Few ideas hatched on New Year's Day turn out to be brilliant. So when longtime pals Kenneth Lipper and James Atlas met for their first lunch of 1996 and discussed the possibility of publishing a series of short biographies—never mind the fact that neither was a publisher and Atlas had spent more than a decade working on a Saul Bellow tome—the odds were against them. Just over two years later, after establishing Lipper Publications, they have profitably copublished 12 titles with Penguin, with one of the most recent releases, Buddha by Karen Armstrong, hitting the New York Times bestseller list.

Now Lipper and Atlas are ready to branch out. No, they are not abandoning the Penguin Lives series. This fall they release the series's "pop" list with Marlon Brando by Patricia Bosworth and Andy Warhol by Wayne Koestenbaum. Among the titles on deck are: Therese of Lisieux (the saint) by Kathryn Harrison, Robert E. Lee by Roy Blount Jr. and Charles Dickens by Jane Smiley. Atlas said they had 34 contracts for the short bios in all, each one grounded in the driving force of the series: an unusual and intriguing match between author and subject.

Lipper Publications' two new series—on science and business—continue the match-up idea in a just-announced co-venture with W.W. Norton. But don't expect too many details until the series are planned out. (The first science titles will probably hit stores in about 18 months.) The Lipper folks are very patient, thoughtful and conservative—adjectives not always attributed to publishers eager to sign the next bestseller.

"If you're publishing for hits, it's a formula for loss and dilution of quality," Lipper told PW. "We are not fashionable people."

PW recently visited the Lipper offices on Park Avenue and 40th Street and found them, while definitely not unfashionable, decidedly unusual for a publishing company. The space is an amalgam of the many personalities and interests of Ken Lipper. Most of the floor is open and occupied by stock traders busy with the business of making money. Lipper's investment firm manages $5 billion. Inside the CEO's modest corner office are posters and other mementos of his success in the movie business. (Lipper wrote the book Wall Street, which was then made into the movie directed by Oliver Stone; he wrote the screenplay for City Hall, which starred Al Pacino; and he produced The Winter Guest with Emma Thompson and The Last Days, an Oscar-nominated documentary on the Holocaust.) But the blown-up covers for the Lives series decorate the walls at the main entrance, while the brightly lit offices of the publishing wing of the company are off to the right. Stocks might make him the most money, and movies might bring him fame, but it is the books that make Lipper proud.

"It's very healthy for both sides to have the opportunity to be open to other worlds," said Lipper about the unusual office arrangement. "The stock traders are praying for these books." Atlas joked that with the current condition of the market, the prayers are getting louder and the books are becoming the profit center.

Jokes aside, the creation of the Lives series was grounded from the beginning in fiscal responsibility. "Everybody was astonished when we put a fixed limit on the advances," said Lipper. Even with a list of notable authors, no one has gotten a six-figure advance so far. They asked: What if writers write for love instead of money?

So they rethought the author advance-against-royalties model and offered modest advances for modest-size books. With Penguin Lives they may have stumbled upon a literary field of dreams: now that they've built it, the authors are coming. But that wasn't always the case. In the beginning, Atlas, who said his grandfather sold postcards out of a suitcase, had to sell the idea to the writers.

"What sold me was when they called it 'an essay with the spine of a novel,'" said Carol Shields, whose Jane Austen came out in February. The author of The Stone Diaries and other novels, Shields told PW that she never would have dreamed of writing a biography (and doesn't dream of doing a full-fledged bio in the future). In just three months, Shields composed a witty and insightful biography of a woman who influenced the contemporary novel, a subject she knows well.

The job of wooing writers of substance with a definite take on the person they would write about initially went to Atlas. As a former editor of the New York Times Magazine,an editor at the NYTBR and a frequent contributor to numerous magazines, Atlas had lots of connections. "These writers had these books in their heads,"" he said.

Typically, it was a smooth publishing process, although Atlas said that one time, an author's usual publisher balked at the idea of his writing for another house but eventually came around. And Atlas dismissed recent speculation that the switch of Janet Malcolm's forthcoming book on Anton Chekhov from Penguin/Lipper to Random House was based on any fear that her book veered too far away from straight biographical format. "It is a point-of-view series," he said. The very asking for that point of view attracted most writers to the series.

