Little Brown Gets Mushy; Book Cover Cover-Up?

If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

So, it would appear, is the motto of the millennium for New York book publishers, as they look toward a place they once held at arm’s distance–Hollywood–for new talent. Take Little, Brown & Company, publisher of literary novelists such as David Foster Wallace (Infinite Jest ) and Rick Moody ( The Ice Storm) , thriller writers such as James Patterson, and political insiders such as George Stephanopoulos. Last year, the publisher hired Judy Clain, who had worked as a film scout for Peter Guber, the profligate former Sony Pictures chief executive who spent lavishly on creature comforts and literary properties. She was hired to bring in commercial fiction and nonfiction, and is off to a fast start. Some might say, too fast.

In mid-February, the 37-year-old Ms. Clain spent more than $1 million buying two books by Deborah Smith, a pulpy-romance writer who has been published for the last 12 years by Bantam Books. After Little Brown does the hardcovers, its sister company Warner Books will publish the mass-market paperback editions. (Little Brown is part of the Time Warner Trade Publishing Group.) The two publishers split the seven-figure advance.

Ms. Clain is certainly cutting a figure as a big spender, and agents who sell women’s fiction are watching. At the end of 1998, Ms. Clain plonked down $400,000 for a first novel by Jody Shields called The Fig Eater . Ms. Shields’ agent, Anne Edelstein, said that, yes, Ms. Clain is looking for big commercial fiction. “Coming from the movie business, that’s definitely what she’s supposed to be doing,” she said.

But some think that the Hollywood formula doesn’t translate well in the New York publishing world, where the margins are slimmer. “Judy’s taking lessons from the film world and applying them to publishing, which can be disastrous,” said one scout. “The reason they’ll overpay in Hollywood is because it will get the front page of Variety . It lends the project prestige, they think they’ll attract more A-list talent, and there’s that much more pressure for the studio to push it forward. In publishing, it’s not like you’ll get Brad Pitt. You might get more publicity dollars, but someone walking into Barnes & Noble won’t know it’s a $1.5 million book they’re holding. If a reviewer knows you paid $3 million for a book, it doesn’t make a difference.”

What did Ms. Clain buy for $1 million-plus? One of the two books, titled Alice at Heart , is about a web-toed woman named Alice who can remain under water for extraordinary periods of time. At Bantam, Ms. Smith’s advances tended to be in the low-six-figure range, and her books, with the exception of her last two– When Venus Fell and A Place to Call Home –were strictly mass-market paperback. Sales for A Place Called Home swelled to 375,000, while the hardcover trade figures hovered around 40,000. Little Brown’s challenge is to help Ms. Smith break out as a hardcover romance writer, along the lines of Anne Rivers Siddons, who is published by Harper Collins Publishers.

Before signing on with her new publisher, Ms. Smith had also traded up her agency, leaving Andrea Cirillo at the Jane Rotrosen Agency for Jennifer Rudolph Walsh at the tonier Virginia Barber Literary Agency. Ms. Walsh asserted that Ms. Smith had already left Ms. Cirillo by the time Ms. Walsh queried her.

Ms. Walsh said she submitted a 38-page sample chapter and five-page synopsis of Alice at Heart to a select handful of publishers. The sample chapter included this passage: “As for the parts one would notice first on a naked woman, my breasts were small but had wide pink nipples, as if Mother Nature had picked up the wrong-sized paint brush when marking my milk ducts. The privates between my legs were unremarkable and dainty except for outlandish red pubic hair, which tangled in long, delicate corkscrews I had to trim every two weeks. I had never let any man except old Dr. Jones (a relative, naturally) see me naked, and no man had yet dampened my corkscrews with desire, either his or mine. The males in Jonesville seemed to regard me as a joke.”

Among the houses that declined were William Morrow & Company and Putnam Berkley Publishing Group. One scout’s report on the book queried how four women from two different mothers could receive mermaid genes from a father. Things like that apparently did not bother Ms. Clain, who describes herself as a “very good acquaintance” of Ms. Walsh. Ms. Clain ended up with the mermaid tale and its author. “Judy took [Deborah Smith] away,” observed Jane Dystel, an agent who traffics in commercial women’s fiction. “Well, she was brought into Little Brown to do exactly that. She’s a very aggressive, very talented editor.”

Ms. Walsh, who first met Ms. Smith only recently, said her first task had been to get her client out of her Bantam contract. “They have behaved in complete good faith with her,” Ms. Walsh said. “It was just a situation where the morale was completely depleted in the relationship. She was really losing her enthusiasm for writing in general as a result of this demoralizing situation. And I think it was on both sides, really. There are no good guys or bad guys.”

It seems Ms. Smith bounced right back. Ms. Walsh said that several days after signing with Little Brown, the author sent her 30 sample pages and a synopsis for yet another book. “She just seems to have 10 of these things that she works on all at once,” said the agent.

Little Brown will publish that second book first, before Alice at Heart, sometime in 2000. In Ms. Walsh’s words, the as-yet-untitled novel is about “a small Southern town and a family trying to hold its farm together at all costs. They have this one cherished piece of art that’s been the one thing that’s held the family together, but it’s the one thing that if they could sell could finally keep the family together. And there’s a brother who’s very ill and needs care. And, of course, there’s the love story.”

