Publishing doesn’t exactly abound with happy stories these days. But over at HarperCollins, executive editor David Hirshey has been feeling pretty good. Especially on Wednesdays, the day HarperCollins-like most other publishers in town-receives the New York Times best-seller list that will appear in the paper 10 days later. For nine straight weeks, Mr. Hirshey has been faxed the news that his sleeper title, Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy , is in the top 10 nonfiction best-seller list. What’s not in the fax-but surely is on the minds of the HarperCollins brass-is that this book has also turned a profit. It may, in the end, make more money than the book that inspired it: Richard Ben Cramer’s Joe DiMaggio: The Hero’s Life , published in 2000 by Simon & Schuster.
Having a best-seller on the Times list is still, despite the number of other newspaper lists, the holy grail of publishing. Yet it’s a fact of the business that not all best-sellers actually make money for their publishers. Depending on how much a house has spent to get a book out there (in advances to authors and other, more minor costs), even a “big” best-seller like Joe DiMaggio may not have ended up in the black. Having paid Mr. Cramer an advance in the neighborhood of $1 million, S&S knew that the book-which sat on the list for many weeks and sold over a quarter-million copies-had to sell well just to break even.
Koufax , on the other hand, was “published smart,” as one agent not known for his generosity about other people’s projects said. First of all, the house paid Ms. Leavy a modest advance of around $150,000 and used more brains than money in promoting it. Instead of an expensive publicity campaign, Ms. Leavy wrote two newspaper stories about her subject, one for The New York Times and one for The Washington Post , where she’d once been a staff writer. Having an editor with Mr. Hirshey’s magazine experience and connections (he’s the former Esquire deputy editor) didn’t hurt either: The Sept. 9 issue of Sports Illustrated ran a five-page excerpt from the book.
Koufax ‘s success is all the sweeter because it came, you should forgive the expression, out of left field. “Everybody loved” the Koufax proposal, said Adrian Zackheim, now the publisher of Penguin business imprint Portfolio, but at the time a HarperCollins executive. “It was one of those ‘duh’ books-really worthwhile and interesting. We thought it would do well and that it would be perfect for backlist. But it wasn’t bought to be a best-seller.”
You could (and some did) argue that the DiMaggio bio was a wildly unrealistic model for Koufax , since the Yankee slugger, after all, was once married to Marilyn Monroe and is far better known to a general audience than the reclusive lefty, who is remembered mostly for the fact that, as a Jew, he refused to pitch a World Series game on Yom Kippur. But Mr. Hirshey scored big by correctly guessing that there were a lot of guys out there like him-”Jewish guys in their 40′s and 50′s who, as kids, were big baseball fans at the time when Koufax was a big star,” according to a rival publisher, who falls into that very demographic. And as S &S’s publisher, David Rosenthal, pointed out, “It’s quite friendly … unlike the critical portrait of DiMaggio.” To date, there are 190,000 copies of Koufax in print, and over 125,000 sold since its publication on Sept. 17.
So it’s no wonder the editor is in such a good mood. “When you pay a lot for a book and it lands on the list,” said another publisher, “your joy is always tinged with relief. But when you haven’t overspent and something hits … that’s just pure joy.”
Sara Nelson, a contributing editor at Glamour , is writing a book about reading for G.P. Putnam’s Sons.