Larry Kirshbaum walked away from his job as head of Time Warner Books about five years ago to start his own independent literary agency, LJK Literary Management.
“I always was attracted to the idea of being an agent,” Kirshbaum said. “I wanted to try something entrepreneurial.”
He figured he’d run a $500 million business with 1,000 employees so how hard could it be to manage seven?
Answer: “I can’t say it’s been a walk in the park,” Kirshbaum said. “I’ve learned to be humble and realize how little you know.”
Kirshbaum knows at least a little, as Publishers Weekly’s 2005 Publishing Person of the Year:
Throughout his career, Larry Kirshbaum has been known to zing some snappy one-liners with timing worthy of a master comedian. So it seems just another masterstroke that Kirshbaum has decided to leave Time Warner, effective now. Others might have stayed longer, especially since the TWBG has been riding high, and has just pulled off an improbable feat: topping, in 2005, its best year ever (2004).
But Kirshbaum is more than a one- or two-year wonder, and in recognition of his decisions, past and present–he has just set up his own literary agency, LJK Literary Management, on West 40th St. in New York–PW names him its first Publishing Person of the Year.
But while Publishers Weekly noted Time Warner was thriving when Kirshbaum left, the journalist turned publishing executive wasn’t excited about his future there.
“The reward just wasn’t there any more,” Kirshbaum said. “I’m a great believer that passion is everything.”
I met Kirshbaum several years ago through the University of Michigan alumni community in New York. His agency now represents my friend, Lara Zielin. He agreed to talk with me about his career path – including the decision to found LJK and what’s next for him – and he was wonderfully, surprisingly open about what he’s learned the hard way.
“I’m sure in a lot of publishing houses that there is a frustration that people feel, that they’re not in control, that they are puppets and the corporate bosses are manipulating the strings,” Mr. Kirshbaum said Wednesday in an interview at his new firm, LJK Literary Management, where boxes were yet to be unpacked and computers were still being wired together.
“… publishing is built on an economic model that is really very painful for the people working there,” he said. “It is still a little bit of a medieval guild system,” where apprentices take years to work their way up a ladder of a half-dozen rungs, from editorial assistant to low-level editing spots and, if they are very diligent, to full-fledged editor.
“They love their jobs, and they love the creative excitement that comes from working there,” Mr. Kirshbaum said. “But when you’re sharing an apartment in Queens with four other people because you’re getting 3 to 4 percent annual raises on a $25,000 salary, it’s not a great thing.”
We met for drinks in Manhattan in late fall. When he arrived, I was reading on my iPad. He jumps right in to talking about his – he also has a Kindle – and about projections that Apple could sell 20 million iPads in 2010.
Kirshbaum started Time Warner Electronic Publishing in the late 1990s, and “we failed miserably.”
At that point, reading devices were primitive and not widely distributed. Kindle, Nook, iPhone and iPad were years from arriving, and many of us were still on dial-up connections, not wireless Internet.
Back in 2001, Kirshbaum gave an interview to PBS on the future of e-books. Some 10 years ago, that conversation included:
TERENCE SMITH: What part of it do you struggle with?
LARRY KIRSHBAUM: Well, you struggle with all of it, Terry. You struggle with the technology part of it, downloading it and making sure that you’ve got the book that you want, and you struggle with the reader. It’s still not as easy as throwing a book into your beach bag and there it is. So, it takes a little getting used to and a little technological knowledge, and a little bit of willingness to try a format that you’ve never tried before and you’re not totally comfortable with.
TERENCE SMITH: What’s necessary for e-books to gain in popularity?
LARRY KIRSHBAUM: The devices have to get better. They have to get cheaper. We need much more critical mass in terms of titles, and we need a closer interface with the computers themselves, because I don’t think that people want to carry a separate reader just in order to read books.
“I thought the concept of a huge database of books accessible at your fingertips would be a consumer home run,” Kirshbaum said. “And I was right.” Just ahead of his time.
In experiences like these, Kirshbaum reflects on what he’s learned but doesn’t regret taking risks.
“I’m a guy who believes the three most pernicious words in the English language are woulda, shoulda, coulda,” he said. “You don’t get a mulligan in life.”
It’s good he hasn’t gotten spooked, because he says, “Publishing is a real business of the gut, on every level.” Professionals need to make decisions based on their best, informed guess of what will sell, and trust that gut.
Sometimes gut decisions work, like when Kirshbaum published Elizabeth Kostova’s vampire novel “The Historian.” (It is no coincidence that Kostova is a graduate of Michigan’s MFA program. Kirshbaum waves the maize and blue proudly.)
“What was really astonishing was the book was #1 on the New York Times best seller list in its first week,” Kirshbaum said.
Sometimes gut decisions miss, like when Mitch Albom sent a proposal to Time Warner, which had published some of his early sports books, for a story about spending time with his dying former professor. “I said to him, Mitch, stick to sports.”
“Tuesdays with Morrie wound up selling about 8 million copies,” Kirshbaum said.
“You’re gonna be right, you’re gonna be wrong, just make the decision.”
Like deciding to leave Time Warner and start LJK.
In the five years since then, he’s built a successful business – the roster includes about 60 clients and the finances are in the black – but acknowledges it was a terrible time to launch something new. Publishers are publishing fewer books, they’re spending less money on advances, their marketing budgets are lower.
“The other miscalculation is you can’t compare your 30 years as CEO or leading up to it to year one as an entrepreneur,” Kirshbaum said. Yes life experience is a good teacher but he had a lot to learn.
For example, he initially rented fancier offices than he could afford and had more staff than he needed, and he needed to operate leaner.
“I think the best advice for an entrepreneur is to run scared and keep running,” he said.
He also learned to focus on just the projects and authors where he sees a clear path to success. A smaller business has less tolerance for missteps, and he also wants to invest his resources in projects he’s passionate about.
Kirshbaum is still developing his passion for e-books by sitting on the board of overdrive.com, but he also thinks traditional publishers remain the best avenue for electronic publishing, as opposed to self publishing or launching his own direct-to-consumer effort.
Publishers have the skills to gestate a book, from editing to packaging to marketing, he said. Those creative resources are still essential to the success of a book or author.
Ultimately, what excited Kirshbaum about publishing when he was at Time Warner remains his passion: “There’s something wonderfully pure about a book. It really is a reflection of the creativity of one person.”
Meanwhile, he’s also realigning his life priorities. When he was 40, he was fanatical about work, but now, “I’m at a stage where was matters in life is different,” including spending time with his family.
“The grandkids (Ben, 6, Sammy 4, and Max 18 months) are the greatest joy of all,” Kirshbaum e-mailed. “Much as I love my kids, it would have been wise to have the grandkids first.”
More about Larry Kirshbaum:
- Kirshbaum’s profile on LJK: http://www.ljkliterary.com/agents/#lar
- Larry talks at Digital Book World in 2010 about the perfect view of digital book technology: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NQyR2Y546Ck
- Larry and Jane Friedman, president and CEO of HarperCollins Publishers from 1997-2008, talked to Samantha Ettus on ObsessedTV in 2009: http://obsessedtv.com/2009/08/samantha-ettus-interviews-publishing-titans-jane-friedman-and-larry-kirshbaum/
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