Atria has a "problem" that a lot of other publishers wouldn't mind facing. The Simon & Schuster imprint is strong in such widely different areas that many people identify it in a variety of ways--as, for example, an African-American publisher or a preeminent New Age house or one of the industry's leading Latino publishers or international fiction pioneer or a house with some of the best general commercial titles around. They aren't exactly wrong, but they aren't exactly right either. Atria is in fact all those things.
Consider the range of some of the authors and titles Atria has published during its seven years: The Secret by Rhonda Byrne; Zane's series of erotic African American novels; Marlo Thomas (Atria's first book was Thomas's The Right Words at the Right Time--also the imprint's first No. 1 New York Times bestseller); the Dalai Lama; Jude Deveraux, Jodi Picoult; Shirley MacLaine; Vince Flynn's thrillers; memoirs by Helen Mirren and Prince; pastor T.D. Jakes's entrepreneurial and spiritual titles; Jennifer Weiner of Good in Bed fame.
In fact, about a quarter of Atria's list is African American, 15% is Latino and Spanish language. The rest is divided equally between fiction and nonfiction, and is both commercial and literary. Atria publishes in hardcover as well as trade paperback through its Washington Square Press imprint. Its mass market partner is Pocket Books.
Judith Curr, executive v-p and publisher of Atria, commented, "We have a mixture of celebrity and recurring authors and new authors--Spanish and African American and New Age and self help. There's something for everyone." This makes holidays easy for staffers, she added. "We have a lot of relatives, and we can make them all happy."
Curr moved to the U.S. from her native Australia in 1996, when she became editor-in-chief (and later publisher) at Ballantine. In 1999, she moved to Pocket Books as president and publisher. Later, when Carolyn Reidy became head of the S&S adult division, she decided to change Pocket's focus, reverting to its traditional mass market emphasis. This led to the founding of Atria, which began when Curr was given what she called "the core of the old Pocket hardcover list" and the mission of founding a hardcover imprint.
Curr enjoyed the challenge, she said. "I have always done the best when I had things to start off myself." (In Australia, she was part of a group that started Transworld.) Clearly it's working: Atria has published 165 New York Times bestsellers since its launch in 2002.
A lot of thought and work went into naming the imprint, and the search was given special impetus "because a Tibetan healer came in and said we should have a name that embodies our intentions," Curr said. Atria has a variety of meanings related to the imprint's mission (as well as one very practical advantage): it's the name of an ancient city that was connected to the ocean by a series of canals, and "our job is to connect authors to readers," as Curr put it. Atria is the plural of a large open space in a building as well as the plural of the name of the valve in the heart, and "we want to publish books that have meaning and purpose and help people." Atria is the name of a star in the Southern Hemisphere (which has special Down Under resonance for Curr) "and we're a publisher for the Latin American market, too."
About the practical advantage Atria: having a name that starts with the first letter of the alphabet means that "if you're starting a new organization in an established organization," Curr said with a smile, "you'll be on the top of every memo."
The company aims to include an image on each catalogue cover that expresses these meanings such as sky, stars and water.
Soon after Atria began, like Hillary Clinton in her 2000 Senatorial campaign, Curr went on "a listening tour"--in her case, of booksellers. "We had a good editorial staff, but I wanted to learn more," she said. The biggest tip turned out to be from "someone who said no one's really focusing on African American books." This led to one of the strongest African American publishing programs at a major imprint. Besides Zane ("she's fantastic") and Jakes, Atria has published Sister Souljah, Tavis Smiley and others. This year six Atria authors were nominated for NAACP awards and two won, and many titles have been on Essence's bestseller lists.
In 2005, Atria took another big step in this area, co-publishing the titles of Strebor Books, the publishing house originally founded by Zane to publish her books. Strebor is a significant publisher of African-American authors and now does some 30 trade paperback titles a year.
Latino and Spanish-Language Publishing
After several years, "the next step" was Latino and Spanish-American titles, Curr said. For this, Atria hired Johanna Castillo, an agent who specialized in the area, as senior editor.
Among Atria's current major titles in this area:
This month Atria is publishing Maria Celeste Arraras's Make Your Life in Prime Time simultaneously in Spanish and English. Celeste, the Hispanic TV personality, is on two publicity tours simultaneously. As Atria learned with The Secret, Spanish-language TV in North America is a powerful force, Curr noted.
Another upcoming title is Captive, a memoir by Clara Rojas, who was a captive of leftist guerrillas in Colombia--and was held and released with Ingrid Betancourt, the Colombian-French former Senator and Presidential candidate. Rojas's book is about her search for her child, who was born during her time in captivity. Captive is currently a No. 1 bestseller in France. In the U.S., it will appear in October in Spanish and come out in English six months later. Curr predicted that Spanish-language TV will be important in spreading the word about this title, too.
During Curr's listening tour, a Borders staffer noted that some smaller publishers couldn't keep up with success when some of their titles broke out and suggested Curr buy rights to When GOD Winks: How the Power of Coincidence Guides Your Life by SQuire Rushnell, which had been published by Beyond Words, the mind/body/spirit publisher in Hillsboro, Ore., founded in 1983 by Richard Cohn. In fact, Atria did buy rights to When GOD Winks, and the arrangement worked out so well that Atria bought other titles. Eventually the two houses decided that to form a joint venture, which went into effect in late 2006.
