When James Daunt took over as CEO of Barnes & Noble, he had plans to remake not only the company’s retail operation but its publishing business, as well. In the U.K., Daunt is CEO of Waterstones and also owns an independent bookstore chain and a publishing business (both named Daunt Books). The pandemic altered much of his original blueprint, but he took the first step in overhauling B&N’s Sterling Publishing division in January, naming Emily Meehan publisher and chief creative officer, succeeding Theresa Thompson.
In an interview with PW, Meehan said her mandate from Daunt is to completely revamp Sterling in a process internally dubbed Sterling 2.0. The overhaul is so extensive that Meehan is planning to rename Sterling, which B&N bought in 2003, by the end of the year.
Meehan joined Sterling with a background in children’s and branded publishing and had most recently served as v-p, publisher of the Disney Book Group. Her initial objective is to change Sterling’s operating philosophy from working on books largely at the behest of B&N to being a publisher with its own point of view. She stressed that doesn’t mean Sterling won’t work with B&N, but that it will be more of a collaborative effort—one that will be driven by the overall objective of creating a dynamic trade list that will be sold not only by B&N but through other outlets, including independent bookstores.
“We want to publish titles that feel authentic and ones that people will recognize as a Sterling book,” Meehan said. “We want to get reviews and win awards.”
To help her build a distinctive brand, Meehan brought on Tracey Keevan as the new editorial director of the children’s department and Melissa Farris as creative director for both kids and adult. Meehan has also just initiated a search for an editorial director to oversee adult publishing.
Meehan has developed five “guideposts” for remaking Sterling: quality, curation, entertainment, distinction, and change. The underlying goal is to publish books that honor the vision of their creators by providing the best editorial, design, production, and format choices, she wrote in a memo to Sterling staff. In terms of change, diversity is a key theme, she said—both finding new voices and expanding Sterling into new areas. She is excited about pushing deeper into such adult categories as pop culture, lifestyle, humor, “armchair” travel guides, art and design, and fiction.
To build the trade list (Sterling will continue to publish classics and proprietary titles for B&N), which Meehan estimated will eventually reach 50–60 titles annually, Sterling has been more actively pursuing acquisitions. One of the first deals she signed was for Graveyard Girls, a five-book middle grade mystery/thriller series by bestselling authors Lisi Harrison (Monster High and the Clique series) and Daniel Kraus (co-creator of Trollhunters and The Shape of Water with Guillermo del Toro). The series follows a group of seventh-grade girls who meet in secret to share horror stories. Meehan bought world rights from Richard Abate at 3 Arts Entertainment. She also took world English rights to Nothing Interesting Ever Happens to Ethan Fairmont, a three-book middle grade series by screenwriter and director Nick Brooks. And Keevan bought Rare Birds, a contemporary middle grade novel by author Jeff Miller, as well as an untitled middle grade novel by Miller from Alloy Entertainment.
In other deals, Sterling editor Eve Adler bought world English rights to The Hair Book—which Sterling describes as an “all-ages board book” and “a graphic celebration of all types of hair”—by LaTonya Yvette, illustrated by Amanda Jane Jones. An example of the publisher’s lifestyle push is the world rights acquisition of Cocktail Palette, which it describes as a “giftable” illustrated guide to mixed drinks by cocktail creators Sammi Katz and Olivia McGiff.
In addition to expanding Sterling’s outreach to agents, Meehan has been in discussions with book producers and packagers about her vision and said she sees their role as a strategic one to help the publisher round out its list.
The rollout of the first full list under Meehan isn’t planned until fall 2022, but she expects some specialty items to hit the market as early as this summer. Notebooks, journals, and puzzles based on classic titles are in the works, and the list will be expanded next year, she said.
And while she is creating a new version of Sterling, Meehan is keeping the publisher’s ties to B&N. She will use data from the chain to drive some acquisition decisions, and will work with the retail staff on merchandising ideas. “We know Barnes & Noble knows how to make a book,” she said.
Meehan also expects to be working more with B&N Press, which is undergoing its own makeover. “We will be checking out their lists and looking for ways to leverage their platform,” she said.
The Sterling staff is mostly working remotely, but when they do return to their offices, it will be at a new location—B&N’s New York City flagship store on Union Square. The publisher, as well as B&N’s corporate staff, have moved to the top floors of the store. “I think it is great the publisher can be together with the bookstore in such a historic building,” Meehan said.