The Colgate Scene
November 2004

The Da Vinci editor

[Photo by Timothy D. Sofranko]

Walk into the nearest bookstore, or just about any airport newsstand in the world, and you will no doubt find Dan Brown's #1 international bestseller, The Da Vinci Code, prominently displayed. What you won't see right away, though, is the name of the person who helped bring the book to international acclaim. That credit goes to Doubleday's executive editor, Jason Kaufman '91.

Just turn to the first sentence of the author's acknowledgments and you will see that Brown and his editor have a special relationship — "First and foremost, to my friend and editor, Jason Kaufman, for working so hard on this project and for truly understanding what this book is all about." For all those amateur code-breakers out there, that sentiment is further reflected in the book itself: one of the minor characters — Jonas Faukman, an editor — is an anagram of Kaufman's name.

Of course, many authors will at some point thank their editors for enabling their work to be published, but it is not often that the typical writer-editor relationship develops into a true friendship.

"Our relationship has evolved with each book," said Kaufman, who started working with Dan Brown when he was an editor at Pocket Books, a division of Simon & Schuster. "The first book we worked on together was Angels and Demons. It just blew me away when I saw the manuscript. I thought, `This guy should be a very big best seller,' but it just didn't happen; at least, not then."

Angels and Demons was Brown's first book featuring Harvard code-breaking professor Robert Langdon (why he's not a Colgate code-breaker you will have to bring up with Kaufman yourself). That book, as well as the two others Brown published before The Da Vinci Code, Digital Fortress (1998) and Deception Point (2001), sold perhaps 25,000 copies altogether. Today, Angels and Demons is on the New York Times Bestseller List, not too far off from the top-listed Da Vinci Code.

"Such is the world of publishing," Kaufman admitted. "Sometimes you get a writer who is not perceived — for one reason or another — as a potential commercial success, and the publishing house just won't put a lot of resources into promoting the book."

Making a change
Just like anything in life, sometimes it takes a change to make things happen. And this was the case for editor and writer alike.

"When I left Pocket for Doubleday in 2001, the first call I made was to Dan, to tell him I was leaving and that I really hoped he would come with me," said Kaufman. "It was a perfect move at a perfect time for both of us. We had just started talking about this new book and we felt good things were in store."

The rest is history. Over 78 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller List — at least 50 weeks at #1 — The Da Vinci Code has sold close to nine million copies, which breaks nearly every publishing record for hardcover fiction. It has been translated into more than 40 languages, and Sony-Columbia has already bought the film rights to the book for director Ron Howard (A Beautiful Mind and Apollo 13). Those credentials put Dan Brown up there with the "big boys" of commercial fiction such as Tom Clancy, John Grisham, and Stephen King.

"There are only a handful of authors who can sell a million copies of a book," said Kaufman. "It's a terrific thing for the industry as a whole. A book like The Da Vinci Code doesn't come along very often, but when it does, it sparks the imagination and brings people into bookstores — people who are not normally coming in."

Editing suits him
Just as Dan Brown did not rise to the top overnight, the same could be said of Kaufman's career in publishing. Starting with a summer internship at Random House between his junior and senior years at Colgate, Kaufman enjoyed the world of publishing so much that during his senior year, he left campus a semester early and returned to Random House, eventually taking up a full-time editorial assistant position. (He also returned to be with his girlfriend — today his wife — Rebecca, who was also working as an editor at Random House. Fourteen years later, they are still together and are the parents of two young daughters.) At the same time, Kaufman had romantic notions of becoming a writer himself and started working on a mystery thriller that apparently never made it beyond the confines of his desk.

"I took the manuscript out of my drawer a few years ago and decided to skim through it as if I were reading a regular submission," Kaufman recalled. "To tell you the truth, I probably would have rejected it. I think editing suits me better than writing."

And, indeed it has. Since his Colgate internship days at Random House, he graduated from assistant editor to associate editor to editor during his four years with HarperCollins. Then, he moved up another rung of the publishing ladder to become a senior editor at Simon & Schuster's Pocket Books. Today, he is executive editor at Doubleday, which is owned by Random House — the very place where he began.

"Titles are kind of meaningless," Kaufman said about his fast-track promotion. "But your responsibilities and freedom are greater with each level."

Sounds great, but what exactly does an executive editor do?

"People think editors spend their days correcting grammar, but that's pretty much not a part of my job, which is a good thing since my grammar, I'm sure, leaves something to be desired," the former English major confessed.

Posing questions
"I actually spend my time acquiring new books to publish, and helping authors make their manuscripts as strong as possible," Kaufman explained. "With a suspense novel, for example, we might brainstorm questions like: Do the opening scenes plant an exciting hook that readers won't lose interest in? Are the twists well concealed and surprising? Are the villains original and believable?"

These are the kinds of questions Kaufman puts to the authors he works with, including bestselling novelist Robert Crais (The Last Detective), Lincoln Child (Death Match), and Jeff Lindsay (Darkly Dreaming Dexter). In the nonfiction category, Kaufman's books include America's Secret War by George Friedman, and a range of sports books such as the recently released biography of Red Sox legend Ted Williams by Leigh Montville, James Dodson's acclaimed biography of golf great Ben Hogan, and Christopher "Mad Dog" Russo's book, The Greatest Sports Arguments of All Time.

When not engrossed in reading manuscripts on the hourlong train ride to his office in midtown Manhattan, or at the beach while on vacation, Kaufman does get away from all that fine print from time to time. He coaches his daughter's soccer team and has been known to shoot a round of golf here and there.

"I do like to play golf, but I never have time," Kaufman said. "And when I have free time, I want to spend it with my wife and kids, so I'll never be able to cultivate a great golf game."

But, over the years he has managed to cultivate a great eye for spotting winning books and authors.

"I'm always on the lookout for new books to buy," Kaufman said. "But I also hope that my list of writers right now will be the same in five years."

That list includes, of course, Dan Brown.

So, can we expect another Robert Langdon thriller soon? It appears so. Just remember to check out the acknowledgments before diving into the roller-coaster world of codes and cryptology — Jason Kaufman's name is sure to be there.

Mark Schulman is a freelance journalist based in Geneva, Switzerland. He did not attend Colgate, but he lived vicariously through the undergraduate experience of his high school friend, Jason Kaufman.
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