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Can This Man Save Publishing?


Peggy Cooper, a woman colloquially known as the “culture minister” of black Washington, was at this time married to Conrad Cafritz, one of Pearl’s most important law clients. Hearing of the Jacob Lawrence project, she arranged for Pearl to meet her friend Henry Louis Gates Jr. Not only did Gates write the introductory essay for the book, but he struck up an instant friendship with Pearl.

“He was an intellectual as much as a businessman,” Gates remembers. “I liked talking to him about ideas. It was like talking to one of my colleagues. It was clear he was a person of the book.”

Moving down a receiving line on the White House lawn in September 1994, Eli Segal found himself staring into a strangely familiar face. “I remember you,” he blurted out as he shook the man’s hand. “You’re Frank Pearl. I met you 30-odd years ago at the University of Wisconsin.” Segal was at the White House because he was the founding chief executive of AmeriCorps, the community-service program President Clinton was launching that day. Pearl merited his invitation because of his extensive voluntarism -- and also perhaps because of his $100,000 donation of “soft money” to the Democratic Party in 1992. (He would make a comparable donation in 1996.)

Pearl arranged several dinner parties at his home in northwest Washington at which Segal could plead AmeriCorps’s case with selected members of Congress. And when Segal left AmeriCorps in 1995 to return to private business, Pearl gave him free space in his offices.

From that vantage point, Segal could see how seriously Pearl took Counterpoint Press, which was headquartered in the same building. More than once, he heard Pearl say, “I don’t view publishing as a hobby.” The word he preferred was mission. So when Segal learned in October 1996 that his old friend Peter Osnos was resigning as the publisher of Times Books to try launching his own publishing house, he thought here was someone Frank Pearl ought to meet.

In twelve years at Random House, Inc., Osnos had published such authors as Natan Shcharansky, Boris Yeltsin, Tip O’Neill, and Stanley Karnow, counting on the occasional bonanza and a backlist of crossword-puzzle compilations and consumer reference to supply the profit margin his superiors dictated. The year 1995 persuaded him the system could not survive. Despite four best-sellers that collectively sold 650,000 copies -- Robert McNamara’s In Retrospect and Jimmy Carter’s Always a Reckoning in hardcover; The Contract With America and the papal encyclical The Gospel of Life in trade paperback -- Times Books barely broke even. Facing a shortfall of several million dollars on a $30 million budget in 1996, Osnos flung what he calls a “Hail Mary pass” with President Clinton’s Between Hope and History. While the book-length essay made money because the president received neither an advance nor royalties, it sold only 140,000 copies of the nearly 500,000 printed.

“The system for publishing my kind of books had clearly run aground,” says Osnos. “And it had nothing to do with the books. It had to do with economics.”

Osnos came to believe that the audience for serious books was simply too limited to sustain the customary author advances and corporate overhead. Such well-reviewed Times Books titles as Jeff Birnbaum’s The Lobbyists, Fred Emery’s Watergate, and Larry Sabato and Glenn Simpson’s Dirty Little Secrets sold fewer than 20,000 copies each in hardcover. Yet Osnos recognized that even a generous contract for a book with such limited earning potential -- a contract of, say, $100,000 -- “is minimum wage for the author after you’ve paid your agent and spent four years on it.”

So Osnos devised a system of syndicating the cost of a book contract among underwriters, much as Broadway shows are financed. In the Osnos scenario, an author could receive a contract of $250,000, with only a portion contributed by the publishing house. The rest might come from the PBS series Frontline, a partner of PublicAffairs, in exchange for the rights to produce a companion documentary; the 20th Century Fund, in consideration of a conference tied to the book; and even an online magazine like Salon, for serialization. By thus spreading the risks (or rewards) proportionally among the partners, Osnos could pay an author enough to support years of research and writing. “Can I do that for hundreds of books a year? No,” Osnos says. “Can I do it ten or twelve times a year? Absolutely.”

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