For more than four decades, Michael Eisenberg has been a fixture in children’s books, notably in the field of library marketing. Last month, he ended that chapter of his life when he retired from his post at Highlights for Children. PW recently caught up with Eisenberg to ask him to share some highlights of his career and his reflections on the changes he has witnessed in the children’s publishing and library marketing spheres.
Can you provide a recap of your career trajectory?
My first publishing job was as a customer service rep at Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 1978. That’s where I met Neal Porter, who brought me into library services and academic sales before he left for Atheneum. Our paths continued to cross over the years as we worked together at various houses. I came and went at FSG several times. I had 10 great years at Macmillan as v-p and director of marketing, which gave me the opportunity to learn the intricacies of the publishing business at a much larger house. I then returned to FSG and had 10 years there as senior v-p, co-publisher, and general manager for the young readers division before moving on to Highlights for Children, where I spent the next 10 years.
What major changes have you observed in the children’s book industry over the years?
There have been many significant changes, for better and for worse, in children’s publishing—and publishing in general—over the decades. Children’s divisions began to receive the respect and attention they deserved after being profitable for years and underwriting many adult divisions. There was a huge increase in the number of children’s books being published, incredible growth in young adult publishing, and a proliferation of independent children’s bookstores and chain stores. “Library services” departments morphed into “children’s marketing” departments, and there was a move to market directly to the consumer. Computers, the internet, social media, and online bookstores brought enormous changes to the business. There are fewer book review outlets in traditional media and getting your books into the right reviewers’ hands is key.
How has the area of library marketing evolved on your watch?
Significant developments include the separation of the Newbery and Caldecott Committee and the establishment of the Michael L. Printz Award and others. There have been a slashing of library budgets and a loss of school librarians and collection development specialists. Readers now have the ability to access libraries from home, and the role of librarians has expanded greatly over the years. They now work in many nontraditional ways to help meet the ever-evolving needs of their patrons and their communities. This larger role has changed the way libraries and librarians think of themselves and has, in turn, led to a closer, more collegial relationship between librarians and publishers, especially with the marketing teams.
Can you cite several pivotal experiences that shaped your career?
First, I had the opportunity to observe and learn from Roger Straus. He taught me by example the importance of knowing about—and caring about—every aspect of the business. FSG also taught me that quality literature was not just in the writing but in every detail of the book—the design, the typeface, the paper, the binding, etc. When Lauren Wohl convinced me to come to Macmillan, I became marketing manager for Scribner/Atheneum, which gave me a much larger role and range of responsibilities. Another highlight was reuniting with Margaret Ferguson at FSG as co-publisher, where I watched her build an incredible editorial team. And after getting a call out of the blue from Mary-Alice Moore, whom I had only met once before, asking me if I would be interested in consulting at Boyds Mills Press, I had the opportunity to launch Highlights Press and Highlights Learning with Mary-Alice, Liz Van Doren, Jack Perry, Patty Sullivan, and Kerry McManus.
What memories of times shared with colleagues or authors are indelibly etched in your mind?
Some memorable moments include watching Uri Shulevitz use the pens and pencils on my desk to create a beautiful drawing in 1982 or ’83, in the same palette and style as his The Treasure; relaxing with Bill Steig, Margot Zemach, and Maurice Sendak in the FSG suite after an ALA luncheon in Los Angeles in 1983; having regular Bloody Mary lunches with Madeleine L’Engle in the early 1980s and then again in the mid ’90s; having dinner with Margaret McElderry at my first Bologna in 1989 and getting mugged with Frances Foster at my last Bologna in 2003; getting the call from Pat Scales that Phyllis Reynolds Naylor had won the 1992 Newbery Medal for Shiloh; going on tour with Peter Sís in 1994 and ’96—or whenever he had a new book with FSG; babysitting “Carl” [of Good Dog, Carl fame] and walking him during BEA in New York in the late '90s; and visiting Sarah Stewart and David Small at their home in Michigan in 2007, when Sarah won the Michigan Author Award.
Obviously, the publishing universe has been hit hard by the ongoing pandemic. Are you hopeful that the library market will rebound from this long hiatus relatively soon once library doors reopen?
I hope it will come back quickly, but it’s an uncertain time for almost every industry. I do believe libraries—whether virtual or brick and mortar—will always have a critical role to play in ensuring free access to children’s literature. And if there is any group who will do it right, it’s librarians!
What will you miss most about your day-to-day life in publishing?
The human interactions, the relationships with artists, authors, and colleagues—and the feeling of being part of a team. I will also miss the 100 or so decisions I made every day and having a role to play in the development of quality children’s books.
What lifestyle changes and activities are you looking forward to in retirement that you haven’t had time for while working?
I haven’t figured that out yet. I now have an extra 50–60 hours a week that I have never had before. For the past five years I’ve lived in northeast Pennsylvania, so continuing to live in a rural location is a given: appreciating the peace and quiet, observing a clear night sky, working in the garden, and actually having time to read some books are all things I’m looking forward to.