They Made a Difference: 25 Book Business Changemakers - Publishers Weekly
photo: Leslie Jean-Bart
Twenty-five seriously consequential individuals whose mark on the industry is indelible.
Perhaps S.I. Newhouse should be credited for burnishing America’s most prestigious imprint, when he offered the editor-in-chief job at Knopf, over a Manhattan dinner, to a little-known paperback publisher, born in India, the Cambridge-educated son of a diplomat. That was in 1987. Sonny Mehta reigned at Knopf and advanced in the Random House hierarchy—certainly on his own merits—over the next 33 years, till his death in late 2019. Although Mehta had lots to learn about the U.S. market and hardcover publishing, he mastered it quickly and showed the way for others—in particular, by conveying Knopf’s belief in a book by distinctive design and bold, aggressive pricing. This proved to be a highly effective way to command attention amid the new superstores’ superstocking. For example, Ken Burns’s The Civil War was priced at a shocking $50, but that was no impediment to sales, and it flew off the tables. And Mehta’s belief in Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses—which exceeded that of even the book’s editor—was in part conveyed by the askew and out-of-focus composition of the Chip Kidd cover. Mehta would go on to publish nine Nobel laureates and find surprising commercial successes, such as Stieg Larsen and Stephen A. Carter. Mehta reminds us that, as Bennett Cerf and Donald Klopfer and Roger Straus had also proved, the highest literary standards can be housed with books of broad appeal.
“I concur with Mr. Scribner that Mr. Pietsch has done a wonderful job,” wrote William Kennedy in a New York Times Book Review of a posthumous Ernest Hemingway book, the manuscript edited down from 85,000 words to 45,000 by the then 28-year-old editor, who spent his first seven years in publishing at the venerable house (after an opening stint with David Godine). It was an early display of confidence and editing chops by a Harvard English grad with literary tastes who could also shape a pregnancy book into a bestseller and who had a soft spot for American rock ‘n’ roll and the edgy world of Nick Tosches. Remarkably, Pietsch has also proved to be adept at negotiating big-time publishing, moving from Scribner to a senior editor post at Harmony, and then to senior editor at Little, Brown in 1991. A decade later he was publisher; another decade on, with a store of bestselling authors (e.g., James Patterson, Michael Connelly) and unimpeachable literary cred (David Foster Wallace), Pietsch, in what PW called a “throwback appointment” to the days of Cerf and Straus, was named CEO of the entire Hachette Book Group, where he remains, succeeding David Young. “I love every aspect of the business,” he said at the time, “including the financial side. It’s an exciting way to make money.” A valuable reminder that such a thing is possible.
“The most money that FSG has ever paid for a first novel—$200,000—was anted up,” wrote Leonore Fleischer in PW in 1986, “by Jonathan Galassi for Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow.” Galassi had been on the job, as executive editor and v-p, for only six months, coming over from Random House after five years, which followed a longer time at Houghton Mifflin. The publishing of Presumed Innocent turned into a blockbuster affair—by no means the last that Galassi would enjoy from the offices on Union Square West. There would be several Tom Wolfes, Susan Sontags, another Turow. And then the prizes, including Nobels, that were regularly bestowed on Farrar, Straus and Giroux authors like Seamus Heaney, Nadine Gordimer, Louise Glück, and Derek Walcott. Among the few great editors who were also executives (he became president in 2021), Galassi is perhaps the most accomplished writer—of poetry, prose, and poetry in translation, in particular his highly respected work on the Italian poet Eugenio Montale. Having handed over the presidential reins at FSG to Mitzi Angel in 2021, Galassi remains as chairman and executive editor and continues to write and translate.
“Barbara Epler has joined the company as an editor,” read the one-line entry in the Jan. 17, 1986, PW for a New Directions appointment. New Directions is, of course, the company founded by the legendary bon vivant, poet, and publisher of modernist and avant-garde literary giants, James Laughlin, the scion of a Pittsburgh steel fortune. Laughlin, at 22, started the company in 1936 on the advice of a man to whom he had sent some verse: Ezra Pound. “Do something useful,” advised Pound. Ten years into Epler’s first job after college, she was named editor-in-chief; in 2011 she became the company’s fourth president and publisher. Humble but for her magnanimity, Epler credits the lasting vision of Laughlin for a “world literature,” and is quick to mention the many small and agile presses here and abroad that share that belief, and of course her own stable of gifted editors. In 2016, Epler spoke of Laughlin’s gift of thrift—“he could get six cents out of a nickel,” she told Maria Bustillos in the New Yorker. And though it is true that New Directions survived with the help of the Laughlin fortune and the frugality that came with it, eventually course adoptions, the popularity of the paperback format, and the beauty of having backlist gold brought the company into profitability. New Directions is now owned by three hands-off heirs of Laughlin, who, says Epler, heartily support company efforts to stay true to his original vision, which includes staying as small and lithe as possible. It must be working: Epler and company have thrived with, arguably, the most literary list in the world. Thirteen Nobels, six Pulitzers, four Prix Goncourts, and a Booker, not to mention a string of Bollingen prizes in poetry, attest to the value of that asset. Still, Epler is game for innovating in a world far changed from that of the last century—a new line of slim hardcover fiction titles, by writers like Clarice Lispector, Yoko Tawada, and Helen DeWitt, with “tactile” covers that serve as a counter to the digital reading experience, debuts in August. Another new direction.
In 2011, Bob Weil, an executive editor at Norton and freshly appointed to serve as editor-in-chief of Norton’s revived Liveright Co. imprint, described to PW’s Calvin Reid what it takes to be a good editor: “A good editor has to be self-starting; a good editor has to be self-reliant; a good editor has to produce revenue—the editor has to provide the vehicle for other departments to come onboard.”
