Farrar, Straus and Giroux Inc.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux Inc.
Wholly Owned Subsidiary
Founded: 1946 as Farrar, Straus and Company
Sales: $20 million (1992 est.)
SICs: 2731 Book Publishing
Farrar, Straus and Giroux Inc. is one of the premier literary publishing houses in the United States. A feisty independent for most of its existence, it became a wholly owned subsidiary of German publishing group Verlagsgruppe Georg von Holtzbrinck GmbH in 1995.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux was founded when John Farrar and Roger W. Straus, Jr., came together in 1945 to form Farrar, Straus and Company. Farrar had been involved with publishing for over two decades. Born in 1896, he began writing for the New York World after World War I, then moved on to George H. Doran Company, a publisher, where he became editor in chief in 1921. Farrar started the Breadloaf Writers’ Conference at Middlebury College in Vermont in 1926, and became a director of Doubleday, Doran, after those two firms merged in 1927. He left in 1929 to found Farrar and Rinehart with Stanley Rinehart. Farrar left that firm during World War II, and when the war ended, he formed a new company with Roger Straus.
Straus was from a successful New York family. His father was a high-ranking corporate executive, and his grandfather had served as ambassador to Turkey and President Theodore Roosevelt’s Secretary of Commerce. At 28 he was considerably younger than Farrar. He had been a journalist and had edited Current History and Forum magazines, before founding Book Ideas, a firm that packaged books. Straus served in the Navy’s public relations department during World War II, and afterward decided to start a publishing house. Family friend Charles Merz, the editorial page editor of the New York Times, introduced him to Farrar, and they agreed to go into business together.
Straus supplied $30,000 from his inheritance to fund the venture, and the two raised another $120,000 from various friends and acquaintances. The Navy rented Straus his old office for $1 a year, and Farrar, Straus opened for business in 1946. Margaret Petherbridge, Farrar’s wife, served as associate and advisory editor. She had worked on medical and children’s books at Farrar & Rinehart, overseen its list of mystery books, and edited the crossword puzzle in the New York Times Sunday Magazine for five years. James Van Alen, the firm’s largest financial backer, had experience on the business end of publishing and served as vice-president. Stanley Young, a well-known author and playwright with extensive experience in publishing, joined the company’s board. Other members of the firm’s board had extensive experience in publishing or business as well.
Its staff was considered impressive for that of a new publishing firm, but the company almost didn’t make it. Its first book was Yank: The G.I. Story of the War, which was compiled from articles that appeared in Yank, a weekly publication of the U.S. Army. This was followed by There Were Two Pirates, a novel by James Branch Cabell, and other books that were literary but not financial successes, including Carlo Levi’s Christ Stopped at Eboli, and The Lottery, by Shirley Jackson. Despite its developing reputation for quality publications, by 1950 Farrar, Straus was barely solvent.
Farrar may have been far more widely known in literary circles, but Straus’s persuasive skills proved vital to the company’s success. In 1950 Straus enticed popular health writer Gayelord Hauser away from another publishing house. His first book for Farrar, Straus, Look Younger, Live Longer, sold 300,000 copies by year end, reversing the firm’s fortunes. That same year, Farrar won over respected fiction writer Edmund Wilson, and the firm eventually published over 20 of his books. The firm’s reputation as a literary publishing house grew stronger.
In 1951 Farrar, Straus bought the Creative Age Press’s book list, which included books by Robert Graves, James Reynolds, and Gerald Sykes. Stanley Young had been playing an increasing role in the firm, and in 1951 it renamed itself Farrar, Straus and Young. In 1952 the company joined in a Ballantine Books plan under which Ballantine simultaneously published the paperback version of Farrar, Straus and Young’s hardcover books.
In 1953 the company bought publisher Pellegrini and Cudahy, an eight-year-old Chicago firm. Sheila Cudahy joined the firm, which became Farrar, Straus and Cudahy when Young resigned. The purchase brought Farrar, Straus a line of children’s books called Ariel Books, bringing it into this market for the first time. Cudahy also brought several Catholic writers, adding further strength to Farrar, Straus’s list of religious books. In 1955 the firm started Vision Books, a series of books for younger readers which focused on the lives of saints and martyrs.
Robert Giroux, the respected editor-in-chief of publisher Harcourt, Brace & Co., also arrived in 1955. Literary tastes had become more conservative at Harcourt, Brace, and Giroux had been finding it hard to work there. After he left, Harcourt, Brace rejected Bernard Malamud’s The Assistant. Giroux, who had worked with Malamud at Harcourt, Brace, landed the new work for Farrar, Straus. The novel went on to win the National Book Award. By similar means Giroux brought 17 authors with him during the next few years, including Flannery O’Connor and T. S. Eliot. He also found new talent, like Jack Kerouac, whose first novel, The Town and the City, was published by Farrar, Straus.
Giroux’s contribution was the final push the firm needed to cement its reputation as a publishing house for quality literature, a reputation which grew during the 1960s and 1970s as it added more authors. When editor Henry Robbins joined, for example, authors Tom Wolfe and Joan Didion came with him. The firm also began publishing Philip Roth, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Susan Sontag, John McPhee, Donald Barthelme, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. The firm bought Octagon Books in 1968 and Hill and Wang in 1971.
The firm changed its name to Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 1965. Giroux became chairman of the board, though Straus was making more and more of the decisions. Meanwhile, Farrar was becoming ill with arteriosclerosis. He retired in 1972, but continued reading manuscripts at home until his death in 1974.
The firm’s reputation for literary excellence continued to grow; at the same time it was becoming one of the few publishing houses remaining independent as others were snapped up in corporate buyouts. Straus became increasingly outspoken about the state of publishing, resigning from the Association of American Publishers in the late 1970s because he felt that it sided with corporations over the independents.
