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Can This Man Save Publishing?

Big publishers may be bailing out of serious fiction and nonfiction, saying they can’t make the mid-list pay, but a former LBO magnate named Frank Pearl is out to prove they’re wrong. And he’s already got a best-seller to show for it.

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One mild winter morning in early 1994, as jack Shoemaker sat in the home office of his Berkeley bungalow, a room dominated by a poster announcing i shall always love the west, the telephone rang with a summons from the opposite coast. A corporate headhunter wanted Shoemaker, a renowned book editor, to meet an unnamed someone in Washington, D.C. As if the invitation were not cryptic enough, the headhunter added, “You won’t know this person.”

Baffled, Shoemaker demurred. Two years earlier, he had closed North Point Press, the acclaimed literary imprint he had founded, nurtured to fruition, and then disastrously overexpanded. His current position, as the West Coast editor for Pantheon Books, did not exactly exhaust his talents, but it allowed him to savor such Bay Area pleasures as the year-round garden beneath his window, vibrant this day with seasonal roses and grasses.

The headhunter called several times over the next few days. Finally, he identified his employer, a lawyer named Frank Pearl, and said that Pearl was interested in learning about publishing. Intrigued, Shoemaker took the flight to Washington that had been reserved for him and checked in to the room that had been booked at the luxurious Hay-Adams. Then he went to a suite of offices a few blocks from the White House to meet his host.

Bearded, balding, and just past 50, Pearl spoke with admiration about Evan Connell’s book about Custer, Son of the Morning Star, a surprise best-seller that gave North Point fame and cachet. He asked about Shoemaker’s background, North Point’s history, the publishing industry, even his guest’s taste in music, art, and cuisine. Rarely had Shoemaker been in the presence of such a ravenous curiosity.

At last, Shoemaker asked a question of his own: “What book would you most like to have published?”

“Marcus Aurelius’s Confessions,” Pearl answered.

Shoemaker told himself, This is the least frivolous person I’ve ever met.

Before the visit ended, Pearl revealed more of himself and his plans. He was a lawyer by training and an investment banker by profession -- albeit one too circumspect to add that he had earned tens of millions of dollars doing leveraged buyouts. Now he was considering launching a publishing company. What would it take for Shoemaker to lead it?

It would take four or five more trips to Washington, each one spent in hours of conversation. All the talk reassured Shoemaker that Pearl shared his own commitment to literary publishing and furthermore had pockets deep enough to absorb the risks that had even major publishers sliding into financial trouble. In June 1994, Shoemaker resigned from Pantheon and moved to Washington as editor-in-chief of Counterpoint Press. Within twenty months, the upstart imprint had captured both the National Book Critics Circle Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction for Gina Berriault’s short-story collection Women in Their Beds.

These laurels were only the beginning. In the past year, Pearl has spent perhaps $60 million assembling a publishing enterprise called Perseus Books that is entirely devoted to the sort of literary fiction and serious nonfiction that the conglomerates increasingly deem endangered species. To Counterpoint, Pearl has added one imprint oriented to history and politics (PublicAffairs), one devoted to African-American culture (Civitas Books), and two properties that were being closed or drastically shrunk by their previous owners (Basic Books and the Addison Wesley Longman General Publishing Group). He has attracted to these ventures several distinguished former publishers from Simon & Schuster, Times Books, and HarperCollins -- all of them disturbed by the excesses of corporate publishing -- as well as one of the nation’s foremost public intellectuals, Henry Louis Gates Jr. Perseus’s roster of authors includes Berriault, Connell, Cornel West, and National Book Award winner Orlando Patterson. Now Pearl has his first bestseller, Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking, which currently sits at No. 11 on the Times’s list and fetched $500,000 for paperback rights.

This coming fall, Perseus will release a unified list of 60 new hardcover titles, as many as an established house. Undergirding these books is a paperback backlist that brings in annual revenues of roughly $13 million, a rare asset indeed for a new publisher.

Through all this activity, the 54-year-old Pearl has achieved one more goal -- being a supremely connected man who remains as obscure to the public as he was four years ago to Jack Shoemaker. In the past twenty years, even as he has executed landmark LBOs, donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Democratic Party, served as a trustee of the Kennedy Center and on the trustees’ council of the National Gallery of Art, and become a significant figure in publishing, he has rarely uttered more than a sentence in the media. The standard reference book for venture capital, Pratt’s Guide, does not list Pearl among its 3,500 entries. Neither the Washington Post’s book critic, Jonathan Yardley, nor a major literary agent in the capital, Rafe Sagelyn, had ever heard of Pearl. Perseus’s own press releases sometimes omit his name.

“Frank is one of those people who enjoy anonymity,” says Leonard Slatkin, the conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra and one of Pearl’s closest friends. “He’s one of the least self-promoting people I know.” Indeed, Pearl declined repeated requests to be interviewed for this article, maintaining that it would be “premature” and “unbecoming” to speak before Perseus Books compiles more of a record. He conceded that his aversion to publicity might strike others as “phobic.” But regardless of his reasons, his fierce privacy belies his public impact. “He can bring not only business acumen but taste and culture, and you rarely find people with both,” says James Wolfensohn, the president of the World Bank, who recruited Pearl for the Kennedy Center’s board. “And he gets things done.”


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