Jennifer N. Baker
Teachers College Press, New York City
In a pay-it-forward gesture, one of last year’s honorees, Veronica Santiago Liu, founder of Word Up bookstore, nominated Baker, whom she calls an “extraordinary literary citizen.” In and out of the office, Baker exhibits a tireless dedication to making the publishing world a better place for all voices who want to be a part of the art or business of creating books. “She is everywhere,” Liu says.
Baker’s day job as production editor at Teachers College Press is only one part of her multifaceted career. She is the creator and host of the podcast Minorities in Publishing, which was a finalist for the 2018 Digital Book World Best Use of Podcasting in Book Marketing Award. She is also a writer and editor. She is a contributing editor to Electric Literature and editor of the short story collection Everyday People: The Color of Life—A Short Anthology (Atria). She was the recipient of the 2017 NYCSA/NYFA Artist Fellowship and a 2017 Queens Council on the Arts New Work Grant for her in-progress essay collection. Baker was deeply engaged for several years with We Need Diverse Books and currently is on the volunteer staff of the I, Too, Arts Collective, based in the Langston Hughes House in Harlem. This past summer she conducted workshops at the Southampton Writers Conference in New York State and the Emerging Writers Festival in Alexandria, Va.
It’s hard to imagine that as a 20-year-old student at CCNY, where she earned her BA and MA in English, she didn’t know publishing existed—until she was recruited by David Unger for the newly established Publishing Certificate Program. At that time, Walter Mosley was helping to fund the program, and its goal was to get people of color into the publishing industry, Baker explains. “I knew that books existed, I knew books got made, and I knew that editors existed, but I didn’t really think about it until the universe and stars aligned. And David, knowing that I did not want to be a teacher, asked me, ‘Well, did you ever think about publishing?’ ” And from that moment it became Baker’s life. “I’ve been doing it for 16 years now and really don’t see myself anywhere else. I love being in the industry and love the work that really speaks to our belief in what arts can do. The archival nature of publishing is incredible.”
Baker’s official entree into the industry was an internship at Bookspan. From there she held a variety of positions at various educational publishers including Scholastic, Holtzbrinck, Pearson, and Cambridge University Press. But she has found a very comfortable niche as a production editor at Teachers College Press, which is within the college itself and publishes materials for those who are attending the school. Unlike some larger companies, where the production department’s purview stops at the mechanics and trafficking of books, her department does “a deep dive into manuscripts,” she says.
The books range from the very specific (such as how to create curriculum) to more political books and more trade-focused books including graphic novels, and even some that are “memoiresque,” Baker explains. But all pay close attention to how literacy affects marginalized children. And Baker believes that looking at things in a very, very precise manner, as she does in her job, allows her to ask very smart and intuitive questions.
Her work inside the office informs her work outside of it, where she conducts workshops on the craft and editing of manuscripts, as well as sensitivity training. “It really becomes an interactive experience,” she says. “You notice how you are reading things and explore how a tone, or a character who isn’t saying anything, makes a difference.”
Baker volunteered for We Need Diverse Books from 2014 to 2017, playing a key role in organizing panels and moving the organization beyond its hashtag. She ended her tenure there to work on other projects including her anthology, other editing and writing, and most importantly her podcast, Minorities in Publishing, which just celebrated its fifth anniversary in August. The podcast came from her realization that “if we talk about diverse books, we also need to talk about who the people are in the industry who are representing or helping to create these materials,” Baker says. “Obviously we exist and can find other people to talk to.” The early list of potential guests barely filled a column, but as Baker connected with more people, it soon became “a bevy of artists and professionals.” It’s a labor of love for Baker. “I keep finding more people to talk to and have genuine organic conversations. It’s been very fruitful not from a standpoint of it’s about me, but from a standpoint that they are not alone. And that’s why I keep doing it.”
Floor and digital manager
Oblong Books & Music, Rhinebeck, N.Y.
Brinkley has been touting books for years: she began her career as a teen blogger, and now—as a grown-up—her boundless enthusiasm for books and bringing readers to them hasn’t waned. Jennifer Laughran, an agent at the Andrea Brown Literary Agency, describes her as “a tireless wearer of many hats, from event coordination to merchandising to handselling like a magician. Books she loves are guaranteed to be bestsellers at the store, regardless of their level of obscurity otherwise. She is a true evangelist for great books, she creates dedicated fandoms seemingly from ether, and she helps kids and teenagers especially (but grown-ups, too) foster a lifelong love of reading.”
Brinkley wouldn’t disagree with Laughran’s assessment. “There’s something really special about being able to hear what people want to be reading, and what they love, and to be able to connect them to a book that they’re really excited about. There’s nothing more magical then helping someone find a book that they fall in love with.”