Weil should know. He had a bit of a late start in the book editing business—after graduating from Yale, a job at Omni magazine revealed the young Weil had good business instincts: he led a book packaging effort (with a little agenting thrown in) selling science book projects to publishers. In 1988, a four-hour interview with Tom McCormack of St. Martin’s, the high priest of aggressively commercial book publishing, earned Weil a career-changing editorial spot. He learned from McCormack that “you can’t typecast a house; you had to do a lot of books.” Weil found there was room for serious books, even at SMP—Henry Roth, Isaac Babel, Roger Shattuck. It turned out, that’s what Weil really liked to do. Weil told PW that he moved to Norton, in 1998, because “Norton does more of the kind of books that I wanted to do, and it’s independent—we don’t have to do certain kinds of books.” Weil had a great run there, with Geoffrey Stone’s award-winning Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime from the Sedition Act of 1798 to the War on Terrorism and, most dramatically, with Annette Gordon-Reed’s The Hemingses of Monticello, which won both the Pulitzer and the National Book Award. Weil’s time running the Liveright imprint has been even more remarkable, mixing high-brow, literary, and commercial aspects, most perfectly captured by the recent success of a project long in the making, The Lyrics by Paul McCartney, edited by the Irish poet Paul Muldoon, priced at $100 (which has sold 195,000 copies to date, according to BookScan). “I’ve never accepted the divide between what’s commercial and what’s literary because literary is intensely commercial.”
In February, Weil took on a new role at Liveright as v-p and executive editor, handing managerial duties off to colleague Peter Simon.
In a 2011 interview with PW, Norton’s Bob Weil said that one of the things he’s proudest of, outside of the books he’s edited, is how some of his former assistants have found their own stride. One of them is Doubleday’s Bill Thomas. In November 1998, Thomas, then a senior editor at Doubleday, was named editor-in-chief. In 2002 he became editor-in-chief of Doubleday Broadway, and in 2008 publisher and editor-in-chief of Doubleday. Under his leadership, Doubleday has published hundreds of New York Times bestsellers, seven Pulitzer Prize winners, a PEN/Faulkner Award winner, two National Book Award winners, six National Book Critics Circle Award winners, several finalists for these prizes, and over 100 New York Times Book Review Notable Books of the Year.
Despite taking on more and more management responsibilities, Thomas has continued to acquire and edit books, among his most successful being the result of a kind of partnership with author Colson Whitehead, his agent Nicole Aragi, and Doubleday. When Whitehead won his second Pulitzer in three years, for The Nickel Boys, Thomas said, “I’ve been saying for 20 years Colson’s a genius, and he keeps proving me right.” Other books he has edited include Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom, Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem, Ghost Soldiers by Hampton Sides, The River of Doubt by Candice Millard, Dark Money by Jane Mayer, The Yankee Years by Joe Torre and Tom Verducci, Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann, Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe, and most recently the #1 New York Times bestseller To Paradise by Hanya Yanigihara, whose work he calls “astonishing.”
He was a nice Jewish boy from a well-to-do New Jersey suburb. He loved newspapers and the latest fiction from Philip Roth and John Irving. He went to Brown, worked on the newspaper, and wrote his thesis on Herman Wouk. A career in journalism beckoned, but after a few years of newspaper work, he found himself with an interview at Random House, sitting across from Kate Medina. He got the job as editorial assistant (he could type 100 words per minute). Harry Evans invited him to work on a book; Peter Osnos did, too. Sixteen years later, in 2005, he became editor-in-chief, with critically acclaimed bestsellers like Seabiscuit and The Orchid Thief to his credit. And then he left Random House, with a flourish.
At Hachette, he would have his own imprint, Twelve—one book a month, small staff, focused list. A boutique imprint, it was called. He had more bestsellers by the likes of Ted Kennedy and Christopher Hitchens. But five years later, Karp took another step—to become publisher of the Simon Schuster Group, replacing David Rosenthal.
Among the first things Karp did there was poach John Irving from Random House (wonder if he told him his high school newspaper column was titled “The World According to Karp”?). Karp was also involved in various restructuring moves and rearranging lines of reporting among the many SS imprints.
Karp continued to have successes of the bestseller sort—Bob Woodward’s Fear leading the way among a flurry of Trump-critical titles in 2018. In late 2020, Karp ascended to the post of CEO upon the death of the beloved Carolyn Reidy. Are full circles ironic? In Karp’s case, they will be—if, after his astonishing professional movements, he gets his wish, and the Justice Department allows the merger of Penguin Random House with SS. In which instance, Karp will find himself back where he started, however transformed.
Chris Jackson’s early experience growing up in Harlem housing projects amid violence, poverty, and addiction and the refuge he took in reading have molded a unique and very influential editor and publisher at an imprint with a mission. In a New York Times profile in 2016, Jackson told a reporter that when he looks back at his early life (he was 45 at the time), he sees “a depressed orphan who lost his family to a crazy religion and consoled himself almost exclusively with books.”
Fatherless at four, and motherless at 18, Jackson explored the arts scene, the poetry scene, worked for a book packager, and attended Columbia. He got a job at Paragon House, and then moved to John Wiley as an editorial assistant. He worked on titles in self-help and popular reference, but also acquired an anthology that he considers the touchstone of his career—Kevin Powell’s Step into a World—which featured African American writers, many of whom would become well-known, such as Paul Beatty, Edwidge Danticat, and Elizabeth Alexander. Jackson then spent five years at Crown, with a mandate to expand its African American list, but he admitted having trouble matching books to his sensibility. Something changed, however, when he joined the nascent Spiegel Grau imprint in 2006.
Jackson’s first books were released two years later: Matt Taibbi’s The Great Derangement and a first book by Atlantic magazine journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Beautiful Struggle. Seven years later, Jackson found himself posing for a photo with Coates as the author received the National Book Award in Nonfiction for Between the World and Me, which had reached #1 on the bestseller list.
The following year, now clearly able to match his sensibility to the urgent American—and global—issue of social justice, Jackson took the reins at One World, which Random House had decided to relaunch. Jackson brought Coates and bestselling civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson with him. At One World, Jackson’s small team has produced several timely bestsellers, by Trevor Noah, Ibram X. Kendi, and Heather McGhee, among others.
In a New York Times profile of Jackson, Coates said: “You can’t say to Chris, ‘You don’t really know about the struggle.’ Chris knows. And if Chris doesn’t get it, you need to go back to Square 1. That’s rare for black authors. Very, very rare.” In a 2015 interview with PW’s Diane Patrick, Jackson acknowledged that we are in a long “moment of potential reconsideration of race... and segregation... and policing.” Jackson, now executive v-p and publisher at One World and a new imprint with Jay-Z, continues not only to meet the moment but to help it be understood.
