Mr. Passion

Meet Dallas literary agent Evan Fogelman, the brains behind the bodice-rippers

The peddlers of "celebrity" books respond that the pop-culture book (e.g., Faye Resnick's book on O.J., or anything by Deepak Chopra) is what makes the "legitimate" book business possible, making up for many a mid-list title that didn't "earn out" (earn back the advance paid to the author).

Either way, it seems clear that the cult of celebrity represents publishers hitching onto easy marketing gimmicks. Many agents charge publishers with abdicating their duties of promotion. "I think it's unfair," says David Hale Smith, a Dallas-based literary agent, speaking of the celebrity book pop-culture craze. "The publishers are counting on preexisting star power to get them on Letterman or the Today show, and then they won't spend money to promote a new novelist." Smith, a Young (29-year-old) Turk who has had impressive success in that most difficult of all genres, "literary" fiction, points out that works of merit are still being bought and sold, citing the success of books such as Angela's Ashes, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, and The Liar's Club. (Smith himself recently sold a first novel, a "literary thriller" tentatively titled God is a Bullet, to distinguished publisher Alfred A. Knopf for $500,000.)

What frightens Smith most is the "Hollywoodization" of the book business--the excessive emphasis on first-weekend gate and the attempt to find the next overnight success. "It's scary," he says. "The biggest sales I have had have been first-time authors. The pressure to hit the first time out is tremendous. It's almost better not to have a track record; then there's no danger that you didn't earn out or had small sales."

Amidst this hand-wringing, the romance industry is a quiet little corner of the book world that is not merely holding its own, but actually growing--not only in number and dollar amounts of sales, but also in terms of market share. More than any other genre, it seems to be unaffected by this culture of celebrity. Though the success of novels like Gone With the Wind (Margaret Mitchell, 1936) and Forever Amber (Kathleen Winsor, 1945) hinted that there might be a mass market for romantic historicals, the "modern" romance traces its roots to a 1972 paperback, The Flame and the Flower, written by Kathleen Woodiwiss. "It was a large-scope novel with a historical setting that really pushed the boundaries of 'women's fiction,'" recalls Robin Lee Hatcher, a former president of the Romance Writers of America and the author of some 25 romance novels. "By that, I mean it opened the bedroom door. It was [sexually] very explicit, compared to what had been published before."

The book, which has sold countless millions of copies, demonstrated that there was a mass market for inexpensive books geared to what Hatcher calls "women's concerns." Since then, the romance market has experienced exponential growth. In 1994, the Association of American Authors estimated that mass-market romance was a $700,000 to $800,000 industry; just three years later, in fiscal year 1997, total revenues are expected to exceed $1.4 billion. (These estimates include the crossover "romantic suspense" category.)

According to a recent survey by Harlequin Enterprises (one of the biggest romance publishers) and Forbes magazine, the average romance devotee is a 39-year-old woman with a household income that exceeds $40,000 a year. Somewhat surprisingly, 45 percent have college educations, and 50 percent work outside of the home.

The romance genre is one of the few that still grooms authors for long-term success, points out David Hale Smith. Although Smith does not handle romance unless there is a potential for "breakout," or hard-cover, success, he admires a number of things about the "traditional" romance business. "In a way, I wish I were in Evan's industry," Smith says. "It's one of the few where there's still a sense of building an author the way it was traditionally done."

Evan Marr Fogelman is a native son, the oldest child of a Jewish surgeon from Chicago and a Dallas woman who converted to Reform Judaism when they married. He was raised in the Preston Hollow section of North Dallas, where he still lives, and attended St. Mark's School of Texas, the elite Dallas boys' school. Though he was raised in comfortable upper-middle-class surroundings, he does seem to have learned something about drama at home. His parents divorced when he was young, and both remarried quickly. Fogelman and his siblings, Joe and Margo, were raised by their mother and stepfather, Henry Klepak, a prominent Dallas attorney, supporter of the arts, and, perhaps most impressively, the man who in the '50s invented the "private club" concept as a way to get around Texas' Baptist-inspired liquor laws.

In 1982, while Fogelman was in college at Tulane University, his sister Margo died in a car crash the night before she was to graduate from The Hockaday School. Fogelman went on to earn literature and law degrees, graduating from Tulane's law school in 1985. He practiced a year with a big New Orleans firm, then came back home "for family reasons." In 1989, he swapped the legal paper-chase for the literary one, taking over the client list of Vicki Eisenberg, Dallas' first real literary agent. (Eisenberg abandoned the agenting business for the greener pastures of advertising.) Fogelman attributes the move, in part, to his sister's death. "When someone you love is killed at a relatively young age, you're motivated to spend your time doing what you really need to do," Fogelman says. "I'm a book man. I could be killed in a car wreck. Am I going to sit behind a desk and play golf once a week, or am I going to take a chance on stepping out and doing what I feel I need to be doing?"

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