All that enthusiasm and bookselling was not initially what Brinkley set out to do. While attending SUNY–New Paltz, where she earned a BA in English and public relations, she interned in Bloomsbury’s marketing department, as well as for literary agent Brooks Sherman. For five years she ran a YA website, so, she says, “I kind of had my finger in all the pies.” Upon graduation, she was looking at jobs in traditional publishing in New York City, but, she explains, “I come from a single-parent household. I earned my way through college on scholarships, so I didn’t have the money to move to New York City, and I didn’t have the money to commute to New York City while I was looking, so I needed something that wouldn’t steal my soul and where I could make money.” That something, she decided, was a job at Oblong. And in “the most magical of circumstances,” she was hired on a part-time basis. After only two or three weeks, Brinkley knew that the store was where she wanted to be and stopped looking for publishing jobs.
In her official role as floor manager for the Rhinebeck store, she is responsible for all of its physical displays; she is also the digital manager for both the Rhinebeck and Millerton stores, and she manages everything that happens in the digital space. But that doesn’t begin to describe everything she does.
She handsells across the board. She has a lot of “regular kiddos,” as she describes them, who have learned to trust her opinion and look to her for new recommendations. But she also has parents and other adults who come to talk to her specifically about recommendations, “which is lovely,” she says. “Handselling is my favorite part of my job.” And her life. “What I fall in love with, I aggressively handsell in all aspects of my life, even from my personal social media. A bookseller is never off-duty.”
A middle grade book that benefited from her magic is The Gauntlet by Karuna Riazi, the story of a girl whose little brother gets sucked into a board game, and she and her two friends have to play their way to save him. “Basically, it’s about a young Muslim girl trying to save her brother in a Pakistani world—a Pakistani reimagining of Jumanji. But it is also a beautifully descriptive fantasy with descriptions of food that will make you want to have snacks nearby.”
Brinkley brought The Gauntlet to the attention of Jennifer Quinn-Carl, the librarian at Mill Road Elementary School, to consider for the school’s annual author event. “The amount of time and energy they put into the yearly event is bonkers,” Brinkley says. All of the school’s hallways are decorated along the book’s themes, and multiple activities around the book happen ahead of the author’s visit, resulting in hundreds of children getting very excited for it.
Quinn-Carl also loved the book and invited Riazi to be the store’s author guest. “It was just so much fun to watch literally 200 to 300 kids get excited about this book and hear them ask detailed questions about worldbuilding and storytelling, and being able to connect them to a culture (for many) that was outside of their own,” Brinkley says.
Outside of her day job, Brinkley is cochair of the New England Children’s Book Association, which is a unit of NEIBA. She also offers free online informational classes for authors that help them understand the publishing process, stay on top of it, and maximize publicity. But what she dreams about is being “the nice Gordon Ramsey of bookselling, where I just get to travel from bookstore to bookstore around the world and help them.”
Currency, Convergent, Crown Forum, and Image, New York City
For an ordinary marketer, making a switch from working on books such as My Name Is Lucy Barton, Educated, The Girls, and Born a Crime to lists that focus on business, progressive Christian publishing, conservative politics, and Catholic thought could be daunting—or even unwelcome. But DeWerd was excited when the opportunity to make such a move arose with the merging of the Crown and Random House publishing groups. She moved over from working on Random House, Spiegel & Grau, One World, and the Dial Press titles to the four Crown imprints.
“Andrea is a true marketing dynamo,” says Theresa Zoro, executive creative director of marketing and publicity, to whom DeWerd reports. “Her extensive marketing acumen, her attention to detail, and her ability to think strategically, analytically, and creatively have made her an invaluable part of our Random House marketing team.” The 72 bestsellers to which DeWerd has proffered her marketing moxie are hard evidence that the high praise is deserved.
DeWerd began her career in marketing and editorial for Simon & Schuster’s Pocket Books, Gallery, and Threshold divisions, where she worked on books by Kris Jenner and Snooki, as well as lots of vampire romance. Moving to the S&S flagship imprint, she worked on such literary fiction as We Are Not Ourselves and brand authors such as Mary Higgins Clark. When she jumped to the Random House marketing team for Doubleday, Dial, and Spiegel & Grau, her experience on more commercial properties was helpful in her campaign for The Donald J. Trump Presidential Twitter Library by “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah,” during which she had a “pie in the sky moment.” At a meeting at Comedy Central’s offices in the Viacom building in Times Square, DeWerd jokingly asked if they could get a billboard for the book. The team looked around and said, “Yeah, we can do that.” She learned, she says, to “always ask.”