“Nan Graham has been appointed an editorial assistant at Ballantine,” read an entry on the “People” page of PW, Feb. 27, 1978. Thus began an impressive advance through New York publishing’s editorial ranks, from Ballantine to assistant editor at Pantheon, editor at Viking Penguin (1984), senior editor (1986), executive editor, then departing for Scribner (1994) as v-p and editor-in-chief, and finally, in 2012, to v-p and publisher, where she sits today with a staff that numbers 25. But that’s not to say Nan Graham is a careerist. Having been raised in the Midwest by what she describes as a “public service family,” Graham has questioned the merits of the “corporate pursuit,” lamenting that “in some ways it seems so completely contrary to the creative process.” Yet Graham has been a most creative and daring editor from the start, talking David Byrne into his first book (True Stories), bringing poet Joe Brainard’s little masterpiece I Remember back into print, and reading 159 pages of a high school teacher’s manuscript about a poor childhood in Ireland and making an offer on what became Angela’s Ashes.
Graham has challenged herself to publish books that make a difference, and pointed to Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon, which prompted a more public discussion of depression, and McCourt’s book, which subtly changed social service approaches to intact families living in poverty. But let’s not forget that Graham has been editing Stephen King since 1996 and has also worked with the most literary of writers, including Salman Rushdie, Colm Tóibín, Anthony Doerr, and Don DeLillo—on both Mao II and his “Great American Novel,” Underworld, which she bought at auction for $1.3 million.
When McCourt accepted the National Book Award for Angela’s Ashes, he thanked his saintly mother and “a multitude of women” who had helped him, including his wife, Ellen; his agent, Molly Friedrich; and his editor, Graham. It is easy to see that Graham herself has mentored a multitude of women in the publishing game, among them Gillian Blake, now publisher at Crown; Sarah McGrath, editor-in-chief at Riverhead; and former FSG executive editor Courtney Hodell.
The first mention of Carolyn Reidy in PW was June 5, 1978—her promotion to associate in the subsidiary rights department at Random House, where she had been an assistant for four years (with a desk just outside Toni Morrison’s office). There would be 288 more mentions, the last, sadly, in our reporting on the National Book Awards ceremony in November 2020, a virtual affair, of course, but one that included video tributes to Reidy (who had died in May) and a moving speech by her widowed husband, Stephen, who quoted her as saying, “In publishing, we are the shepherds of this gift of the book.”
In the span of her 36-year career, Reidy had perfected the art—and business—of shepherding. She did so by making all aspects of publishing and marketing her business. For example, back in 1994, then president and publisher of the trade division, Reidy noticed a growing U.S. market for Spanish-language fiction. Determining that there was little yet in the way of Spanish-language nonfiction publishing, she partnered with Santillana to develop a joint line. Overall, her decisive leadership led to a whopping 15% sales increase across all imprints in 1997.
Promotions followed, with Reidy gaining control of all adult publishing at SS. By 2007, with SS enjoying a run of several highly profitable years, CBS’s Les Moonves ordered a transition of CEO duties from Jack Romanos to Reidy. Shortly thereafter, as Stephen King told the New York Times upon her death, Reidy calmed him when the rise in e-book sales collided with the economic collapse of 2008, which scared even the King of Horror. “She was clear and concise,” King said. “She guided the company through some extremely stormy waters.”
The transition from Romanos to Reidy completed in that year, and Reidy became CEO. As the great recession bit down, Reidy coolly focused on getting the backlist digitized, not waiting for the delivery system and market to develop. Reidy would rather be ready. The reins were handed over to Jonathan Karp shortly after Reidy’s death. Whether the fate of SS lies in a merger or not, Reidy’s shepherding will be missed.
Talk about landing on your feet! When Jane Friedman—overnight—left her CEO post at HarperCollins, where she had spent 11 years rebuilding the company at the behest of Rupert Murdoch, it shocked the industry (the reasons are still murky). What would Jane do next was the pressing question. With nearly four decades of leadership—she had spent 29 previous years at various executive spots at Random House, Knopf, Vintage, and RH Audio (which she founded), before running HarperCollins both in the U.S. and internationally—it appeared that Jane could do anything. Although Friedman’s departure was sudden, she hardly missed a step. Rather, she hit the open road, as it were, raising $8 million in capital in the teeth of the economic collapse (2008–2009).
In a move both bold and visionary, Friedman saw that the future of books was increasingly digital, and that the industry was full of untapped, undigitized backlist. She changed that with Open Road Media, enticing well-known authors with deals for their digital rights, splitting revenues 50/50 and promising strong pricing (that is, not undercutting print). And something else: robust support. Because Friedman understood the power of marketing, she staffed accordingly, with reportedly four out of five employees working on getting the word out (on books that were, of course, already edited).
Within three years Open Road had 3,000 titles and was a leading digital publisher in an area Friedman kick-started to life. By 2016, however, although having raised at that point $30 million in capital, the company had yet to turn a profit. Friedman stepped down as CEO, yielding to Paul Slavin, while becoming chairman of the board. Publishers had gotten the memo and had long ago stopped letting digital rights go untapped, and Open Road had to rely principally on selling its marketing services to more than 70 other houses.
The company’s business model remained attractive, however, as evidenced by its being purchased, in December 2021, for somewhere between $60 million and $80 million by an investor group headed by Perseus veteran David Steinberger. Friedman’s initial instinct about the value of digital book assets has proved prophetic; it just took the industry a few years to catch on—and compete.
Nearly 24 years ago, the lead news story in Publishers Weekly carried the headline “Industry Stocks Battered... PW’s Stock Index Off 15%.” Indeed, there were some grim results for the publicly traded publishing-related stocks tracked by Jim Milliot. On the same news page, however, was a photo of a smiling 29-year-old Madeline McIntosh, who had just been named to a newly created position at Random House: v-p and director of online sales. This was 1998, when few were betting on the future of online bookselling as few imagined its growth and impact on bookselling and commerce across every category in the years to come. But McIntosh was on to it early.
