Janet Schulman, editor-at-large at Random House, was publisher of children’s books at Random House and Knopf, and marketing director at Macmillan before that. Here she recounts a tumultuous chapter in children’s book publishing that coincided with the legal battle for women’s rights in publishing.
As the war in Iraq goes on and on and recession grips our lives today, I am reminded of another war and another recession and how they affected one major children’s book publisher in 1974. It was Macmillan (not to be confused with the British Macmillan that now owns FSG, Holt and St. Martin’s Press).
Macmillan had the first children’s book department in America and had won a number of Newberys and Caldecotts, but by the 1950s it had lost its voice and was publishing lackluster lists. Susan Hirschman joined the department as editor-in-chief in 1964, and during her 10-year tenure she transformed it into one of the best in the industry. I was the director of children’s book marketing during that heady time. With the New York Times #1 bestseller Watership Down and the many other commercially and critically successful authors and illustrators that Hirschman brought to the list, plus the Narnia books as the anchor of the paperback line that we started in 1970, the children’s division was growing rapidly and contributing significant profit. In the fall of 1974, though the country was in a deep recession with inflation cutting into profits, we believed that Macmillan, Inc. was in good shape. Its revenue for the first nine months of 1974 had increased by $32 million (1974 dollars) or nine percent over the comparable period in 1973 and its profit was $83,000 or just one percent below the previous nine months.
But on October 14 and 15 of that year Macmillan suddenly fired 185 people from its offices at 866 Third Avenue. Why? Wall Street viewed it as a business blunder. Others viewed it as a Machiavellian scheme. It was both. Here is the back story of how it came about and the long-term damage it brought to the Macmillan children’s book operation.
In the late 1960s, hoping to cash in on federal money for education, Macmillan acquired a number of non-publishing companies, the Hammond Organ company and Conn musical instruments, to name two. When the Vietnam War shut off the federal funding faucet, these non-publishing companies turned out to be bad investments. Macmillan had borrowed money, a lot of money, and in 1974 its bank was threatening not to extend the loans if Macmillan didn’t take steps to improve its profits. And now the plot thickens.
On October 11 Hirschman was asked to cut her list in half and fire four from an editorial staff of ten and three from an art-and-production department of eight. No stated dollar goal was given. No mention of my marketing department was made. Hirschman’s thoughtful and realistic counter-proposal was never answered. Viewing the cuts as “arbitrary and permanently damaging to the department,” Hirschman and her managing editor, Ada Shearon, resigned on October 15.
At four o’clock that afternoon, after 13 years service, I was given one hour to get out, as was my staff of five.
The primary organizer of Local 153 of the Office and Professional Employees International Union was also fired, along with others who had been chatting up the value of having a union at Macmillan.
In 1973 women employees had begun gathering facts about how Macmillan discriminated against them. I had always suspected (correctly) that I was being paid far less than male vice-presidents or male marketing managers. The final straw was my discovery, after I had a baby, that maternity medical benefits that were denied me were given to the wives of male Macmillan employees. I joined the Macmillan women’s group and was subsequently elected co-chairperson.
We filed a class action complaint with the federal EEOC on May 15, 1974 and on September 5 New York State Attorney General Louis J. Lefkowitz charged Macmillan with sex discrimination in a complaint filed with the State Division of Human Rights. On October 9 some 200 Macmillan women met at the YWCA on Lexington Avenue to hear an attorney from the State Division of Human Rights inform us of our rights. Less than a week later nine of us who had signed our names to the attorney general’s complaint were among those fired, as were a number of other active members of the Macmillan Women’s group.
The New York publishing world was shocked. The firings were front page news in the New York Times and were covered in most New York media. The Washington Post headlined its story “Mac the Knife.”
Those of us who had been fired organized a protest in front of 866 Third Avenue and were joined by colleagues from more than 20 publishing companies and many of our authors. Sympathetic Macmillan employees called in “sick,” some joined the picket line. Others scurried past us, head down, trying to be invisible as they went to work in offices where almost no work was getting done. The Teamsters Union slowed down shipping at Macmillan’s warehouse in New Jersey. Picketing continued on into November. Macmillan, Inc. stock plummeted and stayed that way for years.
On October 24 the Attorney General filed another complaint against Macmillan, this one for unlawfully retaliating against me as the co-chairperson of the women’s group. After investigation the Human Rights Division found probable cause to believe that Macmillan was guilty. The complaint then had to go to a court hearing.
