home | news | roster | MadAminA! | about maa | contact maa      

ENCOUNTERS by George Sturm
Claire Brook

Claire Brook

The elevator stops on the sixth floor of 500 Fifth Avenue and the wood-paneled waiting room, discreet book display cases, and familiar logo give comfortable assurance that I have arrived at W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., one of the nation's most imaginative publishers. I am here to learn a little about one area in which Norton is unique, the publication of distinguished books on musical subjects, from someone who has been carrying on a great tradition for nearly 20 years, Claire Brook, senior editor, music.

Not that the tradition is all that old, we are quick to learn. Warder Norton incorporated his company in 1923 and published his first books in 1924. He was interested in adult education and wished to produce books that made a permanent impact, "books that live." His first lists concentrated on philosophy and psychology, but soon, owing chiefly to the enthusiasm and dedication of his wife Polly, a list of books on music was added. It was not long before Paul Henry Lang, professor of musicology at Columbia and author of Music in Western Civilization, joined the firm as music adviser and general editor of the History of Music Series, and a publishing monument was launched. The Norton back list in music is as diverse as the art itself, ranging from Emily Anderson's editions of the letters of Mozart and Beethoven to Konrad Wolff's recollections of Schnabel interpretations, and including such classics as Music in the Baroque Era by Manfred Bukofzer, two books by Aaron Copland, anthologies of medieval and renaissance music edited by Noah Greenberg, no less than seven books by P .H. Lang, Walter Piston's books on counterpoint, harmony, and orchestration, Music in the Middle Ages and Music in the Renaissance by Gustave Reese, Source Readings in Music History by Oliver Strunk. Such is the treasury presided over and judiciously nourished by editor Claire Brook in her book-lined and galley-strewn office overlooking Fifth Avenue near 42nd Street.

Trained at Queens College (where she studied with Karol Rathaus, John Castellini, and Boris Schwarz), Claire Kessler had a notion of becoming a composer when she graduated. But when the opportunity arose to work on a Masters degree in musicology at Columbia, she jumped at it. With degree in hand, however, she decided to go to Paris to further her work in composition, studying with Nadia Boulanger for two years before returning to a less lofty world where earning a living suddenly became a pressing reality. Amid a profusion of odd jobs, piano teaching (which she hated), doing re search (which she liked) for an advertising agency, she learned how to copy music. The variety of disciplines stood her in good stead. In quick order, she found herself married, the mother of two children, and divorced. She needed to have income from work that could be done largely at home so that she could look after her young children, and music copying was as good an answer as any. After a while, however, the show-biz mentality of pops copying started to pall. ("I hated the copying racket, the business of four measures to the line because that's how you get paid, the shoddy merchandise you were copying, the untenable hours.") By then she had met Barry Brook, a musicologist who is now executive officer of the Ph.D. program in music at the Graduate Center of City University of New York. His cousin is Arnold Broido, president of Theodore Presser, the Bryn Mawr music publishing firm, and it was Broido who referred her to Maxwell Weaner, a music autographer who was considered the best in the business. ("His prices were so high, hardly any music publisher could afford him. He did music examples for all the big book publishers. He retrained me. He put me through a real medieval apprenticeship. For about a year I didn't earn a penny.") But when she struck out on her own, she had mastered a rare craft and was able to offer her services to book publishers and music publishers alike. She worked as an autographer for ten years, doing music examples for scholarly articles and free-lancing on a broad gamut of publishing projects. She was asked to lend a hand with production, with the vastly complex process of making manuscripts camera-ready. By the end of her free-lancing decade she had gathered experience in virtually every segment of publishing. And then she and the children and her husband Barry went off to Europe for a couple of years.

