Even in tense times, there is far more that unites publishers and libraries than divides them. And if one needs proof that librarians and publishers share common goals and can work together to mutual benefit, they need look no further than the career of Marcia Purcell, Random House’s v-p of library and academic marketing.
This month, after more than 20 years, at Random, Purcell is set to retire, capping a remarkable career that paved the way for publishers and libraries to work better together. Purcell steps down knowing she has done what librarians do best—she has made a difference. And it all started with a red-haired librarian in a bookmobile.
For someone who would go on to so influence the library and publishing professions, Marcia Purcell grew up in a town without a library—Forest Hill, La. But if Purcell couldn’t go to the library, the library came to her. “The Rapides Parish bookmobile was the bright spot of my life,” she recalls. “I loved the librarian—she had red hair like me, and she would save books for me to read.”
That was pretty much all Purcell needed to decide she wanted to be a librarian. In high school and later in college, Purcell worked in the library. And the year she received her MLS degree from Louisiana State University, the ALA annual conference just happened to be in New Orleans. There, she met recruiters from the New York Public Library. Soon, she was off to New York, eventually settling in as the NYPL’s coordinator of adult services for 82 branches, handling collection development, staff training, programming, and recruitment, managing a staff of eight—including one staffer whose minor meltdown would end up changing Purcell’s life.
“She came into my office one day about to have a fit,” Purcell recalls. The reason: Random House had changed its catalogue. “It was all text, no illustrations, and we had to literally tear the catalogue apart to make selections.”
Purcell wrote a letter of complaint to the publisher. “I think I was very mean, actually,” she says. “They probably caught me on a bad day. But it was at a time when libraries felt put upon and were kind of smarting. We had millions to spend on books, yet, at ABA conventions, publishers would say, ‘You’re not a bookseller.’ It was a struggle to get a galley or any kind of advance material.”
To her surprise, Purcell’s letter drew a phone call from Bruce Harris, then an executive vice president at Random House. Harris offered to come and explain the changes. Over two days of meetings at NYPL, Purcell and her staff showed Harris everything—how NYPL set up book selection rooms, how they spent their money, how they ordered, the criteria for buying a book, and how they did author events.
Several meetings later, Harris offered Purcell a job. “I was shocked,” Purcell says. “I’d assumed that I would retire with 40 years at the NYPL, like everyone else.”
On April 22, 1991, Purcell began her new job at Random House. She would soon launch an unprecedented outreach campaign to librarians, including company publications like the Library Bulletin, a collection development resource; the “Random Revelations” newsletter, with information and personal recommendations from the Random House staff; the Random House Library Book Club brochure, for reading group leaders; a dedicated graphic novel catalogue; and a stable of e-mail newsletters.
Of course, Purcell and her staff are fixtures at conferences, sponsoring and hosting numerous events for librarians at ALA, PLA, BEA, and elsewhere. “Communication,” Purcell stresses, has been key. “Communication has always been a top priority for my department.”
As she heads toward retirement, those in the profession recall the impact of Purcell’s work. Today, every major publisher has a library marketing department. But Purcell’s was the first, and she is widely credited with revolutionizing the way book publishers interact with libraries.
“Marcia Purcell is legendary in the library community for helping to make the adult book library market—and librarians—visible to publishers,” says Library Journal editor-in-chief Francine Fialkoff.
“The whole library—and publishing—community owes Marcia an enormous thank you,” adds former Seattle librarian (and PW columnist) Nancy Pearl, “for all she’s done over her years at Random House to emphasize the centrality of libraries in the ecosystem of reading.”
Although she says she is sad to leave Random House, Purcell says she won’t exactly disappear. In fact, you may very well see Purcell at future library meetings. And she says she is confident in Random House’s commitment to libraries. “I have a wonderful staff and I feel very confident of their ability to press on without me,” she says. “The people here at Random House have been wonderfully supportive of me over the years.”
Her staff feels the same way. “One of Marcia Purcell’s great talents is her mentoring of staff,” says Random House’s director of library marketing, Jennifer Childs. “I have worked with Marcia for over 10 years and have learned so much from her in that time, about dedication, loyalty, and building relationships.”
Department head Skip Dye, v-p, academic and library sales, says he too has learned many lessons from Purcell, including a lesson that resonates for us all. “Have passion,” he says, “passion for books; passion for libraries; passion for authors; passion about readers.”