Author James Atlas became a publisher in 1999 with the (now discontinued) Penguin Lives series. He since launched the Great Discoveries series, co-published with Norton. Atlas Books is launching two series: Eminent Lives, co-published with HarperCollins, and the Enterprise series on business, with Norton.
PW: With Penguin Lives, you started a trend. Many publishers now have series of little books focusing on a moment in history or a historical personage. Is there a market for all these series?
James Atlas: It's going to get overcrowded, for sure. It's already overcrowded, and I think some of these series are more successful than others. What you really need is to have the match-up between writer and subject, that's part of the dynamic. And also you need to have a very clear and precise focus. So this is capitalism, this is how it works.
Penguin Lives achieved that match-up so well, and yet my understanding is that sales didn't meet Penguin's expectations. Why start another very similar series?
First of all, Penguin's profit expectations... were rather... optimistic, it seems to me. We made a profit on just about every book, several of the books did quite well. One of the problems is that a joint venture inevitably halves your profit, so their expectations were different from mine.
Is there going to be a different focus to the Eminent Lives series?
I think the difference this time is that HarperCollins is very proactive. They've done a beautiful design, they're launching it in a very aggressive and innovative way. And I feel like I have a closer relationship with them.
Whom do you see as the market for these books?
We're trying to reach the general educated reader. And then there's the reader who needs to be exposed and introduced to this book, this kind of subject. My dream is to get these books into airports. They're flight-sized books, if you will. They're serious, they're not by any stretch of the imagination dumbed down, but they do address the issue of our time constraints now, which as we can read in the NEA report, is becoming a serious problem.
Michael Korda was a terrific person to get for the first book in the Eminent Lives series. Did he have a longstanding interest in Grant?
Korda has a really profound knowledge of military history. He will sit down at dinner and draw on napkins for two hours and give you an entire panoramic sense of what happened in the Civil War. And at another dinner he expanded upon the history of World War II. So what you do with these books is you find the passion that is there that is sometimes off-beat, that you wouldn't expect a person to have.
Can you talk a little bit about the science series that Norton is doing, how you envision the market for those books?
The Great Discoveries series was launched with the idea in mind that there were generalist writers who could write about science. It was very surprising when we discovered for instance that Richard Reeves had started out as an engineer and so he could write on Rutherford and the discovery of the atom. So it's off-beat in that sense and I hope again to find the same audience, but also an audience that is looking to learn. I have in mind when I was a kid—my grandmother had these books, the Haldeman-Julius Blue Books, that every immigrant read, they were about Kant and John Stuart Mill. They were introductions, sometimes with the original text. I was so influenced by those books. And also, I think working at the Timesmagazine, which I did for a decade, proved to me that instead of having 20,000 readers, you had two million readers potentially. Every time there was a piece about some intellectual or academic subject, including some that I wrote, there was this tremendous outpouring, a great response. So I think we're there. Marketing is really the key now.
What about your own writing?
I have a book coming out in March from HarperCollins called My Life in the Middle Ages: A Survivor's Tale. It's 11 essays about what it's like to be middle-aged, based on various themes, like parents, God, money, home, failure, things like that.
Any more biographies planned?
No, I'm retired from biography. I want to write a history of biography from the very beginning. I'm going to start with Plutarch and Suetonius and go right up to the present, but that's a long-term project.