I Don’t Suppose You Are Much Interested In Publishers and Their Problems

screen shot 2011 05 03 at 12 00 40 pm I Dont Suppose You Are Much Interested In Publishers and Their ProblemsWhen I first encountered Mulholland Books, it was a foggy April night in the Financial District, the kind of night that makes you think the man upstairs might not be such a bad guy, if he’s got the decency to take your mind off the things that go on in the upper floors of the buildings down there.

I was in the neighborhood because I’d been put on a story about the imprint, a new endeavor from Little, Brown editor Michael Pietsch, and they were having a reading from its first book at the Mysterious Bookshop, a joint that exists for that purpose and no other. I’d already scheduled a tentative interview with the imprint’s editor, but we’d just put the paper to bed, rubbing some Scotch on its teething gums, and I didn’t have anything better to do.

Nobody paid me much mind as I pushed past the wooden doors but a small crowd had already gathered around the woman of the hour, the author of the book and a prosecutor I knew from a few years ago. She’d changed her hairstyle since last I saw her, having ditched that brown curly undergrowth for a straight blond shellac. Now it was black and short, and she’d drawn a beauty mark on her face so she looked like any other woman with a hard cheerfulness discussing David Sedaris’ love life. It was Marcia Clark. Nineteen ninety-five was the year she tried to put O.J. Simpson away.

“Now is he still with Hugh?” Ms. Clark asked a publicity woman. “Because I heard a rumor.”

“The question we sort of ask is, is this a book that benefits from a really focused genre marketing campaign, or is this a book that’s potentially broader?” said Nathan Rostron, an assistant editor with distant eyes and probably an attempted novel in his past.

“So what did you do for this one?” I asked as he fingered a more literary offering on one of the tables.

“Definitely hard-core thriller,” he nodded.

The joint was empty, marketing campaign aside. There were the Little, Brown people, a middle-aged woman who looked homeless and an operative from the Daily Beast. I found myself talking about James Ellroy with Miriam Parker, marketing director for Mulholland. “If [Mulholland editor John Schoenfelder's] the king, Miriam’s the queen,” an editor in attendance told me.

“I was trying to get him to talk about his process,” Ms. Parker said of an Ellroy interview. “He was like, I just like to lie alone in a room in the dark and look at the ceiling.”

“No, no,” said Mr. Schoenfelder. He’d landed on her arm like a helpful bird, a bundle of energy with a closely buzzed head. “It’s, ‘I lie alone in a dark room and talk to women that aren’t there.’”

I liked that he got it right. The line doesn’t resonate with everyone in the same way. When Mr. Ellroy said it to Deborah Solomon, who was then cashing checks from The New York Times Magazine, she responded, “You mean they’re on the phone?”

It was clear that nobody else was going to show. “There, there” said an agent, pouring Ms. Clark a stiff drink of book-party white wine. She handled her disappointment like someone who’s used to the cards not always coming up her way. Joke. Goddam silly simile. Writers. Everything has to be like something else. My head is as fluffy as the icing on a trendy cupcake but not as sweet. More similes.

Everyone sat in the chairs that had been assembled for the reading. Ms. Clark signed a stack of books presented by an attendant who was no less cowed, despite the vacancies. She regaled the assembled audience with her knowledge of what the future had in store, according to their astrological signs. She seemed to know a lot about them, and everyone seemed to know their own rising signs.

“I’m a triple Aries,” Mr. Schoenfelder said neatly, when the question came to him.

It takes a lot to get me interested, but I was feeling interested. Outside I smoked half a cigarette, scowling at nothing, and left. 

The next day I called up Otto Penzler, who owns the store, and asked him for information on the imprint.

“How can I say this without getting myself in trouble?” he began.

“Trouble’s my game,” I told him.

“Mine, too,” Mr. Penzler said. “But I’ve got a lot of friends at Hachette.”

Mr. Pietsch poached Mr. Schoenfelder from Thomas Dunn-St. Martin’s last year. The plan was to launch an imprint whose influences ranged from James M. Cain to David Lynch, if you believed the press release.

Mr. Schoenfelder was a big part of the plan. He was just an assistant editor when he was at St. Martin’s, but he’s noir zealot, raised on the stuff and has an eye for talent like an eagle on the hunt. He’s the kind of guy who’s not afraid to jump into an online Q&A on the Mulholland Web site, even when the author is with Simon & Schuster. Any editor at Little, Brown can buy for Mulholland but, as the big mystery agent Dominick Abel told me, “Basically, John is Mulholland.”

“I’d suspect that he’s a reporter’s dream,” said another agent. “Once you turn that faucet on, man, forget it. Just make sure you go digital, because if you had tape, you’d run out.” I told my brain to stop doing cartwheels and checked up on my interview. Messrs. Pietsch and Schoenfelder were now unavailable on account of an exclusive with another paper. I could vomit just thinking about this lousy racket. I probably will. Don’t push me. Give me time. Luckily I’m the stoic type.