October 24, 2012
After 65 years, Free Press to be absorbed into Simon & Schuster flagship
by Claire Kelley
As Free Press marks its 65th year, its varied and complicated history has taken a dramatic turn. Yesterday, employees learned that the imprint and its backlist would be merged into Simon & Schuster, the company’s flagship imprint, headed by Jonathan Karp. Although Free Press will no longer exist as a distinct entity, according to the New York Times, Karp said the Free Press name would still be used:
“We plan to continue publishing thought leaders and other important cultural voices under the Free Press imprimatur,” he wrote, “while also introducing many other Free Press authors, such as novelists and historians and business writers, to the flagship Simon & Schuster imprint.”
Of the four who have led Free Press since 2001, only Suzanne Donahue, the imprint’s Associate Publisher, will continue to work with the Free Press backlist under Karp. Martha Levin, Publisher, and Dominick Anfuso, Editorial Director will leave. Carisa Hays, Publicity Director, will join Atria.
Founded in 1947 by Jeremiah Kaplan and Charles Liebman, “The Free Press of Glencoe” as it was first named, began with a $4,000 investment by Liebman, who was a Chicago lawyer and business man. Twenty-year-old Kaplan had been recently expelled from the City College of New York for his radical ideas and was working at the ACLU. Liebman was an active member of the ACLU, and that is presumably how the two met.
They originally chose the name Free Press because they intended to publish books on the civil liberties. But Kaplan began to realize that he could use his connections to the University of Chicago academic community to acquire books in the social sciences. Kaplan said:
“In 1947 the country was still readjusting to peace. Publishers were not paying attention to new developments in the social sciences, so when i went around to see people—people who subsequently became giants—no one was paying attention to them. The major houses weren’t interested. Then I was caught up in a daisy chain. Disciples of particular persons would recommend each other’s manuscripts to me.”
The Free Press was launched with three classics that had never been available in the United States or were out of print: Division of Labor by Emile Durkheim, The Theory of Economic and Social Organization by Max Weber and The Scientific Outlook by Bertrand Russell. This special niche in the academic social sciences proved to be very successful, and by 1960, as the book publishing industry went through a wave of mergers and consolidations, large houses in New York were looking for new and creative leadership.
Kaplan was recruited to provide a new editorial vision for Macmillan, and he agreed to move to New York if he could bring Free Press with him as a division of the company. Crowell-Collier, the magazine and encyclopedia publisher who owned Macmillan, bought Free Press for $1.3 million, with $500,000 going to Kaplan and $800,000 going to Charles Leibman.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Free Press was under the direction of a string of publishers—George McCune, Valerie Webb, Ed Barry and Robert Wallace. During Barry’s time, Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death won The Pulitzer Prize in 1974. By the time Wallace was in charge, Free Press began to focus on psychology and business aquisitions.
By 1980, after 11 years at Free Press, Ed Barry left to head North American operations of Oxford University Press. Jeremiah Kaplan, who was still publisher of Macmillan, approached Edwin Glikes, a well-known political neoconservative, to run Free Press. It seemed like a strange choice for a publisher and a press with civil libertarian roots. But Kaplan explained:
The Free Press has prospered most when it has had vigorous intellectual leadership. It takes someone who understands what is going on in universities and think tanks and this is Erwin’s strength.
Regardless of Kaplan’s intent, when Erwin Gilkes took over in 1983, Free Press began an era of controversial and conservative books, including The Tempting of America by Robert Bork and Intercourse by Andrea Dworkin. Gilkes published Alan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, which went on to be a surprise best seller, instigating serious debate in scholarly and political circles between the right and left.
That book inspired Adam Bellow, son of Saul Bellow, to seek out Gilkes and start working for him as an editor, then later rising to Editorial Director of Free Press when Gilkes left to start an imprint at Viking Penguin in 1994. Bellow explains some of his controversial neoconservative books he published—Illiberal Education by Dinesh D’Souza, The Real Anita Hill by David Brock, and The Bell Curve by Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein —in a 2005 essay in New York Magazine. In 1994, Simon & Schuster acquired Macmillan and Free Press, with Michael Jacobs, Paula Barker Duffy, and William Shinker serving short stints as publisher.
When Martha Levin joined Free Press as publisher in 2001, she had already had an impressive career. She began in subsidiary rights at Doubleday in 1979 before they had been sold to Random House, then working under André Schiffrin at Pantheon before rising to Rights Director at Random House. She spent nine years as the publisher of Anchor Books, editing Naguib Mahfouz, Chinua Achebe, Geraldine Brooks, also acquiring and editing E. Lynn Harris. After a brief stint as publisher at Hyperion, she moved to Free Press, and Dominick Anfuso, who had acquired Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People at Simon & Schuster, joined her as Editorial Director.
In 2006, Levin hired Amber Qureshi to acquire Free Press fiction, and one of her novels, The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga, went on to win the Booker Prize in 2008. Free Press over the past decade has been a true general publisher—the books cover a wide range of genres as varied as a diet book like 17 Day Diet, which has sold 1.4 million copies to date, literary fiction such as The Madonnas of Echo Park, which won the PEN/Hemingway Prize in 2011, narrative non-fiction like bestseller Wild Bill Donovan by Doug Waller, cartoonist Tim Kreider’s hilarious yet heartbreaking essays We Learn Nothing, Mira Bartok’s NBCC Award winning memoir The Memory Palace, as well as celebrity chefs like the Cake Boss and Carla Hall, and many business and self-help books. In some instances, Free Press stayed true to its social science roots, publishing Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and even the cross-country spiritual oddessy Killing the Buddha by Peter Manseau and Jeff Sharlet.
But perhaps that wide range was part of the problem. As the traditional publishing world changes and contracts and emerges anew, these shifts and schisms are bound to happen, particularly as power structures change. It’s unclear what kind of message Simon & Schuster is getting from their parent company CBS to cause them to reorganize, but the fact seems to be that digital book sales are not making up for print book decline. Of course, and then there’s also the fact that Simon & Schuster settled in the Department of Justice case against the publishing industry and will have to pay millions in fines.
Whatever the reason, as a former Free Press employee, I’m taking a moment today to reflect on the history of the publishing venture from its very beginning in 1947 through the past decade under the leadership of Martha Levin and Dominick Anfuso.
Claire Kelley is the Director of Library and Academic Marketing at Melville House.