When Hachette Book Group announced that Little, Brown publisher Michael Pietsch would succeed David Young next spring at the top perch of the publishing company, many were surprised. Surprised that Young was stepping down—he will be staying with the company, returning to his native England in a variety of roles including chairman of HBG—and, to an extent, surprised that Pietsch would be taking the corner office. A well-liked and successful figure in the industry, Pietsch has long been a top-tier editor, but in today’s publishing environment editorial success doesn’t often translate into the CEO’s chair. For many in the industry, seeing someone who’s worked directly with writers take the reins at a major house is refreshing.
The days when “men of letters” ran publishing houses dates to the era of Mad Men (the first season, anyway), and figures like Bennett Cerf (Random House); Roger Straus (Farrar, Straus and Giroux); and Alfred Knopf (Knopf). The period of consolidation, which began in the early 1960s, brought with it CEOs touting different backgrounds. Today the people who run most of the major houses tend to come from finance and noneditorial jobs in publishing. HarperCollins’s CEO, Brian Murray, and Perseus Books Group’s CEO, David Steinberger, both worked at the consulting firm Booz Allen & Hamilton before entering publishing. Penguin USA’s CEO, David Shanks, began in publishing on the sales and operations side, while Markus Dohle at Random House, whose degree is in engineering, worked up the corporate ladder at Bertelsmann. That makes it easy to understand why industry members see the appointment of Pietsch as harking back to a different era.
Pietsch has been in publishing for more than 35 years—his first taste of the business was working as an intern at David R. Godine, in Boston, during his senior year at Harvard—and most know him for his list of literary and bestselling authors, who run the gamut from Keith Richards to James Patterson, Michael Connelly to David Foster Wallace. Among the many career highlights Pietsch offered to PW were working on Ernest Hemingway’s posthumous memoir, The Dangerous Summer, and reading the opening line to Peter Guralnick’s Elvis biography (“Vernon Presley was never particularly well regarded in Tupelo”).
But Pietsch, who has been publisher of Little, Brown for 11 years, is not without business acumen. He pointed out that he’s been worrying about the bottom line for some time. “Recognizing great books and knowing how to sell and market them are a publishing company’s lifeblood,” he said, discussing his move from an editorial role to an executive one. “I think it’s a great time for a company with the excellent systems and processes that HBG has... to be led by someone who believes to his bones in the importance of a close partnership with authors and agents.”
Robert Gottlieb, chairman of Trident Media Group, thought it was “terrific” that someone with an editorial background became a CEO. Gottlieb noted that Pietsch helped transform Little, Brown—when he arrived there, it was struggling—and “rebuild it brick by brick into a major player.” Calling Pietsch “universally respected,” Gottlieb likened his appointment to the Phyllis Grann era at Putnam. “One of her great strengths was her editorial background... and she was quite brilliant at picking winners.”
Overlook Press publisher Peter Mayer, arguably one of the last “men of letters” to run a major house—he stepped down as CEO of Penguin in 1996—pointed out that CEOs still need to sign off on the major acquisitions, which is something that has always given former editors an edge. He also thinks Pietsch may be someone who can, as he put it, “read vertically [as in spreadsheets] and horizontally [as in manuscripts].”
Chris Parris-Lamb, an agent at the Gernert Company who sold Chad Harbach’s debut novel, The Art of Fielding, to Pietsch in 2010 (for more than half a million dollars), said there’s a feeling, with this appointment, that positive change is afoot. “I’d be lying if I said it didn’t feel like a loss to have someone of his editorial prowess turning his focus to systems and supply chains and corporate strategy and the like. But another part of me feels like we’ve smuggled a literary mole in among the bean counters—better than that, he’s in charge of the bean counters!”
For Pietsch, finding great books and running the U.S. book subsidiary of an international media company go hand in hand. More bluntly: he says he likes beans nearly as much as books. “I love every aspect of the business, including the financial side. It’s an exciting way to make money.”