Ten years ago this fall, Farrar, Straus & Giroux celebrated its 50th anniversary with a "merry and tumultuous party," according to the New Yorker, held in the grand entrance hall of the New York Public Library. At the center of it all stood Roger Straus II, hale and vigorous at 79 years of age, mastering the ceremony of praise from authors and the New York literati.
A triumphalist by nature, Straus had a good deal to feel triumphant about. The house he founded in 1946 with a trust fund and John Farrar, a publishing veteran, had become synonymous with editorial integrity, feisty independence and unabashed parsimony. Seamus Heaney's copping of the Nobel the year before marked the 10th of the last 18 prize winners to be an FSG author. The fall list was the envy of any literary house—Derek Walcott, Elizabeth Bishop, Scott Turow, Peter Hoeg. Topping it all, Straus could crow about doing the impossible. In a period of unprecedented consolidation in American publishing, he had successfully scorned come-ons from the likes of Si Newhouse and Rupert Murdoch and went out and handpicked his own suitor, Dieter von Holtzbrinck, head of a large, family-owned publishing group in Germany. On that September evening in '96, FSG was two years into its life as a Holtzbrinck holding, and Straus assured the assembled that all was well. And why not? He wasn't going anywhere, as he had a contract to stay on through 2000. "And it's renewable," he was fond of saying.
As the company's 60th anniversary approaches, a lot has changed. FSG has been a Holtzbrinck property for a dozen years. Thousands of independent bookstores—long the bread and butter of FSG books—have gone out of business. Reading habits have changed, as technology has remade the media—and retailing—landscape. And two years ago this past May, Straus died, at 87. In his place—and in his large corner office—is Jonathan Galassi, who was named president of FSG in January 2002, entrusted by Straus to carry on the grand tradition. In so doing, Galassi has undertaken a succession of initiatives and new hires that, while risking the venerable FSG reputation, are designed to secure it.
By any lights, Straus is a hard act to follow. He was the most enduring and colorful American publisher of the 20th century. He made good copy, famously arriving at the FSG offices on Union Square in an open-top Mercedes, stepping out in gabardine suits, open-collared shirts ("to allow his silk ascot to debouch"—Tom Wolfe), his brushed-back silver hair topping a rugged, strong-featured face. He spoke with the gruff, frank, voluble confidence of one born to money that had been hard-earned (background: "Macy's Strauses and copper-and-newspaper Guggenheims"—again, Wolfe). Galassi, by contrast, is writ smaller and quieter—conservative pinstripe shirts, often tieless, a Phillips Exeter—Harvard pedigree, son of a Boston lawyer, lover of Italian poetry. He was hired by Straus in 1988 after previous stints at Houghton Mifflin and Random House where, despite his surface mild manner, he proved a forceful advocate for such young writers as Robert Stone and Alice McDermott.
Galassi, now 56, is given to tilting his head at a reporter's question, steepling his fingers and peering upward, as if inspecting a question from below, like a very careful engineer. Indeed, his engineering has been measured, deliberate and substantial. During a late spring interview in his office, Galassi spoke proudly but with his characteristic reserve about the changes he has faced, and wrought, at FSG.
"It's different now," he says of life at FSG. "When the founding person isn't around anymore, you miss him a lot. But the world keeps changing, too, and you have to respond to that and anticipate change."
The principal cultural changes that Galassi notes have to do with 9/11 and its aftermath, and the burgeoning of media technologies. "There's been a shift in people's interests and concerns since 2001. Now, books are just one of a smorgasbord of choices you can spend your leisure time with. The smorgasbord keeps getting bigger, but the time doesn't." There is also the fact that, as president, Galassi is charged with managing people in a company that answers to John Sargent, CEO of Holtzbrinck, as one part of a family of publishers that includes St. Martin's, Henry Holt, Picador, Roaring Brook, Palgrave Macmillan and the textbook publisher Bedford, Freeman and Worth.
Galassi has set upon a course to "change the mix and proportion" of what FSG publishes, publishing more nonfiction than historically. "While we are still very committed to our literary core," he says, "we are choosing the books we publish with new eyes, always revising how we see things. We have a greatly, newly enriched editorial team, so there is a very strong spirit here now." There is also the matter of leveraging the benefits of being part of the larger Holtzbrinck family, to which end Galassi has brought in Andrew Mandel, previously with Workman, as his deputy publisher. Now, FSG pays up to Holtzbrinck for many essential services, but in return has greater financial stability and the all-important access to a formidable reprint house (Picador), something that, unlike Viking (with Penguin) and Random House (with Vintage), FSG never had before.
The year before Straus made his deal with Dieter von Holtzbrinck to buy FSG for $30 million, the heir apparent to the FSG presidency, Roger Straus III, or "Rog," as he was known, parted ways with his father and the family company. Rog was said to have pressed his father to be more commercial, to invest in a strong paperback line—in order to spread the risk of literary publishing. It was not to be. But the following year, Holtzbrinck acquired St. Martin's Press, which then launched Picador as a literary paperback imprint.
