"My mother doesn't need much sleep," says David Grann, a writer (her other two children are Edward, a filmmaker, and Alison, a radiation oncologist). "At any hour of the night, you'd wake up and she'd be reading. She'd read five, six books a week. When we went on sailing trips, she'd bring a suitcaseful for the week. Even then, her office would have to send more."
Authors became good friends. "We hopped the Atlantic on the QE2 together," Clancy says proudly. Dick Francis plays host to the Granns every February at his home on Grand Cayman Island. Art Buchwald persuaded them to buy a house near his on Martha's Vineyard 25 years ago.
Colleagues at other publishing houses, like Olson, also grew close to her. Grann has dinner several nights a week with industry stalwarts like former Knopf head Robert Gottlieb, Doubleday publisher Steve Rubin, and current Knopf president Sonny Mehta.
If friends were family, employees were like children -- especially when their health was at stake. When Faith Sale, a Putnam editor, was battling cancer for two years before succumbing in 1999, "Phyllis sent a car to pick her up every morning and take her home each night," Creamer recalls. "She didn't care about how much work Faith missed." And leaving the company didn't release one from Grann's maternal grip. A former employee had a medical emergency in the Caribbean and Grann flew with her husband to meet her and be sure she got proper medical attention.
"Her Jewish-mother qualities obfuscate her very effective dealings with the world," Gottlieb says of the sincere doting and meddling. "She's a Jewish mother with the mind of a bear trap."
Grann never let sentimentality blunt her lead-sled-dog style of management, always out front, always pulling her share and more. "The world divides into the people who get on with her and the people who don't exist," says one former employee. "There would be no eye contact at meetings. She'd look blank if you said good morning."
And she can be stunningly candid. "Phyllis is very, very aware of which of her repeaters are good," Gottlieb says, "and in what ways -- and which of them are unspeakable. She's smart and she's honest. I remember one time I called her up about a writer and said, 'Listen, Phyl, I've got to read something by this person. It's now, you know, six successful books.' And she said, 'Absolutely not, I'd be mortified.' "
Confident in herself, her tastes, and her intellect, Grann never worried about impressing others with a more august list. Her strength was in sales, and she knew it. She saw room to grow even among best-selling authors. Having passed up the chance to acquire Clive Cussler once, she recently jumped in with both feet, increasing his already impressive sales by 100,000 copies. How? "If I could figure out what she does," says Esther Newberg, an agent who represents a handful of writers like Patricia Cornwell, Daniel Silva, and Steve Martini, who all left other houses to go with Grann, "I'd beat up on all the other publishers until they did it."
"I wish I knew," Sonny Mehta pitches in, "because I'd be doing it, too."
Part of the magic at Putnam was Grann's Thursday-morning breakfast meeting. "It's the only breakfast meeting where no food is served," her successor, Susan Petersen Kennedy, says. "For Phyllis, all phone calls need to be returned immediately. Breakfast was the only time you could have a long meeting."
The 8:30 a.m. event had a war-room atmosphere, with representatives of every department -- editorial, publicity, sales, and marketing -- reporting in to Grann, who made decisions like a Mike Milken-style bond trader, constantly evaluating and re-evaluating her positions.
"Putnam publishes 75 books a year," Grann says, explaining the composition of her list. "About 25 were repeat best-sellers, 15 were books that we would need a huge campaign to make, 10 were books where we were just starting things and we didn't know where it was going, and 10 were mistakes we probably shouldn't have published." The trick was to make sure no piece of information was overlooked, no opportunity missed. She had hundreds of little tweaks and trims -- a few more cities on a publicity tour, a smaller reprint, another ad -- that might make the crucial difference in a book's momentum.
"She didn't want anything to creep up on her," one editor who used to work with Grann says. "She had a hyper-alertness about bad news.
"Phyllis has a sometimes breathtaking ability to deadhead books before they were even published," the editor says. Folding up shop on a faltering title was one way to keep the margins up.
"If you didn't put the whole above all," Grann says darkly about life at Penguin Putnam, "it didn't work for you there." When a book wasn't performing to her expectations, especially if the author showed little hope of becoming a repeater, she gave no quarter.
She rarely ceded control. "There were people who thought it might be difficult for two strong women to work together," says Susan Petersen Kennedy, who joined the company to start Riverhead as an independent imprint. "But it was clear that I was doing something very different. She said, 'I'm not going to read any of your books until they are published. I don't want to influence what you do with my opinions.' And she kept to that."
"As long as you make your margins," Grann explains, "I don't care. You can spend your money any way you like, but you have to make your margins." Petersen Kennedy agrees: "She's not into charity."
But Grann's implacable will also had an obverse. If she believed in a book, she would go to the mat -- again and again. In the case of Lance Armstrong's It's Not About the Bike, Barnes and Noble's buyers were having trouble mustering enthusiasm for what they considered a relatively obscure sports memoir. Frustrated with the chain's response, Grann saddled up and rode down to the company's headquarters off Union Square, the first three chapters of the book under her arm. "She told them," Creamer says, " 'You're missing this and you need to take more.' " Impressed that the CEO took the time to pitch the book herself, B&N did -- and it became a best-seller.
Instead of berating her employees over costs, Grann ran tutorials about the financial ramifications of every day-to-day decision. "We have, department for department, the lowest head count of any of our competitors," David Shanks, Grann's financial lieutenant and now the CEO of Penguin Putnam, says. "We had this philosophy that we would make people understand how they fit into the big picture. We would have financial meetings where a lot of people came so everyone understood how and why we were making decisions."