With more than one million copies sold in the U.S. alone, The Beatles Anthology confirmed Chronicle Books' reputation for innovative illustrated books. The house had reached such commercial heights before, in 1991 with Nick Bantock's lavishly produced epistolary tale Griffin & Sabine, which, together with its sequels, has sold more than three million copies, and in 1999 with The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook, which also broke the million-copy mark. Now, the 33-year-old company, which became privately held last year, hopes to use its strengths in publishing illustrated books to draw attention to the beefed-up literary fiction list it aims to publish in the coming year.
Over the last 10 years, Chronicle has developed a literary list that has gradually attracted authors, agents and bookseller accolades. Now its lead fall fiction title, The Distant Land of My Father, by debut novelist Bo Caldwell, has landed on the current Book Sense 76 list and in the Borders Original Voices program.
"I'm looking for books that are distinctive and not familiar; I'm not interested in midlife, mid-Manhattan angst," said Jay Schaefer, whom Chronicle recently promoted from senior editor to editorial director of literature. Schaefer, who joined the company 14 years ago as the "books-with-words" editor, told PW that building a literary list has been a priority of his from the beginning. Ten years ago, the company did only four literary titles a year. Now it does eight. Even though that number is "going to increase considerably," literary books will never exceed more than 10% of Chronicle's 300-title frontlist. The press also plans to launch a mystery series this spring.
"Years back, you'd see a lot of [illustrated books] from Chronicle," observed Frank Sanchez, head buyer at Keplers Books & Magazines in Menlo Park, Calif., the store that recommended Distant Land to the Book Sense 76 list. While those books sold well and were impressive, "when you'd see a novel, that was a nice surprise. An even more pleasant surprise is to find that the writing is really top-notch."
Robert Tischer, a senior buyer at Borders Books & Music, has been buying books for 20 years (since the Borders Brothers were around) and has watched Chronicle grow as a publisher. The house always struck him as an upscale, niche publisher. "It's a house that hasn't had a real history doing original fiction and yet they are able to produce a good, high-quality book. That's important, especially when you are trying to break out a new author." That's why Distant Land seemed such a good fit for the Original Voices program, he said.
Many agents seem quite pleased to work with Chronicle, though there have been some misconceptions. Washington, D.C., agent Gail Ross, who represents Distant Land author Bo Caldwell, said she was initially concerned that Chronicle might be too regional a publisher for her client. "But they have very good distribution, so I guess I didn't worry about that too much," she added. "There's passion at Chronicle, and that's hard to buy in this business." And if the press still can't quite compete for the sort of fine fiction that's fetching top dollar in New York, it has some advantages when agents and authors are considering factors other than money.
While Chronicle may not have the same marketing muscle as larger houses, its writers feel the staff is both creative and committed. "They sent out advance copies for review," Caldwell noted, "and they wrapped each one individually in beautiful red paper with Chinese writing on it." The plot of Distant Land involves a woman uncovering her father's life in pre- and post-WWII Shanghai. In this media climate, when anything not September 11- or anthrax-related runs the risk of being overlooked, that war history theme got Caldwell booked on President George W. Bush's weekly Voice of America radio program.
According to New York City agent Gail Hochman, who has represented Scott Turow, Michael Cunningham and Ursula Hegi since the beginning of their careers, Chronicle has one huge advantage: Schaefer and the staff have an old-fashioned attitude about building authors. Hochman has signed four fiction projects with Chronicle, a press she likens to Algonquin.
For novelist Anitra Sheen, Schaefer's hands-on style made a big difference with her first book, Things Unspoken. Schaefer liked the manuscript but didn't think it worked, so Sheen rewrote it and Hochman resubmitted it. "That book stayed with me," said Schaefer. Chronicle released the hardcover last fall and the paperback in the spring.
With Schaefer, Sheen said, she got the kind of editing she didn't think editors did anymore. "My agent told me that in this publishing climate, sometimes the smaller houses serve you better," she added. "I know people who have been through several editors during the publication of their books." She also appreciated the access and support Chronicle offers first-time novelists--and a generous 10,000 first printing. "And they readily produced the paperback," said Sheen.
The general question of paperback rights is still a matter of discussion at Chronicle, according to Schaefer. "In each case, we figure out what's best for the author's long-term career and what works for Chronicle," he said. Last month, Chronicle sold paperback rights for Distant Land to Harcourt Brace for $50,000, which probably will result in black ink all around.
Chronicle's literary line is often called quiet or modest, monikers Schaefer doesn't like much, but accepts. "Quiet is okay, but the books need to be fresh and distinctive," he said. Among the projects coming up for Chronicle is a first novel by Kathi Goldmark, the senior marketing and publicity manager at Harper San Francisco credited as the founder and organizer of the Rock Bottom Remainders. Chronicle plans to debut And My Shoes Keep Walking Back to You, Goldmark's novel about a country music singer, at BEA in New York, where, incidentally, the Rock Bottom Remainders will make a comeback appearance. "Quiet?" asked Schaefer. "I don't know--this is going to be pretty noisy."
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