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Perseus Takes Publishing Even More Seriously These Days

January 15, 1998|PAUL D. COLFORD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Compared with the unsettling dip in hardcover and paperback sales, and the cutback in output at certain major publishers, an encouraging development for authors received scant media attention in 1997, while it ensured the publication of serious books starting this year.

Perseus Books, a subsidiary of Perseus Capital, a Washington-based investment firm, dramatically expanded its ambitions by adding four imprints that will seek and publish the kinds of less commercial titles that otherwise might lack for a publisher in the current climate.

Perseus, which already owned Counterpoint Press, a 2-year-old literary publisher, in the spring announced the formation of PublicAffairs, a nonfiction imprint specializing in examinations of public policy and books by public figures. Led by Peter Osnos, the former publisher of Times Books, PublicAffairs counts among its first acquisitions a memoir by Arthur Liman, the late legal titan, and a survey of Chinese American relations by New York Times correspondent Patrick Tyler. PBS' journalistic "Frontline" series will partner with PublicAffairs to develop documentaries based on some of its books and to provide financial support for authors' research.

In the summer, Perseus disclosed that it was establishing Civitas Books, which will publish titles on African American culture and issues of race under the editorial direction of Henry Louis Gates Jr., chairman of Harvard University's department of Afro-American studies. Civitas plans to bring out the Perseus Africana Encyclopedia, a volume being prepared by a team of Harvard scholars. At the same time, Perseus also announced that it was buying Basic Books from HarperCollins.

Founded in 1952, Basic had published many distinguished academic, scientific and philosophical titles, including works by Thomas Sowell, Charles Murray and Amitai Etzioni, before HarperCollins folded the imprint into the parent corporation earlier last year. This backlist should form a solid foundation to Basic as it moves into the Perseus Books Group. Meanwhile, Basic's spring schedule of new books includes Sowell's "Conquests and Cultures" and Stephen Carter's "Civility."

Finally, without pausing for breath in its expansion binge, Perseus said in mid-December that it would absorb still another scaled-back operation, General Publishing Group of Addison Wesley Longman, whose eclectic catalog includes Robert Bly's "Iron John," Melissa Fay Greene's "Praying for Sheetrock" and Dennis Covington's "Salvation on Sand Mountain." Addison Wesley, known primarily as an educational publisher, cited setbacks in its operation when it refocused General Publishing Group last spring. It eliminated, for example, books on history and decided to concentrate on such areas as business and science, lining up some of the titles that now move to Perseus. Among the books that Perseus will publish in the spring are Sissela Bok's "Mayhem" and Richard Feynman's "The Meaning of It All."

Perseus, a little-known player during the two years that it owned Counterpoint Press, now looms as home to some of the more serious publishing that will take place in 1998 and years to come. In total, Perseus expects to publish from 140 to 150 titles this year, 65 of them bearing the Basic Books name.

"We're not reinventing publishing--we would be full of hubris to say that," explained Jack McKeown, a former president of HarperCollins who in August was named president and chief executive of Perseus Books by Frank H. Pearl, the company's publicity-shy chairman and the head of Perseus Capital. "We're identifying an opportunity in the market as others in the publishing industry refocus their activities." He said that economies of scale--in sales, distribution, marketing and paper buys--would enable the imprints now grouped under the Perseus umbrella to go forward as free-standing editorial imprints.

Except for PublicAffairs, whose roster of investors also includes Osnos and ABC News anchor Peter Jennings, the divisions are wholly owned by Perseus Capital, which has investments in media and technology ventures, and will report to McKeown.

At the Authors Guild in New York, Executive Director Paul Aiken characterized the growth of Perseus as "clearly a positive development, a reason for optimism for authors of serious nonfiction works." Still, Aiken said, there is what he called "some nervousness" in the literary community because the Perseus business model is untested, and many authors of books that had been under contract now find themselves working with new editors as a result of Perseus' acquisitions. "But it's nice that someone very serious about this kind of publishing has taken over these books."

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