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The publisher as protagonist

In an industry dominated by big firms, Grove/Atlantic chief Morgan Entrekin is a small-house standard bearer for an earlier age, a writers' hero in pursuit of real literature (and an artful blockbuster or two along the way).

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"Morgan is from the South," says longtime friend Richard Howorth, who owns the independent bookstore Square Books in Oxford, Miss., where he is also the mayor. "But it's not like he grew up in overalls or plowing behind a mule. He's a sophisticated person who comes from a sophisticated family."

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Entrekin attended Montgomery Belle Academy, a conservative prep school that inspired an alumnus, N.H. Kleinbaum, to write "Dead Poets Society."

Entrekin's late father loved the opera and turned both his wife and son into enthusiasts. His mother still holds season tickets to New York's Metropolitan Opera and travels frequently to attend performances with her son.

Coming of age in the South during the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War, Entrekin says, exposed him to authors who challenged authority: Jack Kerouac, Henry Miller, Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller. At Stanford, where he studied English, he read experimental, contemporary writers like Don DeLillo, Jean Genet, and Antonin Artaud.

On a lark, after graduating from Stanford in 1977, Entrekin enrolled in the Radcliffe Publishing Course, a training ground for those aspiring to literary careers. That same year, he went to work for the legendary independent editor Seymour Lawrence, at Delacorte Press.

Entrekin was an editor within six months. By 1978, he had successfully edited Vonnegut's "Jailbird," which became a critically acclaimed bestseller. "Jailbird" gave Entrekin the confidence to trust his instincts. "If I could work with him," he figured. "I could work with anybody."

In 1982, Entrekin joined Simon & Schuster, where he famously championed - and finally acquired - Easton Ellis's controversial depiction of 1980s excess, "Less Than Zero."

At 28, Entrekin quit to go into business for himself. With his father's generous backing, he struck a deal with Mort Zuckerman at Atlantic Monthly Press that would allow him to break into publishing independently under his own imprint, Morgan Entrekin Books.

"In hindsight, it was probably a little bit ambitious," he says. "But it worked. There were moments when it seemed like it might not, but somehow I learned just enough at each point to where I was able to make it to the next point. It's like being a rock climber, you can get just enough of a grip to drag yourself up to the next level. And I learned as I went."

In 1991, Entrekin bought Atlantic Monthly Press. In February 1993, he merged it with the great avant-garde publisher Grove Press, and Grove/Atlantic was formed. He has tried to uphold the legacies of both houses. In keeping with Grove Press's tradition of literary erotica - "Story of O" and "Lady Chatterley's Lover," for instance - Entrekin recently published Catherine Millet's frank memoir of sexual experimentation, "The Sexual Life of Catherine M."

Today, Entrekin owns Grove/Atlantic - with $20 million in annual revenue - along with six shareholders: business partner Joan Bingham, Entrekin's mother, his brother, and three friends.

The familial attitude is a comfortable one that extends even to high-profile writers. But keeping those prize horses in the stable becomes an enormous challenge once they attract the attention of the deep-pocketed conglomerates.

Entrekin has lost some of his most prominent names to untouchable seven-figure advances. Most recently, Frazier left for a little over $8 million. Before him, it was Candace Bushnell, whose New York Observer columns Grove/Atlantic collected in "Sex and the City." [Editor's note: The original version mischaracterized the size of the advances.]

When Frazier turned down Grove/Atlantic's offer of $2 million for his second novel - the largest advance it has ever cobbled together - Entrekin was disappointed. He was also bothered at not being able to stay in business with a writer his house had worked to develop.

Entrekin calls these breaks "frustrating," but says he can't begrudge his former writers their decision. Yet those close to him say the splits with authors - and friends - hit him hard. "His heart is truly broken when writers that he finds and nurtures decide to abandon him," says "Black Hawk Down" author Mark Bowden.