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"The First Tycoon": A Good News Publishing Backstory

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Why would anyone want to read a 720 page book on the life of Cornelius Vanderbilt?

The object itself is a beautiful piece of bookmaking with a classy jacket and deckled edged paper.

I picked the book up a few moths ago because I'm personally interested in the impulses and people which made America develop into the nation we know today. The mark of Knopf on the spine assured me that this would be a readable and thorough book.

I started reading 20 pages at a time but soon got hooked and couldn't wait to get back and tear off 100 page clumps. The beautiful object now had the dog-eared pages and coffee stained cover that showed I was devouring it.

Most Americans, even New Yorkers, whose lives Vanderbilt still influences would have a hard time telling you who he was or what he did. Sure, there is a Vanderbilt Place for a few short blocks in midtown Manhattan and a rather imposing statue that stands at the confluence of the elevated road which runs around Grand Central, but I bet that Vanderbilt is not even mentioned in high school history books now.

I spoke to my former colleague Jonathan Segal about why he thought he should publish the book and he told me he had worked on Stiles first book on Jesse James which had been a NY Times notable book. Segal was convinced that Stiles "had the goods " and was a "wonderful guy". Jonathan said that he and Sonny Mehta believed that publishing was a "collective relationship" and that they believed in giving their authors "lots of freedom to write what they want". He thought Stiles had a "refreshing point of view" and that since he and Knopf publisher Sonny Mehta "believe in talent" he would not walk away from this project and instead signed Stiles up for what they both knew would be a long period of research, writing and editing.

Mr. Stiles would obviously need to support himself and his family for five years. Even though he lectured at Columbia and taught karate in his spare time, he must have needed a tidy financial commitment from Knopf to undertake this project.

Can you imagine the conversation that would have taken place at most publishing houses when the finance people crunched the numbers and estimated what this project was going to cost? Can you see the sales people's wan smiles when they found out that a 720 page biography was going to have to sell for $37.50? Not a pretty picture.

But Knopf is different. Even the business managers believe that good books will find readers. They believe that it's better to walk away from stuff that isn't right so they can take chances on the the authors and books that will interest and delight the 15% of America that would rather seep themselves in the atmosphere of an earlier America and learn facts about Commodore Vanderbilt than have their prejudices pandered to by Glenn Beck.

Who was Vanderbilt? He was an almost illiterate 23 year old who seized on the opportunity of running one of the first steam ferries from Staten Island to Manhattan in 1817. To quote the jacket copy: "We see Vanderbilt help to launch the transportation revolution, propel the Gold Rush, reshape Manhattan and invent the modern corporation--in fact, as TJ Stiles elegantly argues, Vanderbilt did more than perhaps any other individual to create the economic world we live in today."

"Elegantly argues" is so Knopfian and so true because this books is no dry history but a virile picture of an astoundingly active man who bestrode his world like a colossus but was eminently human with tangled messy relationships with wives, children, friends and enemies.
Yesterday I heard the happy news that "The First Tycoon" has won the Non-Fiction National Book Award. Publisher's Lunch also mentioned that it was the best-selling non-fiction book nominated.

PW quoted Stiles as saying that winning the NBA was an "out of body experience." Stiles said that books "are at the heart of our culture," and went on to thank the vast army of workers--"a complete eco-system" --that make books possible. "The editorial assistants, the copyeditors, the designers, agents, publicists, the guys in the mailroom, librarians--I hope e-books aren't fooling us into thinking these people aren't needed."

I'm happy to join a lot of people congratulating TJ Stiles for writing a terrific book and winning this prestigious award.

I'd also like to congratulate Jonathan Segal, Sonny Mehta and the whole AA Knopf organization for having the guts to back good writers and giving them the means and time to tackle serious subjects and enlighten us all.

Alfred A Knopf is probably looking down from book heaven, stroking his luxuriant mustaches and smiling with delight at yet another Knopf prize winner.

Around the Web

Book Review - 'The First Tycoon - The Epic Life of Cornelius ...

The First Tycoon by T. J. Stiles - Hardcover - Random House

Book Review: 'The First Tycoon' by T.J. Stiles - washingtonpost.com

The National Book Foundation