Even after nearly 40 years with W.W. Norton, former v-p, senior editor and director of production Jim Mairs wasn't ready to throw in the red pencil. Instead, he's renting his old office at Norton, which serves as headquarters for his one-man publishing house, the Quantuck Lane Press.
Unlike many small presses, Quantuck Lane quickly made a distribution deal—with Norton—for its inaugural list of five books, which shipped in November. "This would not have been an automatic situation," said Dosier Hammond, who is in charge of Norton's affiliate lines. "We did it because we like the books."
Of course, it didn't hurt that many of the authors were already well known to the Norton sales force. For example, Quantuck Lane's first list included Elliott Erwitt's Handbook, a quixotic compilation of photographs of hands by the Magnum photographer, who published four books with Mairs at Norton. Mairs has also extended his connection with photographer Rosamond Purcell, who collaborated with scientist Stephen Jay Gould on two books Mairs edited.
For Quantuck Lane, Purcell threw her cards in with sleight-of-hand expert Ricky Jay, author of Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women (FSG, 1998) and star of the one-man show Ricky Jay: On the Stem, directed by David Mamet. Their collaboration, Dice: Deception, Fate & Rotten Luck (Nov. 2002), grew out of a piece Jay wrote for the New Yorker and now has 30,000 copies in print, thanks in part to coverage on NPR's All Things Considered, Fresh Air and The Late Late Show.
The press's initial list also included a Patrick O'Brian—style seafaring memoir from the 1800s, Jack Corbett: Mariner (Dec. 2002), by A.S. Hatch; and a collection of turn-of-the-century circus photos, Wild, Weird and Wonderful: 1901—1927 as Seen by F.W. Glasier (Dec. 2002), with text by Mark Sloan.
It's no coincidence that most of Mairs's books are illustrated, since his office is legendary as a work of art, making it a regular stop on the Norton house tour. "I want to do books as objects," Mairs told PW, pointing to the real cloth bindings on his hardcovers.
As for the size of the list, small is definitely beautiful, at least for now. "My thought," he said, "was to do five books every fall, but I'll be doing seven next fall." Indirectly, Norton is responsible for that, too, since the funding for Quantuck Lane came from Norton stock that Mairs sold when he left the employee-owned company in March, 2002. Mairs also remains an independent contractor for Norton, and gets some help from freelance publicist Janey Tannenbaum (formerly with the New Press, another Norton affiliate). So there is life after publishing—in publishing.