Peter Osnos


Publisher Peter Osnos was interviewed as part of the Booknotes Oral History Project on January 22, 2015. Mr. Osnos discusses his association with Brian Lamb and the publication of the related Booknotes books.


Interview Transcript

Hello, I'm Lindsey Bestebreurtje, oral historian for George Mason University Libraries, and with me is sound engineer Robert Vay. Today is January 22, 2015, and we are recording from Fenwick Library, where we are speaking with author and editor Peter Osnos, who has written and published works on C-SPAN and Booknotes, most recently publishing Brian Lamb's book Sundays at Eight, 25 Years of Stories from C-SPAN's Q&A and Booknotes. Hello, Mr. Osnos, thank you for speaking with us today.

It's a pleasure.

How did you become involved with Brian Lamb, C-SPAN, and Booknotes?

Well, as a publisher at Random House and the Times Books imprint there in the 1980s and '90s, Brian featured a great many books for which I had been responsible on the program. So when Brian decided he'd like to publish a Booknotes collection, he thought I might well be interested, and I certainly was.

How much of a risk was it to publish these books on Booknotes, and did they sell well?

We were very pleased with the books in every way. C-SPAN did a wonderful job turning the interviews into readable essays and had an enormous commitment to their quality and success, and I think they've achieved both.

And what was the audience for these books like?

Well, by the standard of serious non-fiction books, the audience was about just right. Clearly there were thousands of people among the Booknotes viewers who wanted to read these collections. They did particularly well at libraries and as gifts. All in all, the reach and range of each of the Booknotes books has been satisfying, I believe, to all concerned.

And what was the print run like for these books?

Well, it varied. The industry standards on these things have changed over the years, but I would say the initial numbers were around 20,000.

You've had years of working with Brian Lamb and his Booknotes program, but could you take a little bit more time to describe your experience with Brian Lamb and the show?

Well, Brian is a publisher's ideal author. He understands the book process, and despite an inherent reluctance to be self-promotional, I'm sure you know that Brian has never spoken his name on the air. Yes. He made himself available for the right publicity opportunities in our preparation of the books. He was very engaged in every aspect, including taking pictures for the photo insert. My personal conversations with Brian were always a pleasure. He was very interested in our books and in the publishing industry generally, so we always had a lot to talk about.

Well, you mentioned his general reluctance in self-promotion. And like many interviewers, Brian Lamb would ask his biographical questions. Was he willing to talk about these things as an author?

Well, as you say, Brian was prepared to talk to authors about their own biography, but I think when it came to his own biography, I think he was more prepared to let other people do the writing about it rather than him doing the talking about it. He was more interested in being an interviewer than he was in being the subject of an interview. As time went on and a number of profiles of Brian appeared in the media, his biography was written about, but he certainly never took the occasion on Booknotes to talk about himself.

Well, were you surprised by anything you experienced with Brian Lamb, the author, after observing Brian Lamb, the interviewer?

Well, Brian's on-air manner tends to be deliberately phlegmatic, but in fact he especially enjoys talking about the books he's read when you're talking to him on the phone or over lunch. And those that he's planning to read, he's a wonderful conversationalist. And as I said, he has a lively sense of humor to go with his shrewd insights about a broad array of subjects.

So judging by the extensive marginalia in his books, Brian Lamb read them very thoroughly before his interviews. Do you think this kind of immersion in the book world impacted his work as an author?

I think Brian's preparation for his Booknotes interviews was prodigious. One of the reasons authors were so pleased to be invited to appear on the program was that they knew there would be an uninterrupted one-hour interview with an interlocutor who was really prepared. Brian's unique interview style got the most out of authors because he had really read their books and was an enthusiast for the process of writing. When it came to his own books, Brian brought the same care and intensity that he so valued in the subjects of his programs.

Brian Lamb often asked an author about his or her research and writing methods. Do you believe this information impacted his process as an author?

Well, as I said, Brian was genuinely interested in the process of researching and writing books, and I'm sure that was reflected in his choices of how to work himself. Over the years, Brian became a real expert in the writing and publishing process, and that naturally was reflected in his work on camera and when he was embarked on the Booknotes book. He really understood the publishing process and made it very much part of his own work.

Did you yourself watch the Booknotes program before working with Brian Lamb?

