Coming from the West Coast, Reagan Arthur was not always surrounded by people who thought much of a career in books. But that didn’t stop her from coming to New York City to make her way in the business. And it also has not affected her ascendancy as an editor and publisher. After 11 years at Hachette, three of them running her own imprint, Arthur took the reins as publisher of Little, Brown on April 1.
In an interview at Hachette Book Group’s New York offices, Arthur said she knew she wanted to work in publishing in college, at UCLA. This, though, was not the most popular career track. “There wasn’t a publishing program [at UCLA]. I remember telling one of my writing professors—I took a practical writing and editing course and he asked us what we wanted to do—that I wanted to be an editor. Maybe at the New Yorker. He all but patted my head.” It didn’t matter. Even though more of her classmates were focused on jobs in Hollywood, or elsewhere, Arthur headed east.
After a sojourn in Paris, where she worked in a bookstore, and a return to her hometown of L.A., Arthur moved to New York City and got a job at St. Martin’s Press that she read about in a classified ad. A long stretch at SMP led to a senior editor job at Little, Brown—she joined the company in 2001.
Although Arthur may have a certain reputation as a supporter of strong women’s fiction—at least her imprint had that patina—her tastes run a wider gamut. As have her bestsellers. At SMP she found her way with some big-name mystery authors, and cited acquiring Don Winslow’s first book in the popular Neal Carey series, A Cool Breeze On the Underground, as one of her first big purchases. Other favorite career moments include signing the paperback rights to Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (for Picador) and acquiring Kate Atkinson’s debut novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum.
The career-changer, though, was The Historian. Elizabeth Kotsova’s 2005 novel, which Arthur won at auction, went on to sell over 1 million copies. “It was just a very exciting thing,” Arthur explained. “It was exciting to see all that we could do with the novel and to see so many people respond to it.” Other big moments include buying Tina Fey’s Bossypants and “helping make Elin Hilderbrand a bestseller.”
Arthur recognizes that her taste can be hard to pin down. When asked to summarize what kinds of books she likes, she admitted it’s not an easy task. “I was meeting an agent in London and she said, ‘I can never sell you a book. Tell me more about the last five books you bought.’ And I did. Then she said, ‘Well, that’s impossible!’ There was a thriller. A literary novel. I guess I’m just drawn to voice and story, and they come in so many great packages.”
Of course, in her new job at Little, Brown, where she’s succeeding the highly regarded Michael Pietsch—an executive known for his great literary taste, commercial instincts, and strong management skills, and who is now HBG CEO—she will need more than just editorial know-how. The book program will continue, she said, much like it has. “Obviously, Michael left everything in pretty good shape, so I don’t have any cleaning up to do,” she explained. With that in mind, she said that she intends to continue the division’s “strong nonfiction program” and pointed to ongoing efforts like Tracy Behar’s building up of health and fitness titles, Geoff Shandler’s work on “strong politics, biographies, and histories,” and John Parsley’s oversight of popular science and cultural narrative books.
LB will also be looking to do more digital only/original works along the lines of its first e-original, released last week, The Life and Legend of Chris Kyle: American Sniper, Navy SEAL. “When the opportunity arises we’re looking to be open to that, and to look at new ways of getting into the digital world. We’re obviously in the digital world already—everybody is—but we want to look at the possibilities it affords in terms of doing things fast, of doing things with different price points, and of doing things that are time sensitive.”
So what does Arthur see as the biggest challenges for LB, and the industry as a whole? While corporate consolidation, account pressures, and consumers distracted by myriad entertainment are on the list, finding readers is her top concern. “In a lot of ways I think [reaching readers] has gotten easier, but it’s very different from the way we’ve always done it. That’s challenging.”