To hear the New York Times tell it, the decision by Tom Wolfe and his agent Lynn Nesbit to move the author from Farrar, Straus & Giroux to Little, Brown is one of simple economic expedience. FSG president Jonathan Galassi says his house and Wolfe’s reps couldn’t come to terms, and Little, Brown—lately no stranger to throwing around big money, like the megamillions to Keith Richards late last year—could, to the tune of a reported $7 million. The Times also seemed to imply that Little, Brown might be overpaying because Wolfe’s star has been on the wane lately: I Am Charlotte Simmons was a disappointment (though many in the book business would use a stronger word), especially compared to Wolfe’s earlier blockbusters, particularly The Bonfire of the Vanities and A Man in Full, but going back as far as The Right Stuff.

Surely, economics did play a part. A writer of Wolfe’s stature—an “icon,” in Viking editor Molly Sterne’s New York Times quote—is hardly looking to take a cut in pay, no matter what the BookScan numbers say. And whether Little, Brown will ultimately rue its decision to pay such megabucks—whether the book(s) Wolfe writes for them will be more Simmons than Bonfire—remains to be seen. Big-name authors switch houses all the time, of course, and usually after some books have failed to measure up to expectations. But often the house that’s “left” is left better off, especially if the author’s best work is behind him. (Philip Roth is probably the most obvious exception to this rule; since leaving FSG years ago for Houghton, Roth has enjoyed his most commercially successful books.) Besides, backlist is pure profit, and the “old” house almost always keeps those titles and benefits from them. (No surprise, I heard today that Wolfe’s backlist in paperback—including re-releases of The Right Stuff and Bonfire—will be coming from a Macmillan paperback imprint this spring.)

Surely other houses were at or close to Little, Brown’s offer—it’s hard to believe Knopf didn’t somehow figure in the mix—but LB’s enthusiasm was high (a staffer apparently presented the author with an old, battered paperback copy of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test for signature). Still, like most sudden divorces and quick remarriages, this one seems both unpredictable and inevitable. Buried in the Times piece is the information that his new LB editor will be none other than Pat Strachan, the beloved former FSG editor who worked on Wolfe’s most successful books. (She left FSG in 1988, amid the success of Bonfire.) Characteristically, Strachan downplays her influence on Wolfe. “Tom Wolfe is a genius, and I’m happy to be his handmaiden in the publishing process. In fact, being a handmaiden to Tom Wolfe is a blast.”

According to the Times, “News of Mr. Wolfe’s departure from FSG surprised several publishing executives because they had regarded that author and publishing house as loyal to each other.” But it seems to me this misses the point: by choosing Pat Strachan, wherever she is, Wolfe is declaring that sometimes it’s the editor, even more than the house, that counts.

In other words, this Tom Wolfe apparently knows that you can go home again.

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