Fame suits Daniel Libeskind. He wears his role as the world's most-watched architect—a status he earned the moment he was named Master Planner for the Ground Zero reconstruction—as comfortably as he sports his signature specs.
At the recent Penguin Group sales conference, he accepted a standing ovation with an almost impish smile that softened his Euro-chic angularity. Dressed in monochrome—a black suit over a black shirt buttoned to the neck, no tie—he was the consummate pitchman. Speaking enthusiastically, each word precisely formed and slightly accented, he didn't seem to be pitching anything.
Libeskind's book, Breaking Ground: Adventures in Life and Architecture, which he wrote with former Little, Brown publisher Sarah Crichton, is Riverhead's lead title for fall, scheduled for publication November 8 with a first printing of 100,000 copies (and a simultaneous audio, also from Riverhead). Though Libeskind writes about his life, his book is not, strictly speaking, a memoir. Nor is it really an architecture book, despite the subtitle and his accounts of designing the Jewish Museum Berlin and the Imperial War Museum in Manchester, England. It relates to 9/11, but is resolutely forward-looking. And though it will have two photo inserts and illustrations throughout, it's not intended as a coffee-table ornament. Breaking Ground reflects the thoughts of an intellectual who has lived in many countries and speaks six languages, but it is very much about the American experience.
Riverhead executives say they don't need an easy description for the book—they have Libeskind. "He's unbelievably charismatic and brilliant and we know that when we put him in front of an audience, he mesmerizes them," said his editor, Susan Lehman, adding, "He is someone who really lives in the world of ideas in a full way."
A New Kind of Rock Star
The concept of the celebrity architect isn't new—witness the repeated references in print and other media to Dutchman Rem Koolhaas as the "rock star of architecture." What is new is for a major publisher to try to wrap an architect's winning personality, compelling history and pivotal role in current events into a package that will have widespread appeal among readers who have no particular interest in architecture. So far, it seems to be working: rights to the book have been sold in 10 countries.
The approach makes sense to Marcus Rector, managing partner for Builders Booksource, a specialty bookstore in San Francisco. "I think people want to hear about any person who's in the news," he said, "and they especially want to know about [Libeskind] because of the stand he took on the World Trade Center and his well-publicized fights with [architect] David Childs." The memoir aspect of the book, and its $27.95 price, should appeal to general readers, Rector added.
Riverhead's publishing strategy began with Libeskind's appearance before the Penguin reps. Without really mentioning the book, he talked about architecture in general: "Architecture is something you feel in your body; it's not just for your mind." And about the Ground Zero project in particular: "This is a collective response to the attacks on democracy and New York." He talked about patriotism and about music (he was an accomplished classical musician before he designed buildings), and the wonder of his first glimpse, at age 13, of the New York skyline. He said frankly corny things—recounting how his father, a Polish Holocaust survivor, said that if Americans really understood the greatness of their country, they would kiss the ground—and the audience sat rapt. Though it's hard to imagine Libeskind hadn't said it all before in the countless interviews and speaking engagements that have filled his schedule in the past year, every word sounded heartfelt and fresh, and he got laughs in all the right places.
Riverhead, which taped Libeskind at the sales conference, is arming its sales reps with CD-ROMs of the appearance, the better to let booksellers know who they're backing when they order the book, said Dan Harvey, senior v-p, publishing director of Putnam. "He's going to be so involved in promoting the book, we wanted them to see him the way we did."
November Pub "Not a Risk"
Riverhead's plans for the book include featuring it at BookExpo America next month and working up some pre-pub buzz at the NEBA trade show in Boston next October. To correspond with publication, the imprint is putting together a national tour that will hit six or seven major markets, with a mix of in-store and bigger-venue events. "This is a guy who speaks around the world throughout the year, and most of the time the audiences that he speaks to are huge," said Marilyn Ducksworth, Putnam's executive director of publicity.
The house hopes to book Libeskind on evening and morning talk shows, as well as on national and local media around the country, Ducksworth said, though nothing has been pinned down yet. "We're expecting major feature and review attention for the book," she added. "By the time the book comes out, there will be no one who doesn't know it's coming."
While many other publishers are avoiding releasing high-profile titles in November, when the media will be focused on the election, Harvey said Riverhead wanted to get the book out as early as possible. "There's more to life than political books," he said. "This is a book that will get reviewed; the election isn't going to prevent that."