Norton Revives Liveright Imprint

Kevin Canfield
From the September/October 2011 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

This summer W. W. Norton announced plans to resurrect one of the most storied imprints in American publishing, Liveright & Company. Established in 1917 as Boni & Liveright by Horace Liveright and business partner Albert Boni (Boni stepped down in the 1920s), the house introduced American readers to early works by luminaries such as Hart Crane, E. E. Cummings, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Dorothy Parker, and Jean Toomer, as well as translations of Sigmund Freud, Hermann Hesse, and other major foreign writers. In 1974 Norton bought the imprint, acquiring the rights to its list of works by iconic authors.

In the years that followed, Norton occasionally reissued titles from its Liveright holdings, but by the early 2000s, the Liveright name had fallen out of use. While sitting on a distinguished, but overlooked, backlist, Norton president W. Drake McFeely began reading widely about Horace Liveright and how he cultivated a niche for the publishing house he ran with great success in the 1920s. “The more I learned about him,” McFeely says, “the more I thought that it would be a terrific thing to revive the imprint.”

In April 2012 Liveright & Company will resume publishing, with Norton executive editor Robert Weil taking the helm as the imprint’s editor in chief and publishing director. Joined by a staff of four, Weil says Liveright will probably publish about twenty books a year—the same number he currently edits annually for Norton. “My broad vision reflects a lot of what I’ve been doing,” he says. “I’m taking all the acquisitions I’ve made—unless an author objects, and none have—to Liveright. So the list is really a combination of quality, enduring, classic nonfiction and fiction.”

Weil currently works predominantly with nonfiction writers—his authors include Pulitzer Prize winners Annette Gordon-Reed and E. O. Wilson and New York Times columnist Gail Collins—but he will also publish new fiction with Liveright. He says he expects to add novelists such as Jerome Charyn and William Giraldi to the imprint’s catalogue. “I am very interested in fiction, but so far it has been about 15 or 20 percent of my list,” Weil says, remarking that much of his work in the genre has been reissuing neglected classics. “I brought back the whole backlist of Patricia Highsmith, and we will continue to publish J. G. Ballard through Liveright.”

A fiftieth-anniversary edition of Ballard’s dystopian novel The Drowned World is among the “experimental and edgy” fiction Liveright plans to offer. Weil also expects to bring out challenging new fiction from Portuguese novelist António Lobo Antunes and graphic works from R. Crumb and Will Eisner.

Liveright probably won’t be publishing new poetry, but it isn’t for lack of interest in the genre. Weil notes that he recently edited John Ashbery’s translation of Arthur Rimbaud’s Illuminations, published by Norton in May, adding that Liveright will release similar fresh translations of important poetry from the past. Among these titles will be Clive James’s translation of Dante’s Inferno.

Weil aims to take advantage of new technology to promote his books. He allows that not every book lends itself to an enhanced digital incarnation, but adds, “Liveright plans to do—very occasionally, for the right book—apps. I signed up Philip Glass’s memoir, and he’s going to be writing some original music to coincide with an app that will be a Liveright project.”

While Liveright’s mode of publishing and promoting books may reflect advances in reading technology, Weil stands by his traditional vision for the imprint. He notes that Norton is “a very healthy company right now,” poised to revive Liveright in part because of its enduring mission to put out books that will stand the test of time. “We feel we’re actually in a growth period,” Weil says, “and while so many places feel they have to do the most commercial, shrill, television tie-in or Lady Gaga’s letters, we’re just staying true to our mission.”                    

Kevin Canfield is a freelance writer living in New York City.