Two years before, in what PW ventured “could be the first of many more such appointments to come,” Bantam Doubleday Dell had named McIntosh to its newly created position of director of online sales—this at around the time Jeff Bezos was making the rounds trying to convince publishers, and investors, that an online bookstore was a good idea. He didn’t have to convince McIntosh. Even before Bezos had his big idea, McIntosh was toiling in the new-media department at BDD, creating proposals about getting content into CD-ROM format. When Amazon did appear, she set up an account for the new retailer. Don Weisberg, head of sales at the time at Bertelsmann, was mentoring McIntosh. He told the New York Times in 2020, “She saw what Amazon was going to be, and she saw that we needed to deal with it.”
McIntosh was soon heading all of adult sales at RH; then she sensed that audio was a huge growth area needing attention and moved over to running Random House Audio. Did she anticipate the downloadable format and its current revenue-generating role? Who would guess she did not?
These clearly prescient moves (McIntosh also left New York publishing for a couple of years learning the ropes at Amazon—in Luxembourg) revealed an extraordinary publishing executive on the scene, outfitted for the 21st century. Alexandra Alter, in her September 2020 New York Times profile, called McIntosh “the most powerful executive in American publishing”; she now finds herself the CEO of the combined Penguin Random House, which, as PW reported in early 2022, contributed to a record year for global PRH, sporting a profit margin of nearly 19%. This Harvard graduate who gave up on an art world career in favor of the Radcliffe Publishing Course, and whose first job in the industry was as a temp, now manages a company with top literary talent—Atwood, McCarthy, Egan, Amis—and also publishes the Obamas. There is also the strong children’s division under Barbara Marcus, and much more, in a company that is now bigger than its four competitors combined.
McIntosh also appears to be focused on diversity in the industry. Two years ago PRH released its own report on its workforce demographics. Of the numerical results, McIntosh, who credited her time at Amazon for teaching her that data was essential to good decision-making, said, “Our company, like our industry, is far too homogeneous.” McIntosh always wants results. As the head of America’s largest publisher has been prescient in so many other areas, perhaps significant change is coming.
Markus Dohle is purely a business management guy with an industrial engineer’s eye for systems and efficiencies... or is he? He has also been called “entrepreneurial,” and 14 years after his surprise ascension, from running Bertelsmann’s largest printing operation to become CEO of Random House, one has to be impressed at how he overhauled the company. Dohle was not yet 40 years old when he was sent from Arvato Print to replace Peter Olson as CEO at a time of tremendous uncertainty—in 2008, as the world economy cracked and Random House was coming off a poor 2007, with revenue down 6% and profits down 5%, and all publishers were worried about the new Kindle. But in his first two years, the congenial Dohle created the Bantam Doubleday Dell unit, realigned the Crown Group, and did, as Jim Milliot reported in PW, “what outsiders said was necessary to reenergize the company.”
While his actions brought some criticism, Dohle made the RH bureaucracy easier to navigate, enabled crucial consolidations, and gave imprints sharper identities. Not bad for an engineer. Five years into his tenure, in 2013, following the agreement between Pearson and Bertelsmann to merge Penguin and RH, Dohle oversaw the process of integrating the two companies.
The whole process was by all accounts deftly managed—despite the loss of some jobs. And the newly named PRH has continued to evolve, capped by Bertelsmann and Dohle’s decision to aggressively pursue the acquisition of SS. Recently, Dohle has spoken of a need to “change the public perception of books.” Change is already underway, surely. As Dohle has pointed out, the “digital fatigue” of the pandemic era has brought new life to print.
In October 2021, Dohle told Publishing Perspectives at Frankfurt that publishing has “a responsibility to help our society.” And Dohle seems to feel he has a personal duty as well: he has pledged to donate half-a-million dollars of his own money to PEN America for a fund to “defend the book.”
Brian Murray, a New Jersey native with an engineering background, was named as Jane Friedman’s replacement as HarperCollins CEO in 2008, after years serving as her close deputy. Since the charismatic and high-energy Friedman’s removal has never been fully explained, we can only look at what Murray has been tasked with, since his appointment, to determine News Corp.’s intent.
As with Markus Dohle, who took over at Random House at almost the same time, perhaps an engineer’s skills and instincts were what was deemed necessary (as opposed to those of a dyed-in-the-wool book person) in order to visualize, then orchestrate the effective restructuring, reconciling, and management of disparate systems. What Murray has done best is to buy companies and integrate them. By 2014, Murray’s track record earned him a profile in the Economic Times, which rather snippily described him as “an unlikely hero in a creative industry populated by artsy editors, moody authors and flitting literary agents.” The hero managed an overseas expansion effort that Friedman had begun—one big element of that was the acquisition of Thomas Nelson, “a Christian publishing business with stable values” and content that “travels well globally,” said Murray at the time. Shortly after, he turned another acquisition—of the Canada-based romance publisher Harlequin—into a strategic outreach to the foreign-language market. “Brian is a macro thinker who embraces change and isn’t afraid of taking risks,” colleague Michael Morrison told PW.
Record growth has distinguished Murray’s tenure, as expansions led to whopping increases in both earnings and sales. In 2020, Murray and HC lost out in the bidding for SS, which chose PRH as its suitor of choice; unbowed, HC acquired Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books Media, which had been the country’s sixth-largest trade house. It is now part of the second largest, which is where HC will remain no matter what the Department of Justice decides is the fate of the PRH-SS proposal. With sales up 20% at HC in the first reporting period since the HMH deal, and overall sales just a few million short of
$2 billion, perhaps Murray and the company will take a rest. Or not.
Fresh out of Tufts, Barbara Marcus began her publishing career in the mid-’70s as a sales associate in the Bantam Lecture Bureau, before moving through a series of publicity and educational marketing positions, all at Bantam, until becoming v-p of promotion and publicity at Berkley Books in 1982.
All of these marketing-centric experiences perfectly prepared Marcus for the challenges of her next position: v-p of marketing and associate publisher at Scholastic. There, beginning in 1983, she worked with Scholastic publisher Dick Krinsley, and by the time of his retirement in 1991, the trade program had grown by a factor of 10. Marcus succeeded Krinsley, who told PW at the time that the 39-year-old Marcus was “the best marketing person” he was ever associated with: “She’ll be perfect for a very competitive time in the business.”
