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the mb q&a

the mediabistro Q&A:
Rob Weisbach, Simon & Schuster vice-president and editor-at-large

Hometown: Summit, New Jersey.
First job:
Editorial assistant at Bantam Books.
Career highlights: Senior editor at Bantam Books; publisher of Rob Weisbach Books.
First Sunday Times section he reads: Magazine.

BY ALBERT LEE | After a string of high-profile successes (Brad Meltzer's The Tenth Justice), equally high-profile failures (Whoopi Goldberg's Book), and the folding in 1999 of his flashy eponymous book imprint, Rob Weisbach disappeared off the media radar. Now, the Boy Editor, pioneer of the multimillion-dollar advance, and, invariably, "Wunderkind" is back as a synergy whiz for Viacom-owned Simon & Schuster. But it looks like he has yet to unpack. His office, around the corner from editor-in-chief Michael Korda, is still, as he sheepishly notes, a very bare space filled with office furniture leftovers; and he demurs that "the job's still new to me." But recently, he opened up to mediabistro.com about his new gig, synergy's bad rap, and what he's been up to these past few years.

You didn't do the Yale English B.A., Radcliffe Publishing Course thing. In fact you dropped out of college (Stanford '88).

I'd just gotten to the point where I'd worked and lived on my own for several years, and I just wanted to get out and do something. One of the first ways I made money was as a freelance proofreader and copy editor for corporations. My dad, who was a publisher and editor, taught me how to proofread and copy-edit, and that's what pulled me into the biz. I graduated from Andover, took a year off to make some money, went to Stanford on and off, and after about three years of that, I decided to take a shot at a job in publishing, even though I didn't have a degree. I didn't think anyone would have any hesitation in hiring me, since I had some [copy-editing and proof-reading] experience.

So I came back home to New Jersey, and started reading the paper. I read about a managing editor job at Bantam — that was the first job I applied for. [Laughs.] They redirected me, and I got a job working for Deb Futter, who ran the Bantam new fiction line and also repackaged the Bantam Classics, and for Steve Rubin, the publisher of Doubleday. It was a good fit because I'd studied poetry and had, I suppose, a more literary inclination, and Bantam, as you know, is a very mass-market publishing house. Growing up in mass-market publishing is the best education you can get: They're very focused on distribution, so it makes you very aware of the process. It interested me a great deal: What makes people buy books? What makes a book intriguing to a consumer? It's what motivated me to have my own imprint: the ability to create and implement a marketing sales strategy, publicity, jackets, all that.

Then you realized one day — what? You're not going to find the next big writer sitting around reading the slush pile?

Well, as an assistant, you aren't really working with agents the way your boss is. You don't have the same flow of material. The idea of going into an untapped area, like entertainment, appealed to me. If I could be a resourceful assistant, then I could also spend time looking for my own projects. That's how I ended up approaching Whoopi Goldberg about doing a book, which was my first acquisition as an associate editor. I found out who managed her, and got in touch. Starting from scratch, you have to assume they don't want to do a book and figure out if they have one in them that they just haven't thought of yet.

At Bantam, I graduated fairly quickly to higher editorial spots after making some acquisitions. I'd had three number-one New York Times bestsellers in a row — Jerry Seinfeld [SeinLanguage], Paul Reiser [Couplehood], Ellen DeGeneres [My Point — And I Do Have One]. Plenty of celebrities have book proposals, but my idea was to work with people who had a vision and a voice. You know, it's a funny misconception about me that comes up a lot: I've never done a celebrity memoir in my life. All of my books are extensions of people's creative work, whether it's Tim Burton's illustrations, Ethan Coen's short stories, or Jerry Seinfeld's humor. People lump celebrity stuff into what I do. I'm not particularly interested in celebrity.

Then you left Bantam to create your own imprint, Rob Weisbach Books, at William Morrow.

Having had an unusual measure of success, I was approached by other editors and happened to receive three excellent offers, one from Morrow. We negotiated an interesting deal: In creating a new imprint, I had a unusual level of authority and autonomy, but I knew if I was going to put my name on the product, it would be necessary to helm all of those aspects. I reported to the CEO of the Hearst book group instead of reporting to the publisher, as most other Morrow imprints did.

You sort of disappeared after you left Morrow [HarperCollins acquired Morrow in 1999] and your imprint folded. Everyone's been wondering what you've been up to.

When I left Morrow, I actually had the opportunity to stay. I was offered a couple of imprints to helm at HarperCollins. But I was very clear that if I stayed, I'd want my imprint. I think they were surprised I didn't take them up on their offer. But I was pretty devoted to what I was doing. I had a publisher come up to me the day after I left Morrow and say, "Why didn't you bring your imprint to us?" That made me anxious, because I could imagine the same thing happening again — a publisher getting tired of everything except its own Harper brand.

