Hitching His Wagon to a Shining Star
A few hundred editors, publishers, authors and literary agents braved a cold rain last week to sip and nosh together at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. In the elbow-to-elbow crowd at the Literary Guild’s annual cocktail party, one guest seemed to attract more well-wishers than such power players as Random House Publisher Harold Evans and Knopf President Sonny Mehta.
David Gernert, 39, a boyish presence among many elders, was congratulated repeatedly following that morning’s announcement that he will vacate the editor in chief’s position at Doubleday today and open a media company whose first client will be superstar novelist John Grisham. Gernert, who has edited Grisham’s last five legal thrillers, leaned into so many handshakes during the evening that he appeared at times to be the guest of honor.
“I had to laugh at the fuss,” he said afterward, explaining that the timing of his big news was purely coincidental. “It was like, ‘Wasn’t that nice of the Literary Guild to have a party for me?’ ”
The Gernert Co., based in the Westchester County community of Katonah, will represent Grisham in all publishing, film, television and electronic deals as Gernert himself continues to edit Grisham’s books for Doubleday. As a result of the unusual arrangement, Gernert immediately ranks among the more influential figures in the publishing game, the gatekeeper to a writer who has 55 million copies of his novels in print and the ability to set in motion major Hollywood films. Gernert succeeds the agent who discovered Grisham, Jay S. Garon, of New York’s Garon-Brooke Associates, who died in August.
“When Jay died, I turned to the person I trust implicitly,” the seldom-interviewed Grisham said in a statement. “David is more than an editor or an agent. He’s a friend.”
When Gernert met him four years ago, Grisham was a 36-year-old Mississippi lawyer struggling for greater success as an author. His first novel, “A Time to Kill,” had been rejected by many publishers before the obscure Wynwood Press released it in 1988. It came and went in paperback. But Garon, the lone enthusiast among 30 prospective agents to whom Grisham had mailed sample chapters, had continued to recognize the writer’s commercial potential and pressed for a bigger payday.
As Garon once told the story, he sent Grisham’s second manuscript, “The Firm,” to five publishers, including Doubleday, where it came to Gernert’s attention. However, the initial interest in the story came from three Hollywood studios, which had been leaked copies by tipsters in the publishing houses. Paramount quickly secured the film rights by offering $600,000.
In a development rare at the time, but more common today, Hollywood’s enthusiasm spurred New York publishers. An auction for “The Firm” days later ended with Gernert’s winning bid of $200,000. Within weeks of publication in 1991, the heavily promoted novel stood high on the bestseller lists. Grisham repeated his success with “The Pelican Brief” and subsequent works, becoming a brand name in publishing and no doubt generating the kind of revenue that has enabled Doubleday to take on other writers of less certain appeal.
Gernert said he has no clear idea why Grisham’s tales are so popular, except that the absence of graphic violence appeals to a cross-section of men and women.
Gernert, who grew up in Morristown, N.J., graduated from Brown University and joined Doubleday in 1979 as a secretary, said he had long harbored a vague desire to start his own agency and branch into TV and films. When Grisham asked Gernert to become his agent, that desire came into clearer focus. “I may package some books for publishers, and I probably have a hundred ideas for TV, films and electronic media,” Gernert said. “Hopefully, I’ll find other authors to represent, too, but John is my first client, and that’s a pretty good place to start.”
Afterwords: This reporter once saw a determined young man follow S.I. Newhouse Jr. out of a luncheon and hurriedly pitch the Conde Nast chairman on backing a new sports magazine. “It’s not for us,” Newhouse muttered without breaking his stride. Now comes word, according to Mediaweek magazine, that Conde Nast is developing a sports mag--for women. The editor is Lucy Danziger, who was managing editor of the now-defunct 7 Days.
* Paul D. Colford is a columnist for Newsday. His column is published Fridays.