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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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"An older publisher who ran one of the conglomerates once said to me, 'You shouldn't allow yourself to become such good friends with your authors, Morgan,' " Entrekin recalls. "And I said, 'But that's one of the joys of this business.' And he said, 'Yeah, but you'll get hurt and disappointed by them.'

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"And I looked at him and said, 'Yes, that may happen. But, that would be the same theory as, 'Oh, you should never fall in love, because you might get a broken heart.' One of the great pleasures of this business is the friendships that you have with authors."

Entrekin says he has come to accept that he won't be able to keep all of his writers on board. "It's sort of like being the Oakland A's, if you follow baseball, or the Kansas City Royals. They're going to develop ballplayers that the Yankees are then going to be able to offer more money."

On the first chilly afternoon back in his New York office after a holiday in Nashville, stacks of books cover the floor, the chairs, and the couch. They lie in horizontal piles on metal shelves, with no apparent concern for the ordinary conventions of shelving. Conspicuously absent from the manuscripts, bound books, unopened Christmas cards, and other detritus that litter Entrekin's desk, is a computer. (He may be a throwback, but he's no anachronism: He uses a BlackBerry to check e-mail.)

Even after nearly three decades as a professional reader and despite the heaps of books that threaten to overtake his office, Entrekin still can't wait to read. A stack of 30 books sits next to his bed at home.

"I love reading," he says. "I love it. I know people think I'm insane. If I'm dating a girl, and we go away for the weekend, all I'll want to do is read. And she'll say, 'Isn't this all you do all the time anyway?' "

Every summer, Entrekin retreats to the Greek isle of Patmos for a minimum of three weeks. He has been traveling there by himself for 11 years. He spends his days recharging - practicing yoga, swimming, getting healthier - and, of course, catching up on his reading.

To accommodate his voracious appetite, he usually ships three or four boxes of books ahead of him. He stays up until 4 or 5 a.m. devouring a book a day and averages upward of 250 books a year, including proposals and books that he skims.

"It's called having no personal life," Entrekin says. "I've never married. I don't have children, obviously. I eat, drink, live, sleep, dream this."

For a short but withering cold walk to the Union Square Café from his Broadway office, Entrekin dons a navy wool overcoat, black stocking cap, and what looks like a pashmina scarf, in a pretty seafoam blue. The Union Square Café is a favorite haunt of the city's literati. Roger Straus, founder of the exalted publishing house, Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, has a table there, and they know Entrekin at the door.

Entrekin's authors often say he commits to a writer's entire career. Over lunch, he allows that this, too, is conscious. "If you look at the history of great writers, from Melville to Faulkner to Hemingway, there are a couple of turkeys that they wrote every once in a while," he explains.

Entrekin counts Sherman Alexie, Mark Bowden, Jim Harrison, and P.J. O'Rourke among his fiercely loyal authors. He doesn't seem to delineate where his professional life ends and his personal life begins. The two circles blur into one: Entrekin publishes and edits friends, other editors and publishers rank among his closests friends, and many of his writers come to be good friends.

His friendships mean going out of his way to help meet authors' needs.

For instance, when Robert Olen Butler asked to include in his upcoming collection "Had a Good Time" the carefully preserved postcards that inspired his short stories, Entrekin agreed.

When Sheri Holman became pregnant, her due date inconveniently coincided with the release of her most ambitious book, "The Mammoth Cheese." Entrekin hired a van so that her mother and aunt could look after her newborn twins (Linus and Felix) on publicity tours. A larger house, suggests Holman, would have dropped her "like a hot potato."