Indeed she was. With senior v-p Jean Feiwel, Marcus developed the hugely popular Baby-Sitters Club and Goosebumps series, and went on to play a key role in the wild successes of the Harry Potter franchise, approving acquisitions of all seven Potter books and overseeing the huge marketing campaigns, from midnight bookstore events to the release of movie tie-in editions. But in 2005, Marcus left Scholastic. The company had come down to earth a bit, enduring a couple of disappointing years, and Marcus signed a no-compete clause and took to serving as an adviser to Penguin and Open Road. By 2012, Marcus was an executive once again, succeeding Chip Gibson as president and publisher of Random House Children’s Books. There she manages a stellar list of bestselling and award-winning authors—Judy Blume, Christopher Paul Curtis, E. Lockhart, Mary Pope Osborne, R.J. Palacio, Philip Pullman, and Nicola Yoon, to name a few—not to mention one of children’s publishing’s deepest and widest backlists, including Dr. Seuss, the Berenstain Bears, Norton Juster, Leo Lionni, Louis Sachar, and Richard Scarry.
It is tempting to see Random House as something of a homecoming for Marcus, given her early start at Bantam. But Marcus seems less a romantic and more of a no-nonsense veteran with respect for a challenge. As she told the Wall Street Journal in 2019, “Know your value and be on the lookout for new projects.”
On June 5, 2021, one of the greatest dynastic runs in American publishing came to an end when Dick Robinson, chairman, president, and CEO of Scholastic, died suddenly at age 84. It was a shock that continues to reverberate. As the Scholastic board of directors said in a statement, “Dick was a true visionary in the world of children’s books and an unrelenting advocate for children’s literacy.”
The company was founded in 1920 by Robinson’s father, Maurice R. “Robbie” Robinson, the company beginnings so quaint and homespun—a Pennsylvania youth magazine, a book club—as to beggar belief that today we’d be talking about the sixth-largest publisher in the U.S. and the largest children’s book publisher. Dick Robinson Jr. was elected president and CEO of the family firm in the early 1970s, and branched out—expanding its international publishing, enlarging its school book fair business (now more than 120,000 events a year) while acquiring the encyclopedia company Grolier and activity kit publisher Klutz. In addition, with the leadership of Barbara Marcus and Jean Feiwel, the company’s trade arm mastered the series reader, developing megaselling franchises like Ann M. Martin’s the Baby-Sitters Club, Joanna Cole and Bruce Degen’s the Magic School Bus, R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps, and Dav Pilkey’s Captain Underpants. And when Scholastic’s Arthur Levine bought U.S. rights to J.K. Rowling’s series about a wizard, at the 1996 Frankfurt Book Fair, Scholastic was on its way to becoming a household name, right along with Harry and Hermione. The books have sold nearly 200 million copies; along with Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy, Scholastic regularly generated between $1.6 billion to $2 billion in annual revenues between 2011 and 2019.
Robinson’s stewardship of the family company is remembered less for managing mergers and acquisitions than working brilliantly in the field where new readers are made—schools—and delivering to them the kinds of reading experiences they want. All are left to ponder his final move—leaving his share of Class A stock to colleague and one-time intimate Iola Lucchese, which broke the line of family ownership. With a recently restructured board of directors, perhaps the company and the Robinson family will move peaceably into Scholastic’s second century. Having weathered an awful 2020 (thanks to the pandemic and the collapse of book fair revenue), the forecast for fiscal 2022 is for “significant growth,” according to the July 2021 report, which announced that Peter Warwick would become Scholastic’s third CEO in its history, and the first from outside the Robinson family.
It was a few days before the end of the last century, in PW’s offices. Editor-in-chief Nora Rawlinson had convened six staff members and five publishing citizens—an agent, two publishers, a bookseller and a book packager—for a panel titled “A New Century Roundtable: To E or Not to E... and Other Questions.” Much of the discussion centered on Jason Epstein’s forthcoming book, Book Business, but Dominique Raccah was having none of it. “We’re having the wrong conversation,” she said of the general doomsaying in Epstein’s book and among her fellow panelists—middlemen disappearing, bookstores dying. Instead, she talked about cellphones and processing power and an industry that was evolving. “So go forward 10 more years. What do you get?” she asked. “A new industry.” Raccah has always been looking ahead, watching, predicting, acting. Indeed, a little more than a decade later, Raccah’s Naperville, Ill.-based Sourcebooks had developed an app that allowed children to personalize their favorite stories, one of her many innovations. Ten years later still, Raccah introduced a line of children’s books featuring an augmented reality app.
In a sense, Raccah was making a new industry on her own. By far the most successful self-made publisher operating in the 21st century, Raccah remains majority owner of Sourcebooks after partnering with the largest U.S. publisher, Penguin Random House, which bought 45% of the company in 2019. This is a long way from its humble beginnings. Raccah, coming from an analytics background with Leo Burnett Advertising, self-published her own business book, Financial Sourcebooks Sources. She could barely afford the printer, but she was hooked by the challenge. She withdrew $17K from her 401(k) and started her own company in 1987. Since then, Raccah has distinguished Sourcebooks by producing ambitious and challenging works. For example, Poetry Speaks and We Interrupt This Broadcast, which both use text and sound recordings, became bestsellers and remain backlist staples. Several company acquisitions—Poisoned Pen, Dawn Publications, and BES, to name a few—have helped the company grow dramatically. Her latest maneuvers: an enhancement of an already robust international presence; a new imprint, Bloom Books, with a partnership-oriented business model for extraordinary authors, which launched with the global phenomenon Fifty Shades trilogy author E.L. James in 2021; and the addition of another new imprint in conjunction with Ebony magazine announced most recently. Large gains have followed: 2021 was another year of record growth, with a 33% increase in revenue. Raccah’s signature is all over her company, no matter how large it has become.
