We asked a number of industry veterans about the best piece of advice they received when first entering publishing, and what advice they have for those just starting out today.
Gary Gentel, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
I started working for Lauriat’s Books in 1975. When I was hired as a sales rep for Random House in 1980, my regional manager, Bud Fairbanks—an icon in New England—gave me a piece of advice that I’ve never forgotten. He said, “Remember who you work for, but if you do what’s right for the customer, you’ll do what’s right for the company.” I’ve carried that with me my entire career.
The other piece of advice I received later in my career was from Phyllis Grann, CEO of Putnam, who said, “Don’t f--- with the talent,” meaning the authors and illustrators who make our business. Somewhat colorful, but true.
Brenda Bowen, Sanford J. Greenburger Associates
The best advice came from the late Janet Schulman, the brilliant marketer and publisher whose militant fight for equal rights for women opened the door for so many of us in children’s publishing. Janet—wearing a fedora, as I recall—got up at a Children’s Book Council panel about young people in publishing in the early 1980s. “I don’t know why you’re only talking about kids’ books,” she drawled. “You all need to be reading adult books. And go to art galleries and museums. Get out there and do things.” I loved that because a) she was right, of course, and b) you couldn’t find a more passionate proponent of children’s books than Janet Schulman. She wasn’t scolding us—she was reminding us that interesting people make interesting books.
The best advice I got comes in the form of a question, posed by Jean Feiwel to me (and to the rest of her staff): “What’s on the cover?” I went into an editorial meeting with a literary book clutched to my bosom and gave an impassioned speech about the quality of the writing; the abstractions of the plot; the complexity of the imagery; the brilliance of the last line. Jean shot back, “What’s on the cover?” and I was galled. What did it matter what was on the cover when the writing was so transporting? But it was very VERY smart advice: If you don’t know what’s on the cover, then you don’t know who the market is, where the book goes in the bookstore, or how to describe your own vision to others. I use Jean’s on-the-money question when reading manuscripts to this day.
Something I like to say to my colleagues (call it advice if you must!) is “Trust your instincts.” I recall dimly that Donna Bray and I were struggling over some unhappy decision I had made when I was editorial director at Henry Holt Books for Young Readers. “I should have listened to my gut,” I said. “Always trust your instincts.” A couple of weeks later, I was in Donna’s office and there was an index card with the words “TRUST YOUR INSTINCTS” in big magic marker. I guess it has worked for her—she was an assistant editor at the time; now she’s v-p and co-publisher of Balzer + Bray at HarperCollins.
Advice I was given that I didn’t pay a lot of attention to: save for retirement!
Barbara Lalicki, HarperCollins
I don’t remember any specific advice from my first boss, Ferd Monjo, editor-in-chief of Coward, McCann, but he gave me the feeling that publishing children’s books offered excitement and the opportunity to nurture talent. For him, the mail was full of promise; he was eager to see it. A novel with Newbery potential could be in the manuscript pile, just waiting to be read. A ringing phone could signal one of our established authors with a brilliant new idea, or a brilliant new author. He didn’t want the caller to wait. In this I believe he was guided by his mentor, the great Harper editor Ursula Nordstrom, who I’ve heard said, “Answer that phone, it could be the next Mark Twain!”
Brian Heller, Macmillan
On my first day on the job as a rep, I was given these three gems by the old-timers in the Bookazine rep room on West 10th Street.
1) Save your money.
2) Don’t be like a lot of these new reps and actually try to read the books.
3) Flush with your foot.
As far as advice for someone who is just joining the field? Be professionally curious, ask a lot of questions, get a mentor, and try to learn everything you can about every step in the publishing process. If you can, have a trust fund.
Christy Ottaviano, Christy Ottaviano Books, Henry Holt and Co.
My first job in publishing was as Brenda Bowen’s editorial assistant when she was publisher of Henry Holt. On my very first day, I remember her saying to me that hiring a new assistant was like “going on a blind date and then you’re married.” This comment terrified me as I didn’t really know what to make of it—was Brenda going to divorce me before my second day on the job? I worked with Brenda for three years and learned so much from her about the business. One of my favorite pieces of advice she gave me was how important it was to be nice to your assistants... because some day you might be asking them for a job!
As for advice to those interested in breaking into the industry, I stand by doing the homework—read as much as possible and take notes on publishers and imprints to learn who publishes what types of books. While the commercial market is important to follow, keep in mind that there’s more going on than current bandwagon trends—children’s books have a rich history that’s still relevant today in the digital age.
George Nicholson, Sterling Lord Literistic
Many years ago when I first began I was working as Janet Chenery’s assistant on The Golden Encyclopedia of Art. It was a tortuous job, clearing permissions for over 100 pieces of art and creating an index, all in the days of air mail, 3x5 cards, and no computers. One spring afternoon after hours of this, I went into Janet’s office and said that I had a filthy headache and that I thought I’d go home. With a firm eye, she said that if I were sick, of course, I should go home, but that if I were simply bored, I’d best go back to my desk. I went back to my desk. A simple story but one I’ve never forgotten in years of working. The advice was implicit and mercifully delivered with a smile.
