About two years ago, a friend of Brian Tart, publisher of Dutton, gave him a copy of Seventy-Five Years, or the Joys and Sorrows of Publishing and Selling Books at Duttons from 1852–1927. As its title implies, the book, published in 1927, documents the first 75 years of the company, which, over the years, evolved into an adult hardcover imprint. According to the book, Dutton was founded in 1852, when Edward Payson Dutton and his partner established a bookselling firm in Boston. But the company didn’t begin publishing books until 12 years later, in 1864, when Dutton bought the Ticknor & Fields Bookstore, which had a small publishing division. With that latter date in mind, Tart decided to spearhead an initiative to mark 2014 as the 150th anniversary of Dutton as a publisher.
Taking Seventy-Five Years as a starting point, Tart and other Dutton employees looked through archives stored at the company’s offices in New York (the full Dutton archive is housed at Syracuse University) and at other original sources to flesh out the history of the company—especially the period after 1927, not covered in the book. “The project,” Tart said, “is a great way to show how we have evolved as a publisher.”
Dutton didn’t stay centered in Boston for long. In 1869, E.P. Dutton opened his first New York City bookstore and moved the company headquarters there as well—a move that reflected, according to Tart, the need for late-19th-century publisher/booksellers to be in country’s largest city. In 1885, John Macrae, who was then 19, joined the company as a clerk in the New York store. From that point on, the history of Dutton is as much about the Dutton family as it is about the Macrae family; the latter would remain associated with the company for nearly 100 years. Macrae rose up through the ranks at Dutton and, upon the death of E.P. Dutton in 1923, was named president. Under Macrae, Dutton began to broaden its publishing program, especially in the children’s area—a decision that led the company to become the American publisher of the Winnie-the-Pooh books. To promote the Pooh books, Macrae and his son, John Macrae Jr., who took a marketing position at the company in 1921, placed copies of the books in the windows at Macy’s.
With the needs of Dutton’s retail and publishing operations diverging, the businesses were split in 1928 and Macrae acquired the publishing division. He ran it until he died in 1944, when John Jr. took over as chairman. Under John Jr., Dutton began publishing Mickey Spillane, one of the company’s bestselling authors of the period. Spillane’s I, the Jury was released in 1947, the same year Dutton published Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar.
After working for Dutton while in college, John Macrae III became an editor at Harper Bros., and he returned to head Dutton in 1968. Under his leadership, the company published Gail Sheehy’s Passages in 1976, a huge bestseller that prompted significant changes at the house. In a recent interview with PW, Macrae said the success of Passages led him to ramp up operations, but Dutton soon encountered cash-flow problems, which, combined with the desire of some family members to cash out, led to the sale of the company to Elsevier in 1976. The merger lasted only five years. Macrae noted that Elsevier, like a number of other companies in the ’70s, was interested in combining technology and content, but that the Dutton-Elsevier pairing never clicked. The Dyson-Kissner-Moran investment group bought Dutton in 1981, after the sale of the publisher to Volt, another information company, fell through. Macrae soon left Dutton—ending his family’s nearly century-long relationship with the company—and moved to Holt Rinehart Winston, where he worked for Dick Seaver. For the last 30 years, Macrae has run the John Macrae Books imprint at Holt, where his authors include Hilary Mantel, author of Booker-winner Wolf Hall.
Dutton was sold to NAL in 1985 and underwent a quick change in ownership when Penguin bought NAL a year later. The purchase by NAL led Dutton to move its trade paperback reprints to Plume and its mass market reprints to NAL. The Penguin purchase resulted in the division of Dutton’s adult and children’s units into separate groups. The most recent change for Dutton, of course, was the Penguin–Random House merger.
Tart said that while Dutton’s history doesn’t directly impact the types of books he publishes today, he does feel a responsibility to uphold a 150-year legacy and keep the company in the best shape possible for the future. In its current incarnation, Dutton publishes about 40 hardcovers a year (releasing e-books simultaneously), divided equally between fiction and nonfiction. The focus on hardcover, Tart said, “allows us to drill deeply into each book to make sure we can promote each one as effectively as possible.” Historically, a high ratio of the company’s titles have been bestsellers, with a total of 20 books hitting the New York Times print and extended bestseller lists in 2013.
To mark its 150th anniversary, Dutton has put highlights of its corporate history on its Web site, and, beginning in late December with the release of The Purity of Vengeance by Jussi Adler-Olsen, each 2014 book will carry a new Dutton logo. The last page of each book will also have a paragraph that explains the history of the company. Tart is considering other ways to mark the event, including special e-book editions of Dutton books that are out of print.
“Not too many companies can point to a 150-year tradition,” Tart said. “It is something to be proud of.”