The leadership team of Phoenix Books Inc. has been moving aggressively to re-position the Los Angeles publisher following the death this summer of founder Michael Viner. The company, acquired in late 2007 by Dwight Opperman, is moving away from the celebrity and tabloid-driven titles favored by Viner to create a list built around serious fiction and nonfiction. Phoenix will also significantly expand its children's book presence under the newly named Pickwick Press imprint. “We are moving quickly to become a respected independent publisher based in Los Angeles,” said editor-in-chief Dan Smetanka.
While Smetanka wants to tap into the talent in the southern California area, the goal of Phoenix is to develop a list that will appeal to readers nationwide, and find books that will have a long shelf life. “This company lacks a backlist,” noted Gray Peterson, executive v-p. “We need to publish books that will last in the marketplace.”
Both men believe recently released and newly signed titles are a good indication of the company's new direction. Birth: When the Spiritual and the Material Come Together by Shari Arison, a bestseller in Arison's native Israel, was released in mid-November with a 100,000-copy first printing and lots of marketing (including a cover package in PW). Phoenix acquired world rights to the title from N.S. Bienstock. Scott Philips and Robert Anderson, two authors who Smetanka worked with at Ballantine, are now with Phoenix. Philips, author of The Ice Harvest, returns next fall with Supply, another noir novel set after World War II, while Anderson's new novel, The River Dragon (spring 2011), is set in 1975 and the main character moves back and forth in time to solve his own murder. The lead title for next fall will be a memoir by Linda Gray Sexton, Half in Love, which recounts her relationship with her mother, the Pulitzer Prize—winning poet Anne Sexton. Phoenix has also signed James Brown's This River, a sequel of sorts to his The Los Angeles Diaries, which Phoenix will publish in trade paperback. Smetanka expects to publish a steady number of debut novelists and the spring list includes a first novel from Thaisa Frank, Heidegger's Glasses.
The new children's imprint is being overseen by Peterson, and, while Pickwick has had a soft launch this fall, it will rollout in full force next year. Seven titles are planned for spring—four board books, two young adult titles and one storybook. Prices for most board books will be $9.95 or less. Plans for the fall call for the release of 20 board books and six to eight YA titles. With some major publishers retrenching, Peterson observed that “there is lots of talent out there. We think we have a real opportunity” to develop a strong children's list. In addition to sales through bookstores, Peterson expects the children's list to find a place in mass merchandisers and warehouse clubs.
The company's audiobooks operation will remain centered around Phoenix Audio and will continue to release audio editions of books published by other publishers. “We're re-establishing our relationship with publishers,” Peterson said. Recent acquisitions include Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon and The Monster in the Box by Ruth Rendell.
With Opperman's support, Peterson said he is happy with the progress the company has made to date to make Phoenix a competitor in the independent publisher community.