Women Get the Word Out at Top Book Houses

From independent publishers to top New York firms, women are writing the book on the future of publishing

WHEN Little, Brown & Co. threw a party for its new publisher on a stormy spring evening, no amount of rain and cold wind could dampen the high spirits of the 300 guests.

Editors and agents had come to celebrate Sarah Crichton's appointment as the first woman - and first outsider - to serve as publisher of the 159-year-old firm. Publishing circles were abuzz about the appointment.

A similar buzz accompanied Rupert Murdoch's designation of another newcomer to book publishing as president and chief executive officer of HarperCollins. Anthea Disney, who assumed her post this month, is the second female CEO of a major book publishing company, following Phyllis Graham, who for a decade has reigned as CEO at the Putnam Berkley Group, Inc.

"The fact that you have women being put in these positions in publishing is a healthy sign that the industry is interested in being dynamic and shaking itself up a little bit," Ms. Crichton says.

That need for dynamism comes as publishers face new challenges, including competition from electronic publishing and the need to reach readers who may be more comfortable with computers than print.

Publishing has always been more open to women than many other fields, although women have traditionally worked their way up from within. Yet Crichton and Ms. Disney defend their zigzag career paths. Disney, a former producer for Fox TV's "A Current Affair" and editor of TV Guide, began as a reporter and then became an editor. "All my skills are in the editorial world," she says. As for her outsider status, she adds, "There really is a value in being fresh."

Crichton, a former editor at Seventeen magazine and most recently assistant managing editor at Newsweek, explains that she "grew up in publishing." She is the daughter of novelist Robert Crichton and the granddaughter of the writer Kyle Crichton. Her mother and sisters are writers, as is her husband, Guy Martin.

Crichton believes magazine publishing offers valuable lessons for the book industry. "At Newsweek ... there was instant feedback," she says. "Magazines really teach you to be respectful of your readers, and to understand what their interests are...."

In book publishing, by contrast, "there's more of a distance. There probably shouldn't be. You're asking book buyers to take a great leap of faith - to believe in you and ... hand over $25, which is a lot of money."

Crichton says that too often, she has "seen that trust toyed with. I've bought too many books over the last 10 years when I've felt ripped off.... I don't want anybody to feel that way."

Crichton sees no shortage of "real readers" whose interests go beyond bestsellers. "There's a real appetite for books that deal with social issues in a serious and thoughtful way," she says. As an urban commuter, she observes that subway cars are "just loaded" with readers. "People get on every morning with books. Often those books are huge - 600-page, hardbound, multi-generational epics."

Yet, as an avid reader herself, Crichton, the mother of a six-year-old daughter, longs for fresh perspectives from writers. "I love reading women novelists," she says. "But in the last number of years, there have been so many novels about incest and dead children - so many small, sad, domestic landscapes. At a certain point I wanted to scream."

In her new role, she hopes to speed up the book-publishing process. In the traditional approach, she explains, "A hot agent brings a proposal and an author to you. You decide whether you're interested. You bid on it. But that's a very slow process.... We need to ... go after certain writers, be able to publish books more quickly than we do."

Timeliness also ranks high on Disney's agenda. At HarperCollins, which is part of Mr. Murdoch's vast News Corporation media empire, her mandate includes finding books with mass-market appeal. She wants "important fiction, great biographies, and big hits." She also hopes to sign up "a few really big-name authors."

Both women emphasize the importance of cultivating young talent and drawing young readers. HarperCollins is developing what Disney describes as "a small group of cybernovelists from the Silicon Valley who will appeal very much to people in their 20s and 30s."

Crichton, for her part, is exuberant over the current success of "Infinite Jest," an 1,100-page novel by David Foster Wallace. The book is so popular among young readers, she says, that stores are turning people away from readings.

Disney sees an enormous challenge in readers' lack of time. "You're up against people needing to work and have time with their children," she says. "They're ... working out, going to the store, doing shopping. How much time is there left? The only way to cut through that is to create a message that stands out and is remembered."

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