Oh sure. I was a Booknotes fan from the time I went on the air. The more I came to know about the program, the more impressed I was with its seriousness of purpose matched by a recognition that viewers wanted to learn about the books being discussed. As a publisher, I must say that was very gratifying. Getting to know the authors who wrote these wonderful books that Brian was featuring on his show was always a pleasure. Sunday today was a really good time.

Were there any issues surrounding C-SPAN or Booknotes which were off-limits, and did that surprise you?

Well, I don't think we ever discussed issues such as the advances on books or other strictly business matters. These were not specifically off limits, but Brian clearly made a choice to leave that aspect of the author-publisher relationship private. He was more interested in dealing with the contents of the books and the way the authors worked.

As you may or may not know, George Mason University was recently gifted all of Brian Lamb's personal copies of the books used in the Booknotes series, which amounts to some 800 non-fiction books published between the late 1980s and 2004. What do you think the benefits and uses of such a collection might be?

Well, I must say I didn't know it, and I am extremely pleased that it has happened. The Booknotes collection at George Mason is a wonderful repository for a great many of the best and most illuminating books of this period. It's an impressive survey of the field chosen by a specialist who really knew what were the books that could possibly make a difference and that might be of interest to his viewers. The annotations by Brian certainly add to their value. I think the fact that he wrote in the books was, I think, one of the things that give it almost a historic quality.

A librarian's nightmare, but you're definitely right about what it adds. So what have you been working on recently, and which works are you most pleased with?

Well, let's see, Public Affairs has some very fine books on the way this spring. As a matter of fact, we're doing a book with C-SPAN based on the First Ladies project that was so successful last year, and Susan Swain, who was the host of that series, is the person who is on the jacket of this book as the author. It's a very fine piece of work about all the First Ladies, and it's based on what the historian said and the portraits that were given of the First Ladies on that series. So we're still working with C-SPAN, and that's our next book. There's a major biography of Brent Scowcroft, considered one of the finest national security advisors of our time. He's one of those rare Washington people who's kept a low personal profile, so this book, entitled The Strategist, Brent Scowcroft and the Call of National Security, will be a significant contribution to understanding his life and times. We're also publishing a fascinating book by John Worden, who was a banker in Saigon in the last days of the Vietnam War, and found a way to rescue all of his employees and their families in the midst of the collapse of South Vietnam. That book is called They Are All My Family, A Daring Rescue in the Chaos of Saigon's Fall. I think that's the kind of book that Brian would find particularly interesting. Rennell Levy, who was the president of Lincoln Center for a decade, has an entertaining and revealing book called They Told Me Not to Take That Job. That will be of interest, I think, both for his portrait of that great institution and how he went about fulfilling his formidable responsibilities. That's just a sort of a short reflection of what we're doing.

Those all sound very interesting. And I think you're right about the Saigon book. Vietnam was one of the subjects that Brian was especially interested in because it so came during the time when he himself was in the Navy. And I think he always featured programs on important Vietnam books by people like Robert McNamara or Neil Sheehan on John Paul Vann.

Yes, I think Vietnam and then probably Lincoln would be the two most covered topics. I think that's right. But Vietnam and Lincoln are the two topics that he most enjoys or is most fascinated by.

Well, in your estimation, what has been the lasting impact of Booknotes in then contemporary American society and perhaps since?

Well, I think Booknotes and BookTV generally represent a major addition to what's available in the media about nonfiction books. Brian's original and I think brilliant vision of C-SPAN as a public service has enabled Americans to see how government works, particularly the Congress. But the network has expanded in so many ways to include books and books discussions that that's really not available anywhere else in the media. It's not surprising to me that Brian received the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his work at C-SPAN. He has provided the country with an enormous information asset that contains no advertising, after all, and doesn't draw tax money. So all I can say is long may C-SPAN flourish, including its three channels, its superb website and its wonderful books.

Well, is there anything else that you would like to add regarding Booknotes, C-SPAN or Brian Lamb?

Well, I would just reiterate that Brian Lamb's contribution to the visibility and understanding of books has been profound. Being the publisher of all the C-SPAN books has been a source of considerable pride to me and to all of my colleagues who worked on these books.

Well, thank you for taking the time to speak with us today.

My pleasure. Thank you.