There are some universal landmarks in life: graduations, weddings, birthdays. It wasn't planned, yet somehow it seems fitting that a list of what not to do on one's 30th birthday led Sourcebooks to the kick-off title in its fiction imprint, Sourcebooks Landmark, to be launched this spring.
It happened on the Underground, when Sourcebooks publisher Dominique Raccah and her top associates were in England last year for the London Book Fair. She spotted an ad that listed "some situations to avoid" upon reaching a 30th birthday: "Having a one-night stand with a colleague from work. The rash purchase of luxury items you can't afford. Being left by your wife. Losing your job. Suddenly becoming a single parent." The ad continued, "If you are coming up on 30, don't do any of that. It will screw up your whole day."
These words just happened to be the opening lines for a novel titled Man and Boy by Tony Parsons, a British television pundit and newspaper columnist who made his name covering the birth of punk rock in the '70s for the British music magazine NME. Raccah had never heard of Parsons, but the ad for Man and Boy intrigued her so much that she told Sourcebooks' executive editor Hillel Black to get her a copy of the book as soon as possible. A quick trip to the bookstore later, and Black had copies of Parsons's book for himself, Raccah and publicist Judy Kelly. "We read it right away, and we all fell in love with the book," Black told PW. "What we didn't know was if anyone had published it in the U.S."
HarperCollins published Man and Boy in the U.K. in 1999, and it has since sold more than 25,000 copies in hardcover and more than 600,000 in paperback there, where it spent nearly 30 weeks on the bestseller lists in the company of Harry Potter. Man and Boy is the story of a suddenly single father raising his son. The Times of London claimed the novel "probed to the heart of what it means to be a man in the 21st century" and called it "salutary reading for both sexes," with a few laughs along the way. Rights had been sold for 15 foreign-language editions, but the U.S. rights were still in play.
So Black had another assignment: find the agent. Finding Caradoc King at AP Watt was easy, Black, who was publisher of Macmillan Trade and editor-in-chief at William Morrow before joining Sourcebooks last year, had known King a long time. The harder sell was getting King to consider Sourcebooks, the Naperville, Ill.-based newcomer to fiction publishing.
There's a lot of what Black called "serendipitous luck" surrounding Sourcebooks' foray into fiction, but first, the background:
Sourcebooks had come a long way from its humble beginnings 13 years ago, with Raccah's $17,000 investment and one financial title, to annual sales of $25 million and 150 nonfiction titles a year. Raccah was founder and shareholder of LPC Group, which distributed Sourcebooks until two years ago when Raccah sold her share of the company. Now Sourcebooks, which employs 60 people and is still hiring, does its own distribution. Over the past four years, it acquired three publishers: Casablanca Press, which focuses on relationship books, including the perennial bestseller 1001 Ways to Be Romantic; Sphinx Publishing, with a line of self-help law books; and Hysteria Publications, which has a line of humor books and is still operated by Sourcebooks out of Bridgeport, Conn. But Sourcebooks really made its mark just over two years ago with the publication of We Interrupt This Broadcast by Joe Garner. The title was its first entry into a new genre of publishing that Sourcebooks called "media fusion," and with more than 500,000 copies sold, it was an unmistakable success. Sourcebooks followed up We Interrupt with other successful media fusion books, including this year's And the Crowd Goes Wild, also by Garner. (Next fall, Sourcebooks is launching a Media Fusion imprint, which will focus on highly visual books with CD audio components, with Poetry Performed, edited by the Poetry Society of America's Elise Paschen; it features original recordings of Tennyson, Yeats, Joyce, Frost, Ginsberg and some live poets as well.)
Raccah told PW that her success in nonfiction, such as this year's bestselling The World's Best Kept Diet Secrets, by Diane Irons, is providing the funding for Sourcebooks Landmark. "I had always hoped that we would grow to the point where we could do fiction," she said. "Because you really can't be a great house without fiction."