“I like learning new things,” she says, so she welcomed the change the new imprints give her. “One of my favorite things as a marketer has always been the variety. When this opportunity came up, I thought, great, I’m going to learn the Christian publishing market, something new and different.”
DeWerd also saw the move as an excellent opportunity to grow. At this year’s BookExpo, she attended a presentation hosted by BookScan, where she learned that the sales of religion and spiritual books were up 18% from March 2018 to March 2019. “That’s a huge change in the marketplace, and it’s exciting to be a part of that and figure out what’s next.”
Figuring out what’s next is at the core of her job, whether she’s creating campaigns for Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the late Charles Krauthammer, Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, or a progressive Christian pastor. DeWerd looks at marketing strategy from top to bottom and asks the question, What does every single book need to make the largest impact?
She not only crafts campaigns for upcoming books but analyzes the success or failure of previous marketing strategies. “A lot of my job is stepping back and looking at the correlation of marketing activity to books sales. Should we still be doing something that we’ve done for years that may not make sense anymore? I ask my team to think about how they’re spending their time. Are they working on things that are the most important to book sales? Building author websites is something that I’m trying to get away from. I don’t know if people buy books based on authors’ websites.”
Beyond the variety that overseeing the marketing for these four varied imprints allows, DeWerd also likes the fact that these imprints and books have clearly defined audiences. “A book cannot be for everybody,” she says emphatically. “Maybe once in a blue moon, a book comes along like Educated, but thinking that a book is for everybody is not a marketing strategy. What is a strategy is asking, Who is the best audience for the book, and how are we going to reach them?”
DeWerd is quick to say that she is always learning from her authors—particularly when they are thought leaders in their fields, such as Benioff, with whom she is working for the October 15 publication of his book Trailblazer. “It’s exciting to work with such a big company and their CMO and marketing team.” She points out that at Salesforce, there is a very big emphasis on repeated texting in multiple iterations. For Trailblazer, the Salesforce team has been testing the approach months in advance of the book. As she talks about it, one can practically hear the gears in her brain registering the knowledge and analyzing the strategy for use in other book campaigns.
Publishing sales director
Andrews McMeel, Kansas City, Mo.
In less than a decade, Folks has risen from intern to a key sales position for managing e-commerce, mass market, and wholesale retail channels, in particular Amazon and Walmart. According to v-p of publishing sales Lynn McAdoo, Folks excels at positioning AMP to succeed in a retail market that continues to shift from traditional bricks-and-mortar stores to e-commerce retailers.
Among Folk’s responsibilities are selling AMP’s full line of 275 calendars each year and those of Rizzoli/Universe, AMP’s client publisher. She also handles marketing for Amazon from top to bottom, for all of AMP’s books. Her other accounts include Walmart; Kohl’s; Bed, Bath and Beyond; Sam’s Club; BJ’s; and other national chains.
McAdoo credits her with even more. “Emily has a natural ability to identify and champion trends, particularly ones that appeal to millennial audiences, as well as to transform them into new products or formats that will appeal to both retailers and end consumers.”
A case in point is Thoughts of Dogs, AMP’s current top-selling calendar, which will be released as a book in the spring. Created by Matt Nelson, Thoughts of Dogs was originally a Twitter account, in which Nelson posted what Folks calls “really adorable little daily thoughts from a dog.” It fit the bill for the company’s goal of “always striving to find creators who have a unique voice, speak to different audiences, and can really share powerful content.” She knew that Dogs was popular, but even she was surprised that when Nelson tweeted about the upcoming book, the response was so overwhelming that it crashed the AMP website.
Folks was also a part of the product-development team for AMP’s line of Posh: Organized Living Planners, which was launched in 2017. The team had already identified an emerging trend in planner use, especially among younger women. In response to this trend, McAdoo recounts, “Emily conducted extensive research and held focus groups with the target market and worked to develop this successful product line.”
Other endeavors that Folks is involved in include revamping Nancy comics, which are distributed by Andrews McMeel Syndication. “We’re taking Nancy into the 21st century.” New books and comic strips “will have the nostalgia, but Nancy is being modernized,” Folks says.
Another project is the publication of Sorry I’m Late, I Didn’t Want to Come by Jessica Tang, which Folks describes as a kind of memoir. Tang decided to live her life for a year as an extrovert, even though she’s very introverted. The book delves into self-help and personal transformation, a category the company is “very interested in and passionate about,” Folks says. “We’re seeing a lot of positive responses from consumers and retail buyers for it.”
For all their brands, she is spending a lot of time establishing standards for major ones such as Disney Unicorn, so that “when you’re looking at books on an e-commerce platform—you get this look and feel down. We’re looking to implement that into our Amazon strategy,” Folks says.
