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Good Times for Crown
Judy Quinn -- 1/10/00
Four years after Chip Gibson's takeover, a return to profitability and an expansion of power

Just don't put me in the story." So says president and publisher Chip Gibson during PW's afternoon visit to Random House late last year to profile his Crown Publishing Group. It's typical Gibson. But days before, the media-wary publisher couldn't escape the spotlight when Random House Inc. Chairman and CEO Peter Olson and president and COO Erik Engstrom announced that the 42-year-old Gibson would now also oversee Times Books, Sierra Club Books and Discovery Books, all previously parts of Random House's Information Group. While Crown's profitable Living Language division was also shifted over to the same group at this time, many industry watchers saw the reorganization as primarily a vote of confidence and an expansion of power for Crown -- and particularly for Gibson, a reward for his returning the once-independent house, acquired by Random House in 1988, to consistent profitability and increasing net sales (led by double-percentage increases within its Three Rivers trade paper program) since he took over Crown's top post in 1996.

But Gibson will tell you that he's done "nothing really miraculous, other than I came in here and opened up the business."

False modesty, perhaps, but after PW's afternoon visit, conversations with past and present colleagues and attendance at one of the house's sales meetings, it became clear that Gibson's management/motivation style is, in many ways, to de-emphasize himself and to cultivate plenty of employee participation to help steer Crown.

Gibson, who began his career at Crown in 1982, rose to associate publisher in 10 years, then did a three-year stint as Random House's director of sales and marketing, says that upon returning to Crown as publisher, "I could have either panicked; pretended I knew everything, which I didn't; or turn to the people around me - -many of whom I had known for a gazillion years, all of whom I knew to be very smart, committed people -- and say 'Help.' Literally everyone rose to the occasion."

Through ongoing strategy meetings with his top executives, cluster work groups for special topics (retaining talent, reexamining current marketing practices) that are staffed by all but particularly junior levels of his staff, and more cross-attendance by departments in sales and editorial meetings, Gibson has created an ethos that, though tough and bottom-line-oriented, is also exciting.

"Crown had been somewhat stagnant, no real measurable growth," said associate publisher Andy Martin, who is just one of a core of Crown employees who have stayed the course through the company's various upheavals. "We needed to be focused." he says.

Breakouts in Nonfiction and Internet Action

The area Gibson focused on first was "Little Crown," or the frontlist hardcover line. And while Crown has retained a significant number of long-term employees, here Gibson brought in former Delacorte executive editor Steve Ross as new editorial director of Crown. Ross replaced Ann Patty, who, like another former editor-in-chief Betty Prashker, still serves as editor-at-large for some key, particularly fiction, house authors.

Patty's and Prashker's new roles in the Crown structure reflect its new list dynamic: a dramatic shift toward nonfiction and away from fiction, an area already well-served by Little Random and Knopf (and since the Bertelsmann merger, fiction output from Bantam/ Doubleday Dell as well). Since taking over, Ross not only cut the number of yearly titles in half, to about 60, but has also shifted that smaller list from 40% fiction to 75% nonfiction.
The new nonfiction game plan is a lesson learned from Gibson's original mentor, the late Crown co-founder Nat Wartels, who entered the world of promotion book publishing more than a half century ago, after seeing demand for certain nonfiction titles within his initial remainder house operations. "Nat made no bones about it. He published books to fulfill a perceived need: give the consumer what she wants, give her a good book at a better price, know what that market is," says Gibson. "With nonfiction, you can usually identify a constituency and once you've identified it, you can deliver it." Gibson holds up a 1937 Wartels acquisition, The Book of Old Silver, still in print more than 50 years later, as an example of how this philosophy endures.

Ross was an ideal person to carry out such philosophy, having specialized in nonfiction throughout his career and scoring particular hits with Jeffrey Masson's When Elephants Weep and Dennis Rodman's Bad As I Wanna Be during his previous stint at Dell.

"Crown has an extraordinary publicity department [now headed by Tina Constable], and nonfiction benefits from publicity better than fiction," says Ross. "In my experience, nonfiction has a greater potential for breaking out or having the sleeper effect. With the right book, the right author, anything can happen."

Last year, breakout happened most notably for the nonfiction titles Isaac's Storm, Erik Larson's look at a devastating Texas hurricane, published as a Crown hardcover, and Our Dumb Century, by the editors of the satirical weekly the Onion, published in the Three Rivers Press trade paperback line that Gibson created to support Crown's nonfiction directive. Both books are still riding bestseller lists and are important--as Gibson puts it--"carryover" titles that can keep on selling--particularly with the occasional new marketing push by Crown.

