If it's titles, try Confessions of a Gynecologist; An Expert Shows You How Heavy Can Be Happy; Do Androids Dream of Electronic Sheep?; Movers and Shakers in Georgia; Miller's High Life; Sherlock Bones, Tracer of Missing Pets.
If it's authors, how about Tony Hillerman, Anne Rivers Siddons, Isaac Asimov, Susan Isaacs, Michael Korda, Ruth Rendell, Quentin Crisp, Jack Higgins, Bill Bryson, Simon Winchester.
A list is a list is a list, but some are more standout than others. It doesn't take a Sherlock Bones to detect eclecticism at work here, an original cast of mind, a talent for authors and titles bestselling—and occasionally best left behind. Not to mention an appreciation for the manifold foibles of humans, dogs and cats.
Larry Ashmead, whose 43-year career has encompassed all of the above, retires from HarperCollins June 30. But although he's vacating the kitsch-filled Disneyland of an office and leaving the table at Michael's restaurant that's been his every lunchtime for years, there's no way that an editor who's given so much pleasure to so many readers—and so much wit to an industry—will soon be forgotten.
Perhaps what becomes a legendary editor most, one who will turn 71 this July 4, is the palpable love shown by colleagues high and low, Americans and Brits, and by authors past and present. If you have to take your leave, best do it with Tony Hillerman's Sinister Pig rooting around the fiction bestseller list and Krakatoa erupting across the nonfiction list, its author, Simon Winchester, declaring in words both spoken and printed that you have changed his life profoundly for the better.
But reader, be warned: legends are legendary for a reason. So take what follows with the proverbial grain of salt: supplied by one of the cast of thousands of salt-and-pepper shakers—penguins, pagodas, lighthouses, feet, to name but a few incarnations—accounting only in part for Ashmead's office jumble. There's also the electric hula girl performing one shimmy per second; the Viking-helmeted Neanderthal; the preserved piranha; the squirrels and crocodile (or is it an alligator?).
Arch-collector Lawrence P. Ashmead grew up in Rochester, N.Y., the picture-perfect Kodak company town. His father was an accountant—for Kodak, of course. His first contact with Gotham came at a tender age. "My aunt brought me down to New York by train," he recalls. "We arrived, walked into Grand Central, and there was a huge picture on the wall. It was of me, and I thought that was nice, that they did that for everybody on their first trip." The "everybody" in question happened to be an occasional child model in camera ads.
At the University of Rochester he liked geology well enough that after two years in the army, he completed a doctorate in the subject at Yale. The newly minted Ph.D. was expected to work for an oil company in Texas that had helped finance his graduate study. Instead, Ashmead asserts, "I took the only bold decision of my life.
"I realized that my heart was in books. When I was nine, I had gone to hear a mystery writer, Amber Dean, talk at the library. She told how she typed her manuscript and sent it to a woman in a skyscraper who turned it into a book in New York. The image of sitting in a skyscraper reading books was burned into my retina. So I felt very guilty, but I called the oil company to say I wasn't coming. I had to go to New York."
The post-sputnik early '60s had a craving for popular science, and Doubleday was happy to satisfy the urge. "Before the age of equality, men started as editorial assistants at $100 a week and women as secretaries at $75," Ashmead says. "I began working on the Science Study series, paperback originals used mainly in schools."
After 18 months, his boss asked him to look over a manuscript, Life and Energy by an author named Isaac Asimov. "I was such a smart college kid," Ashmead recalls with his Cheshire cat voice and smile. "I wrote a long report saying what was wrong with the book. Asimov showed me where I was wrong in just about every case. But he also said he'd never had such attention paid to a manuscript and asked me to be his editor. That was my first step up the ladder."
Doubleday also had a very active mystery department, the Crime Club, headed by Isabelle Taylor. The ex—poster boy was a lover of mysteries and asked if he could read for her. "We got along famously," he recalls. It didn't hurt that she was the woman still working in that skyscraper, the one he had heard about when he was nine.
As the swinging '60s were nearing their end, the Crime Club editor retired. Nelson Doubleday, the scion of the family firm, called Ashmead into his office the day before a party in Taylor's honor.
"He told me he hadn't gotten a present and asked me to go to Tiffany's to pick something. I knew I was making more money than Isabelle. It was awful what women were paid back then. So I went to Tiffany's and got an amethyst necklace, for $21,000.
"I remember in her speech she said she would have happily paid to have worked at Doubleday. I never told her that Nelson didn't pick it out. I don't know if he ever realized the bill was for her present. She adored him. It was the perfect gift."
His mentor was then editor-in-chief Ken McCormick. "He and Sam Vaughan took me under their wings. I took over the Crime Club, did science fiction and concentrated more and more on noncategory trade. By the time I'd been there 15 years, I was an editorial director." Ashmead's authors included Philip K. Dick ("he was not famous then"), Patricia Highsmith (ditto), Helen Van Slyke (whose personal generosity to her editor is legendary) and Asimov, with whom he did 44 books.
