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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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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.

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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."