David Saylor, Scholastic
Craig Walker gave good advice. One day, at a meeting at Scholastic where we discuss our book covers, we had been having a lengthy debate about whether or not a particular new series should have gloss film lamination or matte film lamination (slightly more expensive). And finally, after the group had weighed in with their nuanced opinions on the merits of both options, Craig said, “No one west of the Hudson River gives a rat’s ass about matte film lamination.” This stopped the conversation. And made us laugh, too.
Craig helped us realize that, at the end of the day, our decision wouldn’t contribute to the success or failure of those books once they were out in the world. And to spend time debating it only brought to the surface how insular we could sometimes be in our little world of publishing. Craig had a way of keeping us down to earth, and I think of that moment often, if only because it reminds me to keep focused on what’s important. (Not that I don’t love matte lamination, by the way, but I try to remember to use it when it makes a difference and not just because I can.)
But maybe the best “advice” Craig gave was simply about letting us see how an extraordinary person goes through their day with such incredible good humor and lack of pretension.
Michelle F. Bayuk, Albert Whitman & Co.
On my second day as publicity assistant for William Morrow Children’s Books, I was so excited and so busy that I skipped lunch. One of my bosses, Cindy Frank (then publicity manager), came out of her office about 4 p.m. She looked at me and asked if I’d taken lunch. When I said no, she said, “Always take lunch. Come in early. Stay late. But always take lunch.” She felt strongly that productivity lags without some sort of mental break in the middle of the day. I’ve always tried to take that advice. Even if taking lunch meant 15 minutes of solitaire at my desk. Your brain needs a break, even if your stomach doesn’t.
Aside from passing along this same advice, I recommend reading as much as you can. We need to know what’s out there—what’s working, what’s selling, what’s not. But we also need to have good conversations with our customers. You will not be authentic in your “next big thing” pitch if you haven’t read the last big thing.
Dave Barrett, Feiwel and Friends
Though my dad told me this before I started on my career path, it pretty much applies to all industries: it’s all who you know. I started at St. Martin’s Press and continually moved around the industry for years afterward, all via contacts I made and kept up with from my initial job in publishing.
My advice? At least for the first decade or so, bounce around a lot between companies, because if you stay in one place for too long, you’re a sucker and they’re using you. The only way to make decent strides in salary increases is to jump ship every few years.
Elizabeth Parisi, Scholastic
Know when to kill a job. As an art director, working with an illustrator, you build a relationship while working together. You choose someone, have high hopes for their cover coming out just as you envisioned it. But, of course, you must please more parties than just yourself (especially in the last handful of years) and your vision may get blurred while your illustrator changes and adjusts an image to please everyone. Sometimes it just isn’t going to work, and you need to know when to cut the tie, when to move in another direction to get the job done. I think I’ve gotten good at both making an image work successfully, but also knowing when to let go and start again. The advice came from my manager at the time, David Saylor.
As far as advice to someone who is just joining the field, don’t treat your design for a book cover like it is the only solution for that book. Don’t get so attached to your idea/design that you become inflexible in making changes. And always stay calm when you have to adjust. Also, remember to thank, compliment, respond to artists who send in work. Being married to an illustrator, I understand this from both sides. As a designer, busy with multiple projects at once, it’s easy to receive art, forward to the editor, place on a cover, and forget to write back to say, “Got it! Thanks!” From the illustrator’s point of view, remember that they may have just pulled an all-nighter to get the art in on time, and most likely won’t be able to relax until they know you got it, and like it!
Lauren Wohl, publishing consultant
This is a lesson Bill Morris learned from Ursula Nordstrom. He gave me this piece of advice when I was writing catalog copy. for a T.Y. Crowell catalog. I gave him what I thought was final copy, and Bill labored over it for several days. I wasn’t pleased. When he gave the copy back to me I saw that he’d made several very small changes. Each and every change was certainly an improvement—but a very small one. I thought “what a waste of a week’s time.” Bill recognized exactly what I was thinking and offered: “Treat everything you do for a book as if the author was going to see it. Think of the author.” I still do.
As for my advice—it’s a version of the same. Always think of the author, yes. And also think about the person in the marketplace—the bookseller, the librarian, the teacher, the reviewer, and ultimately the reader—whatever you are doing for a book. It’s not one size fits all.
