Asher's publishing genius aided by neon sign

July 2, 2000
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@

Marty Asher, 55, vice president and editor-in-chief of Vintage and Anchor Books, has a neon sign inside his head.

When he reads a really good manuscript ("Snow Falling on Cedars," "Cold Mountain") the sign starts flashing: "Buy this book."

His literary/business sense seems obvious now, sure, when these books have become big hits. But keep in mind that he's buying the paperback rights when these books are just being published in hardback. Who knows if they'll sell or not?

"We thought long and hard before offering David Guterson a six-figure advance for 'Snow Falling on Cedars,' " he said. The same with "Cold Mountain."

Sometimes, he buys the rights to books that don't do as well as expected in hardback. He gives those books a second chance.

"In paperback you do get a chance to reinvent," he said. "We worked hard on innovative publicity for 'Birdsong,' the World War I love story."

Thanks to Asher, "Birdsong: A Novel of Love and War" by Sebastian Faulks, turned out to be good seller in trade paper.

What a great job he has.

"Sometimes I feel like a kid working in a toy store," he agreed. "I get to read books that I'd otherwise be buying."

Inevitably, perhaps, Asher got bitten by the writing bug. But who has the time to write an epic novel like "Cold Mountain"?

Asher instead began specializing in short books. Way short. He is the author of five books including "57 Reasons Not to Have a Nuclear War," "The 20-minute Gardener" and "The 20-minute Fruit and Vegetable Gardener."

His latest book, "The Boomer: A Novel," takes about 20 minutes to read.

"The Boomer" follows the life and death of a smart, successful, seemingly well-adjusted man who falls apart and regroups. The small format book is illustrated by Chip Kidd in a manner that is at once nostalgic and modern.

Asher lives in Westport, Conn., and New York, and doesn't have to market his book on grueling tours that publishers force most authors to take part in.

Asher said his recent book tour made him a changed man.

"In the future, I'm going to be the kindest and gentlest of editors," he said after whirlwind visits to New York, Chicago, Toronto, Portland, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

He said reactions to his book have been mixed. Many people say it's a sad book.

"I may be the only one who thinks it has a happy ending," said Asher. "In the end, he connects with people around him, which he didn't do throughout his life. I guess I would use the word bittersweet to describe it. It takes a look at an individual's mortality and the passing of a generation. Of course, it's satirical as well."

Take Chapter 60 (in its entirety) : "The boomer's wife said he should talk to his son about sex. They went for a walk on the beach. His son skipped stones. When he finished explaining everything he asked his son if he wanted to know anything else. 'Can we have pizza for dinner?' "

Asher attended Brooklyn College, San Francisco State and Indiana University where he worked on a master's in creative writing that he never finished. It wasn't his intent to focus on short books but now he admits that his 20-minute novel may have something to do with the way he works, long hours spent reading interrupted by short intense bursts of energy.

"I open manuscripts from agents and from hardcover publishing houses and I always expect to find something wonderful but the truth is I don't very often," he said.

Yet he's very sympathetic to both the unpublished writer and the published writer.

"Writers are very vulnerable," he said. "That's why writers are so neurotic. They can work on something for years and someone can dismiss it in 30 seconds."

Asher says he's been at book readings where only two people show up. That can be another humiliating experience for both new and best-selling authors.

Despite the adversities, Asher thinks he has another novel inside him, a more conventional novel.

"I hope to get the courage to do it," he said.

He also defended the state of American culture today, and not just because he's a publisher.

"I think there have been tremendous books published in the past five years," he said. "I see it as an encouraging development in American culture. Reading good books is a respectable thing to do today."

Well, get to work, Marty, because so is writing them.

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