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The publisher as protagonist

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"In hindsight, it was probably a little bit ambitious," he says. "But it worked. There were moments when it seemed like it might not, but somehow I learned just enough at each point to where I was able to make it to the next point. It's like being a rock climber, you can get just enough of a grip to drag yourself up to the next level. And I learned as I went."

In 1991, Entrekin bought Atlantic Monthly Press. In February 1993, he merged it with the great avant-garde publisher Grove Press, and Grove/Atlantic was formed. He has tried to uphold the legacies of both houses. In keeping with Grove Press's tradition of literary erotica - "Story of O" and "Lady Chatterley's Lover," for instance - Entrekin recently published Catherine Millet's frank memoir of sexual experimentation, "The Sexual Life of Catherine M."

Today, Entrekin owns Grove/Atlantic - with $20 million in annual revenue - along with six shareholders: business partner Joan Bingham, Entrekin's mother, his brother, and three friends.

The familial attitude is a comfortable one that extends even to high-profile writers. But keeping those prize horses in the stable becomes an enormous challenge once they attract the attention of the deep-pocketed conglomerates.

Entrekin has lost some of his most prominent names to untouchable seven-figure advances. Most recently, Frazier left for a little over $8 million. Before him, it was Candace Bushnell, whose New York Observer columns Grove/Atlantic collected in "Sex and the City." [Editor's note: The original version mischaracterized the size of the advances.]

When Frazier turned down Grove/Atlantic's offer of $2 million for his second novel - the largest advance it has ever cobbled together - Entrekin was disappointed. He was also bothered at not being able to stay in business with a writer his house had worked to develop.

Entrekin calls these breaks "frustrating," but says he can't begrudge his former writers their decision. Yet those close to him say the splits with authors - and friends - hit him hard. "His heart is truly broken when writers that he finds and nurtures decide to abandon him," says "Black Hawk Down" author Mark Bowden.

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