Karyn G. Browne, Scholastic Book Group
I started my career in children’s publishing at Chelsea House Publishers as assistant to the publisher, Harold Steinberg. I could tell at our first meeting that he had so many ideas and such big plans for his publishing house. Chelsea House was a small, entrepreneurial company of about 15 employees. My job was partly secretarial but mostly administrative, and then it grew into a managing editorial role. Steinberg insisted that I sit through his meetings and take notes. Luckily that also meant going to lunches and dinners at Sardi’s, the 21 Club, and the Four Seasons with him and his colleagues such as Roger Straus, Harold McGraw, Richard Krinsley, and Jann Wenner. I was fortunate to learn the art of the acquisition deal by practicing the art of observation.
In 1969, Chelsea House took a detour from the institutional market to publish a reprint edition of the 1897 Sears, Roebuck Catalogue in the trade. It received critical acclaim and was a pop culture curiosity. Sales really took off when small print ads were placed in local newspapers all around the country. Before long, orders were coming in by the hundreds—most with cash taped to the order forms. The phone was busy with callers desperate to have copies sent by fastest mail. I can still hear Steinberg say, “Karyn, always take the order,” which meant to drop what I was doing and do the more important thing.
Today, after 25 years at Chelsea House and 16 years at Scholastic, my advice to anyone starting in this industry is to listen and observe and don’t be afraid to take a leap. Communicate your ideas. Our industry has boundless energy right now. Your contribution can ensure success if you “always take the order.”
Sean Fodera, Macmillan
My first job in publishing was in the contracts department at E.P. Dutton in 1989. They had only just started using computers for drafting contracts. A former supervisor, who has long since left the business, was having difficulty working with the new system. She knew how to use a word processor, but had trouble with text formatting. I was helping her one day, and when we were done, she sat back and said, “Embrace change, Sean. I’m not ready for this computer stuff, but I think it’s going to make this a very different business before long.” She was right.
Over the years, I’ve done many speaking engagements at conferences, given seminars and lectures for writers’ groups, and taught courses about publishing. The one piece of advice that I give repeatedly is, “Be open to anything. Don’t limit your goals to just one job area, such as only editorial, or only marketing. There are all sorts of people, doing many different, often unseen, jobs, who make the publishing industry tick. Many of the people making important decisions and moving us forward into the future are working in areas you might never have imagined. We need people with as much enthusiasm, energy and imagination in the behind-the-scenes departments as possible. Just because you’ve entered the business in one department does not mean you can’t change gears, and move to another area that interests you. Keep your options open, and aim for the area where your skills, or desire to succeed, are strongest.” I came into the industry intent on being an editor, but the only job I could find was in contracts. Once I tried it, I realized it was a better fit for me, and here I remain, very happy with the decision.
Advice I wish someone had given me: I was very lucky to have really terrific supervisors and mentors over the years, and it led me to follow the unspoken advice “Pay it forward.” Share your knowledge freely. Encourage others. Be a good ambassador for the industry as well as your company.
Amy Berman, Scholastic Book Clubs
The best advice I got from one of my first bosses at Dell was you have to love what you are doing. I think it came during the interview! This is never going to be a status job or one that you make tons of money in, but you have to want to do it. It may not be glamorous, but when you see a kid across from you reading one of the books we’ve sold—you have to smile and feel that you helped make that child happy for a while. Then it is all worth it.
Victoria Rock, Chronicle Books
The one piece of specific advice I recall took place at a BEA in Chicago and wasn’t given directly to me. The taxi line at McCormick Center was very long so Shari Kaufman and Michael Levin of Innovative Kids invited several of us back to the B&B they were staying in near the convention center. As we sat in the parlor having a drink someone asked what advice we would give to young colleagues attending BEA for the first time. To which Klutz’s John Cassidy responded: “I’d advise them not to take advice from people like us.” I’d echo that: the past informs the future, but it doesn’t dictate the future. Knowledge and experience are important, but so is instinct.
On the editorial front, the legendary Ann Beneduce , founder of Philomel Books, taught me that if I take care of the book and its creator, the rest will fall into place. And Craig Hetzer, my former colleague at Chronicle (now at Knock! Knock!), advised: Don’t worry if others are chasing your vision.
Lastly, the piece of advice I wish some had given me: it’s not brain surgery. Work as hard and as smart as you can, but remember, if you make a mistake, no one dies on the table. Worry and fear just get in the way.
John Dally, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
The venerable, colorful, and imposing Stuart Brent gave me some memorable advice. My first sales call, for W.W. Norton, was at his store in Chicago in October 1983. After a half hour of conversation he introduced me to his daughter, saying, “Honey, meet the new Norton rep. He’s a nice boy, but he doesn’t know shit.” He told me, “Tell the truth,” and then leaned into my face, adding, “because you publishers are all liars.” The advice I took away from that meeting was: take care of your customers, be honest with them, and they will take care of you.
Stuart Brent also told me in 1983 that we were in the last days of the book business. There will always be people claiming that the business is coming to an end, and, in fact, it is. But it’s always coming to life in new ways. My advice is stay positive about the future.