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Ex-executive takes title role in smaller venue

Wendy Strothman did the damnedest thing a few years ago. She crossed the street from publisher to literary agent. She went from 250 employees to two. She traded a big office and expense account as head of the trade and reference division of Houghton Mifflin -- the one that puts everything from Curious George to Philip Roth into bookstores -- for a tiny nest near Faneuil Hall.

Strothman, 55, had spent 30 years in publishing: She was, among other things, director of Beacon Press before Houghton. So she has had a ringside seat for the long goodbye of the industry's ancient regime -- the boozy lunches, the clichéd tweed and pipe tobacco culture, the wash of eccentricities.

She also watched the extinction of the independent houses, memorable menageries, ingested by conglomerates from galaxies far, far away. She was at Houghton when it was bought by the French behemoth Vivendi in 2001. Late the next year, as word spread that Vivendi would sell it to a troika of financial predators -- Thomas H. Lee Partners, Bain Capital and The Blackstone Group -- she left.

''After the company was sold, I realized I wasn't having fun anymore," she says. ''I felt the job was changing -- more time spent in big strategic meetings and less for books. When I was division head, I was lucky if I'd edit one or two books a year." (She edited five of Roth's books at Houghton.) I always knew I wanted to get back closer to the ground, and I needed to do it now. This was a gift."

So Strothman set up her own shop in 2003. With it has come the satisfaction of working closely with good writers and the freedom to read manuscripts at her place in Maine. Also the panic of the new: ''I'm playing without a net. In the daylight hours, it's fine. At 3 a.m., it's scary."

Her biggest challenge is to build her own backlist of books. She has a dozen in print so far, with another several dozen in the pipeline. (The memoir of Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian human rights activist who received the Nobel Peace Prize, surfaces soon.) Strothman focuses mainly on nonfiction. No chick lit. No time-sensitive books.

''Books on the news are very tricky," she says. ''If something is news today, there is no book. I just turned down a book on bird flu a few months ago. The news will pass it by. Ninety percent of the books on Iraq won't sell."

It has never been harder to sell a book. ''You used to launch a book regionally through independent bookstores," she explains. ''That's very rare now."

Instead, a publisher must frontload a national campaign to seduce the big retailers. There is a window of a few weeks for a book to find purchase with the behemoths. If not, toodle-oo. She cites the line attributed to Alfred Knopf: ''Gone today, here tomorrow."

And, she adds, ''People running publishing companies today are coming up through the sales ranks. Sales people tend to be conservative. They're looking for the last bestseller."

That said, Strothman yawns at visions of impending doom. ''The publishing industry has been in a state of crisis since I got my first job in 1973," she says, recalling a paper shortage in the 70s, the advent of mall stores, industry consolidation, and the arrival of big box stores like Wal-Mart. ''Really good books come out every day in spite of it all."

Yes, but what happens to them? I looked out of curiosity at the New York Times fiction bestseller list from 50 years ago. A week in early June 1956, chosen at random, included ''The Last Hurrah," ''The Quiet American," ''Ten North Frederick," ''The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit," and ''Andersonville."

Last Sunday, the Times list was graced with the Templar hat trick: ''The Da Vinci Code," ''The Templar Legacy", and ''The Last Templar," along with the latest offerings from Danielle Steele and Jackie Collins.

Some runs, to be sure, are better than others, but you get the picture.

Strothman stoutly rejects such judgments: ''For every trend you cite, I'll cite a counter trend. I'm not going to generalize."

I will. We're going to the dogs.

What she does not dispute is the blurring of the line between publishing house editor and literary agent: ''Agents have had to take on a much larger role than in the past."

''The fact is that editors don't have the same kind of time they used to have," she says. ''Everyone complains about the proliferation of meetings -- the prelaunch meeting, the launch meeting, the presales meeting, the sales meeting."

As a result, agents spend more time editing manuscripts. (Good ones do a lot of it anyway.) ''This office is often silent for an entire day because we're all reading," she notes. ''There can be three rounds of editing before I send a book to a publisher. At times you need to say, 'You really do need to rewrite this. Five houses said no because they're right.' On the other hand, she adds, overediting can be lethal.

Strothman loves this balancing act. It's why she got small. Along with her commitment to her writers: ''Editors move a lot. Books become orphans. An agent becomes the stable force in a writer's life."

Sam Allis can be reached at allis@globe.com

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