"Doubleday was a wonderful place in the '60s and early '70s," Ashmead recalls, "editorially run, with great camaraderie, and there wasn't a day without a bestseller. Despite the pay and unequal treatment, women were beginning to come into their own. My first assistant, Kate Bach, became Kate Medina. Maggie Cousins, Betty Prashker, Anne McCormick, Sally Arteseros—they were all there."
In those days, Ashmead recalls, "we worked hard at doing a lot of regional books. One time Helen Van Slyke and I were sitting in New York, and I said, 'Why don't we go to another town to set the next book?' So we went to Cleveland and hired a savvy limo driver to take us around. The driver said at one point, 'You are leaving Cleveland, the best place to be,' and that gave us the title.
"The story was about a widow who lives in a fancy suburb but has to get a job, and she gets that job in the book section of Higbee's Department Store, which was a really big account. Claudette Price was the buyer there, and we had the widow work for her. We sold thousands in Higbee's alone. I can't imagine doing such a thing today. We don't have that kind of leisurely pace, and we don't have a Claudette Price at Higbee's or a Faith Brunson at Rich's in Atlanta. These were very important stores and very tough women and they could make a book."
It was a different world for everybody in the business. The sales reps did not have the impossibly large lists they are burdened with now, so it was far easier for them to take an active role in a book's conception.
"A rep would come to an editor about a local writer in the paper, and we'd go there and get the columnist to write a book. Celestine Sibley was my favorite," Ashmead says. "We could sell 30,000 copies of a book by her just in Atlanta and the southeast alone. Or a rep would run an ad in the Chicago paper saying that an editor was coming to town, asking people to make an appointment. Ken McCormick would sit in a hotel for three days and be presented with manuscripts.
"Publishing doesn't nurture in the way it used to," Ashmead continues. "Ken used to say, 'Your job is to read the papers and come up with three ideas a day and take them to me. I don't see most young people 'making' books in that way. We're so corporate minded, trying to structure a 15%—20% return on investment, which we really can't do, given outmoded things like returns. I'd like to think lots of small publishers will flourish, but I don't see it, not when 70% of the business is with the chains, who are calling the shots."
Nurturing has continued in some quarters, however. "Two things in publishing I've loved," Ashmead says with real pleasure. "Being mentored and mentoring. All of the people who've worked for me—Eamon Dolan, Scott Waxman, Jason Kaufman and others—have said I was one of the worst bosses. I'd make them do 60 xeroxes so they could put something in the mail to each author every week. I'd really push them, get into fights."
Indeed, despite Ashmead's habit of getting into the office by 6:30 every morning and often working on Sundays, he wasn't the one standing by the photocopier each December cranking out the annual book-length "Funnies," the collection of bizarre and wonderful newspaper clippings that friends and authors looked forward to receiving at Christmas. But both Waxman and Kaufman speak with admiration and affection about their days spent "learning with Larry." When The DaVinci Code hit the bestseller list, its editor, Kaufman, said one of the congratulations that meant the most came from his old boss.
In 1975, Ashmead got a call from Michael Korda, editor-in-chief of Simon & Schuster, who wanted to persuade him to move. "I wasn't interested, but he said that a good rule in business is always to talk. I was making $22,000; they offered around $35,000. I decided I was happy to move."
But that sojourn was "the most unhappy year and a half of my life. It was the time when S&S was publishing the 'felon list,' everybody who'd been indicted in Watergate. It was so competitive. And apart from a few people, like Michael, Joni Evans and Nan Talese, it was so unfriendly. Alice Mayhew didn't talk to me for a long time. When she finally did, she said, 'You start saying hello, and the next thing you know they're out the door. I only take note when somebody's been here a year.' "
Ashmead knew he had to get out. Lippincott promised less money but more collegiality. After he arrived, the editor quickly took on Close Relations, the second novel by a young writer named Susan Isaacs, who would stay with him for more than two decades. The company had just come off a big high with Piers Paul Read's Alive, and they had To Kill a Mockingbird on the backlist.
Of the latter, Ashmead recounts one of his favorite tales. After he settled in, he got to know Tay Hohoff, who was Harper Lee's editor, "pretty well." According to Ashmead, "When the manuscript originally came in to Lippincott, it was read by Ann Hemingway; in those days, publishers had readers. She told Tay that she should look at it, that it was a wonderful story that needed a lot of editorial attention."
"So Hohoff read it and went to her boss and said, 'I want to take six months off and work on this book. I believe it could be one of the great novels of our age.' She got six months off, and Harper Lee gave her $5,000 for Christmas so she could do so. They worked each day. There was a lot of autobiography in that book, and a lot of editorial help. I think that's why Lee never wrote another book. It was a perfect collaboration; it shows publishing at its very best. Imagine if I asked for six days off today!"
