That's Fine

THE BIG BOOK for the small New York firm of Donald I. Fine Inc. this spring will be Stockman: The Man, the Myth, the Future, by Owen Ullmann, White House correspondent for the Knight- Ridder newspaper chain. Fine's catalogue modestly describes the book as a "full-scale, objective, no-holds barred" account of David Stockman's career. Undoubtedly much to the annoyance of Harper & Row, which paid $2 million for Stockman's own memoirs, the Ullmann volume will appear in May, at the same time as the book by the former budget director.

So for a tiny percentage of the price paid by Harper & Row, Fine will be smack in the middle of the hubbub -- and reviews and news stories and TV appearances -- that will be generated when Stockman's book appears. But nobody ever said Don Fine lacked shrewdness.

Fine is one of the most colorful and feisty characters on the New York publishing scene, and has been for almost four decades. Always acknowledged as a resourceful discoverer of hidden talent and a superior editor of popular fiction -- someone who has on occasion revamped a so-so book into a hot property -- Fine has also emerged in the last 15 years as a publishing entrepreneur to be reckoned with. When he left the helm of Arbor House, a firm he had founded and subsequently sold to the Hearst Corporation, many publishing observers thought that his career was over. They had another think coming.

Fine was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan -- thus the name Arbor House -- and grew up in Battle Creek, where his father was a scientist for Post Cereals. "The word Kellogg's was anathema in my house," says Fine.

The future editor was a member of the Harvard Class of '44, but accelerated to graduate at the end of 1943 and enlist in the Army.

"I wanted to fight the Nazis and become a general," he says. "But I stayed a private for 36 months. . . . I never fired a gun. After the war, I was assigned to Tokyo as an MP. Looking at Tokyo today, you'd never realize what it was like then. It was a moonscape. The place was leveled by bombing. There were about five buildings standing. Eventually, I started to edit the unit newspaper and got onto Asian Stars and Stripes.

"When I got back to the States, I decided I wanted to be Walter Lippmann so I went to Columbia Graduate School in government and public law to prepare for a journalism career. In 1947, I had seven jobs and was fired from them all. . . . Finally, I decided I wanted to get into book publishing and someone told me I should start by working in a bookstore. So I got a job in the Doubleday bookstore at 52nd Street and Fifth Avenue as fiction clerk. The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk had just come out, and I personally sold 2,000 copies. That's more than some of the books I publish.

"After that, in the early 1950s, I joined a company called Magazine Management Associates. It did romance magazines, true confessions, cheesecake and men's magazines, which were called 'hairy-chesteds.' The editors used to do a lot of writing for the magazines -- we got two-thirds of the normal freelance fee. A lot of people who worked there made names for themselves in publishing. Mario Puzo was an editor and Bruce Jay Friedman.

"Then I went to work for Dell First Editions, which did paperback originals. . . . We did John D. MacDonald and early Kurt Vonnegut novels. Elmore Leonard wrote westerns for us.

"From Dell, I went to Popular Library, another paperback house, as editor-in-chief. It was a company in deep trouble. The office was a sea of empty desks. The policy was to do just paperback reprints, and we paid a thousand dollars, period. But I broke that. We paid $50,000 for Webster's New World Dictionary, $20,000 for To Kill a Mockingbird, and we also published The Untouchables, by Oscar Fraley, which became the basis for the TV series. When Warner bought Popular Library years later, it paid millions for it, and in my opinion it was mainly to get those three books.

"My ambition at that time was to become head of Dell Books, which was a leading paperback house. So when they called to feel me out, I said all I want is the title vice president and editor-in-chief. I went over for a salary of $13,000 a year. That was in 1960. Grace Metalious had had a big hit with Dell, Peyton Place, and we got her writing again, including -- what else? -- Return to Peyton Place, although she didn't write much of it. It was a best seller. One day, the Irving Lazar agent called me to say Irwin Shaw was leaving Random House and would we be interested in him. Together with our hardback operation, Delacorte, we signed him to a deal. He did Rich Man, Poor Man for them (though I had left by then), and when it became a mini-series in the mid-'70s, Dell sold 2 million copies the first week.

