Holt’s Naumann Flees Manhattan, Seeks Berlin Culture Ministry

One languid July evening, Michael Naumann sat on a white couch in the living room of his West Village duplex.

One languid July evening, Michael Naumann sat on a white couch in the living room of his West Village duplex. It was a high-ceilinged room rimmed by blond-wood bookshelves, with Max Beckmann prints over the couch and woodcuts of scenes of German life over the mantel. A wall of French-door-style windows gave a view onto the backs of Village brownstones. In this serene setting, it was hard to see Mr. Naumann, who was wearing a white linen shirt and khaki pants, as the man who had jostled the sensibilities of the American publishing industry since becoming president and chief executive of Henry Holt & Company in April 1996.

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But it was easy to see him as the man who, upon leaving Holt this July, smoothly arranged for himself what is surely one of the most graceful switcheroos in publishing history: He was leaving his job not to become some vague overseer of a tabloid newspaper, or to pen a ponderous memoir. No, the 56-year-old Mr. Naumann would be moving to a position of true power: He would become Minister of Culture for Gerhard Schröder, head of Germany’s Social Democratic Party, who is running for Chancellor.

But what of Holt? Did Mr. Naumann leave a listing ship, shaking up Holt’s corporate culture but doing little to keep the publishing house from sliding into the red-only to exit, two years into his five-year contract, in a swirl of bons mots? And then there is the debate as to whether Mr. Naumann was pushed to leave, or was encouraged to do so. According to Bruno Quinson, who was Mr. Naumann’s predecessor at Holt and a member of Holt’s board until June, Mr. Naumann’s departure was purely voluntary: Mr. Quinson said that when he had drinks with Dieter von Holtzbrinck, chairman of Holt’s parent company, Verlagsgruppe Georg von Holtzbrinck, in mid-June, just before Holt’s board meeting, “There was no clear sign from Dieter that he was ready to make a change. He said Holt was getting a lot of reviews.”

But good reviews don’t necessarily mean profits. The New York Times reported on July 20 that Holt has been losing money, and two former Holt employees told The Observer that Holt was in the black until Mr. Naumann arrived on the scene. “He turned it around and made it go downhill,” said one.

Mr. Naumann said he was feeling emotionally downcast about leaving. “I have a sinking feeling,” he said. “But 1999 is in place.” He went on to say that Metropolitan Books, the imprint he launched in 1995, “now has a highly respected backlist of 90 books.” He said an important book reviewer called him to say that his departure was one of the worst things to happen in New York publishing in years. And he claimed that Holt, under Maggie Richards, the sales and marketing director he installed (“She is the best”), “now has the highest numbers of reviews behind Knopf.” And the quarterly sales report from this spring, he said, shows a profit for Holt-probably because Holt shipped Sue Grafton’s newest novel a month early.

Mr. Naumann made his presence known at Holt before he actually moved to New York. Back in 1993, Mr. Naumann was humming along as publisher of Hamburg-based Rowohlt Verlag, one of Germany’s most respectable houses, and part of the von Holtzbrinck publishing group. Over his 10 years as publisher there, he had made the place very successful, and published such American authors as Harold Brodkey, Toni Morrison and Paul Auster. One day, he approached Dieter von Holtzbrinck and said, Hey, how about an imprint, publishing a mix of high-minded European and American books, in America?

Mr. von Holtzbrinck acquiesced. That fall, at the Frankfurt Book Fair, Mr. von Holtzbrinck asked Bruno Quinson, then chief executive at Holt, if Mr. Naumann might piggyback his imprint, which would be named Metropolitan Books, onto Holt. Mr. Quinson agreed, but only after receiving an assurance from Mr. von Holtzbrinck that Holt would have no financial link to Metropolitan. Instead, Mr. Naumann would have to deal with Mr. von Holtzbrinck directly. For the time being, Mr. Naumann remained in Germany and hired a former Farrar, Straus & Giroux editor named Sara Bershtel as Metropolitan Books’ editorial director, and the imprint was launched in fall 1995.

Meanwhile, von Holtzbrinck was getting busy. The Holtzbrinck Group bought the Macmillan Group and its U.S. holding, St. Martin’s Press. Thomas McCormack, St. Martin’s president and chief executive, was made executive director of Holtzbrinck’s U.S. trade operations. Then, in the fall of 1995, Bruno Quinson announced he’d be leaving Holt. On April Fools’ Day, 1996, Mr. Naumann took over at Holt. At first, Mr. Naumann said, he declined the offer from Mr. von Holtzbrinck. “If I were head of Holt, I would have had difficulties with Michael Naumann,” Mr. Naumann said. “I took the job to spare myself being fired-and spare the potential demise of the idea of Metropolitan, to make it clear to myself that Metropolitan deserves to survive and to save it from being shut.”

Mr. Naumann settled into New York, and publishing-industry types noted that his interest in America had a personal component: Her name was Nina Ryan, a New York literary agent. The two are currently involved.

But given the size of Holtzbrinck’s holdings, there were bound to be ego conflicts, and Mr. Naumann ran right into a beaut. As Holtzbrinck’s overlord in the United States, Tom McCormack reviewed monthly operating statements of the group’s three houses. But Mr. Naumann declined to share them, saying he reported to Mr. von Holtzbrinck alone. As Mr. Naumann sees it, Mr. McCormack was making a power grab. “Tom took advantage of this five-second vacuum of power and demanded to see all the books,” he said. “All I tried to do was defend the independence of Holt.”

Mr. McCormack said he ended up getting the reports from Holtzbrinck’s main offices in Stuttgart, and that the reports were missing something: “The unattractive independent line entry for Metropolitan Books disappeared from any statements,” said Mr. McCormack. “They thereafter were submerged in Holt’s general trade figures.”

