An Interview with Peter Mayer
The Coffin Factory: What distinguishes The Overlook Press from other publishing houses?
Peter Mayer: Overlook is very unusual, in that small-to-medium size publishers, such as we are, usually specialize. Large publishers have a great breadth to their list. But my background from Penguin days is to be a large publisher. I’m no longer a large publisher, but I still publish the same way. I’m interested in everything and my staff is interested in everything, it’s just that we don’t specialize.
I think we’re largely a literary house, but ten years ago, one of our editors wanted to publish Charles Portis, who she thought was a very undervalued writer. The only novel I knew was True Grit; there were four other wonderful novels that he wrote, and we considered them and we decided to buy Charlie Portis. The large publisher – I forget which one – had let the books go out of print, and we acquired the rights to all five of Charlie’s novels.
The last thing we thought was that a second movie would be made out of True Grit; the first one wasn’t so bad! Well, it just turned out to be picked up by the Coen Brothers; they had three great stars in it led by Jeff Bridges and a brilliant thirteen-year-old girl, and we’ve now sold 400,000 copies of True Grit. Our success was based on buying, modestly, what we thought was a literary book ten years ago, so again it was luck! Well of course it wasn’t luck to buy a very serious good writer. But we bought the books for strictly literary reasons, and they chugged along. They did not, in sales terms, distinguish themselves, but we sold enough books to keep them in print. And then one day there was this movie.
By contract, we publish 13-14% of our list as foreign books in translation, and almost none of them sell; we lose money on all of them!
The Coffin Factory: So why do you publish them?
Peter Mayer: Well, I think you don’t quite know where success will come from, and as we don’t answer to any hierarchy, as long as we have enough money to publish a few foreign novelists every year, that’s what we do. It’s pretty much what we’d like to do, but we’ve also come to specialize in various areas – for example, martial arts – because the large publishers don’t. We also publish more and more history.
The Coffin Factory: I notice that you’re doing a lot of detective fiction and noir this year.
Peter Mayer: We have a couple of editors who like mysteries and so we decided to publish some very unusual ones. We found over the years three writers of espionage fiction who we think are as good as they get: Bob Littell, Charles McCarry, and Gerald Seymour; their publishers had abandoned them but they were still alive and writing. We got them to write books for us, and we published virtually everything off their backlists, thereby becoming their publishers. In some cases, we had world rights and were able to license these books to other countries as these writers became famous again. And although the Overlook name would suggest that we publish books that were going to be overlooked, the company actually was started in Woodstock, NY on Overlook Mountain. But it turned out to be. . . appropriate for these rediscovered books, but most of our list consists of new books.
The Coffin Factory: How do you find new books? And new authors too?
Peter Mayer: Well, I read a lot of newspapers and magazines. I read an interesting article today on assimilation in Europe of immigrant populations, mostly Muslim, and how badly integrated those immigrants are, and that there’s a backlash against them. It was a very, very brilliant piece, so I wrote a letter to the author and asked if he would like to write a book on the subject.
I noticed about three years ago that this year, 2011, was the 2,500th anniversary of the Battle of Marathon. So, I looked things up and saw that there hadn’t been a book on the Battle of Marathon in years and years. We found a wonderful professor at Columbia, Richard Bellows, and asked him to write a book on the Battle of Marathon; not only about the battle but about the whole European-Asian context in which that battle took place. The battle for European democracy against Asian autocracy—Persia, Iran, et cetera. He wrote a wonderful book, which got considerable attention. In fact, Yale University Press must have had the same idea because they published a book on the Battle of Marathon, too! All the reviews said ours was the better book, and it sold to many countries.
Finding the right author is easier with nonfiction than with fiction. In fiction and poetry, it’s different. Paul Auster, who had published with Penguin—he doesn’t write poetry anymore, but he did at the time—decided he wanted to have published a book of his early poetry. He liked Overlook’s poetry list, so he sent it to me. He didn’t know me. I think it’s our bestselling book of poetry. In other cases, an agent sends us a novel. In other cases, we read a good review in Britain or Australia or Ireland, or somewhere, and we send for the book, and if we like it, we buy the rights if they’re still available. The big agents sell us many good books, but not in the first round of submissions. They try the Big Five. But the big five are made up of editors who are human beings – they make mistakes. They say no for all kinds of reasons, and we’re in the second tier of submissions. A good book in the second tier is still a good book!
And reviewers have really been very kind to Overlook over the years (I hope we deserve it). We usually receive a lot of reviews for our books, and that helps books sell. But sometimes, we don’t get them—it happens—or sometimes we get a review that’s not good.
It’s harder today to get reviews. There are fewer places to get them. And blogs from unknown people may be very intelligent, but they’re often very stupid. They have no credentials. It may be that a review from the Cleveland Plain Dealer may not be a very good review, but it is still something called the Cleveland Plain Dealer, or it’s something called The New York Times, or it’s something called the Washington Post, or it’s something called the LA Times, or it’s something called The New Yorker. These publications call up some image, and if the blog just says it’s by Joe Smith, who may have written a wonderful blog, the reader can’t very easily make credible sense of the endorsements.