"I wanted to get some experience in hardback publishing so I went to work for Coward-McCann for a year. . . . In 1969, I started Arbor House. My first best seller was The David Kopay Story. He had been a linebacker for the Oakland Raiders and other teams and had publicly come out as gay. I credit the Phil Donahue Show with making the book. After Kopay told his story to Donahue, there were questions from the audience. The last one was from a woman who stood up and said, about Kopay's homosexuality, 'What a waste.' And he said 'Meet me after the show, honey.' It kind of sparked the book.

"We had Ken Follett, Gerald Browne and Cynthia Freeman, all of whom produced big hits. Follett had been writing for Fontana Books in Britain. I got hold of a novel called Storm Island and changed the title to Eye of the Needle. It was his first book in America. In 1978, I sold Arbor House to Hearst in a deal that included a five-year contract for myself. During the next years, we published Margaret Truman, had a big hit with Gerald Browne's 19 Purchase Street, had several successes with Elmore Leonard, including LaBrava and Stick, and brought in Ed McBain on a multibook contract.

"But during that time, Hearst bought Morrow for $28 million and the handwriting was on the wall. Arbor House was going to become a boutique operation." In October, 1983 Fine left the house.

"By August 1, 1984, we were shipping the first book of Donald I. Fine Inc., a volume of short stories by Bruce Jay Friedman called Let's Hear It for a Beautiful Guy. By the end of my fiscal year in October 1985, I had met a goal I set for myself -- sales of $2 million in books -- and even showed a small net profit."

Several authors followed Fine from Arbor House to his new company, including novelists Herbert Gold and Jerome Charyn, and science fiction writer Robert Silverberg, who also has a line of science ficion that he selects for Fine. In addition to the Stockman volume, his spring-summer books include Godbody, the last work by the late science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon; To Africa With Love, an account of a journey across Africa by actress Carroll Baker, and Son of Holmes, a mystery by John T. Lescourt, featuring the putative son of Sherlock Holmes.

Lapierre's Joy

AN ASTOUNDING THING has been happening in the wake of publication of The City of Joy by Dominique Lapierre. City of Joy is the name given to one of the 3,000 slums in and around Calcutta, India. Lapierre, known for his collaboration with Larry Collins on titles such as Is Paris Burning?, tells the story of the slum and its inhabitants in his book, which was published here last October by Doubleday. The hardcover has 95,000 copies in print and Warner will be bringing out the paperback in the fall, with a likely first printing of a million copies. Worldwide, the book has already sold 2 million copies (including a million in France alone), and has been translated into Japanese.

That kind of story, though, is associated with many a successful book. What makes The City of Joy different is that it apparently evokes a continuing commitment from a lot of its readers. On the back of the title page is a discreet announcement that the author and his wife -- also named Dominique -- have founded an organization called Action Aid for Lepers' Children of Calcutta, with a Paris address. Donations received by the association, the announcement says, will go to a home for 250 children of lepers in Calcutta.

The announcement has already elicited 40,000 letters and $120,000 in donations. The flood of mail is such that the local post office near Lapierre's Paris home has assigned one clerk full time to handle it. The five sisters of Mrs. Lapierre have been pressed into service to process the correspondence. "The concierge in my building, who must handle all the letters when they come in, is ready to commit suicide," said Lapierre himself. "One day five pick-up trucks full of mail sacks arrived."

In addition to gifts from readers, the author is donating half his royalties from the book -- about $600,000 so far -- to projects connected with the City of Joy. In an effort to get at the root of the problems that cause poor peasants to migrate to Calcutta, he plans to sponsor irrigation projects in 19 Bengali villages. The City of Joy has won the Christopher award for a book promoting human and moral values, and Lapierre and his wife have been invited to visit the Pope to discuss the plight of the poor in India.