After devoting 25 years to children’s book marketing, Jeanne McDermott is changing course and leaving her position as director of marketing of Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group to pursue a master’s degree at Queens College Graduate School of Library Science.
Backing up a quarter century, how did you first become involved in publishing?
I earned a B.A. in English from Hofstra, specializing in book publishing. So I guess I knew at an early age what I was interested in. My first job, in 1985, was an entry-level marketing position at Macmillan, after which I worked in children’s book publicity at Random House and then moved to HarperCollins, where I worked with Bill Morris in institutional marketing for children’s books. I next went to the Walt Disney Company when it launched Disney Press and Hyperion Books for Children in 1990. And then I finally moved to Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 1996 to handle general marketing for children’s books—retail, institutional and consumer.
And there you stayed?
Yes. And then, with Farrar, Straus & Giroux’s merger with Macmillan in January 2009, I became director of marketing for children’s books, focusing on institutional marketing for FSG and Roaring Brook.
Switching career tracks after so many years in publishing is obviously a big leap. Had you contemplated this move for some time?
Absolutely. Throughout my career in marketing I have worked very closely with librarians. I’ve been so inspired by these women and men who are on the front lines, sharing our books with our audience. I feel so firmly that libraries really are the basis of a sound democracy.
In what way?
Libraries provide access to information and librarians are instrumental in helping people develop good research skills. How else can we participate in a democratic society if we don’t know how to access information? It’s important that children learn these skills at a young age.
Over the years, what has your contact with the library world entailed?
I’ve been a member of ALA for some time and have participated on some of their committees, including the Intellectual Freedom committee and the May Hill Arbuthnot Honor Lecture committee. That helped lay the groundwork for my decision to become a librarian. And I’ve always done volunteer work with children, in programs such as those run by New York Cares to promote children’s literacy. Most recently, I interned last April at the Brooklyn Public Library’s Saturday Story Time program. Its focus is on family literacy and it felt like such a good fit for me—I was very energized by that experience!
Did any other factors lead you to consider becoming a librarian at this point?
Yes. I think my timing had to do with seeing more and more reports that lead us to believe that young people are not reading as much today as in the past. On the flip side, with this economic meltdown there has been an increase in library use. I think this is a pivotal time to go into library science, to encourage people—and children in particular—to use libraries and support them as a resource.
Are there any individuals who especially inspired your move to the library community?
Definitely. Millie Lee, a former school librarian and author whom Farrar, Straus & Giroux published, told me early on that I really should get involved with ALA. And Pat Scales, former president of the Association for Library Services to Children, was very influential in my decision to become a librarian. She has for many years been very involved in censorship issues.
And who in the publishing world would you say has influenced you over the years?
Oh, so very many people. At FSG, on the editorial side, Margaret Ferguson and Frances Foster have always really inspired me with the great care they put into their books and with their manner.
What do you think you’ll most miss about publishing?
Probably the excitement of a new manuscript coming in and being passed around, and the brainstorming about a book that takes place. And of course getting to know the personality behind a fantastic work.
But won’t you experience some of those things in your role as librarian?
Yes, some of that will continue. Though as a librarian I’ll have to wait until the books are published, but there will still be a lot of brainstorming—about ways to get books to kids.
Speaking of introducing books to children, given your longtime allegiance to Farrar, Straus & Giroux, do you anticipate showing any favoritism in terms of which titles you recommend to youngsters?
I don’t think so! I’ve worked at so many large houses that I’m familiar with their backlists, too. And I’m currently enrolled in a children’s literature course, so I’m being introduced to many more recent books that I might have missed. As a librarian, I plan to close my eyes to the publisher’s name on the spine.
And when do you expect to wrap up your course work?
I’m taking five courses this semester, and my goal is to finish my program by the end of 2010. I’ll receive a master’s in library and information science, with a certificate in children’s and young adult services. I also now have an internship at the Brooklyn Public Library one day a week, so I’m able to start applying what I’m learning right away. I’m grateful to the library for giving me that opportunity.
You must be looking forward to being in a library full-time.
Absolutely. I was a bit proud to receive an award—the 2008 Ted Hipple Service Award given by the Assembly on Literature for Adolescents, an independent assembly of the National Council of Teachers of English. What I said upon receiving that award still holds: I am inspired by the passion of the teachers and librarians who work against all odds—budget cuts, reduced hours, the threat of censorship—to connect young people with books. And the reward is the teen who says, “I loved the book because it describes exactly the way I feel.” I’ve had occasion to put the right book into the right child’s hands, but I am very much looking forward to making that a daily occurrence!
We are speaking on your last day at Macmillan. Will it be difficult to walk out of your office for the final time?
Not really. This feels so very much like the right decision and everyone here has been so supportive. I am very excited about being a librarian—it’s such a parallel position, so closely related to what I’ve been doing. I don’t have any feeling of saying goodbye. I am taking an adjacent roadway, but we are all still driving toward the same destination.