Raccah didn't make the leap into fiction without trepidation and, according to Black, a little nudge. The two were having dinner during one of Black's visits to the Naperville office, when he broached the subject. "The truth of the matter is, because Dominique is passionate about books and about publishing, [fiction] is what she wanted to do," Black explained. The next day, Raccah admitted that she'd really like to publish her favorite author, Michael Malone, who hadn't published a book since Foolscap came out from Little, Brown in 1991.
The conversation lead to another assignment for Black-find Malone's agent Peter Matson at Sterling Lord-and to more serendipity. The quest for Malone started long before Sourcebooks' path intersected with Tony Parsons. After a series of letters and phone calls, Matson arranged for a meeting between Raccah and Malone, but it meant the former had to postpone her trip to the London Book Fair by one day. As the saying goes, what a difference a day makes.
Raccah said she used that extra day to meet with Barnes & Noble, and then her whole world changed. "They were really Sourcebooks-friendly. We had a 7% return rate. Our sales were up 100-something percent. They were really happy with us and looking to do more business with us in the future," said Raccah. "I went to sleep that night and I realized that we could do this. People would support us. When I went to see Michael the next day, my head had shifted."
Signing Michael Malone was Sourcebooks' first six-figure deal. Talk about landmarks. "I had no doubt that I made the right decision," said Raccah.
Her timing with Malone could not have been better. Somewhat disappointed in what he saw as a decline in fiction in favor of memoir in the publishing industry, Malone, who quit writing novels nearly a decade ago and won an Emmy for his writing on the soap One Life to Live, was ready to come back to books. He had two novels he wanted to sell. He had just moved back to North Carolina where his wife was going to head the English department at Duke. He literally had just figured out how to work his fax machine, when Raccah's letter of introduction to his agent was the first thing to come over. "Dominique's passion and incredibly generous response to my work was incredible," Malone told PW. "Given all the changes that publishing has gone through over the last decade, to find a publisher with that passion about writing is what a writer dreams about."
But Malone's return to the novel had piqued the interest of many publishers. Quite frankly, he said, he was a little skeptical of Sourcebooks at first. New to publishing fiction, not based in thick of it in Manhattan-despite its reputation for publishing nonfiction-Sourcebooks had some convincing to do. "Then I thought, God knows, I want readers to extend beyond that little island, so why does the publisher have to be there?" Malone added.
What really hooked Malone on Sourcebooks, however, was finding out that not only was Handling Sin Raccah's favorite book, but that she and her husband actually copied the pilgrimage the lead character takes in the book. "That was a wonderful story to hear," he said. "They understood what I was writing and they wanted as many people as possible to share it. They bring the old commitment of publishing, with the new marketing tools."
Sourcebooks will reintroduce Malone to the reading world next fall with the publication of his new novel, First Lady, the third in the trilogy that started with Time's Witness and Uncivil Season, and at the same time the house brings Malone's entire backlist back to print. "Booksellers will be getting some sort of gimmick from me to help sell Michael's backlist," said Raccah.
Marketing savvy is what sold Parsons and his agent on Sourcebooks. On King's advice, Parsons said, he turned down several offers from New York-based houses and considered it an honor to be the debut title on the Sourcebooks Landmark list. "Caradoc said that these are the people we've been waiting for," continued Parsons. "If we had cut one of those deals in New York, we would have just been one title on somebody's list, and then we'd not get the push and the passion from Sourcebooks."
Sourcebooks Landmark will start by publishing about five titles a season. Raccah said backlist is a top priority. "I believe that I will be publishing Man and Boy and Michael Malone until the day I retire," said Raccah. For now, Sourcebooks is busy finding ways to take the marketing strategies that did so well for nonfiction and apply them to its Landmark titles. "If we are going to do it, we are going to do it right," said Raccah. "We're going to find ways to break through that nobody else is doing." Whatever Sourcebooks has in mind to promote its fiction, chances are, it's aimed at hitting a few more landmarks along the way.