Nearly a month of suspense at 10 East 53rd Street came to a close yesterday when HarperCollins house joker David Hirshey was informed that Sarah Silverman had chosen him over two of his colleagues to be the editor of her as-yet-untitled book of essays.
Settling on a home for Ms. Silverman’s book has been a long and drawn-out process that began in mid-November, when an intense auction overseen by Trident Media Group CEO Dan Strone ended with HarperCollins prevailing over several other houses with a stunning $2.5 million bid submitted jointly on behalf of Mr. Hirshey at the Harper imprint, Gillian Blake at Collins and Laurie Chittenden at William Morrow.
To be sure, winning the auction for Ms. Silverman’s book was a victory for HarperCollins, but the fact that all three of its major nonfiction imprints wanted to publish it meant that Mr. Hirshey, Ms. Blake and Ms. Chittenden would have to compete for it with each other in an unpleasant in-house ritual known as a “beauty contest.”
Such situations—in which an author must decide which editor is best suited for his or her project based at best on a brief meeting and a few emails—come up regularly in publishing these days. This is partly because all four of the really big New York houses own a number of imprints with similar or indistinguishable publishing programs, and partly because reliably lucrative, celebrity-driven titles like Ms. Silverman’s move increasingly timid editors to compete with each other more ferociously than ever before.
At best, these beauty contests are awkward. At worst, they can breed resentment among friends, and stoke intramural rivalries between different units of the same company.
That’s not to say that that’s definitely what happened with the Sarah Silverman book, though it probably didn’t help that she and her agent kept the HarperCollins people waiting so long while she made up her mind.
Originally, Ms. Silverman was supposed to talk to them all last Friday, but something involving her television show on Comedy Central forced her to cancel and reschedule for this past Tuesday. Even then, rather than coming in for a proper meet-and-greet, the best Ms. Silverman could offer was a series of video conference calls that had the editors from HarperCollins talking to a life-size projection of Ms. Silverman’s face beamed in from Los Angeles onto a screen at the Fifth Avenue New York headquarters of the Creative Artists Agency.
Several sources described it as really weird. They got there sometime in the late afternoon, and spent the first few minutes sitting around in a waiting lounge that was so stiflingly hot that Mr. Hirshey had to take leave of the group and get a beer. Top HarperCollins executive Michael Morrison, meanwhile, who makes it his business to mediate these beauty contests whenever they arise, was in the meeting room chatting with Ms. Silverman and making sure all was in order.
Each of the three editors came armed with a different strategy. Ms. Chittenden of William Morrow, apparently a believer in the idea of power in numbers, brought along not just her publisher Lisa Gallagher, but also deputy publisher Lynn Grady and director of publicity Seale Ballanger. Ms. Blake, meanwhile, from the Collins group, went slightly less heavy and brought along just her boss, Steve Ross. Mr. Hirshey, for his part, came alone—a risk, he said yesterday, that he was emboldened to take because he felt he was “a tough enough Jew” to handle Ms. Silverman by himself.
“I spent most of my time reciting my bar mitzvah speech,” a happy Mr. Hirshey said, referring to the fact that, culturally speaking, he had something of a home-court advantage over the other editors in the race for the Jewish comedienne’s heart.
A recommendation from magazine writer and biographer Bill Zehme, a friend of Ms. Silverman’s whom Mr. Hirshey edited for seven years when he worked at Esquire, probably didn’t hurt, either. “I told her Hirshey’s a hero,” said Mr. Zehme. “Nothing specific—just that he’s aces. They’ll be swell together.”
Mr. Hirshey said he’d prefer to believe the outcome of his face-off with Ms. Blake and Ms. Chittenden had more to do with the best sellers he has edited by comedians like Rodney Dangerfield and Dennis Miller, as well as the fact that he and Ms. Silverman see eye to eye on what the book she’s writing should be.
“I think we both see the book as Sarah bringing her overarching sunniness to life’s darker moments,” Mr. Hirshey explained. “No comedienne out there is funnier about depression, death, religion or bed-wetting. It’s that juxtaposition of light and dark that will be at the heart of the book. Or, as I like to think of it: equal parts gravitas and gravlax.”
Mr. Hirshey said that while a publication date for Silverman’s book has not yet been set, he hopes to see it out sometime next year.