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).

By , Staff writer

On a winter night just over nine years ago, Morgan Entrekin trundled home to his apartment in New York's West Village. Ordinarily, he would have remained with friends until dawn, carousing at the annual Christmas bash hosted by Bret Easton Ellis, a writer he discovered and who has remained a close friend.

But on this evening, Mr. Entrekin - the iconoclastic head of Grove/- Atlantic Press - had a manuscript to read. A colleague, a first-time editor, felt strongly that it was worth developing, and Entrekin had promised that he would tackle it overnight. He didn't mind just popping into the Ellis party for a Perrier and then heading home.

"I didn't hesitate," Entrekin says. "I was looking forward to reading it."

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The following morning, Grove/Atlantic scraped together $100,000 to land "Cold Mountain," a first book by an unknown named Charles Frazier. It was the largest offer the small independent publisher had ever made. This epic story of a Civil War soldier's journey home went on to win a National Book Award and sell more than 1.5 million copies in hardcover. The book - ultimately adapted for the screen to become the Hollywood hit that premièred last month - earned for Entrekin and Grove/Atlantic the honor of publishing what was, at the time, the bestselling literary fiction debut in the history of American publishing.

It was a tactical move by a man who may be more bookworm than swashbuckler, despite a reputation for being a fixture on the social circuit. Elisabeth Schmitz, Grove/ Atlantic's subsidiary-rights director and the editor who recommended Frazier, says she and Entrekin always joke that at the Frankfurt Book Fair in Germany every year, she works the day shift, while Entrekin covers nights. And Entrekin, often characterized in the '80s as a hard-driving playboy-publisher, is said to have inspired a character in Jay McInerney's 1984 book "Bright Lights, Big City."

Today, his legendary silvery-brown ponytail has been trimmed to a bob. And his bohemian looks are accented by wire-rimmed glasses, a blue oxford shirt, tawny corduroys, and a sweater vest that he slips off and on as the temperature in his office rises and falls.

Social skills remain central to his success. In an industry dominated by big, corporate publishing houses, Entrekin and Grove/Atlantic have cultivated a personal approach that makes the house something of a throwback, many observers say. Entrekin meets unorthodox author demands, accepts input from writers on everything from tour dates to jacket art, and offers unflagging devotion. And he provides a visible, accessible face in a time when book publishing doesn't have many faces or personalities.

"He's an old-fashioned publisher whose list is built around him and his particular tastes," says George Gibson, publisher of Walker & Company, a family-owned press whose authors include Gay Talese and Isaac Asimov. "And long may [his house] flourish, because he really does have a real skill at both picking books and bringing them to the public."

Entrekin sees his approach as essential. "The nature of this publishing house is such that it needs a personality," he says. "We need to be out there more than some of the people that have [the resources of] a giant corporate machine. What we depend on is more of the personal relationship, from literary agent to author to bookseller."

Entrekin himself has always read voraciously. However, his younger brother Hugh, an attorney in Nashville, Tenn., claims no one would have called him bookish growing up. Morgan, he says, was outgoing and athletic, a fleet short-distance runner and nimble soccer player. (In the '80s, he took up croquet and excelled at that as well, placing fourth in a national doubles event.)

Even after 26 years in New York, Entrekin thinks of himself as a Southerner. He still calls Nashville home and speaks with just the trace of an accent - the occasional "y'all" while leading a marketing meeting. He returns to the South often to visit friends and family.

"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."

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.

"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.'

"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."

And despite the higher printing costs, when Australian author Richard Flanagan asked that the chapters in "Gould's Book of Fish" be printed in six different colors, Entrekin agreed.

Grove/Atlantic ended up sending David Kipen, a critic and former book editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, four separate editions.

"You have to hand it to a guy who believes so deeply in a book that he's going to spend all that money to make it just as beautiful as he possibly can," says Mr. Kipen. "I'm a connoisseur of the book not only as a text but also as an object, and for that reason, too, I admire the care Morgan takes with how his books look, how his books feel in your hand.

"It seems sort of symptomatic of the borderline rabid enthusiasm that [Grove/Atlantic] brings to book publishing, which overdoes it sometimes," Kipen says. "But compared to the kind of staid, stolid, sleepy enthusiasm you get in the rest of the business, it's refreshing."

Entrekin admits that Grove gets "a little overburdened" by the demands of writers sometimes. "But you know what, it makes authors feel good," he says. "It makes them feel they're more part of what's going on."

One might think that as the head of one of the last of the respected independents, Entrekin would face the same troubling questions about the future of books and reading that seem to weigh down many publishers. Plus, there's the additional burden of skirmishes with the Goliaths. Yet he's surprisingly optimistic.

"There's really great publishing that goes on in some of the corners of those corporations," Entrekin says. "That's why when people really try to single us out, I don't completely agree with it, because I believe very good publishing is going on in those places."

Entrekin also feels that the important books come mainly from people of his generation and older. "And what's going to be interesting to see is, can it sustain itself over the next 15, 25 years with a generation that has never been educated in the old-fashioned way."

"Cold Mountain," the book that has come to define Grove/Atlantic, may have reminded the book world that commercial and literary pursuits can be happily wed.

"People have realized good books sell and make money," Entrekin concludes. "And the pressure on the corporations is to make money. They understand that there are audiences for books other than the John Grishams and the Dr. Phils and the Atkins Diet."

"I think it's easier now to sell good literary fiction in greater numbers than it ever has been," he goes on. "At one moment, Arthur Golden's first novel, 'Memoirs of a Geisha,' Arundhati Roy's 'The God of Small Things,' and Frazier's 'Cold Mountain,' all were on The New York Times bestseller list. In my 25 years of being in the business, I cannot recall a moment when three literary first novels were all on the bestseller list at the same time."

If Entrekin's hunts continue to go well, similar groupings will exist in the future. And one way or another, Entrekin is always on the hunt.

Flanagan, the Australian novelist, remembers one such trip worthy of a chapter in his colorful "Gould's Book of Fish." He and Entrekin were looking for an authentic ribs joint in Mississippi. The quest paid off when they arrived at a backwoods shack.

"We went outside and sat at a broken-down pine picnic table, amidst litter, empty cans, bones, and car wrecks," writes Flanagan in an e-mail. "Sprawled across the top of a garbage bin was a battered paperback edition of Toni Morrison's novel 'The Bluest Eye.' Entrekin saw this, picked it up, and began reading aloud the opening paragraph, while we sat among the litter and the pine trees and ate the smoked turkey and the greasy ribs."

Far from his Manhattan haunts, a Southern boy had stumbled across some very good writing to relish. Flanagan recalls, "At the end, Mr. Entrekin smiled. 'Ain't that something,' he said."

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