Pam Dorman may be disproving the old saw about not being able to go home again. After spending 19 years at Penguin, where she launched the careers of bestsellers like Sue Monk Kidd (The Secret Life of Bees) and Kim Edwards (The Memory Keeper's Daughter), Dorman left in May of 2008 to run the female-oriented Voice imprint at Hyperion. Less than a year after leaving, Penguin asked Dorman if she would return to head her own imprint. “When the opportunity came to come home, as it were, it was hard to resist,” she said.
As Pamela Dorman Books prepares for the January 12 launch of the debut Saving Ceecee Honeycutt, Dorman said the boutique unit, which will do eight to 10 titles a season, will be primarily focused on the kinds of books she loves— debut women's fiction. While she isn't discounting the possibility of adding nonfiction, she said her mandate was to “go find writers who are going to become the new stars.” Citing some of the nonfiction titles she published at Voice, like Kelly Corrigan's memoir, The Middle Place, and even the imprint's more politicized launch title, The Feminine Mistake by Leslie Bennetts, Dorman said she's waiting for the “right piece of nonfiction to buy,” the kind of book “by and for women.”
After Dorman did a small release for a paperback original in July, a translation of a Swedish bestseller called Benny & Shrimp by Katarina Mazetti, her imprint launches in earnest with Honeycutt, a tale about a girl who's whisked away from her small Ohio town to live with her wealthy great-aunt in Savannah. The book, which Penguin is getting behind with a 100,000 first printing, was acquired in a hefty pre-empt in October 2008. With strong support from both chains and independents, Dorman touted some impressive promotions already lined up for the title. Sam's Club has selected the book as the first title of its soon-to-be-launched book club, a push that will include various online and in-store promotions. Costco is also giving the book a seal of approval; it will be stickered with a burst that says “Pennie Recommends,” referring to the chain's fiction buyer, Pennie Clark Ianniciello. (Dorman noted that the sticker is slightly different from the push Costco usually gives titles—the standard shout-out comes in the form of a column called “Pennie's Picks” in the store's member magazine, The Costco Connection.)
Future Pam Dorman Books include more debuts titles, like Jane Borodale's The Book of Fires, set in 18th-century England, and the buzzed-about 2008 Frankfurt title and Italian bestseller by Paolo Giordano, The Solitude of Prime Numbers (due out in March), as well as titles by established names. The first of three forthcoming books from bestseller Luanne Rice is being published by the imprint in winter 2011, for example.
So how does Dorman feel about trying to repeat the success she found earlier at Penguin? Although she can't deny that the retail environment is tougher than ever, she thinks it's a good time to be small, and to be at Penguin. “At my imprint, I make many more decisions where I say, 'I don't have to have this,' ” she said. “Since I've been back at Penguin, I've only seen four or five novels I felt I couldn't live without, and I bought two of them.”
Asked what it takes to make a book in these hard times, Dorman falls back on Penguin's sales force. She brings up the current success of Kathryn Stockett's The Help—a book Dorman points out was built on old-fashioned word of mouth (much of it from independents)—which recently hit one million copies in print. “That's the kind of sales power we have. That's what gives me hope, that we can still do that, even in a time when people are not so willing to part with their money.”