Isaac's Storm not only benefited from Ross's insistence on "list balance," with lead and sub-lead books selected and then strongly promoted each month, but also was helped by Gibson's determination "to make a book at BookExpo America." By "speaking about the book wherever any one of us went at BEA," says Gibson, and having Crown salespeople press the galley into the hands of booksellers, rather than just "giving away galleys in great pyramids that get sucked away," they succeeded in creating the ever-elusive buzz. "The day the book landed," says Gibson, "it was selling."

It also didn't hurt that Time reporter Larson got a nice serial in that publication, or that his work flowed well into the hot adventure category of The Perfect Storm. A special Isaac's Storm Web site, created by Crown, kept the book on info junkies' radar.

Indeed, Crown not only sees the Internet as an increasingly key marketing force--the consensus reached by the cluster work group reexamining marketing strategies--but also as an important provider of book content to a now significant built-in audience.

While many were skeptical of the mid-six-figure advance he paid for Our Dumb Century, Ross was counting on the benefits of a built-in audience. The Madison, Wis.-based Onion's fan base of two million monthly online visitors and the 400,000 readers of its printed weekly edition was sure to lead to sales. Crown capitalized on the Web presence--The Onion had a button on its site to buy the book well before publication, and "I think even some online sellers were a bit surprised at the number of preorders they got," said Ross.

Ross has other Web-site derived books in the works. He plans to publish two more books from the erotic Web site Nerve.com, after its initial (and rumored unearned advance) publishing debut with Broadway. Full Frontal Fiction and The Naughty Bits will be released in October 2000 and spring 2001, respectively. The upcoming Gig: Americans Talk About Their Jobs at the Turn of the Millennium (May 2000) is drawn from Word.com, and The Gallery of Regrettable Food (no pub date set) is based upon author James Lileks's site, www.lileks.com.

Associate publisher Martin says that Crown's wholehearted embrace of the Internet has also helped it win some "beauty contests" for hot book properties. It snagged the upcoming women's financial guide Chicks Laying Nest Eggs, for example, in part because the house made the commitment to build a site for the planned January 20001 title a full six months prior to publication, a very prepub promotion idea that Crown believes will enhance, and not cannibalize, book sales.

Web sites like the Onion's, in fact, act very much like the established nonfiction "brands" the cluster work group spotlighted as an important area in which to expand. Crown recently backed up that belief by hiring Jennifer Stallone, a former Doubleday Direct employee, to serve in the newfangled publishing role of a brand liaison manager, as an extra hand to handle all the negotiations and followup such relationships require.

Current brands within Crown Publishing Group include the profitable stable of lifestyle authors (Martha Stewart, Chris Madden et al.) at Clarkson Potter, which is overseen by editorial director Lauren Shakely and which just celebrated its 40th anniversary (for more on this division's success, see News, Nov. 29, 1999). At Crown, Suzanne Somers is experiencing continuing success as a celebrity book author (although not for her second autobiography, After the Fall), and financial guru Suze Orman (who has since gone to Riverhead for her next book) did well for the house also. And Ross continues to develop other branding alliances, most recently with the magazines Vibe and Essence.

While Gibson told PW it was too soon to comment on plans for new Crown additions of Times Books, Discovery Books and Sierra Club Books to his stable, further brand extensions should be expected. Ross, now also editorial director for Times Books, says that financial guru Charles Schwab, a Crown author, will now most likely be published under the Times Business imprint.

Bids for big brand books, of course, put Crown in the deep waters of high advances, where the notoriously thrifty Wartels seldom ventured. Crown has demonstrated what some would call a weakness for risky sports titles, with bestsellerdom achieved for a high-ticket Michael Jordan book, perhaps, but hardly guaranteed slam dunks for others (remember the Nike/NBA "brand" book by Penny Hardaway?). Even Ross acknowledged to PW that Love, Jack, a reminiscence by a young lover of JFK for which Ross reportedly paid $1 million, "served as the final confirmation not to do such cynical publishing. We have to do titles we really can believe in." Not surprisingly, Ross still believes in sports and celebrity books, but only "if they have a message and the celebrity supports the book." Upcoming titles by Yankee star Derek Jeter and wrestler Bill Goldberg fit the bill.