But Mr. Naumann was more popular with Holt’s writers. He might call them up when they wrote an interesting review, and take their calls in the middle of the night. And Mr. Naumann was steaming ahead. He gave something on the order of $2 million to Salman Rushdie for his next novel and some of his backlist books. He also threw $700,000 at Paul Auster for North American rights to his next three books, and he gave Mr. Auster’s wife, the author Siri Hustvedt, $165,000 for her novel The Enchantment of Lily Dahl . Both seemed to be cases of overpaying: In Germany, Mr. Auster sells like schnitzel; in America, more like week-old schnitzel. Ms. Hustvedt’s book ended up selling about 5,000 copies.

Mr. Naumann said he takes the long view. “Here in New York City,” he said, “people live and think in quarterly results. German publishers think in three- and four-year terms.”

There are plenty in publishing who admire that reasoning. “Michael represents something important to the publishing community,” said Ira Silverberg, who just left Grove-Atlantic as editor in chief and will be joining Donadio & Ashworth as a literary agent in September. “Michael talked about literature in way that was genuinely meaningful, not units of product shipped from a warehouse.”

And Mr. Naumann’s life story made him somewhat of an anomaly in New York publishing. He was born in December 1941 in the East German town of Kötchen. He never knew his father, who was killed at the Battle of Stalingrad, in 1942. When he was 12, he and his mother and siblings spent six months in refugee camps. “Lots of soup,” he recalled, “and rats and bugs. I thought it was exciting living.”

When Mr. Naumann arrived, Holt was a sleepy, little house, fueled mainly by Sue Grafton mysteries. “I opened the windows, screamed, got screamed at,” he said. “My emotional attachment caught on.”

Some would have preferred a little more detachment. “He tended to manage by crisis,” said a former employee. “Michael likes that frisson . He doesn’t manage in linear fashion. You were reacting constantly to his concerns rather than your own sense of priorities. He was always intruding on your day.”

According to an ex-Holt employee, former senior editor Allen Peacock was bullied by Mr. Naumann into attending a book party for Ms. Hustvedt that caused him to miss a longstanding engagement at the Lotus Club, where he was to introduce his Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Olen Butler-Holt’s first Pulitzer winner since Robert Frost took the prize in 1943. (Mr. Peacock declined to comment.)

And yet, admitted one former Holt employee of Mr. Naumann, “Even in my darkest days, I still would have gone to a dinner party with him.”

‘No Slacker’

“If you publish shitty books, are unjust to editors, and are an arrogant son of a bitch, then you are a failure,” said Mr. Naumann. “What counts in and as a publisher is what the reading public thinks, and what people you work with think.”

Francine Prose ( Guided Tours of Hell ), said she loved being published by Holt: “There wasn’t that big corporate heartlessness.” And of its leader, she said: “Michael doesn’t go to enormous lengths to hide his feelings about people. People he thinks are stupid and wrongheaded he’s not that likely to get along with. His very literariness probably is galling to people who are only businessmen.”

But then came the New Yorker panel, where what one former employee called Mr. Naumann’s “thinly veiled contempt for American readers and culture” made an appearance. It was September 1997, and Mr. Naumann told the crowd at the New York Public Library that American readers didn’t appreciate good literature: For example, he said, while in Germany a Gabriel García Márquez novel will sell 350,000 copies, a Thomas Pynchon novel sells just 150,000 copies in America. “That’s not enough,” he said, “and I think there’s a problem.”

But Sara Bershtel defends Mr. Naumann. “People don’t like always the principled, the brave, the independent,” she said.

“He was so arrogant about how American publishing worked. He thought he could apply whatever formula he had for the German market,” said an editor at a literary house. “I think it took it quite a while to understand the specificity of our culture, how our bookstores work, what the normal parameters are for a literary book. He wasn’t as educated as he thought he was.”

Mr. Naumann blames the American system. “The real problem,” he said, “has to do with an absence of systems which are able to handle qualified data … The ordering system available is not refined enough to avoid over-ordering. This is something I’ve learned in this country.”

And despite workdays that often went until 9 P.M. (“He was no slacker,” said one former employee), he also knew how to relax. He keeps a 50-year-old Sparkman & Stevens 30-foot wooden sloop (“A sunk Steinway that needs tuning,” he said) on Mount Desert Island, Me.

As he leaned back on his couch and held a Marlboro aloft, Mr. Naumann said his two years in the New York publishing world had been an education. “In New York City, it’s almost baroque,” he said. “The court intrigues become a favorite pastime. I think it’s an expression of the insecurity of the industry, but also the anxieties and insecurities of people. You want not to be alone.”

Who are the contenders to succeed Mr. Naumann? At Holt, Wendy Sherman, Holt’s vice president and executive director, is well into a lobbying campaign. The only other Holtzbrinck name being suggested is Farrar vice president and executive editor John Glusman. Outsiders in contention include Viking senior vice president of publishing Barbara Grossman, Crown publisher Chip Gibson; and Scholastic trade’s senior vice president Michael Jacobs.

As for Mr. Naumann, signs are good that Mr. Schröder’s party will win in September, and even if it doesn’t, it will likely win cabinet positions. Which means Mr. Naumann will quite likely be on a plane sometime this fall. If his party wins, he said, he will fly his authors over for the victory party.

But just in case: His green card application is pending, and he can come and go as he pleases until mid-1999. And then there’s Ms. Ryan, about whom Mr. Naumann declined comment.

In any case, he remains happy with his legacy at Holt. “The job of publishing is not to make money, in any way,” he said. He took a drag. “Great publishers are married to their companies.”

What about him and Holt?

“It was a tempestuous love affair,” he said.

You can reach the publishing column at emanus@observer.com.

Holt’s Naumann Flees Manhattan, Seeks Berlin Culture Ministry