Some time before it became crystal clear that, despite all laws of nature, James Frey’s Bright Shiny Morning would be an unqualified hit, there was a moment when agents and editors wondered if the man who’d agreed to publish it might have reason to worry for his job. Back in September, Harper publisher Jonathan Burnham had stunned colleagues and rivals by forking over a seven-figure advance for the privilege of putting out Mr. Frey’s comeback novel, and conventional wisdom among a number of high-level publishing folk was that the 47-year-old Englishman had wagered his career on a dangerous bet.
Although he turned out one bestseller after another while working at Harvey Weinstein’s Miramax Books from 1999 to 2005, Mr. Burnham was said to be suffering a spell of bad luck at Harper. Anderson Cooper’s book had done well, as did Madeleine Albright’s, but almost every one of Mr. Burnham’s other major undertakings—such as the 992-page novel by Vikram Chandra, for which he’d paid something like $1 million—seemed incapable of catching fire. HarperCollins CEO Jane Friedman, meanwhile, appeared to be sending big sums of acquisition and hiring money to Steve Ross and his revamped Collins division, Harper’s toughest intramural rival for politics, history and narrative nonfiction titles.
People in publishing wondered: Would Bright Shiny Morning be Mr. Burnham’s last chance?
If the thought had occurred to Mr. Burnham, it had left his head by the end of last month, at which point, according to a source in the HarperCollins building, he began a confident, if not exactly drastic, expansion of his office on the seventh floor. The procedure, now complete, involved the removal of a wall dividing Mr. Burnham’s existing lair from the small one next door that had stood vacant for at least six months.
As one rival publisher put it, noting Harper’s recent “slack” sales figures, “I doubt Jane would have let him expand his office if she was going to can him.”
Mr. Burnham declined in an e-mail to discuss the expansion of his office, saying only that it was a modest enlargement done so he could hold small meetings there instead of in the conference room.