Two years after joining St. Martin’s Press to form what would become SMP Essentials, Joel Fotinos reflects on four decades of selling, marketing, and publishing books and how the experience is shaping the mid-body-spirit imprint.
After spending a lot of time reading and helping customers at The Book Nook, a local bookstore in his hometown of Scottsbluff, Neb., Fotinos landed his first job as a book buyer at 14. "My mom would drive me to the jobber and I would have free reign,” Fotinos recalls. “I knew the locals and what they read—I would buy dumps of Louie L'Amour and Harold Robbins, who was the James Patterson of that time.”
Once he was 18, Fotinos moved to the nearest city—Denver, Colo.—and got a job at Waldenbooks, where he quickly became a manager. Four years later in 1988, Fotinos was ready to leave the bookstore chain. He landed a job at The Tattered Cover, "one of the great bookstores of the world,” Fotinos says. "Celebrities would come in—it was the place to be; Mecca for readers and it's still a destination.”
The biggest difference, though, had to do with job satisfaction: "I knew the owner, my contributions made a direct impact on the store, I had freedom, the people were special, and I learned a lot,” he says.
Within a year, Fotinos became a buyer of religions and philosophies at The Tattered Cover. “I have always been interested in self-help—less seeking, more finding,” he says.
As a result of his interests, Fotinos launched a spirituality speaker program at the bookstore that featured talks from authors with all different backgrounds and thought streams. The speaker series were well-attended, earning Fotinos the attention of the media. Soon thereafter, he was recruited as a marketing manager for Harper San Francisco in 1994. After nearly two years of tumult, including the layoff of 120 employees, