Little, Brown’s Little Wonder

On a recent Sunday morning, anyone who passed by the Starbucks on St. Marks Place might have seen an unassuming man dressed in a tattered Princeton sweatshirt, khaki pants and beaten-up tennis shoes sitting by the window. He looked like any of the thousands of unshaven, anonymous, ambitious young men who fill New York’s coffee shops. Closer inspection would have revealed a manuscript neatly stacked on the table in front of him, along with a box of red pencils and, instead of a cappuccino or frappuccino or skim latte, a strawberry health shake. The passerby would probably not even have broken stride, and certainly would not have thought, “There sits one of the hottest young names in New York book publishing.”

But Geoff Shandler, who on Sept. 5 will become executive editor of Little, Brown and Company, an imprint of the Time Warner Trade Publishing group, says he does all his best editing away from the office, in places like East Village coffee shops, although he never drinks coffee. The 31-year-old editor looked up from the manuscript to see a man walking by with a lamp shade on his head. “You see, this is why I like hanging out here,” he said to a reporter who had joined him. “This is a great neighborhood. One of the best. You see great types here.” Mr. Shandler smelled of clean, reassuring laundry detergent.

But there is nothing casual about Mr. Shandler’s new job: He will be Little, Brown’s youngest executive editor ever. He was plucked from the no-nonsense publishing house PublicAffairs, where he edited billionaire George Soros, worked on the published version of The Starr Report , and acquired and edited the submarine-adventure best seller, Sherry Sontag and Christopher Drew’s Blind Man’s Bluff.

Like Al Gore picking Joe Lieberman to add integrity to the Democratic ticket, there is some sense that Little, Brown chose Mr. Shandler partly to offset its association with its larger and slightly seedier partner, Warner Books. Several editors who have worked at Little, Brown in the past few years have complained that, since the Little, Brown and Warner Books sales forces merged in 1998, Little, Brown has undergone a “Warnerization,” with a stronger emphasis on sales than quality. “Larry wants celebrity books and big commercial fiction,” a former editor said of Warner Books Trade Publishing chairman Lawrence Kirshbaum, who holds the purse strings of Little, Brown. “He’s not going to get excited about books that are complex and subtle and take years to write.” (Mr. Kirshbaum was on vacation and not available for comment.)

Little, Brown publisher Sarah Crichton dismissed claims of a dilution of Little, Brown’s standards. “The fear of quote-unquote Warnerization turned out to be an empty one. There has been no Warnerization, period.”

Nevertheless, in a memo that he circulated to employees, Little, Brown editor in chief Michael Pietsch cast Mr. Shandler as a no-frills antidote to publishing’s excesses: “After leaving one of our meetings, [Mr. Shandler] headed off to take measurements for ads on the Boston subway-and we’re very excited about the entrepreneurial approach to acquisitions and editing that he brings with him to Little, Brown.”

Mr. Shandler will be filling the shoes of Bill Phillips, editor of Pete Hamill and Herman Wouk, who retired from Little, Brown in June after 34 years. In the past few years, several of Little, Brown’s younger, well-respected editors, such as Jordan Pavlin, Jennifer Josephy and Geoff Kloske, have also left.

“I think that we’re at a moment when the business is changing, but it’s an exciting time,” said Mr. Shandler. “If I can get people over there [at Little, Brown] excited-and that’s not saying they’re not excited and happy and all this stuff over there-but if I can get them to think that we’re all fighting the good fight, that would be a good thing.”

But can a good fight be fought without buckets of money in today’s publishing climate? Consider Warner Books’ recent decision to shell out $7 million for the memoirs of General Electric chief executive Jack Welch.

“He’s had to rely on his wits to sign up and produce best-selling books,” Ms. Crichton said of her new editor. “He doesn’t come from a background where you rely on suitcases full of money to buy a book-he’s had to be more clever about it.”

At PublicAffairs, Mr. Shandler worked with a small overhead: The house published several cheap, instant books that focused on current events and that used free, public-domain documents. The first two best sellers were the Starr Report series.

“We were very careful about how to spend,” Mr. Shandler said. “We didn’t pay large advances. We lost a lot of good projects that way. Sometimes we’d only get projects when they’d gotten around town.”

Mr. Shandler also comes to Little, Brown with experience in budgeting, foreign rights, marketing and advertising, all areas with which he was involved at PublicAffairs. Ms. Crichton said that while traditional editors were not out of fashion, “we’re definitely looking for some people who have had to take risks and play an active role in the publishing process, and who are interested in the whole process-how you market a book, where an audience is. Our recent batch of editors are like that-people with those skills to make them the best possible advocates in-house.”

Mr. Shandler said his passion is still in the art of editing. “I’m a story person,” he said. “Narrative and beautiful writing are still the most important things in the world. You get in trouble if you look for a best seller.”

Mr. Shandler was born near an Indian reservation in New Mexico, where he spent his early childhood. His father is a doctor who went into public medicine to avoid the draft during the Vietnam War. His parents still live in Santa Fe, and every month they FedEx him tamales at the Cobble Hill apartment he shares with his girlfriend, Catherine Gray, who works for an Internet company. He attended Yale University and then the Kennedy School at Harvard, where he did research on a Native American economic-development project. But when he noticed he was reading Graham Greene instead of economic theory, he took a career-matching test that he found in a self-help book. The test results suggested that he try publishing. He started as an editorial assistant at Random House in 1993, when the house was under the direction of Harry Evans, which meant high-profile breakfasts and excessive advances, such as $5 million for Marlon Brando’s Songs My Mother Taught Me -it bombed-and $2.5 million for Dick Morris’ Behind the Oval Office . Lawrence LaRose, a former Random House colleague, remembers it as a time when editorial assistants did not exactly join in the fun. “There was a long hall full of Ivy League graduates waiting for powerful senior editors to walk by,” he said. “They lived in fear.”

Mr. Shandler, however, remembers that time through the rosy hues of a romance novel. “I felt like I was in an orchard,” he said. “You’d just walk around and there were books everywhere that you could just take and read, and that were great. I found that I loved books with a capital L.”

He avoided the merger-related depression that infected the New York publishing world. “Right after I came in, there was a year or two when it was really great,” he said. “Then people got gloomy: ‘Literature was being threatened, all people want are bestsellers, houses are merging.’ A lot of people went out to do something better with their lives. But we kept going, even though people were gloomy. We’re the believers.”

He apprenticed himself to Peter Osnos, then publisher of Random House’s Times Books division, where he worked on books by Boris Yeltsin and Robert McNamara. He told a story of a meeting with Mr. McNamara, when they were discussing his soon-to-be-written book, In Retrospect.

“I can’t remember what question I asked him,” said Mr. Shandler. “It was the last question on our last day together, but his answer became the most quoted sentence from the book. It began with, ‘We were wrong, we were terribly wrong,’ and he kept going. It made the book. It couldn’t have been done without the work leading up to it, but it made the book.”

Mr. Shandler was promoted three times in three and a half years. “A lot of it was luck. I did a lot of fun books and moved up very, very quickly,” he said. “That was obviously a blessing, but a very mixed one, because my friends stayed behind. There were folks that had been there for years and years. It’s not that your friends are angry at you, it’s that everyone wants to have a chance.”

“Geoff was never intimidated or abashed by power,” said Mr. LaRose. “He was unabashedly gregarious.”

He continued to work closely with Mr. Osnos, whose office was located fortuitously close to his cubicle. But then Mr. Evans left and was replaced by Ann Godoff. According to sources at the publishing house, Ms. Godoff told Mr. Shandler that, in her new version of Random House, he wouldn’t be able to climb very far.

And so in 1997, he left Random House to help Mr. Osnos start PublicAffairs, the nonfiction division of a publishing house-now called the Perseus Books Group-started in 1994 by a Washington lawyer named Frank Pearl. A profile of Mr. Pearl in New York magazine was headlined, “Can This Man Save Publishing?” Mr. Shandler compared it to a boutique. “It’s what Miramax is to 20th Century Fox,” he said.

Mr. Shandler bought Blind Man’s Bluff after Simon & Schuster had refused it after five years of work. “I’m not so interested in submarines,” said Mr. Shandler. “I’m not into Tom Clancy. But it was just a great story. I didn’t have a doubt about it. I just knew it was going to be a great story.”

Now he’ll be looking for great stories on behalf of Little, Brown. “Editors in general have to be optimists,” said Mr. Shandler. “So much work is trying to make things better. You have a draft, maybe a very, very rough draft, and you can’t surrender. You have to be willing to do whatever it takes.”

He’s already received his first editing assignment: comedian Dennis Miller’s yet-to-be-written book about being a co-host of ABC’s Monday Night Football . Little, Brown paid $800,000.