What Makes Moguls Believe They Belong In the Book Business?

Mr. Wolff, for his part, contends that what he has in mind would not be so expensive at all. Sign

Mr. Wolff, for his part, contends that what he has in mind would not be so expensive at all.

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“You do not need a huge fortune to run a publishing company in this way,” he said. “There are hundreds of incredible, accessible books that are stuck on backlists with no marketing budgets. Buying these or out-of-print books, if you can get your hands on them, costs a fraction of buying a new book.”

In an interview yesterday, Mr. Wolff’s teacher at the Columbia Course, Lindy Hess, remembered her former student as an ambitious young man who left the industry because of an outsize sense of idealism and impatience for how things really work.

Ms. Hess said she saw parallels between Mr. Wolff’s vision and Atlas & Co., the independent house founded last year by her friend, the author and editor James Atlas, which recently bumped into a budget shortfall that forced a postponement of its entire spring 2009 list while its proprietor looks for new investors.

“Jim is a brilliant writer and publisher, but his list really is eclectic in a way that represents his interests,” Ms. Hess said. “That’s what Eric Wolff wants, and it’s a very difficult way to run a publishing house. I don’t think that Eric’s idea or even Jim Atlas’s idea, which may be viable for Jim or may not be—I hope it is!—is viable for the industry.”

Most of her students, Ms. Hess said, understand that. 

“I don’t think people in my course think about Maxwell Perkins and the good old days,” she said. “Graduates of the course come into the industry with a real knowledge of the marketplace as it is. I feel my job is to temper their idealism with real-world business knowledge, and not to kill it.”

“This is a business,” she said. “We are not in the business of dictating public tastes.”

Tell it to Mr. Wolff.

lneyfakh@observer.com

What Makes Moguls Believe They Belong In the Book Business?