James Silberman: “A man who knows how to edit a manuscript and to publish a manuscript.”

From a New York Times obit by Sam Roberts headlined “James Silberman, Editor Who Nurtured Literary Careers, Is Dead at 93”:

James Silberman, a revered book editor whose meticulousness, intuition and patience helped propel the publishing careers of a distinguished roster of authors, including James Baldwin, Marilyn French, Hunter S. Thompson and Alvin Toffler, died on July 26 at his home in Manhattan.

Mr. Silberman was “a man who knows how to edit a manuscript, to read a manuscript and to publish a manuscript,” another of his authors, Elie Wiesel, told The New York Times in 1991.

Mr. Silberman’s career path was serendipitous. A government major at Harvard, he enrolled in the Radcliffe Publishing Course (now the Columbia Publishing Course) after graduating in 1950, then got hired in the shipping department of The Writer, which, he recalled in an oral history, was in the business of “selling a magazine to aspiring writers, telling them how to become rich and famous.”

He found an advertising job at Little, Brown & Company, then became a publicist for the Dial Press in New York in 1953. When the company’s sole editor left to have her second child, he was promoted to replace her and assumed the title that would define his vocation.

After Alfred A. Knopf, James Baldwin’s first publisher, rejected “Giovanni’s Room” because they felt its gay white characters might alienate Mr. Baldwin’s Black audience, Mr. Silberman scooped it up for Dial. He went on to edit Mr. Baldwin’s “Another Country” and “The Fire Next Time.”

In 1963, Mr. Silberman was lured to Random House as senior editor by Bennett Cerf, the company’s co-founder, who later named him editor in chief and publisher of adult trade books.

Joining an impressive editorial team that included Robert Loomis, Jason Epstein and Joe Fox, Mr. Silberman published Hunter S. Thompson’s “Hell’s Angels” (1967), Alvin Toffler’s “Future Shock” (1970), Stewart Brand’s “The Last Whole Earth Catalog” (1971, in association with the Portola Institute), David Halberstam’s “The Best and the Brightest” (1972) and E.L. Doctorow’s “The Book of Daniel” (1971) and “Ragtime” (1975).

Mr. Silberman left Random House in 1975 after refusing to fire Selma Shapiro, the company’s vice president for publicity, with whom he was having an affair and whom he later married; he blamed the company’s “moral rigidity.” He was immediately hired by Richard E. Snyder, Simon & Schuster’s competitive chairman, to launch his own imprint, Summit Books.

At Summit he published Marilyn French’s debut novel, “The Women’s Room” (1977), which sold some 20 million copies; Seymour Hersh’s “The Price of Power: Kissinger in the Nixon White House” (1983); and Oliver Sacks’s “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat” (1985).

“Jim could see things in what I was doing as a reporter that I did not see,” Mr. Hersh said by email, citing his books on Mr. Kissinger and John F. Kennedy. “Amidst constant negative pressure from the subjects, he never flinched and had my back all the way.”. . .

Among the authors with whom Mr. Silberman had especially tortured relationships was Mr. Thompson, the gonzo journalist who wrote books about “Fear and Loathing” and whose struggle to write a book tentatively called “The Death of the American Dream” is recorded in his letters to Mr. Silberman in books edited by Douglas Brinkley.

Mr. Silberman once said of Mr. Thompson, “Your method of research is to tie yourself to a railroad track when you know a train is coming to it, and see what happens.” And, when Mr. Thompson killed himself at 67 in 2005, Mr. Silberman remarked, “He spent his life in search of an honest man, and he seldom found any.”

Coaxing a book out of Mr. Thompson, or for that matter a more conventional writer, meant “helping the author write the best book he or she can write at that moment in time,” which requires that “every time you turn that page, you are open and hopeful,” Mr. Silberman once said.

“It’s very difficult to think your way into a story,” he added. “You have to feel your way into it, which requires you to approach the manuscript with a certain kind of naïveté. You have to return to the kind of reader all of us once were.”

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