The buoyant, loving, and generous Maggie Castanon passed away last month. Friends, family, colleagues, and Bay Area book folks are mourning, and Random House sent out a beautiful tribute. But all of publishing needs to be reminded of what Maggie did to change the landscape for women in publishing.
Maggie had what is, to me, the best title you can have in publishing: sales rep. I was a colleague of hers at Random House in the—gulp—late ’70s, ’80s, and early ’90s, and no one made me smile more than Maggie. She was kind to me when I was a rookie rep in ’79 and some of the older male veterans were, let’s say, tolerant. I mean, to them, we rookies were basically on probation.
Each season, Maggie took all of us rookies into her confidence, doling out advice or making us laugh when we were nervous at the overwhelming Random House sales conference cocktail parties. John Hughes, Doug Hodges, Ron Smith, Jeff Stone, Alan Mendelsonn, Steve Wallace, and others benefited of the “Maggie Effect.”
“Hey guys, don’t be so damn uptight,” she’d say in her beautifully accented way. “Be like me. To hell with what they think.”
Maggie could bring an editor who was maybe a bit too full of himself down a notch with laughter, and tell another office-bound poo-bah what the real deal was out in her world. (I was a little extra lucky, in that mischievous Sid Albert let leak to Maggie that I was actually born in Colombia, albeit of American parents, and from then on, I was Carlitos. Only Maggie could call me that, and I loved it.)
She was the first woman hired by Random House to be a field sales rep, and I applaud what was then an all-male sales management bastion for bringing her on. Liz Wilner, Peggy Keller, Laurie Brown, and Betty Fairchild were also among the field pioneers, and Kristina Peterson became the first woman in an executive sales position in RH NYC, a move that was both very deserved and powerfully symbolic. Maggie was also Hispanic, and that made Random House’s decision to hire her all the more ahead of its time. There may have been other women hired at the same time or earlier as sales reps at other houses—and I hope there were—but she made all of Random House run better.
I’m lucky to have been mentored by many amazing women along the odd path that has been my career: Kristina, Brenda Marsh (whom I met when she was a St. Martin’s rep and I was a Macy’s bookseller, and she steered me toward sales—the happiest decision of my career), Alison Lazarus, Susan Reich, Anne Messitte, Sarah Crichton, Cecile Engel, and, of course, Jane Friedman. They taught me the nuances of the business, but Maggie taught all of us to fly straight, and that the booksellers come first—and to just friggin’ chill out. I have to believe that her presence made any old-school male editor mind his tongue on the sales conference dais, and empowered the female editors to know that they had allies in “the field”—that scary place where we denizens of the road go to sell (or not sell) the fruits of the editors’ and authors’ labors.
Only in the last two decades have sales reps truly come to be seen as equal partners in the publishing process, and not just as messengers. It’s now generally acknowledged that the sales rep is essential in building the word of mouth so crucial to a book’s success. The rep also serves as a link between the publishing office and booksellers and librarians. You can send in stacks of galleys without a rep behind it and hear nothing. Or, you can have the voice of a beloved rep speak from the heart and reach every bookseller in every store.
Like Maggie. She was our touchstone, reality check, smiling face in a daunting crowd, conscience, mother, sister, colleague, friend. She wouldn’t describe herself in any of those ways; she would just say, “I’m being myself.” And that helped us nervous newbies be ourselves, as well.
“What the hell’s wrong with you? Cheer up! Don’t you know how lucky we are?”
Yes, Maggie, we do. Because of you.