By JONATHAN MAHLER
a young book editor at Little, Brown & Company in 1992, Michael
Pietsch paid $80,000 — $45,000 more than the next-highest bidder — for a
postmodern novel by a little-known writer named David Foster Wallace.
spent years urging Mr. Wallace to cut hundreds of pages from the
sprawling manuscript and impose at least some structure on the disparate
plot strands. The book, “
,” was finally published in 1996 and became an instant literary sensation.
Mr. Pietsch is now chief executive of Little, Brown’s parent company, the Hachette Book Group, and is engaged in
a very different sort of battle
— not with a fragile author, but with one of the most powerful corporations in the United States:
As the first chief executive of a major publishing house to negotiate new terms with Amazon since the Justice Department sued five publishers
in 2012 for conspiring to raise e-book prices, Mr. Pietsch finds
himself fighting not just for the future of Hachette, but for that of
every publisher that works with Amazon.
a sense, Michael Pietsch is like ‘Horatius at the Bridge,’ ” says the
literary agent and former Amazon executive Laurence J. Kirshbaum,
referring to the soldier of legend who single-handedly saved ancient
Rome by fighting off an invading army. “He is carrying the rest of the
industry on his back.”
Hachette and Amazon have signed confidentiality agreements as part of
their negotiations, the particulars of their dispute have been kept
secret. But inside the publishing world, the consensus is that Amazon
wants to offer deep discounts on Hachette’s electronic books, and that
the negotiations are not going well.
proudly customer-friendly Amazon is delaying shipments and preventing
preorders of certain Hachette books, suggesting to potentially
frustrated shoppers that they buy them elsewhere. Mr. Pietsch
(pronounced peach), ordinarily easygoing and accessible, is refusing to
talk to the news media and has told employees to do the same.
is little question that Mr. Pietsch, 56, would not be squaring off
against the country’s largest bookseller if it were not an absolute
necessity for his company’s bottom line. Friends say he never wanted the
negotiations to become public. But now that they have, everyone in the
book industry is watching and waiting.
“We’re all Hachette now,” one publisher joked last week at the trade fair BookExpo America in Manhattan.
his background, Mr. Pietsch, is an unlikely figure to find himself in
such a position. He is trained as an editor, not a businessman. He took
over Hachette in April 2013, trading a life of poring over manuscripts
for one of scrutinizing spreadsheets.
a player-coach, though, he has continued to acquire and edit a small
handful of books, most notably Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning
novel, “The Goldfinch.” He has built an all-star stable of authors that
includes highbrow writers as well as mass-market giants like Michael
is unusual for a lifelong editor to become C.E.O. of his own publishing
company, but over the years, Mr. Pietsch had developed a reputation as
both a man of letters and a shrewd deal maker. The combination could
serve him well in his dispute with Amazon.
I don’t envy his position in this street fight, I think he’s exactly
the right guy to be conducting it,” said Sloan Harris, an agent at
International Creative Management.
son of an Army officer, Mr. Pietsch grew up in Norfolk, Va. He attended
Harvard, where he concentrated in English and wrote his senior thesis
on Chaucer’s 14th-century work “The Canterbury Tales.” During his senior
year, Mr. Pietsch interned at a publisher based in Boston, David R.
Godine, and liked it so much that he stayed on after graduating.
eventually moved to New York and spent six years at Scribner — among
other things, editing an unpublished Ernest Hemingway manuscript —
before joining Little, Brown as an editor in 1991. Over the next 10
years, Mr. Pietsch helped transform the company from a sleepy, largely
literary house, to a modern, commercial publisher.
Pietsch worked his way up through the ranks there, becoming editor in
chief in 1998 and publisher in 2001. Even as a publisher, he was known
for being hands-on. After Mr. Wallace committed suicide in 2008, Mr.
Pietsch painstakingly assembled the thousands of typed and handwritten
manuscript pages that Mr. Wallace had left behind into a posthumously
published novel. He also wrote the introduction to that book, “The Pale
resident of Sleepy Hollow, N.Y., Mr. Pietsch is married to Janet Vultee
Pietsch, a children’s book editor. As Hachette’s chief executive, he
now oversees not just Little, Brown but all of the publisher’s imprints,
which together put out about 1,000 books every year.
has been largely silent since the dispute broke out into the public
last month, though it did issue a public statement — written by Mr.
Pietsch — that underscored its view that books deserve to be treated
differently from hard drives, diapers and the countless other products
that Amazon sells.
“Amazon indicates that it considers books to be like any other consumer good,” the statement said. “They are not.”
Pietsch’s central role in his industry’s dispute with Amazon seems to
be nothing more than sheer happenstance. As part of Hachette’s antitrust
settlement with the government, the company agreed to allow Amazon to
continue to discount the price of e-books for two years. That agreement
has expired, and for some reason — no one is sure why — Hachette is the
first publisher to find itself in the position of negotiating a new one.
publishers are holding their breath. It is in their interests for Mr.
Pietsch to drive a hard bargain, and they are cheering him on, but
silently. They have their own relationships with Amazon to protect, and
they do not want anything they say to be construed as antagonistic, all
the more so now that Amazon has demonstrated its willingness to punish
booksellers when negotiations become contentious.
Mr. Pietsch is a hero to some, he is a reluctant one. “He doesn’t want
to be seen as the warrior against Amazon,” said Mr. Wallace’s agent,
Bonnie Nadell, who has known Mr. Pietsch for 25 years. “I think that
makes him incredibly uncomfortable.”
Michael Pietsch at a Glance
Editor at Scribner’s (1979-’85); editor at
Harmony (1985-’91); editor at Little, Brown (1991-2001); publisher of
Little, Brown (2001-’12); chief executive of the Hachette Book Group
Notable Books and Authors:
• “Infinite Jest” by David Foster Wallace
• “The Tipping Point” by Malcolm Gladwell
• “The Art of Fielding” by Chad Harbach
• “Life” by Keith Richards, right
• “The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt
• Michael Connelly
• James Patterson
A version of this article appears in print on June 2, 2014, on page B1 of the
New York edition
with the headline: Toe-to-Toe With a Giant.
Reposted from New York Times
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