Books Diary. (Books)

By Cowley, Jason | New Statesman (1996), April 29, 2002 | Go to article overview

Books Diary. (Books)


Cowley, Jason, New Statesman (1996)


I was reclining in a warm bath, in a country-house hotel in north Yorkshire, when an animated voice informed me that the Queen Mother had died. Time, I thought, to leave the country. I had the perfect excuse -- a commission from Granta magazine to visit America -- so, within 48 hours, I was touching down at Newark Airport, from where two planes were hijacked on the morning of 11 September, in those days when the world seemed steady.

There is nothing quite like the Manhattan book world to make you realise just how parochial and benign literary London really is, despite John Sutherland's protestations to the contrary in his recent NS essay (15 April). While I was in New York, Charles Frazier received $8m for his unwritten second novel. In addition, Paramount Pictures paid a further $3m for the film rights to his story -- which exists only in the form of a one-page outline -- of a white man who is raised by Cherokee Indians. The auction, according to the New York Times, was conducted in a single-bid format, "which limited the amount of information that came out as the price rose and low bidders dropped out".

Frazier was labouring in obscurity when his first novel, Cold Mountain, which became an international bestseller, was discovered by Elizabeth Schmitz, an editor at the celebrated New York independent publisher Grove Atlantic. Schmitz wrote letters of recommendation to booksellers throughout America and encouraged her president, Morgan Entrekin, to gamble on the book. But loyalty counts for nothing in New York. In a recent New Yorker profile of Roger Straus, Ian Parker related how, on visiting Straus at his office, he found the veteran publisher distressed at having offered $1.25m for a first novel. The bid had failed. Straus said: "We got a telephone call [from the agent] saying: 'Oops, the whole deal is off, I've taken a pre-emptive bid of four million dollars for a two-book contract for this guy.' I said to my editor: 'This guy has got no more idea what the next book is going to be than I have.' I said: 'What is the next book?' 'Well, a sequel of some kind.'" What is profit in modern New York publishing, wh en so many houses are willing to squander so much money on no more than putative entities, on sequels of some kind? Small wonder that Straus appeared so bewildered by the turn in events.

Shortly after the conclusion of the Frazier deal, I had dinner with Toby Mundy in a Korean restaurant in the Village, one of those places where you cook your own fish on hot stones. Mundy is a dynamic and talented publisher, as adept at editing as he is at making deals and running a business, and was judiciously chosen by Morgan Entrekin to run the new London operation of Grove Atlantic. …

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