The Coffin Factory: Yes, there’s more respect for people and publications with established credentials, but in this period, everyone wants to be involved and contribute their opinion.
Peter Mayer: Word of mouth has become increasingly important, and it is so much easier for people who want to talk about a book to do so because of the internet. So “word of mouth” has maybe today become “word of internet.” As ever, readers talk to other people who are readers.
The Coffin Factory: Do you read literary magazines to look for new authors?
Peter Mayer: I love reading newspapers and magazines, not looking for anything. I just like to read them. But, when you’re a publisher and you’re alive, you can hardly turn a page without getting an idea. When I went to Panama on vacation, I got really interested in the country and its history. I discovered there hadn’t been—for years!—a history of Panama written. I wanted to read one while I was there. So, I commissioned one.
The Coffin Factory: Do you often go about this approach, saying ‘I want to read a book about this, can you please write it for me’?
Peter Mayer: Well, it sometimes works the other way. We took a chance about eight or nine years ago on a book when no one was publishing books about Turkey. It did very well, so we bought another book about Turkey, and then another one. In the meantime, Turkey was applying to the European Union (it still is, I think), and it was getting a lot of attention because of how well it was doing as an economy. The tourist trade is now enormous in Turkey. There’s an argument that we should support Turkey because it is a secular Islamic state as opposed to other states that are more fundamentalist. So we now have a group of books on Turkey. Who would’ve known? So I decided to go to Turkey after reading all these books!
I think if you’re a medium-sized publisher, you can’t count on anything; you have to be really alive. You walk down the street and see something unusual, you say, “Oh, that’s interesting.”
We’re publishing a book on this organization that’s very loose, an organization called Anonymous. It’s sort of an anti-security organization; it’s connected in some rough ways to Wikileaks, which believes everything should be public. This is a little different because you don’t know where what you’re reading comes from. So we’re publishing a book on Anonymous, and one of its offshoots, something called 4chan, and that’s part of being a topical publisher. We publish many authors who don’t sell very well, who we think are very good, like the author John Crowley. He published a great tetralogy.
The Coffin Factory: There are many changes going on in publishing today, as you know – more so in the last five years, or even the last two years, than in the last twenty years, or since the beginning of printing, what with the digital revolution and eBooks and blogs and such. How is Overlook responding? You’re saying that you publish what you want, but do you ever publish what the market wants?
Peter Mayer: Not too much what the public wants. The public doesn’t know what it wants, except for the name brand authors. Just now we’re publishing a new commercial adult novel by Eoin Colfer who publishes many children’s books, the Artemis Fowl books. This is his first adult book. It’s called Plugged, and it’s an unusual thriller. We figure it has a real shot at becoming a bestseller, especially as every bookseller knows who he is.
As far as the technology goes, I’m personally connected to physical books, and reading in a traditional way. But how can I be insensitive to the fact that eBooks exist and are growing, and that physical books, which aren’t going away, are becoming smaller in proportion to the whole? We often publish the physical book and the eBook simultaneously. Sometimes, as in the case with True Grit, we “window” — after we got on The New York Times bestseller list, we waited two or three months before we released the eBook. I got 179 letters from booksellers thanking me for “windowing” the book. They said, ‘we’ve been selling this book for you for ten years, and it’s very nice that when it breaks out, which nobody could’ve expected, that you’ve left the business with us, who supported the book for all those ten years.’ Well, we also got letters from people who own Nooks and Kindles and were angry that they couldn’t get the eBook. I wrote them a little letter saying ‘Dear Mr. Smith’ (or whatever), ‘I never told you to buy a machine. Signed, Peter Mayer.’
But they got their eBook.
We did a new history of the Philippines; one hadn’t been published for a while. The American involvement with the Philippines is very long, and there are many Filipinos living in the US who buy this book. We have no plans to put this book out as an eBook quickly, as it sells really well as a hardcover. And after the hardcover sells we’ll do the very traditional thing and put it out in a soft cover, and then maybe we’ll put it out as an eBook. The kind of book that it is means more people will want to have it as a physical book.
In genre books, or commercial books, I think the convenience of the read is sometimes the price. People want to read, say, a specific title, but they don’t seem to have a need to own the physical book; maybe their apartments are too small or their bookshelves too skimpy. So you have to look at the book to decide what’s best for the book, what’s best for the author, what’s best for yourself. And on one book it’s simultaneity. Plugged will be simultaneous. On one book we’ll wait three months and on another book we’ll wait eight months.
So, in answer to your question, you have to be responsive to what people want, but there are many other constituencies. It’s not just an eBook constituency; there’s a very large physical book constituency. I don’t want to desert that. Physical books have been loyal to me, and book stores have been loyal to me, so I don’t want to race toward their demise.
Maybe, because we’re independent, we don’t have to satisfy anyone else’s notion of ourselves. This year is our 40th anniversary of being independent, and we don’t have any great desire to grow. Though we have grown, it’s not our drive. Our drive is to publish good books. We don’t have too many rules.
To read the rest of this interview, purchase the issue.