The Influentials: Books

Nicole AragiPhoto: Roger Deckker

Nicole Aragi
Agent, Aragi, Inc.
Andrew Wylie has the deep, distinguished list, Morton Janklow has the money, and William Morris and ICM agents do the big deals. But Aragi turns talented young writers into literary stars. Working more like the great editors of bygone days, Aragi, 44, discovers only one author or two a year—but what authors they are: Junot Díaz, Jonathan Safran Foer, Edwidge Danticat, Colson Whitehead. She’s done more to introduce us to this past decade’s greatest young ethnic writers than any editor or publisher. (A stated goal is to have a client win a Nobel Prize.) All aspiring novelists dream of a healthy six-figure advance, a lot of buzz, and maybe an excerpt in The New Yorker. If they can get Aragi, they’re on the way.

Sessalee Hensley
Fiction buyer, Barnes & Noble
Editors like to attribute the surprise success of books like The Lovely Bones and The Historian to “word of mouth,” but the word that matters most is Hensley’s. She can banish a new title to the bottom shelf, showcase it in the window, or, like Bones or Historian, promote it through the chain’s sales-boosting Discover |Great New Writers program. (She also gets credit for touting a certain erstwhile mid-list writer named Dan Brown.) Backed by CEO Leonard Riggio’s virtual monopoly on bookstores, she even has the power to change covers. “She’s right up there with Oprah,” says Sara Nelson, editor-in-chief of Publishers Weekly.

Steve Rubin
Publisher, Doubleday/Broadway
The momentum in New York’s most important publishing house isn’t coming from the charismatic Sonny Mehta (old news) or the free-spending Ann Godoff (moved to Penguin). Instead, Random House’s considerable power now lies with Rubin, the expansionist publisher of the Doubleday/Broadway imprint. He has used the riches amassed from The Da Vinci Code (and A Million Little Pieces) to keep the business growing in a downsizing era. In the biggest publishing shake-up of 2005, he grabbed Cindy Spiegel and Julie Grau, the founding editors of the prestige Penguin imprint Riverhead. They’ll publish 30 books a year—some commercial, some highly literary. As one insider put it, “Lock up your editors.”

Steve Ross
Publisher, Crown Forum
If Hillary gets Swift-Boated, Ross may well be responsible. The editor’s three-year-old conservative imprint, Crown Forum, will publish two anti-Hillary books in the next six months alone, including John Podhoretz’s Can She Be Stopped? Ross, 47, started Crown Forum by pillaging the scrappy right-wing publisher Regnery, poaching its top editor and many of its best writers. To the largely apolitical Ross, it just made business sense. With his first title, Ann Coulter’s best-selling Treason, he established Crown as the leading player in the conservative-book boomlet, once considered a minor-league game. Other big houses have followed (Penguin’s Sentinel and Mary Matalin’s Threshold at Simon & Schuster), but they’ve got some catching up to do.

Jane Friedman
CEO, HarperCollins
Pushing an antique industry into the digital age. While other publishers fight Google over the text it puts online, she’s busy digitizing her company’s 25,000 titles, to bypass the search-engine altogether and drive readers to her site instead. Rather than giving up on specialized titles in favor of mass sellers, she’s using the Web to target niche audiences with pinpoint precision. She’s not above self-promotion, but you tend to believe the hype because she already knows how to defy grim expectations, having made HarperCollins one of the business’s most profitable houses year after year.

Malcolm Gladwell
Author, The Tipping Point, Blink
He’s 42 and his name has already become an adjective. The New Yorker’s one-man Department of Big Ideas has done more than reinvent the genre of the management book: He’s changed the way people think about the obvious. In a desert of Seven CEO Strategies I Learned From Fishing books, The Tipping Point (which has sold about a million copies) vaulted the gaping divide between the world of ideas and the world of how-tos. A couple of years and many $40,000 lecture payments later, his follow-up, Blink, sold just as well, alongside a growing number of Gladwell-inspired, pop-thinking books, including Freakonomics.

Jonathan Lethem
Author, Motherless Brooklyn, Fortress of Solitude
Brooklyn writers crop up like weeds these days, but no one is as deeply rooted to the borough as Lethem. A few years back, when “literary” was synonymous with “domestic,” Lethem’s fiction, like that of many Brooklynites after him, roughed up the careful polish of M.F.A. grads with the exuberance of the autodidact. His forays into sci-fi, fantasy, noir, and comics popularized the idea that a genre book could be literature. His work has meanwhile circled back to the once-downtrodden block he grew up on. Now that Heath and Michelle have moved there (Dean Street, to be exact), the writer who rediscovered Brooklyn as a creative muse is at the center of the boom. Next: The Influentials in Classical & Dance

The Influentials: Books