Although the exodus of Crown's Karen Rinaldi, a well-known literary editor who now heads up Bloomsbury USA operations, was a notable event, Ross says Crown still sees value in supporting and building house fiction authors, with that fiction leaning toward the mainstream. While Crown improved the sales of literary/thriller author Colin Harrison, for example, he has now migrated to FSG (although with what many believe was an overpaid advance). Crown still publishes The Clan of the Cave Bear author Jean Auel (who, like Thomas Harris, will someday deliver a followup book to her huge fan base), Edward Rutherfurd (mining Michener territory with historical fiction The Forest, due in April), Dominick Dunne (a commercial fiction author and popular nonfiction scribe) and women's fiction breakout and Ballantine mass market crossover Kristin Hannah.

New Waves at Three Rivers and Harmony

The hardcover imprint Harmony received a key accolade for its fiction last year. One of its books, Chris Bohjalian's Midwives, was an Oprah Book Club selection. Gibson had already promoted this author, a discovery of Harmony executive editor Shaye Areheart. Bohjalian's next book, Tran-Sister Radio, comes this May. Crown also chose Harmony literary fiction A Recipe for Bees by Gail Anderson-Dargatz as its gift to booksellers this past holiday season (Anderson-Dargatz will be the subject of a PW Interview later this month).

The overseeing of Harmony, Three Rivers Press and House of Collectibles falls to editorial director Linda L wenthal, who replaced longtime Crown employee Steve Magnuson last year.

L wenthal has plans for raising visibility of the quietly profitable Three Rivers Press--"the best-kept secret in Random House," she says--to be reflected in the creation of a first-ever logo for the imprint, which at press time was still in development. As the former director of the BOMC's Quality Paperback Book Club, L wenthal knows both the value of the paperback format and its special marketing potential. "We're not going to just convert our hardcovers but republish them aggressively," she says. The Crown hardcover hit See Jane Win, for example, might have gone to paperback with another Random House imprint; L wenthal plans a totally new cover package as a special Take Your Daughters to Work Day promotion.

L wenthal plans to further grow Three Rivers's current annual output of 120 titles, which is already double what the imprint did four years ago. L wenthal has hired more acquiring editors for Three Rivers, who join the "three rivers" of Harmony, Crown and Clarkson Potter editors who already acquire the imprint's trade paperback originals as well as the hardcovers that are source material for Three Rivers' reprints.

As for House of Collectibles, the former Ballantine trade/mass market line, which consists of about 15-25 annual price guides in various collectible categories, L wenthal sees the titles as a perfect complement to Crown's existing Kovels' series, with more guides in more categories likely due to the burgeoning interest in collectibles brought about by online auction sites as well as the popular PBS show Antiques Roadshow.

In an echo of some of Ross's original downsizing mission at Crown, L wenthal plans to reduce Harmony's title count, from 40-45 to 25-30 titles a year. "The good news is our publishing program will be a lot tighter and a lot more focused," says L wenthal. "I'll get the resources I want for the books I'm publishing."

L wenthal wants to expand Harmony's horizons with more acquisitions in such areas as erotica and pop culture. But she also will continue to build its strong reputation in fiction. She is particularly excited by the upcoming romance Julie & Romeo by Jeanne Ray (see the sidebar on p. 32 of our First Fiction feature for more on Ray).

Harmony's pioneering role in the mind/body/spirit category, both in its main output and Bell Tower imprint, will also continue, with L wenthal, co-creator of BOMC's successful One Spirit Book Club, well aware of its popularity. Longtime author Deepak Chopra has what L wenthal terms one of his most accessible books yet in How to Know God, which will be boosted by creation of a new, expansive Chopra Web site, mypotential.com. Carolyn Myss (Anatomy of the Spirit ) has been a super-performer in this category as well; her original editor, Leslie Meredith, who departed Harmony for Ballantine, continues as her editor on a freelance basis.

L wenthal believes that the May 20001 release Hobo, Eddy J Cotton's quest for a counterculture lifestyle, harks back to the early edginess of Harmony, when founding publisher Bruce Harris released Ram Dass's classic hit, Be Here Now. It's a title that also captures the spirit of today's Crown.

"One of the main reasons I came to this company was because I wanted to be part of a company that was willing to basically trust its employees fully and invite all levels of the company to be involved in very important strategy decisions," says L wenthal.

In other words, Gibson has very much succeeded in not making himself the sole part of Crown's story.

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