"I brought this up relentlessly with Roger over the years," says agent Andrew Wylie. "For too long, in order to bid for big authors competitively, FSG had to make outside paperback deals—for Philip Roth, Penguin; for Sontag, Anchor; for Wolfe, Bantam. I said to Roger, 'That has to change.' " Indeed, FSG couldn't have landed Bonfire of the Vanities with Wolfe and agent Lynn Nesbit if Bantam hadn't been part of the deal, and the company lost Philip Roth, agented by Wylie, to S&S in a famous dustup that left author and publisher in permanent estrangement. "Leasing our paperback rights had become a big source of our income, but it becomes a little bit like a habit," says Galassi. "It is definitely more profitable to do them ourselves." It also, in the long run, makes authors happier. Says agent Georges Borchardt, "When you sell the reprint rights for an enormous amount of money, the author's first reaction is, Oh, how great, money; the second reaction is, I'm only getting half of it? The third reaction is, I'm not getting it till when? And finally, Why didn't we go to this publisher in the first place?' "
FSG still honors several author-reprint arrangements of long standing—I Am Charlotte Simmonswas Bantam; Turow's Ordinary Heroes was with his longtime paperback partner, Warner—but the great hardcover success of Marilynne Robinson's Gilead transferred to similar success at Picador, as opposed to where Housekeeping went for many years: Bantam. So beneficial has been the FSG-Picador arrangement (Picador, headed up by Frances Coady, is also the in-house paperback imprint of choice for Henry Holt) that John Sargent immediately called Jean Feiwel upon her departure, after 22 years, from Scholastic, with an idea in mind. In addition to being offered her own imprint, Feiwel & Friends, which will launch with its first children's title this fall, Feiwel was charged with heading up a new children's paperback imprint, to be called Square Fish: "We will be the paperback option for hardcover kids' books from FSG, Holt and Roaring Brook." Feiwel said that having the reprint option enabled FSG to keep Jack Gantos, who had been courted for 18 months by other publishers. "We were able to come up with an offer just shy of a million dollars for a new series that will debut in 2008."
Square Fish will launch next summer with a splash—the licenses to Madeleine L'Engle's Time Quintet, which includes the classic A Wrinkle in Time, have been drawn back in-house and will appear in two separate editions, boxed and individual volumes. "Louis Sachar's Holes was 'lost' to us, in a way," says Feiwel. Published in hardcover by FSG in 1998, the reprint of the NBA and Newbery winner sold 800,000 copies last year—for Random's Dell imprint. "That won't happen again," says Feiwel, who expects to work closely with Margaret Ferguson, editorial director of FSG Books for Young Readers.
Now a dozen years into the Holtzbrinck family, a strong cooperative relationship has evolved. "Three or four years ago, we joined the Holtzbrinck sales force," notes Galassi. "We gave up our commissioned reps, though we handle all the national accounts in-house, under sales director Spenser Lee." There are also all the backoffice functions—contract, warehousing and the like—that have been taken off the FSG staff. And as more than one FSGer mentioned, the human resources and benefit programs are much improved. "Bottom line, Jonathan can be more aggressive in what he buys and we can be more aggressive in selling and marketing," says Sargent. Nevertheless, FSG retains a reputation for having tight budgets that prevent the marketing department from more vigorously promoting its books.
The company can now also withstand failure on a larger scale. Galassi conceded that Wolfe's Charlotte Simmons, Michael Cunningham's Specimen Days and Scott Turow's Ordinary Heroeswere "disappointments." In each case, he attributed the poor results to the authors trying something different—"they just didn't catch the public's imagination" He also frets that new talent, in fiction, is hard to make catch fire—"but Roger's way, building authors, is still the way to go." For that, you count on strong editorial relationships. As for in-house relationships, some have been strained under the transition. The new corporate culture, without Straus as the beloved protector, is not for everyone. Executive v-p and editor-in-chief John Glusman stepped down last fall after 15 years at the house (he has since landed at Harmony). A few other longtime staffers have either left or been let go. Glusman, who had been hired by Straus shortly after Galassi came on board, declined to comment for this story.
A Broader Range of Books
FSG consists of four adult hardcover imprints—FSG, North Point, Hill and Wang and Faber and Faber. The literary heart is FSG; that's where its long list of Nobelists, 20 in all, resides, from Knut Hamsun to Seamus Heaney. It is also where one finds heavyweights like Wolfe, Turow, Jonathan Franzen, Jeffrey Eugenides, Marilynne Robinson; the poets Heaney, Paul Muldoon, C.K. Williams and Robert Lowell's Collected Poems; the nonfiction blockbuster, The Word Is Flat by Tom Friedman. What you won't find there are such things as sports biographies, celebrity anthologies or memoirs and poetry by rock and rollers.
For that, you have to go to the other imprints. And it is there that Galassi is making his most distinctive mark on the house, bringing in new talent to help broaden the company's lists.
Denise Oswald is now 36. She began as an editorial assistant 10 years ago. After a detour as an editor at Overlook Press, she returned to run Faber and Faber, formerly the American outpost of the esteemed British house once headed by T.S. Eliot. "Faber was known for its theater—lots of Tom Stoppard and David Hare. But over time, we have tried to build a new Faber," Oswald says.
