“Wearing a number of hats is a theme,” says Rubin Pfeffer, referring both to his 40-year career in the book business, where he began as a designer at Harcourt Brace Jovanovich right out of college, and to the logo for his latest venture, Rubin Pfeffer Content, LLC. At Harcourt, Pfeffer served in a number of positions over the course of three decades, from art director to editor-in-chief and president, and took on a range of special projects, including buying fine art for corporate headquarters. After Houghton Mifflin acquired the company, he went to Pearson as chief creative officer in 2001. After a few years he found he missed trade publishing and returned as v-p and publisher of Simon & Schuster Children’s Books. “When we saw all the publishing implosions in 2008 and 2009,” said Pfeffer, “I decided to take my destiny into my own hands.” He became an independent agent at East West Literary in 2010, and is about to begin building his own brand through RPC, starting January 1.
Many of Pfeffer’s clients have been with him since he first turned agent. “I was fortunate and blessed that I didn’t have to reach out to these clients,” he said. “They reached out to me. The economics of trade publishing was changing. Books were going out of print faster, editors were leaving.” Now authors and illustrators such as Patricia MacLachlan, Susan Cooper, Steven Kellogg, and Michael Hague are following Pfeffer to his new agency, which is based in Chestnut Hill, Mass.
RPC will launch with 50 clients. Many Pfeffer has worked with for years, but he has also taken on new clients like author/illustrator Mike Austin, who designed the company’s colorful logo, a sly nod to Esphyr Slobodkina’s Caps for Sale. Pfeffer said he does not feel daunted at being responsible for such a large stable of writers and illustrators. He compares being an agent to being an obstetrician. “Not everyone is pregnant at the same stage,” he said. “Some are trying to conceive; some are in for check-ups. And rarely are two in labor at the same time.”
As for the decision to use “content” as part of the company name, rather than “literary,” Pfeffer noted that he plans to draw on his experiences at Pearson and at Harcourt, where he worked closely with the school division. At both companies he found portions of trade titles that worked well in textbooks and, to a lesser extend, textbooks that worked in the trade, both of which he sees as a win-win for both new and experienced writers. “While they’re developing their trade material, they can earn a few dollars,” he said. “Textbook publishers are always looking for content or material.”
Pfeffer also views “content” as more typical subsidiary rights deals: foreign editions, paperback editions, calendars, film, toys, and apps. “If it’s using the magical world [of the book], that’s content,” Pfeffer said, “Much of what I do is traditional books,” he stated, but he added that he likes to leverage content whenever possible. When he couldn’t sell Austin’s first book, for example, he worked with Austin in another medium. Austin’s app about a cat chasing a mouse, A Present for Milo (Ruckus Media), ended up launching his picture book career. “We were rejected for what would have been his first book, and we have seven books under contract,” he explained, pointing out how one piece of art from the cat’s chase inspired Monsters Love Color (HarperCollins). “It’s a matter of seeing possibilities aside from [traditional books], not instead of them.”
When it comes to content, Pfeffer has spoken out at conferences on discarding the notion of digital as a replacement for print. “Early on,” he said, “it looked like an opportunity rather than a threat [by providing] more ways to reach readers.” He attributed so many people’s skepticism and concern about digital to the fact that technology was ahead of where publishing was at the time. “We create ideas and build stories,” said Pfeffer. “Digital wasn’t really a threat. We have to figure out how to use it other than [as] straight text.” With RPC, he hopes to help find a way.