Guiding 'The Handmaid's Tale' and Other Top Paperbacks: LuAnn Walther

May 26, 2017

LuAnn Walther (Ph.D. '78, English) is the quiet force behind the success of bestselling paperbacks by Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison, Alice Munro, Oliver Sacks, Chinua Achebe, and Colson Whitehead, among others.

Dystopian visions have captivated readers this year, as spikes in sales of George Orwell's 1984 and Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale demonstrate.

Many lament the political climate that is driving such dark tastes, but the yearning for these 20th-century classics has been a boon for paperback publishers like LuAnn Walther (Ph.D. '78, English), a senior vice president at Knopf who serves as editorial director for Vintage Books, Anchor Books, and Everyman's Library.

Walther, who has been Atwood's paperback publisher for nearly 20 years, will receive the President's Distinguished Alumni Medal during Commencement Exercises on Friday, June 2.

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When Walther learned that Hulu was producing a mini-series of The Handmaid's Tale, she reached out to Atwood - whom she refers to as Peggy - to write a new introduction for a move tie-in edition of the book. The New York Times Book Review published Atwood's piece - a wonderful bit of advance publicity for the film, and one which generated increased interest in the book, which became, for the first time in its 30-year history, a No. 1 bestseller. 

In nearly 40 years in publishing - ascending the ranks from copy editor to senior vice president - Walther has, in her words, "had the honor of working with many wonderful writers' as their paperback publisher. They include Toni Morrison, Alice Munro, Oliver Sacks, Chinua Achebe, Colson Whitehead, Patti Smith, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Henry Louis Gates.

Walther, a soft-spoken Iowan, is not one to brag, but there is no disputing her influence. She publishes books that reflect the culture, which she also helps shape by publishing little-known writers like National Book Award winner Ha Jin.

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Walther's love of literature drew her to the East Coast, first to Yale for a master's degree and then to the Graduate Center to study English literature. "It had an excellent reputation," she says in her book-lined office, adding that it was "hiring amazing people."

For Walther, those people included her professors - Alfred Kazin, author and revered American literary critic; Irving Howe, literary critic and editor of Dissent magazine; and Allen Mandelbaum, a National Book Award-winning translator and poet. "There was a liveliness to that department," Walther says. "You were engaging with professors who were also really engaging with the national conversation."

Howe advised Walther on her thesis, and when she started looking for a job he introduced her to editors at his own publishing house. But she flopped at her interview there and at almost every major publishing house in New York, she says - too shy to push back when editors told her she was overqualified. Finally at Bantam, she convinced the editor that she wanted to write cover copy.

Three years later, after questioning why Bantam didn't take advantage of its backlist titles the way Signet Classics did, Walther was charged with launching the Bantam Classics imprint. She ultimately published more than 100 titles, including a number with introductions by her former professors Kazin and Howe. Early on, she published Mandelbaum's verse translation of Dante's Inferno.

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Today Walther oversees a team of six editors. She has guided Vintage/Anchor into the Internet era using a formula that has served publishers for ages. "The best business model for a publisher is to focus on the books," she says. "Hire the best editors who are going to find the best books...If the book is strong, eventually it will find readers."