In the late 1970s a number of the firm’s authors began achieving a more widespread popularity that brought muchneeded capital. John McPhee’s 13th book, Coming into the Country, finally propelled him onto the bestseller lists. In 1979 the firm had books on the fiction and nonfiction bestseller lists of the New York Times simultaneously: Philip Roth’s The Ghost Writer and Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff.
Revenues for 1979 came to about $ 10 million, with profits of about $1 million. The firm published about 100 trade books a year. Farrar, Straus and Giroux was owned by about 35 shareholders, none owning more than 10 percent, save for Straus, who owned 62 percent.
As a result of the firm’s high-profile authors and small size, corporations frequently tried to buy it. The company refused all offers, however, maintaining a hostile attitude toward large publishers, book store chains, and corporate ownership. “I think that a lot of publishing houses are being run by accountants, businessmen and lawyers who have very little concern for the book,” Straus told the New York Times in 1980. “They could just as well be selling string, spaghetti or rugs.” While Straus denigrated larger, more commercial publishers, some of them responded that his firm did not know how to promote books, and that Farrar, Straus and Giroux’s authors suffered as a result.
To maintain its independence, Farrar, Straus and Giroux stuck to a strict budget and kept its overhead low. It had a reputation for underpaying its staff, and its cramped offices, located in the less-than-tony area around Union Square in Manhattan, were on the fourth and tenth floors of a dilapidated 12-story office building. Nevertheless, the firm enjoyed such a good reputation that Scott Turow accepted a $200,000 advance at Farrar, Straus and Giroux rather than take $275,000 elsewhere.
The firm thrived in the mid to late 1980s. Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities reached number one on the bestseller lists, while Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent reached number three. Around the same time Walker Percy’s The Thanatos Syndrome and Philip Roth’s The Counterlife also made it onto the bestseller lists. The Counterlife was named the best novel of 1987 by The National Book Critics Circle. The firm picked up two more NBCC awards when the group gave its poetry award to C. K. Williams’s Flesh and Blood, and another award to Larry Heinemann’s Paco’s Story. Another Farrar, Straus and Giroux author, Joseph Brodsky, won the Nobel Prize for Literature, giving the firm a total of seven living Nobel laureates on its lists. The others included Elias Canetti, William Golding, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Wole Soyinka, and Czeslaw Milosz.
These critical successes and bestsellers translated to a 50 percent increase in Farrar, Straus and Giroux’s sales during a two-year period. As a result, the firm expanded, also increasing its staff 50 percent by 1992. In 1991 it started an imprint for Spanish-language children’s books. In 1993 Farrar, Straus and Giroux gave the New York Public Library its 1946-80 editorial records. In 1992 the company bought the backlist of North Point Press, which had stopped putting out new books in 1990.
The firm’s expansion came to an end in early 1992, when, in the midst of a recession, it was forced to lay off about 15 percent of its staff of about 100 people. Those laid off included Linda Healey, a vice-president and associate publisher, who had joined in 1988 to concentrate on journalistic nonfiction. Most others were junior staffers, including some from the children’s division, which was the firm’s most profitable at the time.
In February 1993, Elizabeth Sifton became vice-president of the firm and publisher of its Hill and Wang division. By this time, Straus essentially ran the company, while grooming his son Roger Straus 3d to take over. Roger Straus 3d began his career at the firm, then left in 1985 to work for Avon Books and Times Books, although it was understood that he would eventually return to Farrar, Straus and Giroux. He returned in the late 1980s when the firm was experiencing commercial success. The company’s decision to increase its share of the market for serious nonfiction and hire several employees was largely due to pressure from Roger Straus 3d. After the recession forced cutbacks, father and son continued to have disagreements, with the younger Straus wanting to push growth and an emphasis on marketing and promotion.
Finally, in September 1993, Roger Straus 3d resigned as managing director of the company. The elder Straus was 76 years old, and wanted to protect the firm’s authors even after he died, but the company’s future seemed uncertain. Finally, in late 1994, he sold Farrar, Straus and Giroux to the German publishing group Verlagsgruppe Georg von Holtzbrinck GmbH, based in Stuttgart. The German company already owned publisher Henry Holt and Company, and published the periodical Scientific American. More importantly, it had a reputation for hands-off management. Straus remained president of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. The rest of the company’s management also stayed in place, including Jonathan Galassi as vice-president and editor-in-chief. As a result of the sale, Farrar, Straus and Giroux said it would put out about ten percent more books per year.
In 1995 Frances Foster became publisher of Frances Foster Books, part of Farrar, Straus and Giroux’s children’s books division; at the same time, the firm announced that North Point would begin to publish new titles again.
Fraser, Gerald, “’John C. Farrar, Publisher. Editor and Writer, Is Dead,” New York Times, November 7, 1974.
Hall, Donald, “Robert Giroux: Looking for Masterpieces.” New York Times Book Review, January 6. 1980, pp. 3, 22-23.
Kleinfield, N. R., “Roger Straus: Making It as an Independent,” New York Times Book Review, March 23, 1980, pp. 3, 28-29.
Lyall, Sarah, “Farrar Straus Heir Apparent Quits in a Genteel Family Tiff,” New York Times, September 23, 1993, pp. D1-D2.
_____, “Sale of Farrar, Straus is Near, Its President Says, New York Times, October 20, 1994, p. D21.
Shephard, R. Z., “Winning the Old-Fashioned Way: Farrar, Straus Reaps Prizes and Profits on a Shoestring,” Time, February 8, 1995, p. 76.
—Scott M. Lewis