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House Cleaning

Little, Brown publisher Sarah Crichton was just replaced by Michael Pietsch, leaving everyone to wonder if the publishing house is being Warner-ized.

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Little, Brown's publisher, Sarah Crichton, lost her job at Time Warner's quality-book imprint last month. And the firing set off a chorus of fretting: yet another literary light, we were told, lost to creeping commercialism. Which was an odd way to see it, since her replacement, editor-in-chief Michael Pietsch, has a reputation as a serious bookman. ("He's the Maxwell Perkins of our generation," one young novelist remarked with two parts sarcastic envy and one part reverence.)

One can't help recalling that Crichton's arrival provoked as much hand-wringing as her departure. In 1996, she was imported into the book business's hothouse atmosphere from Newsweek. Mortification followed among book people who felt their industry had "lost a generation" and had to look outside their ranks for talent.

But Crichton's résumé may say less about secular changes in the industry and much more about what it takes to be a successful publisher. Her tenure at Little, Brown can only be described as bumptious. On the inside, many current and former Little, Browners agree that she lost her job due to simmering bad blood with Warner publisher Maureen Egen, to whom Pietsch now reports. To the outside, Crichton presided over an inordinate number of mishaps: fraudulent books, derailed deals, legal problems on expensive biographies, and endless personnel churn.

"Those things happen at all publishing houses," says a Crichton confidant. "You just don't hear about it. Sarah is a noisy person, and that just backfired on her."

But even her admirers admit that she never really became a publishing person. In a peculiar industry driven by gossip, enthusiasm, and politicking, Crichton never lost her journalist's critical edge.

Meanwhile, lightning was striking Little, Brown. There were runaway hits like three Oprah picks on top of reliable best-sellers by thriller writer James Patterson, elfin humorist David Sedaris, and sports chronicler John Feinstein. And all of these books were coming from the same place: Michael Pietsch's office. As if to prove the wisdom of Pietsch's appointment, the latest Michael Connelly novel (an author Pietsch has been steadily hawking and building) appeared at No. 2 on this week's New York Times best-seller list.

"He's old-fashioned," Time Warner Publishing chief executive Larry Kirshbaum notes, "in the Jason Epstein sense. He understands how to push the levers to make a book work."

You see, the trick in glass-tower publishing isn't just choosing good books, or even vibrating to popular tastes, though that's surely important. "It's not enough to be right," one former editor says. "You have to be able to work the system."

"Michael is the best we can hope for in corporate publishing," says Paul Harrington, a former editor at Little, Brown. "He knows how to play the political game and still produce books that are fantastic."

Which brings us to David Foster Wallace. Much of Pietsch's literary reputation rests on his success with Wallace's improbable, 1,000-plus-page 1996 bestseller, Infinite Jest. Originally shown 250 manuscript pages, Pietsch told Wallace's agent, Bonnie Nadell, "I want to do this book more than I want to breathe." And when the final 600,000-word manuscript arrived, Pietsch didn't hyperventilate.

"He told me it was going to be long," Pietsch remembers. "We agreed that everything that wasn't essential had to be cut. Still, a lot seemed essential." Left with what remained a gargantuan manuscript and mindful of the fate of many other worthy but long-winded literary novels, Pietsch took the decisive step of his career.

Enlisting the help of young writers like his author Rick Moody, Pietsch set out to incite envy among Wallace's peers. "The trick was getting other writers to recognize that this was the guy to beat," Pietsch says.

Then he ruminated on overcoming reader reluctance. "I can show you the place," Pietsch recalls, "up on the hill by my house where I first thought of making this a challenge: Are you reader enough?"

The dare worked. Infinite Jest made David Foster Wallace as close to a household name as a jittery, bandanna-headed, run-off-at-the-mouth former philosophy student could ever hope to get.

"It was great for Little, Brown," Pietsch says, interpreting his success first in company terms. "It impressed a lot of booksellers and agents; personally, it was some of the best fun I've had."

Emboldened by the success, Pietsch embarked on one of his career's few missteps. He set out to create a separate imprint for books about popular culture. But the project was canceled before it was launched. According to some, Pietsch hadn't thoroughly thought it through. And when his initial presentation was met with skepticism in the sales department, he beat a strategic retreat.

Explaining the decision, Pietsch offers a different rationale: "Early on in my career, I was typecast as the rock-and-roll guy. Then I was tagged as the dark-and-difficult-fiction guy. My tastes are much broader than that. But every time I talked to an agent and said 'imprint,' they thought that was all I was doing."

In either case, this is the signal lesson Pietsch learned: "Publishing a book successfully involves getting a whole lot of people working together. You can't make people like a book. You've got to get them to want to participate."

And so, perhaps, we come to the real moral of Michael Pietsch's rise and Sarah Crichton's fall. Where Crichton was widely seen leading with her opinions, Pietsch has learned the subtler arts of corporate success. "Michael speaks Warner's language," a friend says. "He's interested in commercial books, but he knows how to make literary ones work, too. He has a foot in both worlds."

Offered several top jobs during Crichton's reign, he remained and accumulated a powerful list, including many writers inherited from departing editors. (Some colleagues felt he was their stiffest competition.) He's been careful, too, to take on valuable writers that weren't in his bailiwick. "Michael doesn't know anything about basketball," says Esther Newberg, Feinstein's agent, "but he's edited John wonderfully."

Though he is quick to defend Crichton's expensive attempts -- George Stephanopoulos's memoir All Too Human and Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point -- to bring bellwether nonfiction to the house, Pietsch admits that neither of those books has brought in similar titles. Instead, he concentrates his efforts on building authors. "One of the things I noticed early on, was that we had a lot of successful fiction aimed at men," he says of one of the house's weaknesses. "So I made a conscious effort to go after women's writers, like Anita Shreve and Janet Fitch."

"He's a man with a plan," says William Morris literary head Jennifer Rudolph Walsh. "I think we will eventually speak of Little, Brown in the same way that we talk about Knopf and Random House."

E-mail: marionmaneker@aol.com


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