Edmund White said he thought he'd never do another biography after his 1994 book on the French novelist Jean Genet, but when Atlas suggested that he write a biographical essay on Marcel Proust, he took the bait. "I had just finished a novel, and the last thing I wanted to do was dive into another novel," he said. "They wanted a book of interpretation rather than a book of research. That appealed to me." Proust was the first book in the series, and it made some waves when White explored Proust's homosexuality, which hadn't been done before. White proved good at the short book. A few weeks ago, his The Flaneur: A Stroll Through the Paradoxes of Paris, the debut title for a new little book series from Bloomsbury, hit the New York Times bestseller list.

Which leads us to series in general. The Penguin Lives are not the first, nor will they be the last, among publishers' efforts in series publishing. Most recently, Times Books announced its plan to produce mini-biographies on all the presidents, with Arthur Schlesinger Jr. as editor. W.W. Norton is doing a sports book line with George Plimpton. Between these newcomers and the already established Modern Library and its new Chronicles series—not to mention the faltering Library of Contemporary Thought undertaking at Ballantine—is it such a good time to be adding new series?

Booksellers PW spoke with agreed that publishers had not yet reached the tipping point in the little-books-of-substance category. "As long as the quality remains high and the satisfaction remains high, the series succeeds," said Vivien Jennings, owner of Rainy Day Books in Kansas City, Kan. Booksellers also observed that the Lives series had established an identity with readers, with its consistent quality of content, writers, subjects and design. "People really ask all the time, 'When are the new ones coming out?' " said Jennings.

At Barnes & Noble, spokesperson Debra Williams said: "Penguin Lives definitely have the right formula: a hardcover book at the right price ($19.99), and great writing. These biographies are life stories told by great storytellers. It's hard to compete with that combination."

Competition makes Atlas think of the theory that four gas stations on one corner increase traffic. "We'll just have to see what happens," he said. In the meantime, Lipper Publications will stick to its formula with future Lives books and in its new as-yet-to-be-named series with Norton. A consistent publishing program is part of what made the Lives series work—and why Lipper doesn't want to give too many details about the next objective, science writing, until it has a critical mass of writers and subjects lined up.

As with the Lives books, each series first develops a defining notion. The biographies were envisioned as a how-to series on life, based on famous lives. In science, the focus will be on a discovery and the discoverer. "Science is a continuing evolution," explained Lipper. "One generation builds on another in a collective historic experience. In that flow of experience, individuals enter and spin out some idea." Science and people and surprising matchups with good writers: that is the working formula for the little science books.

It's something Lipper has wanted to do from the beginning, but was disciplined about building on the idea. About a year ago, Lipper brought in Jesse Cohen, formerly at Doubleday, to be senior editor. Aside from working on the Lives, Cohen has spent much of that time immersed in science literature. It is a rare luxury for an editor to get so much time to mull about a project. Then, as the science series idea was taking shape, the Lipper managers talked with numerous houses about co-publishing. (As a result, Cohen ended up editing an anthology of science writing for HarperCollins last year.) In the end, Atlas said, they simply found the right editorial connection with Edwin Barber at Norton. "Andrew Wylie suggested him, and he just turned out to be the ideal fit for us," Atlas added.

While carefully planned and executed, much of what Lipper Publications does would not fall under the category of publishing-as-usual. In fact, Atlas said, he thinks their lack of education in the publishing ins and outs helped the company construct a new model, both editorially and economically. For instance, the deal with Penguin allows for the two companies to split the costs and profits 50/50. A similar arrangement was worked out with Norton for the forthcoming science and business series, although Lipper declined to give more specific details. By sharing costs and talent with other publishers, sharing office space with other Lipper companies and with the sale of foreign and audio rights, the business is sound and that means the small editorial staff can concentrate solely on the books.

"A lot of editors do edit, but the pressure does seem to be on acquisition," said Cohen. "There are two things that we do here: one is editing and the other is thinking. That idea element is hard to find at most publishing houses."

You never know when an idea will turn out to be brilliant—even one conceived on New Year's Day.