When I meet Esther Margolis at her Newmarket Press office—crammed with books and papers and marked-up screenplays stacked against one wall— in midtown Manhattan, it's early January and the industry is in a panic—panic about layoffs, cutbacks, the reorganization at Random House. Still, Margolis seems unfazed by the doom and gloom. Maybe that's because she's been her own boss for more than 25 years and she is able to see, more lucidly than those worried about pink slips and health insurance, that the book business isn't dying, it's just going through another evolution.
With more than 40 years in the business, Margolis is quick to point out that publishing has seen plenty of growing pains. Although she admits this is a “tough time,” she's been through other tough times, and, though the particulars may have shifted, she thinks the challenge is the same: “The economic models are different, but it's still about figuring out another way to get the book to the reader. The readers are there.”
Margolis's first full-time job, as a secretary at Dell, came in 1961, after she finished her graduate degree in English at the University of Michigan. She continued on to a 17-year career at Bantam, where she was at the forefront of the creation of the publicity machine. The importance of marketing and public relations wasn't really recognized by the major houses until she left Bantam, she explained. While at Bantam, Margolis was also part of a generation that, she think, took a longer view to their work and to the industry itself.
At Newmarket, which Margolis started in 1981, there are some remnants of that mentality. The company is equity-based, an aspect that is important to Margolis, so employees can feel they have a stake in their work. The house has also benefited from Margolis's industry savvy. Whether it's with smart acquisitions—Newmarket holds the rights to Suze Orman's first book—or well-timed series—the house was one of the first out of the gate with sudoku. Proving that the company looks to build value in innovative yet inexpensive ways, Margolis points to the house's “shooting script” series, a line of bound screenplays that benefit from film studios' big marketing budgets; as she notes, Newmarket need sell only a few thousand copies for these titles to be profitable.
Margolis believes many of the industry's problems lie with executives who “kept their eye off the ball”—“they needed to think long-term instead of short-term.” Margolis recalls that Bantam founder (and her mentor at the company) Oscar Dystel was obsessed with staying focused. Dystel was “always concerned that when a new idea came into the company, we stayed focused” on the core business.
Now Margolis thinks a general inability to focus is one of the industry's biggest problems. She cites the shrinking of the publicity and marketing window as one of the most damaging changes publishing has seen. “We don't have six months to a year to market a book,” Margolis says. “That never used to be the case.” As a small house, this is something Newmarket can do well. Production timelines can shrink or expand more easily than at the bigger houses, and Newmarket can dedicate more marketing muscle to a smaller number of books. Margolis has been successful enough that last November she received the Poor Richard Award for outstanding contributions to independent publishing from the New York Independent Center for Publishing.
Looking ahead, Margolis is most excited about the digital space. She's eager to see how publishers and authors use technology to shift the business model. And she recognizes that Newmarket might not be the company at the forefront—and she's okay with that. “I do find that, as a smaller company, I can't necessarily do what my head tells me would be wonderful to do.” Still, Margolis knows that the key to unlocking the future is understanding the past. And, having gone from student of this business to teacher—she's been directing a publishing course at her alma mater for years and will teach at the NYU publishing course this summer—she's eager to pass on her knowledge to the next generation of publishing innovators.