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Can This Man Save Publishing?


Just as Eli Segal had anticipated, the plan found a ready advocate in Pearl. Within hours of first meeting Osnos in October 1996, Pearl wrote to him, “I’m struck by how common our vision is.” Osnos recalls, “I was comforted by the degree to which Frank understood the economics of the business -- that this was a tough business, that it needed substantial changes to be viable.”

The pair met six more times in the following months. Ultimately, Pearl bought a majority interest in the nascent PublicAffairs, while Osnos landed such minority shareholders as ABC anchorman Peter Jennings and cable-television executive Robert Rosencrans.

The new company, announced to the public in May 1997, gave Pearl a line of books on politics, history, and social issues to augment Counterpoint’s strengths in fiction, religion, and the natural sciences. But Pearl’s plans didn’t end with Counterpoint and PublicAffairs. He envisioned a number of editorially independent houses, each with a precise, focused identity and the commitment to publish a limited list with great care -- something like a constellation of North Points. In keeping with the North Point model, the model Jack Shoemaker had mistakenly abandoned in the heady wake of Son of the Morning Star, Pearl would hold his staff-to-book ratio to about 1:4, as compared with the 2:1 common in large houses. But unlike most independent publishers, which either sacrifice the economies of scale or have to sell out to conglomerates to get them, Pearl’s imprints would share such back-office functions as accounting and subsidiary rights in the way Random House’s constituents do.

As a business, Perseus still lacked a top and a bottom. The bottom of a publishing house is its backlist, a body of trade paperbacks that have long since recouped their advances and are still generating steady, predictable sales. The top is its CEO, a role Pearl did not want for himself.

Charles Hayward, a former publisher at Simon & Schuster and Little, Brown, was consulting for Perseus in 1997 when he introduced Pearl to Jack McKeown, a protégé from Hayward’s Simon & Schuster days. McKeown had gone on to HarperCollins but had quit recently after being passed over for the presidency of the company in favor of Anthea Disney, an executive whose bona fides included stints at TV Guide and the tabloid-TV show A Current Affair.

When they met, Pearl praised the serious nonfiction McKeown had published at Simon & Schuster, extolling in particular David McCullough’s Truman and James Stewart’s Den of Thieves as books that “moved the culture.” And McKeown, like Shoemaker and Osnos before him, perceived in Pearl a businessman unbeholden to the traditional economics of publishing and eager to learn from the harrowing experiences of this cast of corporate refugees. “You couldn’t spend five minutes with Frank Pearl,” McKeown remembers of their initial encounter, “and not know there was a first-rate financial mind at work.”

McKeown began consulting for Perseus in May 1997, and he became CEO four months later. From the moment he arrived, he set about acquiring a backlist “to give the revenue stream to grow your front list.” A lucrative one became available last spring when HarperCollins announced it would discontinue its Basic Books imprint. From McKeown’s years at HarperCollins, he knew that Basic’s backlist provided half the subsidiary’s annual revenue, one of the highest proportions in the industry. Basic’s titles in the social and behavioral sciences sold especially well to library, academic, and institutional markets, far from the caprice of the superstores. By late August, Pearl had signed a letter of intent to buy Basic. While the price was not disclosed, an imprint commonly costs twice its annual revenue, which was $10 million at Basic.

Less than four months later, Pearl signed a similar letter to acquire Addison Wesley’s General Publishing Group. Its backlist of 400 titles supplied about 45 percent of the group’s $20 million in annual revenue. In a general sense, the deal gave Perseus secure inroads in business, health, parenting, and popular psychology; more specifically, it provided such cash cows as T. Berry Brazelton’s Touchpoints, Dr. Susan Love’s Breast Book, and Take Care of Yourself, by Donald Vickery and James Fries.

While Pearl’s new publishing house manifestly lacks the movie idols, military heroes, and fallen spin doctors who have been passing for authors recently, it can already boast one certifiable literary luminary. Through much of the mid-nineties, Henry Louis Gates Jr. made the rounds of major publishers, trying to find a believer in his longtime dream -- a print and multimedia reference work on Africa and the African diaspora, the Encyclopedia Africana. Neither Gates’s own credentials as a Harvard scholar and New Yorker writer nor the growing sales for black authors from E. Lynn Harris to Toni Morrison persuaded a single house to buy the project. Gates pitched the encyclopedia to Frank Pearl, who in the four years since they had met had built a company capable of taking on such an ambitious project.

On the strength of his own reputation and the CD-rom demo, Gates eventually came away with a commitment from Perseus to produce the encyclopedia in both print and multimedia formats in 1999. He also came away with something else.

“Frank said, ‘What about an imprint devoted to African and African-American studies, broadly construed?’” Gates recalls. “And would I be interested in being involved? It took me about two milliseconds to say yes.

“Anybody my age has seen two or three cycles since 1968 of boom and bust in the publication of books by and about the black experience,” Gates continues. “So I never trust the trend. Even now, when you have several black writers on the best-seller list, the larger houses are concerned about finding the next Toni Morrison. Their commitment to moderate-selling books is always a question. I’d always wanted to intervene with some publisher to ensure that books in the midrange will continue to be published. Frank offered that. I’d be a fool to turn it down.”

Pearl not only hired Gates as editorial director of the new imprint, Civitas, but gave him an ownership stake in it and a seat on the Perseus board. For his part, Gates led Harvard’s veritable all-star team of black intellectuals to Civitas. He encouraged Orlando Patterson, a Harvard sociologist who won the 1991 National Book Award for Freedom in the Making of Western Culture, to sign with Perseus for his trilogy on race in America. The first volume, The Ordeal of Integration, was published in late 1997 to admiring reviews. Civitas will also publish a collection of lectures on African-American culture by Cornel West, another Harvard colleague of Gates’s.

A personal bond has grown alongside the professional one. Last June, when Gates had two tickets to the final game in the NBA championship series between the Utah Jazz and the Chicago Bulls, he invited as his guest Frank Pearl. “We saw Michael get the trophy,” Gates says of the great Jordan, still glowing at the memory. So, of course, did 20,000 fans and a throng of media. Which could only have pleased Frank Pearl. He was where he plainly prefers to be -- at the center of events, in rarefied company, and utterly unnoticed.


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