April 14, 2004: Headlines: Books: Publishing: Peace Corps Directors - Shriver: Miami Herald: Shriver Book Part of Smithsonian Program

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Shriver Book Part of Smithsonian Program

Shriver Book Part of Smithsonian Program

Shriver Book Part of Smithsonian Program

Shriver Book Part of Smithsonian Program


Associated Press

NEW YORK - Two years ago, literary agent Ron Goldfarb was seeking a publisher for an authorized biography of Sargent Shriver, the Peace Corps founder and Kennedy in-law.

The original publisher, HarperCollins, had been expecting a memoir but Shriver was unwilling to write one. Now 88, he was reluctant from the start to discuss his past and has since been diagnosed with Alzheimer's.

Scott Stossel, Shriver's collaborator, turned the project into a biography. "Sarge" is a 700-page book that includes interviews with Shriver (before his illness), wife Eunice Kennedy Shriver, daughter Maria Shriver and son-in-law Arnold Schwarzenegger, the actor-turned-California governor.

The manuscript was overdue, longer than first planned and the HarperCollins' editor who had acquired the book had since left. So Goldfarb mentioned "Sarge" while having lunch with Don Fehr, a former executive editor at Basic Books who had recently started a very different job: running the publishing arm of the Smithsonian Institution.

"I asked him if the Smithsonian, which receives money from Congress, would be willing to take on a book about a a political figure," Goldfarb says.

"He said, `We're not going to do a partisan attack book,' but a statesman's book we would consider. And so we agreed that the Smithsonian would publish `Sarge.'"

Based in Washington, D.C., the Smithsonian press for years operated like a university press, focusing on scholarly works and study guides about everything from the Cold War to coral fish. But two years ago, Smithsonian, like so many university presses, was losing money. Fehr was brought in.

"They were very clear that they needed to turn the place around," Fehr says.

"It struck me as a very unique opportunity, because Smithsonian is a real brand name. Publishers spend hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to create brand identity, but consumers are notoriously oblivious to who publishers a book."

Fehr changed the publisher's name from Smithsonian Institution Press to the more commercial sounding Smithsonian Books and changed the kinds of books published.

Eighty percent of Smithsonian's titles had been scholarly works and 20 percent general interest. Fehr reversed that ratio and cut the overall number of books published each year, from 80 to between 50 and 60.

"There was a lot of grumbling from people who saw us as more of a service institution," Fehr says. "But in our first full fiscal year, our revenues were up 36 percent."

By New York standards, Smithsonian still operates on a low scale, with annual revenues of only a few million, some coming from federal funds and some from sales. The Shriver book was acquired for less than six figures and the initial print run is just 25,000.

"That's a record for us," Fehr says.

Other Smithsonian books include "One Fish, Two Fish, Crawfish, Bluefish," which features recipes from such leading chefs as Jacques Pepin and Emeril Lagasse, and three science books by Joy Hakim, a popular writer of history for kids. Her work will be advertised at the Smithsonian itself, with cards placed on tables at the food court.

"I was in a real bind because educational publishers thought my books were too popular and trade publishers thought they were too educational," Hakim says.

"So I'm taking a chance with Smithsonian, because the institution is perfect for me. You have millions of kids coming in each year and they'll have a chance to see my books. This could be a great way to break down the wall between educational and popular texts."

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Story Source: Miami Herald

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