I had many job offers at the time. I'd been approached about doing an entertainment website, hosting a TV talk show about writers and books, helping a magazine with marketing, and other publishing jobs. None of them seemed an exciting improvement on what I was doing, so I hired a consultant and worked on trying to pull [those different kinds of] businesses — magazines, television, the Internet, and books in particular — together into a multiplatform business. Since it's something that may eventually resurface at some point, I don't want to go into great detail, but I'll tell you that I did have a proposal and an offer of financing before September 11.

And after September 11?

They decided they didn't want to be making investments at this point.

It sounds like what Talk Miramax tried to do.

I don't think so. They didn't do TV. [Pause.] Anyway, the idea had a lot to do with this big complaint in our industry that younger people don't buy books and aren't interested in writing — but no one's trying very hard to find and market content that will be intriguing to people of a certain age and sensibility. That was something we were pretty successful at, actually.

Is it something that you'd want to launch again at some point?

To be truly independent (which is very important when launching something that doesn't have a traditional place in your industry), you have to be independently wealthy. It's important in terms of the kinds of decisions you can make. That's the situation I had at Morrow, and it was really unusual. The idea of creating that again as part of another house would be really challenging. It's not exactly something I'd attempt to do again.

Officially, you're vice president and editor-at-large at Simon & Schuster, working on "cross-platform" projects. What does that mean?

There are two different elements to the job: Developing projects that are somewhat entrepreneurial but essentially editorial, like finding interesting talent, whether through the literary community or through agents; and then more strategic work with my colleagues here at Simon & Schuster and within the Viacom family — CBS, Paramount, Infinity Radio, Comedy Central, Showtime, MTV, and so on.

The idea is that I'll hopefully push interesting writers in that direction, introduce a book talent to, say, CBS News or Infinity Radio to develop some other form of entertainment that springs from their work or talent. Some of the authors I've worked with in the past have the ability to translate to other media. Someone like a Brad Meltzer, who became quite a cottage industry. Brad's now developing new shows for television, and working on not only his own books but contributing to other books. The example that comes up a lot is like getting CBS comedian to write a book.

Like Ray Romano.

Right. I don't see the job as that obvious or necessarily celebrity-related. I hope I can do more fun and interesting projects, though I'm still brand new on the job. I'm told that was part of the appeal of having me here [at Simon & Schuster]. Many of my books have been "project"-like — the Rent book I did based on the musical, Tim Burton's The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy, a real cult classic, which came from a collection of Edward Gorey-like illustrations and poems I saw.

But a lot of people are skeptical of "synergy" these days.

Yeah, synergy for synergy's sake isn't a good idea, but if you have a project that naturally has another partner in another realm, then they can help each other. I think synergy's gotten a bad rap.

You're like the Tina Brown of the publishing industry — you've attained success at a very early age, received widespread praise and scorn under an intense media spotlight, and are seen as a pioneer of buzz and big advances, of the Hollywoodization of publishing. Do you feel a kinship with her?

Well, if you see that, I won't fight the comparison. It's interesting. No, I don't feel a particular kinship with her. I've never met her, but I think there's something about that impression many people have about me — that I'm a Hollywood slickster. I think my background, my real interests, and the way I approach publishing aren't so much about buzz. I really am interested in helping writers do fun and inventive things.

Does that impression people have irk you?

I'm so immune to it. Articles have been written about me for years. I have a lot of friends who are journalists, and I understand that's a much easier story to tell. The fact is Whoopi Goldberg comes up in every story that's written about me but Brad Meltzer doesn't.

Let's make another parallel: Phyllis Grann was another widely watched publishing industry move that turned out to generate not very much press at all after she made the move [from Penguin Putnam to Random House].

I know Phyllis. I have great respect for her. I can't speak to the nature of her role, and I'm sure it's at a much different level and nature than what I'm doing, but I will say that I am going to be doing strategic work that's perhaps a little less obvious than publishing a list of books that has my name on every copy. For someone who's gotten a lot of attention for acquisitions, as Phyllis has and I have, the job is going to be more behind-the-scenes.

Who have you been reading lately?

I love Colson Whitehead. I just read Scott Lasser's All I Could Get — he's one of my old authors, now published by Knopf. Jonathan Safran Foer is a very smart and totally original writer.

You've worked with gay writers in the past like Bob Smith and Dale Peck. Will there be any particular focus on gay writers at S&S?

Because I'm gay and because, like most editors, I have an interest in books that reflect my own experience, I'll probably be paying attention to them. Evan Wolfson, I think, has a great book in him.

Any parting advice for a lowly editorial assistant reading this?

Be a loyal, kick-ass assistant, because at first, the only reason you're there is the editor you work for. While you're doing that, learn how the business actually works, sales and distribution in particular. Get to know some booksellers and ask them about the challenges they face — they probably care more about the book-lover than anyone, and are, in many ways, the heroes of this business. Then, only pursue the books you understand intimately and acquire a book only if you can promise that you'd really spend $25 if you saw it in a bookstore. Publishing to yourself, not some phantom consumer, makes you a smarter publisher. Finally, always do the right thing when it comes to your authors. You may publish hundreds of books in your career; they may publish one.

Albert Lee is the editor of mediabistro.com.


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