Ms. Clain defended the large sum she bestowed upon Ms. Smith, saying she didn’t buy just a couple of books, she bought a writer she can build. She said that Claire Zion, a mass market editor at Warner, “has been tracking this author for years.” Ms. Smith, said Ms. Clain, “is a fantastic writer, a great storyteller. She has a fantastic ear and is original–the kind of writer a lot of publishers dream about.” Michael Pietsch, editor in chief of Little Brown, said, “I consider this a very, very reasonable investment based on Deborah Smith’s track record. This was a very carefully thought-out acquisition. She is a very, very good writer, and Judy’s going to work to make her book great.”

“I come out of the movie business,” said Ms. Clain, “but I work in publishing now. My sensibility is very much in the literary world.”

sometimes imitation is the greatest form of flattery, and Vintage Books, the hip but elegant paperback line of Random House Inc.’s Knopf Publishing Group, is accustomed to flattery. But they’re not so happy about imitation.

This month, Delacorte Press is launching an Elizabethan historical mystery series by Karen Harper, with a novel called The Poyson Garden. The book’s cover looks an awful lot like those of author Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles series, which is published by Vintage. According to freelance designer Marc J. Cohen, who designed the Lymond look with former Vintage art director Susan Mitchell, the Poyson Garden jacket art is a “direct rip-off.” Mr. Cohen said that it’s common for a series look to be ripped off once it becomes popular. “But this one,” he said, “we just finished doing sketches on the rest of the Dorothy Dunnetts, and the art director sent me a page with an ad from Delacorte, and it was too exact. A little bit of the type was changed here and there, but the attitude, the use of historical art, was right there–even the basic breakdown of the cover and design was a direct rip-off. If you put the two together, obviously they were attacking the exact same market.” (In an irony becoming more and more familiar in the publishing business, the two houses are neighbors of a sort: Delacorte and Vintage became part of the same Random House Inc. family last year.)

Mr. Cohen said that enough time hasn’t passed to make his work fair game for copycats. “They’re still rolling out Dunnetts,” he said, adding that it took about three months to develop a look for Ms. Dunnett’s work. That included a month of research conducted by an independent researcher called Art Resource, N.Y., 20 to 30 sketches and a month of revisions. The back of Ms. Dunnett books list several credits; The Ringed Castle , for example, credits a photograph by Simon Marsden, a painting by Vasily Ivanovich Surikov, and the Victoria & Albert Museum, for an ivory relief. The Poyson Garden has no credits, save that of the designer, Royce M. Becker.

“Historic settings are tough,” said Mr. Cohen. “You really have to try and be on-target with it. You can’t make it up. Dorothy checked every piece of art that we used to make sure it was authentic. Dorothy Dunnett is a pretty big name in that genre, and it took a lot of time to develop a look for her.” The editor of the Dunnett series, LuAnn Walther, declined to comment, and Delacorte did not return calls seeking comment by press time.

A designer for the Knopf Publishing Group said Ms. Becker should not be blamed for stylistic borrowing. “The designer was obviously told what to do by a marketing person,” he said. “She does work for Random House–she can think for herself. I’m sure she was pushed into a corner.”

“If I were her,” said the Knopf designer, “I would not have put my name on the credit, or would have told them to call someone else.” Ms. Becker could not be reached for comment.

The source added that Vintage’s art department lobbied Ms. Walther to ask editor in chief Marty Asher to call Delacorte, chastise them and ask if they could perhaps discontinue the look for this series.

“No one has called Delacorte,” said Vintage’s publicity director Katy Barrett. “We are often imitated.”

Ms. Dunnett is perhaps the doyenne of the historical fiction genre. Ms. Harper writes both historical mysteries and contemporary suspense novels. In an interview with Amazon.com, she said that she is currently working on “an Appalchian [sic] atmospheric [book] … based on an actual baby-selling ring.”

Another example of cover coveting occurred with the original, 1996 Vintage cover for Jonathan Harr’s A Civil Action (not the movie tie-in version), which was widely credited with helping make the book a best seller. The somber image was of a lone man standing on a snow-covered Boston Common. Random House Inc. editor-at-large Amy Scheibe has lined one of her office shelves with Civil Action wannabes, including Mr. Darwin’s Shooter , by Roger McDonald, from Grove-Atlantic; Expecting Adam , by Martha Beck, from Times Books; Lie in the Dark , by Dan Fesperman, from SoHo Press; Humidity Moon , by Michael W. Rodriguez, a self-published book from Pecan Grove Press; the British edition of The Treatment , by Random House editor Daniel Menaker, and two books from Doubleday: The Presence of Horses , by Barbara Dimmick, and The Colony of Unrequited Dreams , by Wayne Johnston.

Ms. Mitchell, who designed the Civil Action cover for Vintage and is now the art director at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, said, “Marketing people go to what has a good track record. They think they can repeat the success again.” Ms. Mitchell said she has a Civil Action -type opportunity for the new Scott Turow novel, Personal Injuries , due out from Farrar this fall, but enough is enough. “I’ve seen it coming and going. It’s tired to me now. I pride myself on trying to reach original solutions.”

The Publishing column can be reached at emanus@observer.com.