|David Hirshey ’71 has a collection of photos of himself with
his famous authors. This one, with actress Cybill Shepherd, is a favorite. Cybill Disobedience
was the first best seller that he edited.
Book-company exec. David Hirshey ’71 paves the way for best sellers
Late in the summer David Hirshey ’71 chatted with Sherri Kimmel, senior
editor, about his work as vice president for the publishing house HarperCollins and his encounters
with Dickinsonians in the world of books.
You came on board at HarperCollins in 1998 as executive editor and since last December have
been a vice president. Are your main duties book editing?
Since I became vice president I do less line-by-line editing and more big-picture stuff—helping
decide what nonfiction books HarperCollins buys and how to market them. There are a couple
of books every season that I’m personally invested in because of my passion for the subject
or my relationship with the writer. In those cases, I’m involved every step of the way
from negotiating the deal with the author’s agent to shaping the book with the writer,
pencil editing every draft and developing sales and marketing strategies. It’s important
for me to keep my hand in the editing process so I don’t lose touch with the authors
who I’ve had longstanding relationships with.
You edited three bestsellers last year, Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy by Jane Leavy;
Ambling into History: The Unlikely Odyssey of George W. Bush by Frank Bruni; and Among
the Heroes: United Flight 93 and the Passengers and Crew Who Fought Back by Jere Longman. That’s
quite a track record.
Normally I acquire about 12 books a year. The fact that three of them became best sellers is
proof that there is a god. Normally, if you have one best seller a year you’re a hero,
so I was in line for a ticker-tape parade. Fortunately, in those cases, I happened to be working
with three talented journalists writing on big subjects of great public interest: the untold
story of a reclusive baseball legend, a harrowing minute-by-minute reconstruction of the final
moments of United Flight 93, and an irreverent but authoritative behind-the-scenes look at
our 43rd president.
Are there some known qualities of a commercially successful book, no matter the genre?
When you’re buying a book [as a publishing executive] you’re essentially rolling
the dice. You can never predict what is going to be a best seller—unless the author is
a brand name. J.K. Rowling is a pretty safe bet. A lot depends on the writer’s track
record and the timeliness or timelessness of the subject. Nobody could have predicted that
Seabiscuit or Sandy Koufax would catch the wave. But people seem to connect with both of them.
Because they’re both heroic figures.
Is this variety of genres typical for you?
Yes, because of my background as a magazine editor at Esquire and The
New Yorker and relationships
I’ve developed with top journalists over the years. I was hired to publish high-profile
narrative nonfiction. It’s an area that I think plays to my strengths as well as to
my interests. I’m a news and sports junkie, and I love a great story based on real
events. Basically, I try to edit books that I myself would enjoy reading.
Have you ever dealt in fiction, or always nonfiction?
Editing fiction requires a whole different set of muscles, and it’s rare to find someone
who’s equally strong in both. When I first came to HarperCollins I edited a couple of
novels. I found I had a much stronger affinity for nonfiction. In other words, the novels tanked.
For relaxation I do read fiction. I was dazzled by [Dickinson graduate] Jenny Haigh’s
novel [see page 20]. I also read John Griesemer [’69’s] Signals
and Noise [released
in May by Picador USA] which was a tour de force. But I only read historical novels by guys
I played soccer with at Dickinson (laughs).
Do you have a favorite aspect of your job?
The long lunches with authors, long cocktails with authors, long dinners with authors and my
annual trips to Los Angeles and London and, of course, free books. Every year I like to spend
a week or two at our sister company in London [HarperCollins UK] where I discuss books that
could work on both sides of the pond.
We started our conversation by talking about your strange encounters last spring.
I was talking to Jennifer Haigh [’90] about Dickinson. I sorta did a double take and
realized John Griesemer [’69] had just walked by me. I said, “Gries,” because
he and I played soccer together. Everywhere I looked another Dickinsonian popped up. I introduced
Jennifer Haigh to two others at HarperCollins [Libby Jordan ’84, head of marketing for
the William Morrow imprint and Kate Stark ’90, director of marketing for the resource
division of HarperCollins]. Standing in the HarperCollins booth at the annual book fair in
Los Angeles I had a feeling like I was in line at the ’Milton with Dickinson to the right
of me and to the left of me.
Dickinson certainly seems to be making inroads in the world of publishing.
For years publishing has been very much of a buttoned-up, Ivy League, old-boys’ club,
but that is changing—at least it is at HarperCollins. The Dickinson “mafia” is
making its presence felt with three executives and two authors [Jennifer Haigh and Jennifer
Holm, both class of ’90] leading the charge. It’s quite amazing that there are
three ex-Red Devils in the upper echelons in New York publishing, let alone at one company.
What college has the most grads among executives at the nation’s second-largest publishing
What is it about the Dickinson experience that may account for this?
I think it’s a testament to the quality of Dickinson’s English department that
a love of literature and a nurturing of talent has been consistently encouraged over the span
of generations. I myself owe a debt to the late, great Dr. Joseph Schiffman who indulged my
idiosyncratic passions and gave me extension after extension to finish my senior thesis on
the playwright Clifford Odets. Now, when an author calls me to plead for a few extra weeks,
months or years to complete their book, I am much more sympathetic to their plight and quote
Dr. Schiffman’s memorable line: “Genius, like herring, needs time to marinate.”