Philip Lee and Thomas Low
We are in a world struggling to manage diversity, to put it mildly, or perhaps inanely (Russia is invading Ukraine as this is written). And we are writing of an industry failing by any standard to diversify its ranks. The calls should perhaps be louder for a publishing business that is representative of the population it hopes to serve and profit from. Such a state of affairs makes it imperative to highlight the accomplishments—even the simple existence of—the company that Tom Low and Philip Lee, both Chinese-Americans, founded 30 years ago. Their company, Lee Low Books, is one of the few minority-owned publishing companies in the U.S. The company’s self-description—“An independent children’s book publisher specializing in diversity”—and the company motto, “About Everyone—For Everyone,” speaks to the founders’ profound commitment, if not to change the world, to reflect it. Neither founder had any publishing experience when they started, but they met with immediate success: their first title, Baseball Saved Us, received a full-page review in the New York Times Book Review. Ira Berkow called the book, about a Japanese-American boy playing baseball in an internment camp during WWII, “an apt metaphor for justice conquering prejudice, for the fortitude that must go hand in glove with courage and hope.” Lee Low, despite the departure of Philip Lee in 2004 and the death of Tom Low in 2020, has continued its publishing program, under the leadership of Low’s sons Craig and Jason, and even doubled down on its commitment to diversity, establishing its New Voices Award and the New Visions Award for unpublished authors of color, initiating a Diversity Gap Study, and organizing a Diversity Baseline Survey, an ongoing study of hiring in the industry. And most recently, in 2021, Lee Low bought Cincos Puntos Press, out of El Paso, Tex., the small multicultural publisher founded by the remarkable Bobby and Lee Byrd, who have retired after 36 years. Lee Low continues to show the way.
PW’s first mention of Oren Teicher was in the June 19, 1987, issue: in his wrap-up of that year’s annual booksellers convention in Washington, D.C., editor-in-chief John F. Baker described Teicher as “a newcomer on the scene.” The executive director of Americans for Constitutional Freedom and a former congressional staffer, Teicher was one of three “heavyweight watchdogs of the freedom to read” on a panel discussing censorship. Introducing himself and his organization to the audience of booksellers, Teicher said, “We believe the marketplace should be the sole determinant of our reading matter. And we’re in business to help people sell and distribute books and magazines.”
In the 35 years since he uttered those words, Teicher has walked that talk. After a stint at ACF, he was hired by the ABA in 1990 and devoted the rest of his career to the organization in a variety of positions: director of government affairs, deputy executive director, COO, and, ultimately, CEO after the retirement of Avin Domnitz in 2009. Also, within months of joining the ABA staff in 1990, Teicher founded and served as the first president of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression. During the decade that Teicher served as CEO, the ABA steadily grew—from 1,401 members in 2009 to 1,887 members by the time he retired at the end of 2019.
In 2013, Teicher’s face graced PW‘s editorial cover when he and the ABA board were collectively named Person of the Year, recognized for their success in fueling a resurgence in indie bookstores despite such obstacles as Amazon’s dominance in the marketplace, the 2008 recession, and the emergence of e-books. In an interview with PW’s Jim Milliot, Teicher emphasized the impact of the Shop Local/Local First movement and how, early on, the ABA took the lead in promoting the concept by forming partnerships both inside the industry and outside of it. “We have worked closely with publishers, wholesalers, authors, and librarians, as well as colleagues in other indie retail businesses,” Teicher said. The ABA’s advocacy efforts under Teicher’s leadership included lobbying government officials regarding Amazon’s predatory practices and educating consumers about the online retailer’s negative impact upon the fabric of their communities.
Teicher remains engaged with the bookselling community to this day: besides acting as a consultant to booksellers on both a formal and informal basis, he is a minority owner of three independent shops. He also serves on the board of the National Coalition Against Censorship and is a member of the Independent Publishers Caucus advisory council. —Claire Kirch
“The Wylies go back to the American Revolution,” wrote Robert McCrum in a 2010 Guardian profile of agent Andrew Wylie: “formidably bright and assertive son of Boston aristocracy... money and banking on his mother’s side... books and publishing on his father’s.... He’s a lone wolf who built his empire from nothing.” Well, not from nothing, perhaps, but he surely blazed a path like no one else before him. With conviction, panache, and arrogance, Wylie developed his own idea of the role and responsibility of a literary agent in the book world, and became a colossal presence, amassing a huge roster of star clients. He did so by blowing up the idea of the genteel publishing business and the importance of cozy agent-publisher business relationships. In contrast, the inherently rebellious Wylie saw a battle between big corporations and solitary authors, and he preferred money to be in the creators’ pocket, not in shareholders’. He talked Salman Rushdie into switching agents over coffee in London; he famously soldiered up for Martin Amis by ending a professional partnership with an agent who had acquired a revealing memoir Amis did not like. He won Norman Mailer over by uncovering 18 Mailer books that were out of print in the U.S. and suggested there were as many out of print in a dozen territories. Susan Sontag told Wylie that she was “sick of being Susan Sontag”—public appearances and sitting for magazine interviews just to stay in the spotlight. Wylie told her she needed more money, to buy her time back for herself and her work. Poacher, jackal, wolf, whatever: Wylie changed the business of agenting by understanding that the business of publishing had changed.
Wylie was at it from the start. At age 30, not so fresh out of Harvard (poetry, Warhol circle, drugs, cab driving intervened), he earned his first client, progressive journalist I.F. Stone. Peter Osnos, in an Atlantic profile of Wylie, was impressed that Wylie had “cleverly repackaged Stone’s backlist... and sold Little, Brown Stone’s The Trial of Socrates,” which became a bestseller a year before Stone died in 1989. Wylie grew his agency from there, partnering for a while with British agents Gillon Aitken and Brian Stone (the Amis-related rift broke it up), and now with a list of over 1,000 clients. But a picture of Wylie as only focusing on client revenues would be a partial portrait. It was Wylie who foresaw both the value of digital rights and the potentially devastating power of e-book sales on author royalties. Unable to convince publishers to increase royalty percentages on digital sales where he believed his clients owned the digital rights, he threatened to form his own digital publishing imprint and even made an exclusive deal for better terms on 20 backlist titles (from authors like Nabokov, Ellison, Naipaul, Bellow). The industry criticized the move, Wylie desisted, and although claiming he made a miscalculation, he reportedly won higher digital royalty rates for his major clients and got an upper hand on selling digital rights for his new clients.
In his keynote at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2017, Wylie offered a strong defense of something bigger than his authors: diversity in literature, which he sees as a crucial bulwark against nationalism. His words from back then might offer a little hope today in a world darkened by military conflict in Ukraine: “I think that autocrats... are doomed to fail. Why? Because the desire politically to enforce a single view of the world is destined to run afoul of... the diversity of views that we have.”
