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Could This Be End of an Era for Publishing House of Farrar, Straus? : Books: After nearly five decades as an independent, the company is expected to sell a majority of its stock.

October 31, 1994|PAUL D. COLFORD | NEWSDAY

A soggy Florida rain had let up in time to move the lavish party out under the night sky. On that evening in May of 1993, booksellers, editors and their guests sipped and mingled in honor of Scott Turow, the best-selling lawyer/author of "Presumed Innocent" and the new "Pleading Guilty."

Turow accepted compliment after compliment for his nimble legal thrillers, but he was not the center of activity.

Instead, his publisher and host, Roger Straus Sr., silver-haired and radiant in a tropical white ensemble, gathered party-goers and schmoozed like a jaunty showman. He boasted that he was about to add 100,000 copies to the 1 million of "Pleading Guilty" already in print.

In his heart, however, Straus may have been feeling guilty himself.

Sure, Turow's novels had been selling in numbers sturdy enough to cushion a lot of Farrar, Straus & Giroux's less commercial titles--and to pay for the night's splash at the palatial Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables during the American Booksellers Assn. convention.

But for all of Straus' outward bonhomie, a new Turow novel was "not his kind of thing," to quote a colleague, and he apparently worried about the possibility that the writer's runaway bestsellers would give the independent Farrar, Straus a much too commercial image.

After all, Straus' house was Nobel Prize house, the esteemed publisher of Isaac Bashevis Singer, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Joseph Brodsky, William Golding, Nadine Gordimer and Derek Walcott.

The publisher saw commercial fare as the province of other New York publishers, almost all of which have been acquired in recent years by large conglomerates and now sought out Big Books in keener appreciation of the bottom line than of literary luster.

A year and a half later, the publishing house that Straus built and guarded in Spartan confines on Union Square is about to follow the competitors he so often slammed with the salty expletives for which he is known.

In an all but inconceivable development, the 77-year-old man of letters is expected to announce today that the majority of Farrar, Straus stock will be sold to a larger corporation--Verlagsgruppe Georg von Holtzbrinck, a German concern that owns Henry Holt and Co., a New York book publisher also respected for its literary tastes.

The end of an era?

"I don't think so," Straus said Friday, "because I chose a purchaser that will preserve the integrity and uniqueness of Farrar, Straus. The company will remain independent and separate now and for the foreseeable future."

Foreseeable future. Some industry observers say they expect few changes at Farrar, Straus. Yet others have been quick to recall that William Shawn became a consulting editor at the publishing house after the longtime autonomous editor of the New Yorker was ousted in 1987 by S.I. Newhouse Jr.--the magazine's new owner who had expressed similar guarantees.

And Straus, who said he will now become the sole minority stockholder in his company, "with equality on the board," added that he has no plans to retire and move on.

"I will have what I laughingly call 'a lifetime contract' with the company, and Jonathan Galassi will remain as editor in chief."

Straus battled cancer a decade ago and underwent surgery for an aneurysm a few years later, "but I'm in good health now as far as anyone can tell me," he said.

"I decided to do this sale sooner rather than later first of all to protect my authors, and also my staff and the stockholders," he said.

Selling one of New York's most distinguished publishing houses after nearly five decades as an independent entity will acknowledge not only Straus' advanced years but also unresolved philosophical differences between a father and his son.

Roger Straus III--who had left the company only to come back in 1985 as managing director and then leave again last year--has been engaged as a photographer and a packager of books for other publishers. The elder Straus said he sought a buyer only after being assured by his son that he would not return to the fold.

Roger Straus III, now 50, "wanted to move faster than I felt we should," his father said last year.

The younger man had spearheaded expansion atop the enormous profits generated by Turow and one of his father's authors, Tom Wolfe, whose "The Bonfire of the Vanities" became one of the biggest books of the 1980s.

The staff tripled in size, to about 100 employees, and sales also tripled, to about $30 million a year. It was uneasy growth for Straus senior, who remembered that the bestseller-fueled expansion in the 1950s had nearly bankrupted him.

Those who worked alongside both men recalled that there was tension between the two. According to these sources, Straus senior favored Wolfe, Susan Sontag and other Farrar, Straus writers of their generation, while Roger III brought in new editors--such as Galassi, who edits Turow--to put the company more closely in line with popular tastes.

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