Meanwhile, after receiving several offers to start a new children’s book imprint, Hirschman went with William Morrow in December and named her new imprint Greenwillow. Joining her were Shearon, her Macmillan art director, Ava Weiss, and all of the Macmillan author/artists whom she personally had edited, such as Ezra Jack Keats, Anita and Arnold Lobel, Tana Hoban, Virginia Hamilton, Jack Prelutsky, John Christopher, and other heavy hitters. At age 81 the distinguished author Elizabeth Coatsworth, who had published with Macmillan since the 1920s, also followed her editor to the new imprint with a name derived from her poem “Under the Greenwillow.”
Hirschman’s first list was published less than a year after she started Greenwillow. All 16 books on it had been under contract at Macmillan. Art had already been delivered or was soon to be delivered for a number of the picture books at the time Hirschman resigned, thus making it possible for her to launch a star-studded list in such short order. The industry was amazed that Macmillan allowed these authors to transfer their contracts to Greenwillow, but Macmillan had legal problems that made it necessary for it to stick to its story that the children’s list had to be cut in half. They were in no position to refuse the authors who asked to be released. After the first Greenwillow list was successfully published, Elizabeth Shub, a senior editor at Macmillan, joined the new imprint, bringing with her two-time winner of the Caldecott Medal Nonny Hogrogian and other Macmillan authors with whom she worked.
That left Phyllis Larkin, the only other senior editor who had worked under Hirschman, still at Macmillan. Feeling an obligation to the authors who had remained at Macmillan, Larkin tried under great odds to keep the imprint alive. Authors and agents were reluctant to take new projects there. And since my entire department had been fired, there was no one to back up the editorial efforts with knowledgeable marketing—publicity, promotion, catalogs, advertising. Though it was perfectly obvious to everyone that someone who knew something about children’s book promotion should be there, Macmillan management could not allow that, at least not until the charges of discrimination and retaliation were settled. Larkin soldiered on, but eventually left to join her friends and colleagues at the thriving Greenwillow.
The department never really recovered. After the company was split up and the children’s division sold to Simon and Schuster, the venerable Macmillan children’s book imprint disappeared entirely.
Justice moves slowly and sometimes not as one would hope. Three and a half years after I was fired, the retaliation charges were dismissed. There was no smoking gun memo. Macmillan had covered its tracks by insisting that I and my entire department were let go for economic reasons. But there is a happy ending to this story in two much more important and very gratifying consent decrees.
On March 30, 1976, after an investigation that ruled there was probable cause to believe that Macmillan had engaged in discriminatory practices, Macmillan negotiated a conciliation agreement with the State Division of Human Rights. Back pay or damages were not part of that agreement, but Macmillan did agree to begin most of the employment practices that we take for granted today—equal pay and benefits for men and women, job descriptions, job posting, goals to achieve a better balance of women in professional jobs, integration of women as sales reps (previously an all boys club), etc.
And finally, on December 12, 1985—11 and a half years after the women’s group filed their original class action complaint—Macmillan signed a consent decree with the EEOC and the women of Macmillan. This decree called for much the same equal hiring and promotion practices as the earlier State Division of Human Rights decree, along with career counseling, tuition refund program, seminars, career opportunity programs... and monetary relief! Yes, money in the sum of $1,925,000 dollars to be paid to women employees who had been with the company two years prior to July 1, 1973. Four women who remained at Macmillan, in spite of harassment and demotions, and who hired the eminent feminist labor lawyer Judith P. Vladeck to see the case through, received about $45,000 each in addition to the sums they received as members of the class. Some other women who also remained at Macmillan got between $20,000 and $35,000, but the majority received much smaller amounts. Macmillan also had to pay $715,000 in fees to Vladeck’s law firm and to the EEOC.
In the 1970s Macmillan was not alone among publishers that discriminated against women. Most did, knowingly or otherwise. The publicity and aftermath of the “October Massacre,” as Nat Hentoff named it in his Village Voice piece, sent a chill through top management and human resource departments at publishing companies. Publishers learned they couldn’t get away with violating Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In the past several years, it seems they’ve also learned how to fire in dribs and drabs—a few people from one department one week, a few from another the next week—so that there would not be any publicity. And though it took over a decade for the Macmillan case to get settled, I have to wonder if a case such as that would even get to first base in the civil rights agencies and courts of today.
Three years after the EEOC consent decree was signed I received a check from Macmillan for $2,841.61. A modest sum based on my not continuing employment with Macmillan after October 15, 1974… as if I had a choice! The money meant little to me. I felt vindicated that the small part I played was going to make things better for all women in publishing. And I think it did.