The news that former Putnam president and current part-time Bookspan honcho Carole Baron would soon begin buying and editing books for Knopf elicited a common response among most publishing watchers: Huuuuuh? we articulated. How odd!
Baron, after all is the Queen of Mass, one-time publisher at Dell/Delacorte and the woman who helped shepherd such popular authors as Thomas Harris into the publishing world. While she's not quite Phyllis Grann, she has shared taste and style with her plainspoken former boss. And Knopf, of course, is... well, Knopf: storied (in both senses of the word), high-brow and proudly, sometimes arrogantly, on the literary side of publishing's age-old debate. As for Sonny Mehta, the Knopf chief to whom Baron will now partially report: his style has been called magisterial, but never Baronial.
But like most snap judgments, this one is, of course, flawed in a couple of ways. Baron's range is wider than it at first appears: yes, she presided over the house that publishes Danielle Steel, but she has also been closely involved with that hard-to-find commodity, the bestselling literary-line-straddler. I'm talking about the likes of Elmore Leonard, Amy Tan and Harlan Coben. (She also was, in her words, "connected with the publication of every one of the books" written by Irish novelist Maeve Binchy and political commentator/comedian Al Franken.) Knopf, lest we forget, may publish Gabriel García Márquez, but it's also responsible for such attempted crossover artists as, say, Joe Eszterhas. Just last year, PW reported on a novel by Kevin Guilfoyle that was clearly the house's run at the Grishams of the world; despite careful attention to such commercial details as its cover, it didn't do well.
So, in the mass—appeal department, Knopf needs help—and Baron can provide it. (Also, in the strangely self-loathing world that is publishing, she can take the rap for it. Because she's only working part-time, in what she calls an "unpressured" deal that has neither a minimum nor a maximum number of acquisitions or sales—and because she is keeping her other job, publishing more mass titles with Bookspan—she won't sully Knopf's high-brow image.) "Sonny gets what I do," Baron told me. He also needs what she does.
It's the proverbial win-win situation—and even Bookspan can't be mad. Not only is Baron keeping her three-day-a-week job there, she also will continue to work on establishing Madison Park Press, a proprietary publishing imprint that will release original books by such authors as Leslie Lokko and Jim Grippando. And while it's interesting to note that there have been a number of people of late who've left the Penguin group to end up at Bertelsmann (think Grann, Julie Grau, Cindy Spiegel and Jennifer Hershey, among others), you can't draw much from Baron's move except that sooner or later, all roads lead to, or at least pass through, Random House.
So maybe, for once, a publishing decision simply is what it is: a chance for different entities to share talent, and a chance for an established, grown-up publisher to do what she does best: publish books that sell.
From my keyboard, as they say, to God's ear.
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