It's not everyday that an individual starts a general interest publishing company in New York City to compete with the big houses, but that's exactly what Claiborne Hancock, the 32-year-old publisher and editor-in-chief of Pegasus Books, did last September.
While Hancock only last month received his first check from Consortium, his distributor, the early signs are promising.
Pegasus's initial title, The Mercy Seat, a crime thriller by British author Martyn Waites, received its first U.S. review in PW, a star (Reviews, Feb. 20). Pegasus's second title, Reader, I Married Him, a novel by Michele Roberts, was reviewed favorably in the June 25, 2006, issue of the New York Times Book Review. Cracking the august Book Review was no mean feat, especially for a new, one-man publisher.
Neuwirth & Associates, a design company based in the Flat Iron district, handles his production, while Consortium takes care of marketing and advertising. Julie Schaper, the president of Consortium, explains why they were willing to take on a new, untested publisher: "We were impressed with Claiborne's vision for Pegasus. His proposal showed a keen editorial sensibility, a terrific eye for design and the enthusiasm necessary for an independent to succeed. We're delighted with the performance of his initial list."
Pegasus has 24 titles on its fall '06 list, and 22 so far for spring '07, mostly crime and mystery along with biography, history and other serious nonfiction, all by established authors.
Born and raised in Richmond, Va., Hancock majored in English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. After graduating in 1997, he attended the Radcliffe Publishing Procedures course. That fall, he moved to New York to start his first publishing job at Applause Books, where he wrote jacket copy and publicity releases.
In 1998, Hancock joined Carroll & Graf, where he soon took on handling publicity and other duties outside the usual scope of an editorial assistant. Herman Graf, one of the company's founders, realized Hancock was a quick study: "He observed and learned. He was very astute. Most important, he had a passion for the business. He had the hots for it. The man will go far." Promoted eventually to senior managing editor, Hancock began to acquire titles of his own. "Once I established the confidence that I could acquire and edit successful books, it became a vague goal of mine to start my own house," says Hancock. "I never hesitated to ask questions of the higher-ups when I had queries about the publishing business, and the lessons I learned from Herman Graf, Otto Penzler, Kent Carroll and Will Balliet continue to serve me well."
Hancock always made sure to establish strong relationships with the authors and agents he dealt with at Carroll & Graf. He acknowledges that he could not have founded Pegasus without strong support from his network of writers and publishing colleagues. "In the end," he adds, "I thought that if I had the ability to publish a large list of talented writers, why not do it on my own? The emotional and financial reward is much greater."
As part of the business plan he presented to get a bank loan, Hancock included the P&L sheets for the 15 titles he had acquired at Carroll & Graf, all of which showed a profit, most in the $10,000 range. At Pegasus, he has paid five-figure advances, but most have been more modest. He has invested some of his own money in the company, so far nearly $50,000.
Why the name Pegasus? "I chose it in honor of my father," says Hancock. "He was a fan of the Greek myths and read these stories to me when I was child. These tales sparked my imagination and led to my interest in reading and writing. In many ways, my literary career began when I was snuggled in bed hearing about the legendary Greek gods and heroes."
Looking ahead, Hancock aims to publish 50 books a year, a goal he's already close to achieving. He plans to add to his staff, including a publicity director and a foreign rights person. He sees expanding in the area of diet and health and even publishing first-time authors.
And what if he's so successful he becomes an acquisition target? "There's always the chance Pegasus could join a larger publishing corporation," he says, "but the freedom of being independent is a dream come true."