Folks doesn’t stop when the workday ends. Representing Andrews McMeel Universal, she is on the board of GenKC, a Kansas City organization for young professionals that provides professional development, community involvement, and networking opportunities. Last year, her main project was implementing Breakfast, Books & Buddies, an ongoing before-school reading program at inner-city schools. Her job was to manage the biweekly sessions, in which a volunteer reads with a child who may not necessarily have an opportunity outside of school to have someone read with them every day. “It’s a great opportunity to see that books are super important to kids,” Folks says, “and to be there for them and see how much literature can impact their lives. It’s really fulfilling.”
While some might see being located in the Midwest, far from publishing’s hub in New York, as a liability, Folks sees it as an asset. She notes that she has been at the company for the full 10 years of her career. “If I were in New York, that probably wouldn’t be the case. You get to learn a lot about a company when you have the ability to work for them for so long,” she adds. “And you learn how to move forward and contribute more.” Folks also enjoys bringing the company’s authors to Kansas City and introducing them to “a little bit of a different world than what they may be used to.” And, she says with pride, “We have lots of barbecue here, too.”
Levine Querido, New York City
As usual, Mom knows best. During the Harry Potter mania of the 1990s, the editor Arthur Levine came to Nick Thomas’s hometown of Glen Rock, N.J., where, as Thomas recalls, “he led a parade or something.” Segue to a couple of decades later, when Thomas was a sophomore in college looking for summer internships: “My mom sent me a link to Scholastic/Arthur A. Levine Books, where an internship opportunity was posted. She said, ‘Hey, this is the guy that led the parade. You should totally do this.’ ” What neither he nor his mom could have known was that this was his career destiny. After spending two summers as an intern with Levine, which he calls “such a dream,” he graduated and went to work—initially part-time and then full-time—for the imprint.
Right from the time he was an intern, Thomas presented himself as “a young man with an extremely rare combination of intelligence, taste, empathy, and drive,” Levine says. “He was by far the most talented employee I’d ever had in my 35-year career.” Levine adds that the year that Thomas became his editorial assistant was “the most productive I’ve ever had, because I could rely so completely on his unwavering good judgment and work ethic.” When Thomas left to sow his wild oats at Bloomsbury, Levine was “crushed.” But his heart was mended when, in 2017, Thomas rejoined Levine.
Thomas was the editor on several of last year’s acclaimed books from Scholastic, including The Parker Inheritance by Varian Johnson, which was bestowed a Coretta Scott King Honor, and Front Desk by Kelly Yang, winner of the Asian Pacific American Library Award. In March, when Levine left Scholastic to launch his own press, Levine Querido, Thomas (to no one’s surprise) went with him. The new press’s mission is to focus on previously underrepresented authors and the finest books in translation from around the world. While “that’s something that Arthur Levine Books has always been about,” Thomas says, “being a part of an independent company with a stated mission that fully infuses everything we do is really powerful.” Citing what he calls the incredible team he works with—marketing director Antonio Gonzalez Cerna, assistant editor Meghan Maria McCullough, and publicity manager Alexandra Hernandez—he says, “When you have a team that is passionate about their mission, passionate about books, and really smart and talented, you’re just better. When you’re a scrappy little independent publisher, there’s the joy and the energy and the feeling of responsibility, too. It’s just a different vibe.”
Lupe Wong Won’t Dance by Donna Barba Higuera is a contemporary middle grade debut about a girl who wants to be the first female pitcher in the major leagues, and also to stop the square dancing unit in seventh grade gym class. Thomas calls it “hilarious and thoughtful.”
Besides the indie energy that the new company offers, Thomas also likes the magic of the serendipitous moment that sometimes occurs as with The Sea-Ringed: Sacred Stories of the Americas. At the Bologna Book Fair, Levine took a photo of some incredible art unattached to its book or author, Thomas recalls, so Levine said, “Let’s find out what book this is and who it’s from.” Thomas jumped on the case and found that it was by María García Esperón and illustrated by Amanda Mijangos, from a Mexican publisher. Not able to read Spanish, Thomas then enlisted his friend the poet, author, scholar, and translator David Bowles to read it and let him know what he thought of it. “I told him that if he thought it was fantastic, I would hire him as the translator.” It was indeed wonderful, and Thomas did hire Bowles. “We did it all in a matter of a few weeks, and we’re thrilled. I just got the translation in, and it’s better than I ever could have expected,” Thomas says. “It is an honor to be bringing this book to a U.S. audience in both English and Spanish.”
Corrections: Baker began her career at Bookspan, not BookScan; DeWerd worked at Random House, Spiegel & Grau, and One World, not Doubleday; and Thomas worked with A.S. King and Neal Bascomb at Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic, not at Levine Querido.