After receiving a dozen rejections from various traditional publishers, Silicon Valley entrepreneur Mark Coker didn’t just self-publish Boob Tube, a satirical novel co-written with his wife, Lesleyann Coker, which he describes as set in “the wild and wacky world of daytime soap operas.” In 2008, Coker revolutionized both digital and self-publishing by launching Smashwords, a publishing/distribution platform for e-books intended, he has noted in numerous interviews, to “democratize publishing.” Within seven months of its launch, Smashwords had published and distributed 140 books—including Boob Tube.
“I simply wanted to become a published author,” Coker recalled in an interview posted on the company website. Although the Cokers were represented by Dystel, Goderich Bourret, one of the “most respected literary agencies” in New York City, publishers weren’t interested in acquiring Boob Tube because previous releases with similar themes had sold poorly. “I began to realize that publishers are in the business of selling books, not publishing books,” Coker said. “This focus on perceived commercial merit, and the inherent economic inefficiencies of producing, publishing, and distributing print books was threatening the future of books.” He was even more blunt in a 2015 PW interview: “Publishers don’t always know what readers want to read. Most of their professionally curated books are commercial flops anyway.”
Coker, who after graduation from the University of California–Berkeley served in the late 1980s as v-p of sales and marketing for his father’s garage start-up—Coker Electronics, a developer of pre-internet email systems—created Smashwords, the publishing platform that allowed authors to professionally produce and publish their work in digital formats, earning 60%–85% in royalties and retaining all rights.
In 2010, the Wall Street Journal named Coker one of eight self-publishing stars; by then Smashwords was turning a profit and had entered into distribution partnerships with Apple, Barnes Noble, Sony, and Kobo. By 2015, Baker Taylor, Overdrive, Oyster, and Scribd were partnering with Smashwords as well. As of Dec. 31, 2021, Smashwords has published and distributed more than 590,000 e-books supplied by 160,000 authors, literary agents, and small presses. “Like many Silicon Valley entrepreneurs,” Coker told PW in 2015, “I’ve always believed that technology holds the power to effect positive social change. Smashwords has only scratched the surface of what’s possible in the future.” On Mar. 1, 2022, Smashwords merged with Draft2Digital. Coker was named chief strategy officer of the combined company, which, according to a press release, has worked with 250,000 authors and small presses to publish, market, and distribute 900,000 e-books. —Claire Kirch
“We publish a huge number of really bad books,” Lulu.com founder Bob Young admitted to PW’s Jim Milliot in an Aug. 6, 2007, profile marking the self-publishing company’s fifth anniversary. Young, a Canadian entrepreneur residing in North Carolina’s Research Triangle, founded Lulu in 2002, using print-on-demand technology to level the playing field for self-published authors whose books fill a narrow niche or have a limited audience. As Milliot put it, “Rather than publish hundreds of thousands of copies of a few books, Lulu’s mission is to publish 100 copies of 100,000 books.” The formula was working, Milliot wrote; the company was expecting to post in its fifth year almost $30 million in revenue and was poised for expansion on an international basis. By its 20th anniversary in February of this year, Lulu had published and distributed the work of 2.1 million authors.
Like other self-publishing pioneers, Young was inspired to launch Lulu.com in response to rejection by the industry’s gatekeepers. After successfully navigating in 1999 a “record-breaking IPO” for Red Hat, the open-source software company he had founded with Marc Ewing, Young wanted to write a book about how an entrepreneur heading a company that had racked up $50,000 in debt spread across eight different credit cards ended up generating $10 million in sales, thus giving Red Hat a multibillion-dollar valuation during its IPO. According to the company’s origin story posted on its website, Young found “it was impossible to publish his amazing story through any of the traditional publishers,” and subsequent experience with a hybrid publisher left him “frustrated, disappointed, and dissatisfied with the nominal results.”
According to its website, Lulu’s platform currently offers its clients print or e-book production in 3,000 possible format, color, and size combinations, using Lulu templates and guides. Lulu generates revenue by taking a 20% cut of retail price after all production costs have been deducted. Lulu has distribution partnerships with Amazon.com, Apple, Barnes Noble, Ingram, and other outlets that are available to its clients for a fee, but distribution via the Lulu online bookstore is free.
Young retired as CEO last summer, with Kathy Hensgen, Lulu’s COO and president, replacing him. Young remains chair of Lulu’s board of directors. He is also majority owner of two professional sports teams based in his hometown of Hamilton, Ont.: the Forge FC, a soccer club, and the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, a football team. —Claire Kirch
It all starts with storytelling. And Audible founder and executive chairman Don Katz has often said his passion for the oral tradition—and the idea for his company—was first awakened when he studied with Ralph Ellison at NYU in the early 1970s. “In Audible’s case, the founding vision—to unleash the power of the spoken word and bring it into the cultural mainstream alongside books, movies, film, and music—was informed by the great writer Ralph Ellison,” he told Urban Agenda magazine in 2017.
Upon graduation in 1974, Katz was writing long-form narrative nonfiction for Rolling Stone and the New Republic before turning his hand to writing books. His 1992 title, Home Fires (HarperCollins), following the members of a middle-class American family through the major cultural and political shifts between the end of WWII and the 1990s, was nominated for an NBCC Award. Katz had begun work on a new book about emergent technologies when he felt a creative shift of his own. During a jog in Manhattan’s Riverside Park and listening to a portable cassette player, Katz hatched his concept for a better way to listen on the go—digital downloads.
Though friends and colleagues thought his plan to turn away from a successful writing career to a newfangled internet technology was crazy, Katz stayed with his idea. He founded Audible in 1995 and two years later unveiled Audible.com and the Audible MobilePlayer, the first portable digital audio player on the market. Early adopters and traditional audiobook publishers, as well as other content providers of various stripes, started coming on board. In 2000 Audible pivoted to a subscription model that it believed better suited its customers. That same year Katz told PW: “The key to exposing even more listeners to the literate performances that are audiobooks is distribution—from truck stops to grocery store check-out counters, to cereal boxes, to the Web,” a statement that foreshadowed Audible’s eventual grand expansion. The arrival of the iPod in 2001 led to Audible becoming the exclusive provider of audiobooks to iTunes in 2003. Audible membership ballooned and revenue rose at a fast clip, but the company consistently posted losses. That scenario wasn’t a deterrent for Jeff Bezos, however, and in 2008, Katz sold Audible to Amazon for $300 million.
