For a clannish industry that hardly lacks for backbiting and Schadenfreude , publishing is still a sucker for A Little Engine That Could. Especially if it’s one whose chief engineer is a charismatic, young Brit like Jamie Byng, director of tiny, independent Edinburgh-based Canongate Books. Thirty-three years old, garrulous and with a curly mop of sandy hair that one journalist called “more Liam Neeson than Stephen King,” Mr. Byng is publishing’s man of the moment. He is, after all, the guy who just released this year’s Man Booker Prize-winner, Yann Martel’s Life of Pi , and who is watching, along with the rest of the bookish world, as another of his titles, Michel Faber’s 850-page neo-Victorian novel, The Crimson Petal and the White , climbs the bestseller lists.
Anybody who’s ever seen Jamie Byng lope across a Manhattan street to greet a book-loving journalist, or who has been stuck in traffic in a cab with him as he enthusiastically and relentlessly pitches his books, knows that he’s a master marketer, the real publishing thing. But what so many don’t know-and what has gone unremarked in all the media coverage of his two unlikely hits-is that they’re both published here by Harcourt executive editor Ann Patty. It was Ms. Patty, in fact, who bought the U.S. rights to Mr. Martel’s novel in the first place-and who gave half of the manuscript to Mr. Byng the next day. “It just took one lunch and I thought, ‘I have to tell this character about Life of Pi ,'” she said.
Clearly, Ms. Patty and Mr. Byng share a literary sensibility. (Or, as one wag put it, “they both make great books; the only difference is, he makes better copy.”) Like Mr. Byng, Ms. Patty has what the agent Molly Friedrich called a “large and scrumptious” personality. Like Mr. Byng, she’s her house’s own best publicist; he had the brilliant idea to serialize Crimson Petal on the Internet, to play on the fact that many Victorian novels were first released as serials; she was handing out 800-plus-page A.R.C.’s of Crimson Petal as early as last May and telling people it was “the best book [she’s] ever published.” (For the record, and other Patty authors take note: She has told me that-and meant it, at least at the moment-probably half a dozen times, including in a note attached to the Life of Pi galley.) Like Mr. Byng, who used his wealthy family connections to buy up, and keep independent, a fledgling house, she doesn’t have much truck with “big publishing”; her Simon & Schuster imprint, Poseidon-where she published the works of Pulitzer Prize-winner Steven Millhauser and critical favorites Patrick McGrath and Mary Gaitskill-was closed in 1993, and her six-year stint at Crown “was not,” according to a friend, “to put it gently, a very welcoming experience.” After a brief, self-imposed “retirement,” in 2000 she joined the relatively small Harcourt, which publishes about 50 hardcovers a year, about half the output of some big-name houses. Known for its high-mindedness-it’s the American publisher of Nobel Prize-winner José Saramago, Gunter Grass and Umberto Eco-Harcourt welcomed Ms. Patty’s blend of literary and commercial taste. “It’s the perfect place for her to be,” said a friend of Ms. Patty’s. “They hired her because she’s a great editor, and she doesn’t have to deal with politics.”
Where Ms. Patty and Mr. Byng diverge is in the way they conduct themselves. “She’s an adult,” one agent said pointedly. Having had her share of bad publicity-a contretemps regarding the works of the Flowers in the Attic franchise author V.C. Andrews while she was at S&S, for example-she doesn’t court it the way Mr. Byng does; he recently gave an interview to The Guardian in which he spoke, openly and, most think, unwisely, about his prodigious partying and his taste for cocaine. Ms. Patty keeps her authors center stage and goes out of her way to credit other editors. She makes a point of telling you, for example, that she inherited Mr. Faber from then-Harcourt editor Robert Dreesen, who had published his critically acclaimed Under the Skin , and to acknowledge that the author was already a Canongate author in the U.K. She also wants you to know that it was another woman, Canongate’s Judy Moir, who did the bulk of the editing on Mr. Faber’s books. “The only thing I take the credit for is being smart enough to take hold of [Harcourt’s] option,” she said. Other publishing watchers say she’s just being modest. “That Ann Patty sure can pick ’em” said Sarah Crichton, who knows from picking winners; as publisher of Little, Brown, she signed up Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point and the mega-seller The Lovely Bones .
As for Mr. Byng, all this praise-not to mention sales of over 150,000 and a movie deal for Crimson , 80,000 and climbing for Pi -can only mean one thing: The backlash is on its way. In fact, the Byng bashing has already begun; in the Guardian piece, unnamed detractors say Mr. Byng is “unbearably boastful, a posh huckster [and] a nuisance.” But at least for now, whoever Ms. Patty’s critics are, they’re keeping a low profile. “These books just prove what some of us have known all along,” said agent Ira Silverberg. “She has always been a magnificent editor with extraordinary taste and broad range. This success is her revenge for having been screwed by the corporations.”
Sara Nelson, a contributing editor at Glamour , is writing a book about reading for G.P. Putnam’s Sons.