When they returned, the children were sufficiently grown for Claire to consider employment outside her home. She had one great dream: to work in the music department at W.W. Norton. So she went to see David Hamilton, then music editor — he had succeeded Nathan Broder who had followed Paul Henry Lang in a great editorial chain — and they talked the whole afternoon and hit it off splendidly, but there was no job at Norton at the time. Barry had founded the RILM abstracts of Music Literature and his wife went to help out by running its office at Queens College when, just a year after that stimulating but disappointing afternoon at Norton, David Hamilton called and asked her to come to work. She began as his associate on October 1, 1969 in the belief that her dream had come true. It was only the following February, however, that Hamilton gave a little birthday party for her and proudly announced, by way of a birthday present, that her job had been made permanent. "I nearly killed him. I had left a job and burned my bridges, and it never dawned on me that the job I was going to might not be permanent!" After a couple of years, however, she began to get restless, feeling that she did not have sufficient responsibility despite the fact that she had brought in a number of important books such as J.H. Kwabena Nketia's The Music of Africa. ("I was very lucky. It became a classic.") Just as she toyed with the idea of going elsewhere, the unexpected occurred: David Hamilton announced that he would leave.

Claire Brook became, at first, music editor pro tem — there had never been a woman senior editor at Norton in any department outside of juvenile books — and soon thereafter she found herself senior editor, music. Her dream had come true.

How many book publishers, I asked, had music departments similar to Norton's? "None. Polly Norton brought Paul [Henry] Lang into the fold. She brought Gus [tave] Reese into the fold. She was a chamber music enthusiast and a patron and she convinced her husband that music could be a publishable discipline and those books began to be published in the 30's. A great part of my work is as caretaker of this list. I will not add anything that isn't absolutely in the same category, even if it might make a lot of money. There are a lot of books I have to turn down because they are not Norton quality books, the kind of books that can sit comfortably between those other titles on the list. The only comparable company to Norton, although it is quite different, is a British company."

What is the market for W.W. Norton's music books? "The prime market is the college market. We don't publish anything lower than that, no elementary or high school books. That's a totally different, much more political world. It's my duty not only to keep in touch with what's being offered in the college market, but what is not being offered, and why. In order to add any new books to this incredibly large list, you have to have a very strong feeling for the need of something, you have to know what's around. Sometimes you have to realize that the reason there are no courses in an area is because there are no books for it.

"The second market is the reference book market, an encyclopedia or dictionary or the Mozart letters or the Berg-Schoenberg correspondence, anything that would come in the bibliographic or reference department, rather than course application.

"And, in descending order, the third market is the trade market. I have a jaundiced view of the trade market in music books. You have groupie books, very rarely written by the person whose names they bear, books written for persons who are enthusiasts but not very knowledgeable. They usually don't interest me very much. But I do publish trade books or import them. The New Grove Composer Biographies are trade books that are very useful because chains like them, they have a substantial look but they're not very expensive.

"As a general ratio for any given year, I would say that about 60% of our output would be text books, and that reference and trade would each be 20%, including imports and revisions. This year happens to be a big trade book year for us, mostly because I bought a lot of stuff when I was in England. We're doing Harvey Sachs's Music in Fascist Italy and Max Jones's most significant interviews with jazz musicians, Talking Jazz."

The best-selling book far and away is Joseph Machlis's The Enjoyment of Music, now in its fifth edition ("a class apart" — she points proudly to the platinum record on the wall, an award given some ten years ago for a million records sold in the Machlis package), followed at some length by Donald Jay Grout's A History of Western Music, revised by Claude Palisca for its fourth edition due in the spring. "Our great obligation, of course, is to redo these books so that they address current problems. Some books you can't do that with. You can't do that with Reese or Lang. They're sui generis. No one could write such books today. We no longer have generalists."

How large are the print runs and how are they determined? "Well, there's the ouija board," she quipped. It depends, of course, on the nature of the book. And on informed guessing. And on knowing how many review copies will have to be given away. On text books, the smallest print run would generally be 5000; with trade books, it's anyone's guess.

Some years ago, there was a great furor in publishing circles about an IRS ruling (upheld by the Supreme Court) that prevented publishers from writing down the value of their inventories for tax purposes, thus potentially jeopardizing the publication of books and music. It seems not to have affected music publishers greatly, but what about book publishers? "We have taken great precautionary measures against the Thor Power Tool decision. Because of it, we try not to print more than for two years. If you're selling 500 copies of a book in a year and the most you can print is 1000 copies, it's going to send your unit cost sky-high, and that will make you think seriously about printing the book. There are quite a few books that have been dropped off the list since the Thor Power ruling, but not because of it."