Katz reflected on his Audible journey to that point when he told PW in 2009: “I was at Rolling Stone when MTV was formed around us, and I was on the masthead at Sports Illustrated when ESPN was formed, and in both cases you stand there and think, How could that happen that you have these franchise players who didn’t respond to a media-type change?” He planned to lead the way in a transformation of the audiobook category. “You have to build a company up from the customer,” Katz noted in the same PW interview. “We focused on the customer enough and realized that this could be part of a habit, and completely changed the consumer perception of what an audiobook is.”
That sounds right. —Shannon Maughan
On Jan. 1, 2021, John Sargent ended his run at the helm of Macmillan, leaving his post as CEO after what was vaguely characterized as a “disagreement” with parent company Holtzbrinck over the publisher’s direction. Sargent’s abrupt departure brought an unexpected end to a storied tenure, during which Sargent became a leading industrywide voice for the book business as it confronted the digital age.
Though he studied business at Stanford and Columbia, book publishing runs in Sargent’s blood. The New York Times once described Sargent as a “scion of publishing royalty.” His great-grandfather on his mother’s side was Frank Nelson Doubleday, founder of Doubleday Co., which was led for years by his father, John Turner Sargent Sr. After turns at various other houses, Sargent became CEO of St. Martin’s Press in 1996, and swiftly rose up the ranks at Macmillan parent Holtzbrinck, eventually becoming the CEO of Macmillan USA, and executive v-p of the Holtzbrinck Publishing Group responsible for the company’s global trade operations in the U.S., U.K., Germany, and Australia, as well as Macmillan Learning, the company’s education business.
Principled and colorful, Sargent became a leader of the U.S. publishing industry and in the mid-2000s found himself at the center of many of the publishing industry’s disputes amid the digital revolution. With then Random House CEO Richard Sarnoff, Sargent helped craft a visionary deal to end litigation over Google’s book-scanning program—although the settlement was eventually rejected by the courts. He was also first over the wall to switch his company to agency pricing for e-books—incurring the wrath of Amazon in the process. While that effort led to price-fixing charges, which were eventually settled, the move succeeded in helping publishers reclaim their power to price their digital books. And in 2019, concerned over what he viewed as a shift in consumer behavior, Sargent clashed with the library community over his decision to embargo e-books in libraries—a plan he abandoned when the Covid-19 crisis hit.
Perhaps Sargent’s most well-known battle, however, came in 2018 when he stood up to President Donald J. Trump’s effort to block Macmillan’s publication of Michael Wolff’s blockbuster White House tell-all Fire and Fury. Calling Trump’s efforts unconstitutional, Sargent rallied the publishing community in defense of the freedom to publish. “This is an underlying principle of our democracy,” Sargent explained in a memo to employees. “We will not allow any president to achieve by intimidation what our Constitution precludes him or her from achieving in court. We need to respond strongly for Michael Wolff and his book, but also for all authors and all their books, now and in the future.” —Andrew Albanese
After Jeff Bezos graduated from Princeton in 1986, he spent five years moving from company to company in both the tech and banking investment sectors, impressing everyone he met with his work ethic and entrepreneurial drive, according to Brad Stone’s masterful The Everything Store. It was he and a mentor, D.E. Shaw, who came up with the wild idea of “the everything store,” though in 1994,it was still something that would look like, in Bezos’s mind, a glorified Sears. But as he marveled at the incredible speeds of stock trading on Wall Street, Bezos imagined a product “store” without walls. It would be, well, an online retailer. However, in order to be “everything” Bezos had to start with something, a category his imaginary enterprise could dominate. He whittled down a list of 20 products to a single one, the book—because every book title has a unique identifying number (the ISBN), is in all likelihood being warehoused and ready for nationwide shipping with one of two distributors (Ingram or Baker Taylor), and is a product with both broad appeal and long-established centrality to culture, education, and business. His only competition: several thousand small independent bookshops and a few national and regional chains, each and every one with limited shelf space. They couldn’t possibly have everything. Incorporated in Delaware in 1995, shipping its first book in 1996, Amazon.com had its IPO in the summer of 1997. Bezos did his homework. He took a four-day bookselling course offered by the ABA; he dropped by Publishers Weekly’s offices in late ’97 and spoke to Calvin Reid (“I love great bookstores,” Bezos said). He kept expectations low, but company revenues began to double every month. He added a category, CDs and music, in 2002. And today, there is so much more, even if far short of everything. When Amazon introduced the Kindle in 2007 and entered the publishing business in 2009, not even the bite of the financial meltdown of 2008–2009 could slow its adoption. There was a constant drumbeat of fear that Amazon would wreck this and that sector of the industry, from the printed book and bookstore aisle to book tours and book fairs. Instead, books, stores, author promotions, and fairs—and trade publications like PW and Kirkus—have morphed and survived despite the efflorescence of other book media. Amazon lost millions of dollars every year for many years—its first year in the black was 2003. Along the way, small businesses of many stripes went dark, malls emptied out, and there is no question that the Bezos dream of dominance damaged and destroyed many local businesses. But it is also true that some industries are the stronger for it. The danger now might be that Amazon, enormously well capitalized, will acquire all the innovation it may have inspired. Books, however, are now a blip in the vast Amazon spreadsheet. Perhaps the book ecosystem has stabilized and from there can thrive. In any event, the man who has now entrusted his creation to other hands has brought more change to the book industry than anyone since Johannes Gutenberg.
The Recent Change Makers at ‘Publishers Weekly’ Honoring a handful of ‘PW’ stalwarts who became significant forces in the industry they served.
Our 125th Anniversary Class: The Book Business Changemakers of Yore Remembering the roster of people who were deemed to have “shaped publishing” during the first 125 years of our magazine's existence.
Correction: This article initially referred to Cinco Puntos as a "Spanish-language" small press. It is a multicultural publisher, and publishes books in both English and Spanish.
A version of this article appeared in the 04/19/2022 issue of Publishers Weekly under the headline: How to Make a Difference