A Rule Breaker On Capitalizing Book Titles

By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 18, 2006

Four o'clock tomorrow afternoon will find book publishing's annual promotional schmoozefest, BookExpo America, in full swing. Thousands of booksellers will swarm endless aisles of publishers' displays at the Washington Convention Center. Publicists, agents and editors will gossip, network, fret about the Googleized future and anticipate the evening's dissipations.

Meanwhile, inside Room 204A, a group of (choose one) bold visionaries or deluded utopians will explain how they're trying to change the literary landscape they think a book bazaar like BEA represents.

The Literary Ventures Fund is a tiny nonprofit, founded last year with offices in Boston and New York, that "seeks to challenge the status quo of literary publishing," as its Web site boldly proclaims. LVF hopes to help exceptional works of fiction, literary nonfiction and poetry find the readership they deserve -- by using an economic model more frequently associated with Silicon Valley.

"It's a wonderful idea," says Jonathan Karp, a veteran editor now running the Warner Twelve imprint of Warner Books who agreed to serve on LVF's board. "Basically they're trying to take the idea of venture capital and apply it to literary publishing -- to view books as individual enterprises that would benefit from special attention."

"It's a courageous venture and we'll see how it goes," says publisher Jonathan Galassi of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, which recently negotiated LVF investments in two of its upcoming titles. "I don't really know of any other projects quite like it."

Here's how it's supposed to work:

LVF invests in books it believes to have both literary merit and commercial potential that might go unrealized without an added push. So far, its investments (there have been fewer than 10 to date) have been made in partnership with the books' publishers, though it plans to work directly with authors as well. The extra money, along with LVF's connections and expertise, can be employed in many ways, with the most obvious being increased marketing to help a book cut through the noise of a crowded marketplace.

If its investment pays off, LVF will take a cut of the book's profits. If it doesn't -- like a venture capitalist funding a high-tech start-up -- it will swallow the loss.

"Publishing is a ridiculous model and we're trying to fix it," says the fund's executive director, Jeffrey Lependorf. "Not that we think we can single-handedly change the way all publishing works."

Well, no. But you have to give LVF credit for chutzpah.

Its initial investment pool is $250,000. With this, it is trying to influence a blockbuster-obsessed enterprise willing to throw that much cash at a single crock of chick lit by a teenage Harvard plagiarist -- not to mention 34 times as much at a book by Alan Greenspan, that well known Washington literatteur .

* * *

CONTINUED     1              >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company