Gerry Ford had just been sworn in as president and the last American troops were leaving Vietnam when PW ran a brief announcement that a 30-year-old named Laurence Kirshbaum had been hired as a marketing v-p for Warner Paperback Library. The picture of seriousness behind his large, black-framed glasses, Kirshbaum would market books that, in the respectability department, rose barely above the level of pulp magazines.
Kirshbaum spent the next seven years out of the limelight. It wasn't until 1983, when he returned to Warner after a stint at Condé Nast, that a seminal—and enduring—career began.
Over the next 22 years at the house, Kirshbaum helped invent, and eventually embodied, a new culture of publishing: the high-advance, hook- and celebrity-driven books most of us now take for granted. He published the Gone with the Windsequel, Scarlett,when the critics ridiculed it. (It wound up a blockbuster.) He gleefully released Madonna's Sex—800,000 copies of it—even though most booksellers had to hide it behind the counter. He coolly paid Jack Welch $7 million for a celebrity memoir. And long before Harry Potter, he helped create the release-as-event; when Scarlett came out in 1991, stores opened at midnight and employees fought over empty cartons. When you think of modern publishing, Larry Kirshbaum is on the short list of people to thank (or blame).
Because of his influence, he could, paradoxically, be missed less. There are now fistfuls of publishers applying his principles (even if few are as colorful). As Kirshbaum this week announced his resignation from Warner—he's now considering agenting—we talked with him about the book world he helped transform.
PW: Publishing is full of stories of reinvention, but perhaps none is as striking as Warner's—a $5-million mass market house that became one of the top five houses in the country. What's the one thing you'd point to?
Larry Kirshbaum: We tried to operate a little outside the box because we were small. We had this mass market history, so we had very little literary pretense and very little to lose. We could get up at the plate and swing for the fences.
PW: Warner was one of the first publishers on the big-advance wagon—all the way back to Nixon in the '70s. Is the wagon now out of control?
LK: There's no question that the balance of power in the business has swung way over to the talent side. There is this tendency for books to be bid up beyond where they make sense, and in the long run it's a disservice to a new author. But when I first started, Mort Janklow said to me that the big authors always seem to be expensive at the time—yet when you look back at it, you always end up making money on them.
PW: That's a nice bit of agent logic, isn't it?
LK: (laughs) Yes. But ironically, most of my regrets are books we didn't get. I think about Tuesdays with Morrie [passed on by Warner] just about every day.
PW: The age of celebrity publishing perhaps began when you published Madonna's Sex in 1992. There was an outcry over the content, of course, and plenty of concern about the $50 price.
LK: When you start out trying to sell something that is very new and very different, there's always resistance. Over the years, Warner and Little, Brown have always been good at convincing our customers that these books are returnable, so go with us on it.
PW: You certainly did get a lot of people to go with you to that infamous launch party.
LK: I remember that party. People walked around stunned at the simulated sexual tableaus around them. But they realized there was a buzz.
PW: That buzz isn't always seen as a good thing. What do you say to critics who argue that in the mad dash for buzz, smaller books get lost, that maybe books don't have a chance to build an audience like they used to?
LK: Harry Potter is a big event, and it built over years. Look, we're an entertainment business not unlike the movie business. Where we can create the excitement and the anticipation, we should. I don't think we should be bashful. We're competing with all kinds of entertainment, especially with our younger readers, who we want to hook now.
PW: You were able to hook a lot of them with Jon Stewart. Are you surprised by its massive success?
LK: I'm in awe whenever we can do that. I'm in awe of Jane Friedman for The Purpose-Driven Life. I'm in awe of what Steve Rubin has done with Dan Brown. I'm in awe of what Bob Miller has done with Mitch Albom. It's great when you can sell millions of copies of a title—that says that when we get things right, the audience is there. For me, the frustrating thing is how rarely it occurs that you hit the jackpot. We know there's an audience of five or 10 million buyers, and it's considered a big success when we sell 100,000 copies?
PW: Are you surprised at how your career has gone?
LK: I remember when Jack Romanos and I used to count inventory and we had no idea what was going to happen. We were very lucky and we just kind of moved up through the ranks. I've been there 30 years. I was certainly not an overnight sensation.
PW: A big blip in your long tenure was the near-acquisition by Random. How do you feel about it in retrospect?
LK: It was a very tough time. As much as I love and admire Peter Olson and the whole Random House team, I felt deep inside that we were still at heart a small publisher. We were not terribly corporate, and we worried that our culture might not mesh with Random House. But I'm always going to be positive. I'm a guy who wakes up and hears that song "The Sunny Side of the Street."
PW: How much sunniness do you expect now that you'll be other side of the street—or at least of the lunch table?
LK: One of the attractions for me of agenting is the idea of being involved in the total picture for an author. This includes books, ancillary rights and, of course, film. I've always felt as a publisher we had one hand tied behind our backs because we don't have film rights.
PW: You're sounding a lot like Judith Regan.
LK: Yes. I agree with Judith Regan. She's the master of being able to do it all.