According to Tracy Carns, editorial director of the Overlook Press, company cofounder Peter Mayer always loved anniversaries, and even though Mayer—onetime CEO of Penguin—died in May 2018, Abrams is marking the 50th anniversary of the press this year with a number of new initiatives.
Abrams bought Overlook in summer 2018 as part of its effort to expand its adult publishing business beyond the illustrated titles for which it is best known. Abrams CEO Michael Jacobs had worked for Mayer, considered him a mentor, and was familiar with the Overlook list, so when the press was put up for sale, Jacobs felt it was the perfect opportunity to jump-start Abrams’s adult fiction program. The acquisition, he said, has met all of his expectations.
The deal gave Abrams some 1,300 titles, reflecting, Carns acknowledged, the very eclectic tastes of both her and Mayer. “There was hardly a category we didn’t publish in,” she noted.
Following the purchase, Abrams moved the nonfiction Overlook titles to Abrams Press, its adult nonfiction imprint, which published its first list in spring 2018, and it pared down the fiction list into categories broadly comprised of literary fiction, literary translation, and science fiction. “It is still a taste-driven list,” Carns said.
Jacobs said there was a learning curve for the entire Abrams team regarding how to best integrate fiction into the company. While editors, including Carns and editor Chelsea Cutchens (Overlook is also looking to hire a new senior editor), worked to identify the titles they believed could best form the core of a fiction imprint, the art and production departments upgraded the quality of the books, and the sales and marketing departments tried to get a handle on how to best promote and sell the category.
By the time the pandemic hit in early 2020, Overlook was on its way to becoming firmly established as the adult fiction imprint of Abrams, and Overlook had a great year, Jacobs said. Part of the imprint’s success last year was due to two factors that drove Abrams’s acquisition of the company. Overlook’s backlist benefited from the overall industry-wide increase in backlist sales and posted solid gains. “That was very gratifying,” Carns said. The purchase also substantially broadened Abrams’s presence in the e-book market, and Overlook and Abrams were able to take part in the sales jump in that format last year.
To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Overlook, Abrams is repackaging and re-releasing trade paperback editions of the works of Charles Portis, one of Overlook’s top-selling writers and the author of True Grit, Masters of Atlantis, and The Dog of the South. Abrams is also introducing a new logo, which Carns said does a terrific job of joining Overlook’s past with its future. The logo is also in keeping with a Mayer tradition: for its 10th anniversary, he had a new logo designed by famed graphic designer (and Overlook author) Milton Glaser featuring the line, “The first 10 years are the hardest.”
Overlook is currently publishing about 20–25 titles per year, and while Jacobs is not opposed to expanding that number, he would like to see if the imprint can fashion a breakout hit. He thinks two upcoming fall titles with film adaptations in the works could become big bestsellers: Victoria Mas’s bestselling French novel The Mad Women’s Ball, set in a 19th-century Parisian asylum, is the basis of a French-language film to be distributed by Amazon Studios, and the satirical thriller Bullet Train by Kotaro Isak is the basis of a film starring Brad Pitt, due out from Sony Pictures in 2022. Jacobs noted that Abrams is working on its tie-in strategies for both books now.
Looking ahead, Jacobs said he would like Overlook to publish more international fiction, as well as more works by people of color. Among the titles set for next spring are Garden of Earthly Bodies, a debut by Sally Oliver; The Reindeer Hunters by Lars Mytting, the second book in the Norwegian novelist’s Sister Bells trilogy; and Not Everybody Lives the Same Way by Jean-Paul Dubois, winner of France’s Prix Goncourt prize.
Mayer started Overlook in Upstate New York with his father, in part, he told PW’s John Baker upon his retirement from Penguin, because “I want to play the old game for as long as I can.”
Carns said, “He would have been thrilled and not surprised” by Overlook’s 50th-anniversary celebration. “He was always optimistic about the enterprise of book publishing.”