Editor behind "Fortunate Son" is sitting pretty

Who is Thomas Dunne and why is he still at St. Martin's?

By Craig Offman
Published November 3, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

Ever since St. Martin's released its doomed George W. Bush biography, "Fortunate Son," the publishing house has been making like Boris Yeltsin, becoming a mixture of mercurial reactions, internal conflicts and dramatic gestures. Now, in a move that has St. Martin's kremlinologists' heads spinning, editor Thomas Dunne -- despite his mishandling of "Fortunate Son" -- seems to have acquired even more power.

According to sources inside the company, the publisher announced at a staff meeting on Friday that Dunne's imprint will conduct editorial meetings on its own from now on. Spokesman John Murphy would not confirm or deny the change. "Our editorial meetings are an in-house matter only. It has nothing to do with anything on the outside," he said.

Insiders and outsiders said that in the past, staff from the Thomas Dunne imprint attended general meetings with the rest of the publishing house's editors. Reportedly, editors from Thomas Dunne Books commented freely on St. Martin's general trade books, while the general editorial staff were expected to refrain from critiquing most of the books published by Dunne's imprint. The change in meeting structure gives Dunne even more autonomy than he enjoyed before "Fortunate Son" blew up in his company's face.

Two weeks ago, St. Martin's was vigorously defending "Fortunate Son" author J.H. Hatfield, who alleged in his book's afterword that Bush had been arrested for possession of cocaine in 1972 and had used his family's influence to get his record expunged. But once the Dallas Morning News identified Hatfield as a convicted felon, St. Martin's promptly reconsidered and recalled 90,000 copies of his book.

Nearly a week after the book was pulled, St. Martin's editor-in-chief, Robert B. Wallace, left his job in protest over the book, claiming that he had been "looped out" of the project until the very end. "I do not in any way wish to have my name associated with "Fortunate Son" or future books published by Thomas Dunne Books over which I have no control," he said in a statement that hinted at
power struggles within the company.

"I think Bob Wallace felt frustrations about St. Martin's for many reasons and one of them was that this is a big, rambunctious publishing house," says a St. Martin's employee. "Imposing a coherent editorial vision is impossible. He probably felt as though he were managing as opposed to leading."

So what makes Thomas Dunne powerful enough to survive a scandal that forced Wallace to leave? "He has sway because he has been here for 28 years, and during that time St. Martin's has never lost money," said the employee. "I sense that he continues the same philosophy as [former St. Martin's publisher] Thomas McCormack: Don't pay a lot of money for books but publish a lot of them." (Dunne refused Salon's requests for an interview.)

Indeed, the formula has worked for Dunne, whose imprint knocks out 125 books a year -- some of which, like Eddie Fisher's tell-all memoir, "Been There, Done That," have become bestsellers, while others, like Martin Booth's novel "Industry of Souls," have become critical successes. So even though Dunne has messed up before (as in 1996, when he signed on David Irving, a scholar who turned out to have connections to Holocaust revisionists, to write a biography of Joseph Goebbels), Dunne has plenty of other successful authors -- including Rosamunde Pilcher, Michael Palin and Frederick Forsyth -- to make up for his disasters and duds.

St. Martin's is a decentralized publisher that encourages all its editors to function like the heads of autonomous publishing houses. At other houses, imprint editors are usually niche players specializing in certain subjects; at St. Martin's they have wide swaths of territory to cover.

"The opportunities to publish there are phenomenal," says former St. Martin's veteran Bob Weil, now executive editor at W. W. Norton. "It's a superb education in publishing." Part of that education comes in the form of an annual profit-and-loss statement, a report card of sorts that St. Martin's distributes to editors every August. "It's all bottom-line there," says one former staffer, contrasting St. Martin's with tonier New York houses where prestige often wins out over financial concerns.

Despite such foul-ups as the Irving and Hatfield books, Dunne, a former Columbia Ph.D. candidate from Providence, R.I., has obviously won the trust of another, more important St. Martin's veteran: publisher Sally Richardson, to whom Dunne reports. "I think they have a very close association," says the St. Martin's employee, echoing other sources. Both Dunne and Richardson have worked together at St. Martin's for almost three decades.

But with "Fortunate Son," Dunne's imprint seems to have lost on a bet it makes over and over again. One author who has written for St. Martin's describes the advances the publisher offers on reporting-intensive nonfiction books like "Fortunate Son" as so small that they barely cover research expenses. "I realized it was costing [me] a fortune. The best I could come out with is a clip job," the author explained.

As for "Fortunate Son" itself, the book seems to have a Dunne-like resilience. Soft Skull Press, a small New York publishing house, is reputed to have scooped up the book's rights. "I am unwilling to confirm or deny rumors that this company is in negotiations to acquire 'Fortunate Son,'" says Soft Skull publisher Sander Hicks. "This is a sensitive subject and I'm sure the truth of the matter will come to light in time."

Craig Offman

Craig Offman is the New York correspondent for Salon Books.

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