By now the story of Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown is well-known: an unknown who bounced from house to house until talent and timing thrust him to fame. It turns out that his editor, Doubleday's low-key Jason Kaufman, has been following a remarkably similar path.
After an itinerant decade—he held five publishing jobs in 10 years before coming to Doubleday in 2001—Kaufman has broken out in a manner very much like that of his star author, albeit without the financial windfall.
Kaufman inherited Brown a month into a previous job at Pocket, and published two books of his that each sold fewer than 10,000 copies. Then, during an interview three years ago with Doubleday, Kaufman told Bill Thomas about an author he couldn't imagine parting with. Thomas had never heard of Brown, but he agreed to read the Da Vinci proposal. He liked it; Kaufman took the job; and, two years later, out came The Da Vinci Code. "I thought, 'If a guy like Dan couldn't bring it all together, then who could?' " said Kaufman of his decision to be so bold with a prospective employer.
The likable Kaufman admits that the success of Da Vinci has changed his publishing life. He now gets a crack at the biggest proposals. And when he does make a buy, rights sell quickly to other parts of the world. But despite his newfound cachet, Kaufman hasn't been motivated to go on a buying spree. If anything, success "has made me more cautious, because I want to find something as fresh as The Da Vinci Code." He has made only one fiction buy since the book broke out, a trilogy called The Traveler, described as a fantasy-tinged story about Big Brother surveillance and ordinary people who travel into other realms. Few would confuse it with Da Vinci.
In fact, Kaufman finds the Da Vinci copycatting a little silly; in an interview, he repeated several times that "all these people looking for the next Dan Brown are going to be looking for a very long time." Instead, his acquisition strategy is to repeat not the arc of the book but its mentality, which he describes as mixing the genre with the unexpected, drawing out the new from the familiar. "I want to publish books that don't just do a genre really well, but push it in a new direction," he said, adding that he thought publishing needs to be wary of staying too much within its "boundaries of safety."
Fresh twists may be apparent in a Kaufman book coming this spring, Darkly Dreaming Dexter, about a serial killer who kills only villains, or in The Traveler, which went for a reported seven figures. (Rights have been sold in nearly a dozen countries, partially on the title's own strength, and partially, one assumes, on its editor's reputation.) As for Brown's next project, Kaufman offered little, saying only that it is a "really solid idea" and that it will be in the Da Vinci vein—historical mystery. He said that he doesn't expect Brown to turn into a book-a-year machine like John Grisham or Stephen King because his research demands are too time-consuming.
Success has also brought struggles. Kaufman has had to deal with books claiming to "break" the Da Vinci Code, with a plagiarism charge, even with typecasting. Agent Joe Regal, who sold The Traveler to Kaufman, said, "Success puts him in the catbird seat, but if too much time passes by, it can become a problem. People will say, 'Oh yeah—that's The Da Vinci guy.' " He added, "And the scale is now so vast that even if his new book sells a million copies, it will look small."
It's an irony not lost on Kaufman. "I have friends who tell me I should retire because I'll never do something as successful as this. And you know what? They're probably right," he said, laughing. "But of course I couldn't leave. I want to continue doing this for a long time. I want to continue being surprised."