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The publisher as protagonist

In an industry dominated by big firms, Grove/Atlantic chief Morgan Entrekin is a small-house standard bearer for an earlier age, a writers' hero in pursuit of real literature (and an artful blockbuster or two along the way).

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On a winter night just over nine years ago, Morgan Entrekin trundled home to his apartment in New York's West Village. Ordinarily, he would have remained with friends until dawn, carousing at the annual Christmas bash hosted by Bret Easton Ellis, a writer he discovered and who has remained a close friend.

But on this evening, Mr. Entrekin - the iconoclastic head of Grove/- Atlantic Press - had a manuscript to read. A colleague, a first-time editor, felt strongly that it was worth developing, and Entrekin had promised that he would tackle it overnight. He didn't mind just popping into the Ellis party for a Perrier and then heading home.

"I didn't hesitate," Entrekin says. "I was looking forward to reading it."

The following morning, Grove/Atlantic scraped together $100,000 to land "Cold Mountain," a first book by an unknown named Charles Frazier. It was the largest offer the small independent publisher had ever made. This epic story of a Civil War soldier's journey home went on to win a National Book Award and sell more than 1.5 million copies in hardcover. The book - ultimately adapted for the screen to become the Hollywood hit that premièred last month - earned for Entrekin and Grove/Atlantic the honor of publishing what was, at the time, the bestselling literary fiction debut in the history of American publishing.

It was a tactical move by a man who may be more bookworm than swashbuckler, despite a reputation for being a fixture on the social circuit. Elisabeth Schmitz, Grove/ Atlantic's subsidiary-rights director and the editor who recommended Frazier, says she and Entrekin always joke that at the Frankfurt Book Fair in Germany every year, she works the day shift, while Entrekin covers nights. And Entrekin, often characterized in the '80s as a hard-driving playboy-publisher, is said to have inspired a character in Jay McInerney's 1984 book "Bright Lights, Big City."

Today, his legendary silvery-brown ponytail has been trimmed to a bob. And his bohemian looks are accented by wire-rimmed glasses, a blue oxford shirt, tawny corduroys, and a sweater vest that he slips off and on as the temperature in his office rises and falls.

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