Basic Books: 50 Years of Scholarly Books for the Trade
John F. Baker -- 11/27/00

Basic Books has grown in the 50 years of its existence from an offshoot of a book club to a major scholarly imprint within trade publishing, specializing in books in science and the humanities--and in the process has passed in and out of Harper to its present niche within the Perseus Books Group.

Not long ago, Basic had an anniversary party with both its founder, Arthur Rosenthal, and its present leader, John Donatich, present--a remarkable example of continuity in these flexible times. Rosenthal, who later went on to head Harvard University Press successfully for many years, recalled how Basic grew out of a book club whose assets he had bought in 1950; the club assets eventually formed the core of Basic's early publishing program. Ernest Jones's three-volume Life and Work of Sigmund Freud was one of its early staples and exemplified the kind of high-profile scholarly work it aimed to publish.

Basic became an imprint in 1969 at Harper &Row, as it then was called, but after HarperCollins became part of News Corp., it no longer fit, and Donatich, who was deputy publisher during the early '90s, left in early 1997, shortly before HC sold the imprint to Perseus. Now he is back--and Basic's books are still being sold by the HC sales staff.

"The Perseus format is a beautiful model for our kind of publishing," Donatich said. "And the fact that we have Harper warehousing and distribution gives us a break on overhead. The way we're organized, under Jack McKeown, gives us a great deal of editorial freedom." His staff, all veterans of Basic's kind of publishing, includes executive editors JoAnn Miller, specializing in foreign titles, psychology and women's studies; Don Fehr, with lines in religion and history; senior editor Bill Frucht, whose line is science; and recent addition Liz McGuire from the Free Press.

Between them, they put out about 100 books a year, 55 of them new, the rest reprints, mostly in psychology, history, science and economics. Basic's areas of interest, and its authors, are similar to those of many university presses, except that, as Donatich noted wryly, "we pay taxes--but we're just as important to primary research, and to the kind of debate that g s on in academe." Most of Basic's writers, he finds, "are part of the academy, but with their backs to it--people who want to reach a wider audience than they usually can with a U.P. We look for a narrative quality, a writerly voice."

His chief rivals in this chosen field, as he sees it, are the Free Press; Pantheon; Norton; Farrar, Straus; and the bigger university presses, but there is room for all. "I find this an encouraging marketplace for our kinds of books. The superstores and e-tailing have helped us make some breakout successes we probably couldn't have managed a few years ago. I think it's easier than ever now for the niche readers to find what they want." About half of Basic's sales are backlist, and the company has begun taking back licenses that had been sold elsewhere, including, most recently, an old classic, Gödel, Escher, Bach.

In the less than three years Basic has been part of Perseus, it has doubled its revenues, Donatich said, noting that his greatest concern now is "not to grow too fast. We want the infrastructure to keep up."