Starting a publishing house in the middle of a recession is nobody's suggestion of a good idea— and yet, in a way, that is what's happening at Macmillan with Henry Holt. Yes, Holt has existed since its founding in Baltimore by, yes, Henry Holt, in 1873; since 1986, it has been part of the Holtzbrinck Group. All in all, a venerable and stable trade house. However, with recent departures (Jennifer Barth to HarperCollins, John Sterling to an editor-at-large position within Macmillan) and arrivals (Dan Farley, late of Harcourt, and Marjorie Braman from Harper), it is poised, in this difficult time, to try something new.
Unlike, say, Bob Miller, who is valiantly trying to change the hidebound business models by starting HarperStudio, Braman is better seen as a tweaker. Braman told me in an exclusive interview that her challenge is to “cleave to Holt's traditions”—history, biography and fiction—while venturing further into them. “We'll be pursuing narrative subject-driven nonfiction, memoir and also smart, well-written fiction,” she said. A longtime suspense fan—she has edited Elmore Leonard, among many others—she says Holt will publish upscale, “writerly” suspense fiction, as opposed to the high-concept type. Most interestingly, I thought, she plans to up the number of paperback originals, particularly in fiction. First novels, she said, are “the joy and excitement of publishing,” remembering the pleasure of discovering Vintage Contemporaries back in the 1980s. As small houses pressed for cash have discovered, the time may again be right for paperback originals. The proof: even some agents are understanding the tradeoff between lower advances/royalties and potentially higher sales. “It just makes sense that people will try out a new writer for $13 faster than for $25,” Braman said.
It sounds like a good plan to me, especially since the paperback original idea heads toward solving one of the most oft-lamented (by me and others) facts of publishing: the ever-increasing advance. That and the fact that, at 35 or so titles per year, Holt will remain small and “boutique.” Braman is not the only editor who has noticed the success of the careful, controlled list (see: Jon Karp's Twelve); like Bob Miller, she believes a smaller list allows for maximum editor/publicist/consumer attention to each title. One of her first decisions will be the hiring of a new editor, probably with a predilection for nonfiction, to join current staff David Patterson, Helen Atsma and Jack McCrae, who has an eponymous imprint within the house.
How this will all work—and how long it will take—remains, of course, to be seen. But Braman, in particular, seems a good choice. A 25-year publishing veteran, she is widely respected, and even those agents who grumble that she “never” buys their projects admit her straightforward manner and thoughtful rejections keeps them sending her manuscripts. And having been a staff editor, she's unlikely to turn into an editorial micromanager. “I don't like the idea of buying by committee,” she said. “On the other hand, if you're responsible for a list and for a list making money, you do want to have a sense of what you're publishing before you buy it. But I trust the editors' taste already.”
Or, as one agent who knows Braman put it: “I hope Holt is as good to Marjorie as Marjorie is for Holt.”
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