Overlook-ed world buzzing among congloms

MONDAY’S FCC RULING, which could lead to a frenzy of media mergers, set off alarm bells in certain corners of the book world.

But at least one independent publisher discerns a window of opportunity in the consolidation of the big book companies: Peter Mayer, who in 1971 co-founded the Overlook Press with the express purpose of publishing books that were overlooked by the corporate giants.

Mayer, who took over the day-to-day management of Overlook after stepping down as CEO of Penguin in 1996, is now working at arm’s length from corporate publishing, quietly creating a consortium of independent imprints.

Last month, Mayer bought Duckworth, a floundering U.K. imprint that once published Virginia Woolf and D.H. Lawrence. A year earlier, Mayer bought Ardis Press, a publisher of Russian books in translation.

Putnam-Penguin distributes Overlook’s books to the trade. But Mayer finances the company himself. He raises capital by selling his own foreign rights. And lately, he has devoted considerable effort to an enterprise most corporate publishers eschew: rejuvenating the careers of commercial writers who’ve drifted out of print, including spy novel-writers Robert Littell and Charles McCarry.

Last year, Overlook published Littell’s CIA thriller, “The Company.” It became a betseller and is now in development at Columbia Pictures.

Next year, he’ll publish McCarry’s “The Old Boys,” a novel described as a version of “The Seven Samurai” set in the world of the CIA. U.K. rights to the book sold to Orion last year for £100,000. French, Dutch and German rights to the novel have also sold.

MEDIA WATCHDOGS AND AUTHOR GROUPS have long argued that further media consolidation will leave consumers with fewer choices of what they watch and read.

Those fears have lately been enflamed by rumors that the world’s biggest English-language publisher, Random House, is moving closer to a deal to buy the AOL book group. In a soft economy, that merger could lead to cutbacks, layoffs and the closing of distinguished publishing imprints.

But Mayer, who traveled to L.A. last week for the trade show, Book Expo America, said the concentration of the big houses hasn’t hurt Overlook.

“As they have become so big, they have passed up some obvious projects,” Mayer said. “The projects don’t seem to be big enough for the kinds of overheads they’re running. And we start to look more interesting as one of the key players in a second rank.”

At age 67, smoking a cigarette on the terrace at a Hancock Park publishing party, Mayer appeared to relish the role of publishing maverick.

He noted that Overlook’s eclectic list includes a number of books with 2,000-copy printings and a higher percentage of poetry than Random House. “Large publishing has its own demands,” he said. “Small publishing has its own requirements. Because we don’t have the capital, we live by our wits.”

“He always loved the basics of publishing,” William Morris agent Owen Laster says of Mayer. “He loves to edit. He loves wheeling and dealing foreign rights.”

MAYER SAID OVERLOOK’S BIGGEST CHALLENGE is finding the cash to properly promote its books, including the co-op advertising dollars demanded by key retail outlets.

The imprint’s strategy these days, he said, is to build its list around one big title each season, and to avoid glitzy auctions, which often result in inflated advances for over-hyped books.

Mayer admits that the current publishing economy is tough. But as CEO of Penguin for nearly 20 years, Mayer knows how costly it can be to spend one’s way out of financial straits — either through blockbuster auctions or corporate mergers.

“When publishing companies are under pressure,” he said, “there are two ways to solve your problems. The large companies tend to try to solve their problems financially. That leads them to ever greater size, on the theory you’ll lower your cost of operations, warehousing and paper buying. These solutions aren’t optimal. The solutions that are easier to hand are creative solutions — publishing your way out of difficulty by changing your editorial mix and finding less expensive ways to interest the public in what you are publishing.”

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