Donatich is the publisher of Basic Books, with a new sries called Art of Mentoring.
PW: What was the inspiration behind this series?
JD: When I was 16 I read Letters to a Young Poet by Rilke, and it really touched me. I recently reread it, and it occurred to me that other vocations, professions, obsessions, ways of being haven't had a seminal text like that to help shape future generations. So I sent out letters, kind of cold calling, asking people what they would think of doing something similar.
PW: How did people initially respond?
JD: To my delight, there were plenty of people willing to do this. We're launching this October with Letters to a Young Lawyer by Alan Dershowitz (review p. 65) and Letters to a Young Contrarian from Christopher Hitchens (review p. 65). In the future we'll have Letters to a Young Golfer by Robert Duvall, Letters to a Young Diva by Jessye Norman, Letters to a Young Doctor by Sherwin Nuland and Letters to a Young Activist by Todd Gitlin. We've also got another half a dozen people on the hook.
PW: Do you ask people to use the Rilke as a model?
JD: Yes, in a way. I first ask people to read the Rilke, and they usually have a strong response to it. The way to write the Letters is to strike an emotional nerve.
PW: Is there an advantage to using the letter format?
JD: What people find really inviting is that this epistolary format allows them to write for the perfect audience, whether that's a composite student or colleague, a foe or a loved one—it's for someone who fires you to talk about what you do best. The letter format allows you to be authoritative, but intimate. It's the tension between those two that really draws you in.
PW: You're editing all these yourself, but how can you edit someone's "personal letter"?
JD: True, I'm not a doctor, a diva or a lawyer. But Basic has made a career out of publishing public intellectuals. These are people who learn, with guidance sometimes, how to reach an audience beyond their peers. I figure if I understand what they're talking about, it has already gone beyond its walls.
PW: Where should a bookseller shelve this kind of hybrid book?
JD: At the launch of the series, the names of the authors and marketing support will be big enough that they'll go on front tables as big books; both authors will be on tours and have media commitments. At first, we'll go for the biggest, broadest trade audience possible.
PW: Do you expect a life for the books in backlist?
JD: I think this will be a backlist annuity for us. Every graduating class will be interested. I hope in years to come, at every graduation and Christmas, bookstores will shelve these together in a special promotion. But I don't mean to say that the titles, because they say "Letters to a Young," are only for a young audience. I plan on giving Letters to a Young Golfer to a friend who's retired and just took up golf. Rilke wrote his Letters when he was a mere 29, so who was he to speak to young people?
PW: Are you going to commission your own Letters to a Young Poet?
JD: I really played with that, but I think he owns that title. As a publisher I'm all for not copyrighting titles, but I think it's almost a spiritual thing.
PW: And will you be doing Letters to a Young Publisher?
JD: [Laughs] Everybody's been having their say recently, between the Schiffrin and Epstein books. I wonder whom I would ask? That would have to be an essay book, with at least 12 contributors.