Big-money imprint folds; Booker short-list announced

Publisher Rob Weisbach departs from William Morrow.

Topics: Books,

Rob Weisbach Books, the William Morrow and Company imprint that corralled Whoopi Goldberg, Jon Stewart, Sandra Bernhard, Ethan Coen, Tim Burton and Ellen DeGeneres’ mom, Betty, under one roof, has closed shop. Weisbach announced his departure from Morrow late Tuesday afternoon, stating that he was leaving to start “a new, independent publishing program.”

Sources outside Morrow have been speculating recently that Weisbach’s high-spending, high-profile ways might endanger his imprint. The 34-year-old Weisbach has spent millions of dollars on advances for celebrity books. In what was perhaps his most extravagant move, he wagered $6 million on a Whoopi Goldberg autobiography, “Book,” that tanked. Another title, Paul Reiser’s “Babyhood,” was a $5 million disappointment. In 1997, Weisbach had a best-selling hit with his imprint’s launch title, Brad Meltzer’s “The Tenth Justice.” He has also published such literary fiction such as A.M. Homes’ most recent novel, “Music for Torching,” and Amanda Davis’ debut collection, “Circling the Drain.”

Weisbach said that HarperCollins, which took over Morrow in July, was abolishing his imprint but had offered him another opportunity within the company. “I think we’ve reached a point where we’re doing some special things for our authors and publishing them really well,” he said, “and the idea of not continuing that, and taking on another role, was not appealing to me.” So instead he’s going out on his own with a venture that may include other media. “The people who know me well in the business,” he said, “are not surprised, given that that was the choice. I would rather do something entrepreneurial, even if it’s risky.” Weisbach reported he’d spent part of the day calling his authors with the news; he assumes that HarperCollins will honor their contracts.

A further piece of news accompanied the report of Weisbach’s departure: the layoffs of 74 employees at William Morrow and HarperCollins.

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The short-list for this year’s Booker Prize was announced on Tuesday. J.M. Coetzee of South Africa (winner of the 1983 award for “Life and Times of Michael K”) got a nod for “Disgrace,” as did India’s Anita Desai for “Fasting, Feasting.” British novelist and playwright Michael Frayn earned his first nomination for “Headlong”; so did Egyptian-English novelist Ahdaf Soueif for “The Map of Love,” first-time Scottish novelist Andrew O’Hagan for “Our Fathers” and Irishman Colm Tribmn for “The Blackwater Lightship.”

The prestigious fiction prize, worth $32,000, is awarded annually to an author writing in English in Britain or the Commonwealth. Ladbrokes, the British oddsmaker, has designated Desai, O’Hagan and Frayn 3-to-1 favorites, with Coetzee at 4-to-1, Tribmn at 5-to-1 and Soueif at 6-to-1. The winner will be announced on Oct. 25. Ian McEwan took the spoils last year for “Amsterdam.”

Craig Offman is the New York correspondent for Salon Books.

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