straus Sr. of Farrar, Straus & Giroux. He complains that the motives for giving an imprint to an editor range from the desire to confer ``a noble life award'' to keeping an editor from jumping ship.
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.''
``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.''