Oswald is frank about "the new Faber" and the old FSG. "I am publishing a kind of book that at first glance does not seem to be a typical FSG book. I have been given a free rein to publish what I think will reach a younger readership that loves popular culture, that understands itself through popular culture."
So Billy Corgan, from the band Smashing Pumpkins, joins the house of Berryman, Lowell and Bishop, as a poet. His Blinking with Fists sold 30,000 copies in hardcover. Due in November is controversial rocker Courtney Love's memoir, Dirty Blonde. "Let's just say that not even in my wildest fantasies as an editorial assistant could I have envisioned doing a book like this," admits Oswald.
Perhaps Roger Straus could not have, either. But would he have been any more comfortable with a big biography of NFL quarterback and New England heartthrob Tom Brady, coming this fall? Or with The God Factor: Inside the Spiritual Lives ofPublic People, in which celebrities like Studs Terkel, Dusty Baker and (again) Billy Corgan, talk about their religious experiences?
The God Factorwas published this spring—to uniformly excellent reviews, including a star in PW—by Sarah Crichton, under an imprint of her own name at FSG. Crichton is perhaps Galassi's boldest hire, brought aboard two years ago specifically for her commercial sense. After 10 years as a top editor at Newsweek, Crichton was named publisher at Little, Brown, where she served for five years. After being replaced by Michael Pietsch in 2001, she pursued her own projects, coauthoring bestselling memoirs by Mariane Pearl and Daniel Libeskind. "Some of my books may have a more overtly commercial bent than some of the more traditional FSG fare, but they have one thing in common, and that's a commitment to quality," says Crichton. Among her big books for fall is a novel by cartoonist Doug Marlette, Magic Time, which is getting rave pre-pub reviews.
"I'm drawn to books where I can sense how to market them," she says. "It's such a challenge to publish fiction these days that it helps when the author has a loyal following."
Galassi also replaced Elisabeth Sifton at Hill and Wang with Thomas LeBien, a veteran of the university press world (Sifton is now an editor-at-large). Of late, Hill and Wang has contributed mightily to the FSG bottom line by having the good sense (and luck) of not renewing the reprint license to Bantam for Elie Wiesel's Night. Since becoming an Oprah pick in January, Night has sold two million copies, according to Wiesel's agent Georges Borchardt, who accepted a $250 advance from Arthur Wang for the book back in 1957. LeBien, like Oswald and Lorin Stein, a highly respected literary editor, brings a younger mindset. "Hill and Wang has a strong footprint among American historians. That has been Hill and Wang's strength all along, but things have to change under the pressures of a rapidly changing market."
The biggest change LeBien has worked has been the movement of Hill and Wang into graphic nonfiction. This fall, it will publish, in a 100,000-copy first printing, The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation, by comics industry veterans Sid Jacobsen and Ernie Colón. "I went to Jonathan and asked, Could this be done in a way that is clearly consistent with how Hill and Wang has always defined itself? He ran some P&Ls and we talked it through and decided it was."
Until being named president, Galassi was editor-in-chief. He and Straus, who was chairman at the time, went outside the company for a new editor-in-chief and brought in Eric Chinski, who was known for having acquired Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything Is Illuminatedat Houghton Mifflin. FSG's lead nonfiction book for the fall is a book that Chinski commissioned—Heist, about the disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Chinski and Galassi, who still has a full roster of his own authors—Turow, Cunningham, Eugenides, McDermott and Tom Friedman among them—work out where best to place certain books among the imprints, each of which has its areas of strength.
Such a process—bringing in editors with impressive track records (Courtney Hodell, formerly of HarperCollins, is another recent addition)—is similar to how Roger Straus built the company. When Robert Giroux joined in 1955, he brought with him from Harcourt Brace the authors that constituted the starter culture out of which the literary FSG grew—17 in all, including Lowell, Berryman, Bernard Malamud, Flannery O'Connor and Randall Jarrell. Later, other esteemed editors came on board—Henry Robbins, Aaron Asher and Michael di Capua. All of them expanded and deepened the FSG lists, just as Galassi hopes his new hires will. Cary Goldstein, formerly publicity director at FSG and now an acquiring editor working with Jonathan Karp at Twelve, a division of Hachette, has already weighed in: "The new lists at FSG are evolving, focused and totally relevant. They are even hip."
Senior editor Paul Elie, who began as an assistant to Galassi 13 years ago, has seen the changes at the company and still feels that "gut instinct, as was always the case with Roger, guides the company. The structures that have emerged just lend precision."
Elie was still green when in attendance at the 50th anniversary celebration, but now he can offer the longer view. "As we sat there at the New York Public, Franzen was working on The Corrections; Eugenides was working on Middlesex, though no one knew when it was coming; Tom Friedman was working his ass off as a foreign correspondent; Michael Cunningham was working on this thing about Virginia Woolf with a nonlinear narrative." On the eve of the company's 60th anniversary, Elie wonders, "Who knows what's in the works right now that we'll all be reading down the road and for a long time. That's what makes this fun."