Modern Library Goes Casual With Scorsese, Krakauer

Is the core imprint of the Random House empire imperiled?

In April 1998, David Ebershoff, a writer with a University of Chicago M.B.A. who was a favorite son in Random House’s trade sales and marketing department, became publishing manager of the Modern Library, which Bennett Cerf bought in 1925. By August, the then-29-year-old Mr. Ebershoff was publishing director of the prestigious imprint, famous for its elegant, beige-jacketed editions of books such as Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time , Lillian Ross’ Picture and Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood . His mission is to invigorate the Modern Library brand, which last summer was tarnished by a scandal surrounding the ranking of the 100 best novels of the century. (It turned out the judges did not know they were actually ranking the books, many of which were Modern Library titles.)

Idea No. 1 from Mr. Ebershoff and his editorial team: a slew of hip nonfiction-paperback-book series “edited” by high-profile editors, most of whom happen to be house authors. The all-star editor lineup includes director Martin Scorsese, best-selling authors Caleb Carr ( The Alienist ), Jon Krakauer ( Into Thin Air ), Gourmet magazine’s editor in chief Ruth Reichl and religion historian Elaine Pagels ( The Gnostic Gospels ).

“They’re chasing fashion, and when you do that, you’re always in danger of becoming yesterday’s news,” said a former Random House editor. “It’s media driven. They’re capitalizing on what [former Random House trade group president] Harry Evans did as the grandmaster of the Modern Library book circus. It betrays a tremendous editorial insecurity. The whole point of the Modern Library is to publish books that endure.”

“In effect, he’s a chief branding officer,” independent publishing consultant Liana Thompson said of Mr. Ebershoff. “You do have to be careful that what you put in these brand extensions doesn’t cast a negative glow back on the mama brand. If you water it down too much, you water down the personality, the spirit, of the brand.”

So will Mr. Ebershoff revitalize the prestige imprint, or soup it up and ruin it?

“It’s important to make this a vibrant and dynamic imprint,” said Mr. Ebershoff. “Otherwise, Modern Library won’t be known to future readers.”

“We’re broadening our idea of what is classic,” said Courtney Hodell, the editorial director of the Modern Library’s paperback line.

One appeal of the series idea is that it comes cheap. Some titles were out of print; some will repackage material available right now. That could mean garbage hunting or treasure collecting, depending on how you look at it. What makes it all smell sweet is the good will of Mr. Scorsese et al.

“The series editors are participating virtually pro bono,” said a source familiar with the Modern Library’s new series. “It buffs their egos.”

With luck, marquee names will somehow help convince readers they are buying contemporary classics. Sometimes that won’t pose a challenge. For instance, few will need convincing that Agee on Film: Criticism and Comment on the Movies , one of four books to launch Mr. Scorsese’s “The Movies” series, is worthy of the designation. But what about 2001: A Space Odyssey: The Production Notebook ? That book is an anthology of previously published reviews, essays and interviews surrounding the launch of the late Stanley Kubrick’s film.

In September, Mr. Krakauer’s “Exploration” series will bring back such books as Roland Huntford’s The Last Place on Earth: Scott and Amundsen’s Race to the South Pole and Gaston Rebuffat’s Starlight and Storm: The Conquest of the Great North Faces of the Alps . Enthusiasts go for Mr. Huntford and maybe even Mr. Rebuffat, but the point of Mr. Krakauer’s presence is to reach a wider audience. Starlight and Storm , told with considerably less verve than Into Thin Air , may simply want to make someone go read Jon Krakauer.

In the fall of 2000, Modern Library will launch a series called “Food,” edited by Ms. Reichl. After that comes a series on religion edited by Ms. Pagels, a historian at Princeton University. And then, who knows? Sports?

“I’m suspicious when you take best-selling names and try to give them the authority that these things have,” said a well-known literary editor. “I wish it weren’t just Random House authors. It would look better if the books were being done by leading authorities in the field. It’s like they’re trying to have it both ways.”

The “Harlem Renaissance” series, which launched in February, is the only one without an editor.

Rob Schumann, the general manager of Book Hampton, in East Hampton, L.I., is one of 125 booksellers Mr. Ebershoff and Ms. Hodell visited in early spring. “Modern Library has a frontlist now,” said Mr. Schumann. “It’s not just dead white European males. David’s particular talent is his understanding of the marketplace and his ability to give a little spin to books that might otherwise be considered backlist titles.”

Mr. Ebershoff, author, can also give the whole imprint a little lift simply by his association with it. In June 1998, Viking shelled out $350,000 for world rights to his first novel, The Danish Girl , and a story collection. Inspired by the world’s first recorded sex-change operation, in the 1930’s, the novel is slated to be published in 10 countries, beginning with America and Britain in February 2000.

“It’s amusing that these two sides of the industry, which are so polarized-writers and marketing people-should be unified in this one person,” said Joy de Menil, an editor at the Random House Trade Book Group. “You can learn something by looking at his skill as a writer. Writers require a talent for persuasion.”

“David is able to collaborate and synthesize and then go home and use an entirely different lobe to create,” said David Groff, a former Crown editor who knows Mr. Ebershoff through the Publishing Triangle, an association of gay men and lesbians in the industry. “He can flip from screen to screen without having to decompress. A lot of people want to do what David does, but they don’t have the will of steel he does.”

“He believes in himself and knows he’s a good writer, and also understands the process by which good writing becomes an event,” said Jonathan Burnham, the editor who signed Mr. Ebershoff at Viking and has since become president of Tina Brown’s Talk-Miramax Books. “He knows the right point to push forward and the right point to pull back.”

In early July, Mr. Ebershoff made at least one strategic push for his own book. He hired independent publicist Lynn Goldberg to help Viking along. The cost? About $12,000.

“Nothing is guaranteed,” said Mr. Ebershoff. “I want the book as well represented as possible. There’s so much to do, by getting more people on board, more can get done.” Mr. Ebershoff denied that he has anything but confidence in Viking’s publicity department.

Meanwhile, it will be some time before it becomes clear whether Mr. Ebershoff’s Modern Library gamble pays off. After all, even a cleverly packaged series doesn’t negate publishing logic, which dictates that each book stands alone.

“Every single book is really an R&D project,” said Pantheon executive editor Erroll McDonald, who has an M.B.A. from Columbia University. “Every book is a surprise.”

So how does a business degree help? “It compels one to become even more serious about what one is doing,” said Mr. McDonald. “It compels one to come to grips with the horror of it all.”

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