Lippincott was soon bought by Harper, a company that the editor likened at the time to "a sleepy dinosaur, mainly nonfiction and history and very few bestsellers." His idiosyncratic radar screen for the weird and wacky and his love of celebrities and gossip were evident in such early acquisitions as Pet Loss and biographies of silent screen star Pola Negri ("great fun"), Ethel Merman ("she was a horror") and the Jewish entertainers Mickey Katz and Molly Picon.
"Bestsellers always eluded me," Ashmead says with a sigh, "but the celebrity books could be so much fun. Ann Miller's came closest to success. Her original title was Tippy Tappy Toe Cha Cha Cha. I told her to call it Miller's High Life. The beer people sent her four six packs a week for many years."
Through the next quarter-century, there were enough big sellers to make up for those that weren't. One source was annual prospecting trips to London. Ashmead traveled there almost every February for more than two decades, seeing everybody in British publishing for three weeks. He signed up Jack Higgins, Wilbur Smith and many others.
"Higgins had such a terrible track record over here, everybody told me not to publish another book. But then he sent in a manuscript that was so much better, and I published it. The Eagle Has Landed became his first big bestseller. I always felt you should go one book more with an author. I don't like doing a few books and then making somebody go away. Yet that has become more and more the norm."
Another author Ashmead used to call on in London was Ruth Rendell, at her home in Shepherds Bush. "The English are so eccentric," he chortles. "Once, when I went to have lunch with her, she had her dog, Sophie, a beagle, sit at the table and have a bowl of soup with us."
During the '80s, when Harper was first conjoined with Collins in yet another merger, and it was run by George Craig and Eddie Bell, Ashmead's British predilections came in handy. The boys from Glasgow had a habit of importing big, expensive British authors who were not quite so big over here, only just as expensive. Ashmead thus found himself with Jeffrey Archer on his list.
The editor whose poise did not fail him when lunching with a dog recalls drinking with a man who would later spend time eating and drinking behind Her Majesty's iron bars. "With Archer, you just listen," Ashmead says, pursing his lips. "You don't comment, you can't revise anything. He's terribly autocratic. He wrote a memo dividing his author appearances into three lists, A, B and C: go all out, no small talk and just walk through. One time, when I took him to the Monkey Bar, he was wearing a cardigan and said to me in all seriousness, 'I hope my Princess Diana cufflinks are showing.' "
Ashmead's usefulness was such that he survived the ouster of Craig and Bell, the Anthea Disney housecleaning era, and has enjoyed the last few years under CEO Jane Friedman, "a wonderful book person."
And there have been so many wonderful books. One of his longest relationships has been with Tony Hillerman, who had already published two novels by the time Ashmead came to Harper. The books hadn't sold much, so the author was on shaky ground. But Ashmead read them and thought that in the long run this author would make it, so he paid $3,000 for the next title.
Help came somewhat later from an unexpected source. Bill Shinker, who was then at Harper, was sitting next to Warner's Larry Kirshbaum on a plane. Kirshbaum said he had met Hillerman and was impressed with the man and with his work.
"So Bill read the book, which was Skinwalkers," says Ashmead, "and he decided to try to break it out. We sold 22,000, a huge leap. Tony's backlist is now an enormous mainstay of the Harper list, and a nicer guy you'd never want to meet."
Most bestselling authors don't exactly burst on the scene with their first book. At the tail end of one London visit, Ashmead entered an auction for a first work of nonfiction being conducted by Secker and Warburg. "The bidding started at $100,000, and I had authorization up to $370,000. Then they said they would take the best offer. I loved the book, so I bid the whole $370,000. The other American publisher—David Gernert, then at Doubleday—had bid only $110,000. We ended up with a big unearned advance so the author couldn't stay with me. But I was never sorry for what I did. Bill Bryson told me that advance for Lost Continent was the first big money he'd ever had."
Ashmead says that one of the advantages of going to London was that he "always felt a certain freedom over there." On yet another trip, he was shown a four-page outline by an agent whose author had published a number of books, none to any great commercial success. "I loved it, and Bill Hamilton, the agent, told me I had to move quickly, because Holt wanted the author to write a travel book. He said, 'Give me $100,000' and I did. When I got back to New York, everybody said, 'What a wonderful outline, why did you pay so much?' At first we printed only 18,500 copies."
But with a great New York Times review, magic happened. The Professor and the Madman became a huge bestseller, and Simon Winchester's life changed course.
During many of those London pilgrimages, agent Bruce Hunter of David Higham Associates and Profile's Andrew Franklin threw an annual party in Larry Ashmead's honor. The final gala was held this past March, when Jane Friedman joined as the third host, and everybody who was anybody in London publishing was there. (Friedman convened a New York version in May, where Ashmead was handed two volumes bound in red silk damask of reminiscences from publishing friends worldwide.) Perhaps some perspective from across the sea provides the best sort of summing up.
"Larry's great virtue," says Franklin, "is that he always remained an editor, and it is the rare person who has risen to the top of the publishing ladder while remaining an editor. He survived by finding great authors, publishing great books and having very definite passions and tastes. He never allowed himself to become the man in the suit."