Outside Harry Evans' office, literary lions guard the gate. Scowling photos of Friedrich Nietzsche and Marcel Proust dot the walls, near dust jackets of William Faulkner's "Absalom, Absalom" and Truman Capote's "Music for Chameleons." They're all part of the Random House tradition, dating back to the company's founding in 1927. Yet inside his office, Evans starts the week mulling over a far different product.
"Bloody marvelous," the publisher cracks, thumbing through a photo book of Brigitte Bardot and eyeballing her famous red bikini. "The problem is, do we spend a fortune on her and buy it for publication? Might be risky." Evans, a handsome man of 66 with thinning gray hair, steals one last look at the pouting French starlet. Then he tosses her onto a desk cluttered with unread manuscripts and a landslide of morning mail. "I don't know," he mutters. "Do we take a tumble with her or not?"
That, increasingly, is the question for American publishers: Can you place a flurry of big-money bets on books that may or may not become bestsellers \o7 and \f7 still produce quality titles that will only reach a small audience? During a hectic five days in late October, Evans rejects the Bardot book, but he haggles over many others in a high-stakes jumble of substance and selling.
Most publishers talk a good game when it comes to literature, yet in today's corporate book world, the bottom line drives the business as never before. It dictates everything from the sex in summer paperbacks to the titles of celebrity tear-jerkers and the covers of true-crime thrillers. "The book market is all about money and much less about books than it used to be," says Roger Straus, publisher of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, one of the last remaining literary houses. "And when that happens, people are less willing to take chances on something unknown, no matter how good."
A familiar refrain. Straus and others argue that serious writers are an endangered species in today's book world, given that the average title sells less than 30,000 copies. When book companies spend $6 million for a Hollywood autobiography, they've got to move hundreds of thousands to make a profit. They'll flood the stores with product and seek as much publicity as possible. Meanwhile, titles that didn't command such a high price or profile can quickly sink from view. Americans don't read Ken Follett and Stephen King because they want to, goes the adage, they read them because they \o7 have \f7 to.
But is it that simple? "You can still take chances in this market and produce superb books," the British-born Evans insists. "You've just got to mind your finances. You've got to sort everything out or you'll get your knickers in a twist." The key, he says, is to balance the books one publishes, ensuring that big commercial titles will absorb the losses from more creative works.
It's an old maxim, but Evans startled colleagues last year when he cited actual sales figures to illustrate his argument, something almost never done in publishing. At a PEN gathering in New York, he revealed that Random House's most acclaimed books of 1993 had collectively lost $698,000. The company was in the black, Evans noted, because two blockbusters had earned $1.4 million between them.
Some dismissed his speech as a stunt, but Evans has brought a literary sensibility to the publisher's suite that is increasingly rare. An accomplished writer and editor, he's an anachronism in a business overrun by marketeers and hype artists.
He's also something of a newcomer to book publishing. Before emigrating to America in 1984, Evans edited the weekly Sunday Times of London and the daily London Times, before he was abruptly fired by owner Rupert Murdoch in 1982. Along with his wife, Tina Brown, editor of the New Yorker, he's a leading member of the "Britpack," a group of English journalists who play an influential role in the New York media world.
His company is part of the larger Random House Inc., which also includes Alfred A. Knopf, Crown Publishing, Pantheon, Villard, Ballantine, Times Books, Vintage, Modern Library and other divisions. Generating more than $1 billion a year, it's America's largest and most successful trade, or general interest, publisher. Last year, the corporation placed 39 books on the New York Times bestseller list, more than any other, and Random House led the way with such titles as John Berendt's "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil," Caleb Carr's "The Alienist" and 12 others spending 164 weeks on the list.
Random House Inc. is owned by Advance Publications, the sprawling media empire run by Samuel (Si) Newhouse and his brother, Donald. The conglomerate also includes Conde Nast magazines, the New Yorker, plus newspapers, cable TV stations and other interests. Collectively, they add up to one of America's largest personal fortunes, valued at more than $10 billion. Si runs his divisions--books and magazines--with a stern hand, abruptly firing publishers and editors who don't measure up.