Among the titles published by Atria/Beyond Words are Dr. Masaru Emoto's bestselling water books, including The Hidden Messages in Water, Mike Dooley's Notes from the Universe series and other titles, including the prize-winning Why the Dalai Lama Matters by Robert Thurman. Atria does production, selling, printing, some design, some of the publicity and marketing; Atria and Beyond Words split the profits. Curr calls this "a very good business model," applicable in other areas, under which Atria acts like "a mother ship that moves along, and smaller ships go back and forth and bring surprising and wonderful things to us. We find gems that way."
But of course Atria's biggest title--one that evolved out of the connection with Beyond Words--was The Secret by Rhonda Byrne, which has sold many millions of copies worldwide. "We learned a lot from The Secret," Curr said. One of those items of wisdom had to do with the power of the non English-speaking market in North America. Atria sold 400,000 copies in Spanish in the U.S. "I believe if it happens once, it can happen again if conditions are right," Curr said.
"My theory is if the markets are getting smaller, you want to have more of them, like French-language editions for Canada," Curr continued.
The saga of The Secret began in April 2007, when Cynthia Black, Beyond Words's president and editor-in-chief, called Curr and told her she should see the movie The Secret. "I went to the site, saw it and thought we had to buy this," Curr said. At that point, no book existed--but by November, The Secret the book went on sale, "the first big Atria/Beyond Words book," she said. And in a bit of understatement: "We got off to a nice start."
Beyond Words publishes some 15 originals a year. "It's a very vigorous program," Curr said. "All the titles have steady backlist sales, and sooner or later they get something that really pops."
Atria International publishes books from around the world that have a definite focus. "The idea is that if you want to find out what's in the mind of other cultures, you should read nonfiction; but if you want to find out what's in their hearts, you have to read their fiction," Curr said. The books in the program "take you inside the lives of everyday people." Thus Atria International books include The Feathered Serpent by Xu Xiaobin, a February title about "four generations of Chinese people with a backdrop of 100 years of political turmoil."
Coincidentally there are "quite a few" Australian novels on Atria's list this year. Recently published, Carpentaria by Alexis Wright won the Miles Franklin Literary Award, Australia's most prestigious book prize, and is an aboriginal novel. Curr called it "a very unusual book," in part because the aboriginal tradition is oral, so there is no "big body of literature reflecting or representing that culture."
Another title from Down Under is The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton, who is "a wonderful new voice," Curr said. Published in April, the title is about a young girl who is abandoned on a voyage to Australia in 1913, grows up there and then returns to England to try to discover her family background. Morton's first novel published here, The House at Riverton, now in paperback, is about the long, slow decline of a British family from the point of view of one their servants and did very well in the U.S.
Atria International is also doing "a lot in translation. We are always trying to find new voices to launch." The project sounds particularly close to Curr's heart: "The world has become much more global as the Internet is breaking down boundaries," she said. In addition, she noted, "American publishers always sell rights. But we're keen to buy foreign rights, too."
One such title is The Sound of Water by Sanjay Bahadur, to be published at the end of June, a trade paperback about a mining disaster in India. Miners are trapped, and water is rising. Of the people outside, half will gain by the miners' death, half will gain by their survival.
Another title with international tones is Mother of the Believers: A Novel of the Birth of Islam by Kamran Pasha, a trade paperback published last month by Washington Square Press. The book is from the point of view of Aisha, the prophet Mohammed's young wife, who after his death became a powerful force in the expanding Muslim world. Pasha is an American Muslim who has written for Kings, the TV show based on the story of King David, among other TV shows. The title is an example of the increasing number of trade paperback original books published by Washington Square Press.
"Our authors' progress is our progress, and our progress is mirrored by our authors' progress," Curr said. This is particularly true, she added, in fiction, where Atria has developed many authors who publish a book a year, with increasing print runs for successive titles. For example, Plain Truth by Jodi Picoult sold 35,000 copies in hardcover. Now her latest has 600,000 copies in hardcover.
Another example is Vince Flynn, "a bona fide No. 1." His books, which include Extreme Measures, Separation of Powers and Protect and Defend, now have 500,000 copies in hardcover, and his last two books "went straight to No. 1." Curr called this a special feat for thrillers, "the hardest category."
Atria has published Jennifer Weiner since Good in Bed, her first novel, and "now she's a household name." Certain Girls was published last year; Best Friends Forever appears in July.
Brad Thor was a travel writer working on a book when "one of our reps sat next to him on a train in Switzerland," Curr said. The pair talked, and Thor mentioned he was working on a book. The rep encouraged him to send it along. Thor is now an established No. 1 New York Times bestselling thriller author, and his next book, The Apostle, appears at the end of June.
In every case, "somewhere along the line, we unlocked the key about getting the message across," Curr said. "Each book has a key that we have to find. We always try to find a new way in for the books nowadays. We always have to have a plan to begin. But once published, we need to be able to adjust and modify and change that plan, reacting to what's happening in the marketplace."