He was supposed to become a doctor—at least according to his physician father—but Robert Baensch took a different turn, toward publishing: first working in the industry, then teaching it, and finally advising foreign publishers on how to do business in the global economy.
Born in Germany, Baensch moved to the U.S. as a teenager. After completing his premed degree and being accepted to medical school, he decided doctoring wasn’t for him. He returned to Germany for a time to work in publishing and printing, but came back to the U.S. and ended up in the medical- and nursing-books division of McGraw-Hill. At M-H, Baensch was eventually appointed director of the foreign-rights department, and later editorial director of the international division—which was “my first major job in international publishing,” he recalled, and which gave the shape of things to come. Later Baensch left the editorial division to serve as v-p, director of international operations (including export and foreign rights), with Harper & Row from 1968 to 1980.
Jeremiah Kaplan—“an amazing and unique publisher,” Baensch said—hired him in 1983 as v-p of marketing and director of new business development at Macmillan, where he created the multimedia ESL program Family Album, which sold more than one million copies in China He also launched Macmillan’s first software publishing division.
Baensch left Macmillan in 1988, when, he said, the company “was acquired by the monster from Britain [Robert Maxwell], and 300 of us were out of a job with no severance and no benefits.” Baensch went on to hold executive spots at the American Institute of Physics and Rizzoli International Publications, before heading off in a new direction: starting and directing the M.A. in publishing program at NYU’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies. (He was also on the faculty of the Stanford University Publishing course from 2004 to 2009 and, with Martin Levin, relocated it to Yale, where he continues to serve on the Academic Advisory Group and the faculty.)
Baensch believes strongly that the old mentoring model in publishing is no longer sufficient to keep the industry’s workforce abreast of new developments and opportunities: “The industry has so many companies and market segments, and due to the continuous changes it is important to learn new skills in a structured academic setting with practical applications.”
Baensch’s wife received a terminal diagnosis in 2008, and he left NYU after 12 years there to care for her during her “three years of a slow decline,” he said. During that time, “I could not work for a company or continue at NYU, so I started the Baensch International Group to combine my wide range of publishing experiences with my 12 years at NYU. My group is a flexible range of professionals I call on to help me organize, teach, and consult in different countries.”
Over time, his focus became China. “In 1996, the AAP decided to send a delegation of attorneys to China to bring their piracy under control. I made the counterproposal that we first help the Chinese publishers understand intellectual property and related copyright protection.” With funding from the United States Information Agency, “three of us as publishers—not lawyers—presented a three-day seminar in cooperation with China’s General Administration for Press and Publications [GAPP],” Baensch recalled. He said that 66 Chinese publishers attended that first event; in 1997, 138 publishers participated.
Of these early interactions, Baensch said, “I realized it was not just copyright, but many other publishing topics and functions that needed management training in China. They have eight universities with graduate programs in publishing, but the faculty has never worked in book, magazine, or journal publishing. They teach a collection of what I call concepts and principles, but not the practice and business of publishing.” Baensch estimated that over the past 15 years, he has presented more than 85 management seminars for about 3,450 Chinese publishers; in August he was honored with the ninth Special Book Award of China, presented by the State Administration of Press, Publications, Radio, Film and Television in Beijing.
In January 2016, Baensch will present a newly redesigned seminar in China titled Copyright, Patents, and Trademarks for Digital Multimedia Publishing, with Gary Rinck, chief attorney for John Wiley & Sons, and Ed Davis, from the media law firm Davis, Wright, Tremaine. More than 120 publishers are expected to attend in Shanghai, with another 100 participating in X’ian. “Instead of cursing the darkness of piracy, we are doing something about improving the understanding of intellectual property and the importance of protecting it,” Baensch said.