It was a chance chauffeur job, shuttling a bored author back to his hotel room, that got Dan Halpern into publishing. The author was Paul Bowles, it was the late 1960s, and Halpern agreed to take the writer on the long drive back to Santa Monica when Bowles tired of the party he’d been thrown at Cal State Northridge. The trip led to a conversation about poetry, which Halpern was studying, and a recommendation to travel abroad. It also led to Halpern cementing a friendship with Bowles and becoming a small press publisher.

After a stint in Morocco and the launch of the literary magazine Anteaus, Halpern got the backing of ketchup heiress Drue Heinz to start a book operation. The name she had in mind for the press, Ecco, he found out years later, was a reference to a beloved little dog she once owned.

Ecco in the 1970s was about backlist. It’s what Halpern could afford and, as luck would have it, a number of larger publishers didn’t have a tremendous amount of respect for their own archives. Because of that, Halpern wound up picking up paperback rights to a number of Cormac McCarthy’s books—McCarthy was much less well-known then—as well as the paperback rights to his friend Bowles’s novel, The Sheltering Sky, which he bought for $100.

While today’s publishing industry has changed dramatically, Halpern, who sold Ecco to HarperCollins in 1999—his friend, Jane Friedman, who was then running HC, was a firm believer in the value of the backlist—hasn’t changed his outlook or his tactics. It was, rather appropriately, a rights acquisition that helped put Ecco on the map at HC: Halpern acquired paperback rights, for a then hefty sum of $100,000, to a memoir called Kitchen Confidential, by a largely unknown chef named Anthony Bourdain. Halpern said that, when word spread internally about the deal, he was called in by one of the HC executives who told him, pointedly: “We didn’t buy Ecco for you to be a reprinter.” When Kitchen Confidential hit the bestseller list, that executive, Halpern said, apologized. She also stopped calling him by the nickname she’d come up with: the reprinter.

One of the other big books Halpern bought right after arriving at HC was a memoir by Patti Smith. The rocker had been working on a book about her best friend, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, called Portrait of Robert, but there were deadline problems. Halpern bought the book in 1999 and it was finally published last year, as Just Kids, becoming a bestseller as well as the winner of the National Book Award for nonfiction. “Every time we passed a deadline Patti would come into the office—she would never do it by letter or e-mail or phone. She would come in and she would sit down and she would always say the same thing: ‘I missed my deadline, I can’t write it right now. I am going to write it. If you want to cancel it, I understand. It’s so late.’ I would always respond: ‘No. We’re never going to cancel it.’ ” What was the problem? Halpern thinks Smith needed to reimagine the book. “The hardest part [for her] was to see it as really her book, and not Robert’s, or their book. She was trying to keep herself exterior to it, and I think that’s what caused so much of the delay.”

Today, Ecco publishes 35–40 titles a year. With Bourdain’s early support—he became a good friend of Halpern’s—Ecco has signed cookbooks and narrative titles by a number of bold-faced names in the culinary world, from Mario Batali and Daniel Boulud to Spotted Pig chef April Bloomfield (whose memoir, A Girl and Her Pig, is scheduled for April 2012). The high-powered food names complement a swath of literary heavyweights—next May Ecco will release Richard Ford’s Canada and in March comes Joyce Carol Oates’s Mudwoman—as well as general celebrities, such as Steven Tyler, whose memoir Does the Noise in My Head Bother You? came out in May.

Although Halpern is acutely aware of the digital future, he believes that much of publishing is still, to put it bluntly, a crap shoot. “When you have a big success, there are a lot of people who think you know what you’re doing, and you may even think you know what you’re doing, but in publishing you don’t know anything, because every book—it’s not a matter of it being good, it’s a combination of so many things.” Recalling the story of Ecco’s most successful title to date, the 2008 debut novel by David Wroblewski, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, which was chosen by Oprah as one of her book club selections, Halpern said there were initially concerns about the book in-house. “The editor was Lee Boudreaux, and she worked so hard on that book, but at the end of the day when we presented it to the sales force, it was a 600-page first novel about a boy who can’t speak, and who dies at the end. Sales went, ‘Who’s gonna buy this book? You’re gonna read 600-pages to find out this sweet kid dies?’ Well, you wouldn’t have thought it, right? So what’d we learn from that?”