How are books selected for publication? Are they solicited by the publisher? And what about submitted manuscripts? "If I have an idea that I want a certain book, I will go out and find the best person to write it. I could count about two published books in the last ten years that came "over the transom" ( publishing parlance meaning an unsolicited submission). Because of our unique position, we get offered everything."

What is it that Claire Brook, music editor for W.W. Norton, actually does? "In telling you what I do, you will also get the message of why I love my work. It is so varied; it has so many aspects to it; it requires so many types of skills and interests. Among the ways in which Norton is unique is the fact that we are self-owned, the people who work here own the stock of this company. There is a board of directors of which I am a member, twelve people who are the heavy muscle of this company. We are organized in such a way that an editor sees a book through from the time he solicits a manuscript until the book is out. In most other companies, there is an acquisitions editor who gets books, a line editor who edits them, a publications editor who works out details of the physical product, a publicity department that writes copy. Here an editor herds a book straight through, whether its me or the English or psychology editor, both on the college side and the trade side. We don't actually design books, but we work with the designer. We don't design jackets, but we work with the artist. We have a great deal to say about what goes on with our books.

"Let's say I feel that we should have a book on a given subject. I find the person to write it and work out the general conditions for its creation. Then I wait for it to be written. Once it exists, I read it, I send it out to experts in the field — I am not an expert at anything, I have a broad musical education but I'm not a specialist — and then I edit the manuscript for style and accessibility of the material. By that time the manuscript is bristling with flags that are sticking out of it, and the author and I start going over questions, comments and suggestions. Sometimes I'll go to the author so we can be undisturbed; sometimes they come here. Eventually the manuscript comes back to me and I will pull all the music examples, edit them and send them to an engraver or compositor, and at the same time will start the picture research. I don't have to do that, but I like to. The manuscript will then go to a copy editor and to a designer. Eventually there will be three piles of material: galleys, pictures, and music examples. Galleys will be proofread by the author, the copy editor, or by me but I will always do the dummying myself. It is one of the most difficult aspects of publishing. When I get done, I send the dummy back to the production department so the "mechanicals," the camera-ready product, may be prepared from the dummy I've put together. Then there's a period when nothing happens at all until I start talking to art directors about jacket design and get busy writing flap copy and choosing material for up-to-date back ads.

"Finally, I introduce my books to our travelers. If it's a college book, it has a field notebook sheet with all pertinent information: table of contents, discussion of competitive volumes, selling points. Keep in mind that our young people have to sell all areas, so you have to be careful to give them the right buzz words and not to let them embarrass themselves. These sheets are prepared about nine months before the finished book comes out. We have two expensive meetings a year specifically to present our books, in our various areas, to the sales force and to hear from them what they've been encountering in the field. Basically, Norton is divided into two parts — trade and college — with different people in each so that I will have to meet with both staffs. Once the book is out, I will go over the review list to make sure that the people who should be seeing it get it."

What about monitoring how books fare once they are published? "Well, I get sales figures twice a year and comment cards that have been included in sample books. (Sometimes they're helpful; sometimes they're not.) A book requires a certain amount of shakedown time, time to find its market. If a book is not doing as well as I think it should after a reasonable time, I will try to find out why from the people who have been selling it or from the reviewers."

The final question in our interview sparked a particularly lively reaction. What relationship existed, I wanted to know from Claire Brook, between a commercial (albeit self-owned) publisher such as W.W. Norton and a university press? "I wrote an article for Notes some years ago in which I went after university presses for not doing what they were supposed to do. A university press enjoys tax exemption, franking privileges, housing privileges — the whole economic base is more secure, less perilous, than a commercial house. Therefore, it seems to me that a university press should do what it was set up to do: publish books that are not commercially viable but are worthy of publication. Instead, they have become commercial, except that they charge much more money for their titles and they have far fewer expenses than a house like ours."

Seeing Claire Brook in action and scanning Norton's "checklist of books that live in music," one gets the feeling that W.W. and Polly Norton would be happy to observe how their vision has been demonstrated and their high standards upheld.

home  |  about maa  |  roster  |  MadAminA!  | news & events  |  contact us

© 2002-2005by Music Associates of America. All Rights Reserved
music associates of america // 224 king street // englewood // new jersey // 07631