Common wisdom has it that publishing is the prototype of that contemporary oxymoron, the “relationship business.” While they are increasingly focused on the bottom line, publishing people also pride themselves on their interpersonal abilities. To be a good editor, in particular, you have to get inside the head and heart of your writer; as many have said, a longtime editor/writer relationship is more like an intricate, intimate marriage than your typical business relationship.
That said, it's also true that in publishing, as in marriage, money and power play a part—and that divorce is increasingly common. Consider last week's surprise announcement that Richard Ford, longtime Knopf author, has signed a three-book deal with the HarperCollins—owned Ecco. Why, after 17 years, would the Pulitzer Prize—winning Ford abandon both his very tony publisher and his longtime friend there—and editor—Gary Fisketjon? “For the money, stupid,” many wags suggested, and while no sum was announced, rumor has it that Ecco came up with more than the 500K Knopf reportedly paid for Ford's last book—maybe as much as a couple of million for North American rights to his next three books. But I have a feeling it was more complicated. “It wasn't just one thing,” Ecco's Daniel Halpern told me about his longtime friend Ford's decision to sign on with him. “In 30 years, I never once asked Richard to come to Ecco.” And it wasn't just the Fisketjon-Ford-Halpern axis swaying here: Harper CEO Jane Friedman is a friend of Ford's since her days at Knopf, and Ford's agent, ICM's Binky Urban, has long had a direct line to Fisketjon. (She represents, for example, Jay McInerney and Cormac McCarthy, Knopf mainstays.) The whole negotiation was so fraught, Halpern said, that he asked both Urban and Ford to leave him out of the details of their dealings with Knopf. (Urban told the New York Times that she and Knopf “regrettably couldn't come to terms”; both Fisketjon and Ford declined to comment.) By all accounts, Ford did not take this switch lightly; he has reportedly praised and thanked profusely many people at Knopf, including his longtime publicist Gabrielle Brooks. Apparently, he is also hoping to mend fences personally with Fisketjon.
So far, so Fordian. This is a guy, after all, who has made his name by understanding disconnected middle-aged guys trying to reconnect. So what if famous authors rarely leave Knopf willingly—even for respectable houses like Ecco, which publishes such literary authors as Joyce Carol Oates and Russell Banks? Ford's last book, Lay of the Land, performed unspectacularly—51,000 in hardcover, 36,000 so far in paperback, according to Nielsen BookScan, which tracks 70% of sales—even when compared to his fellow Knopf Pulitzer winner, Richard Russo (The Bridge of Sighs: 118,000, hardcover).
So why did Ford do it? Like his famous hero, Frank Bascombe (“I hate men my age. We all emanate a sense of youth lost and tragedy on the horizon”), Ford the writer is clearly struggling with the question of what to do next. In midlife publishing, as in midlife love, change often starts with trading in one beloved for another.
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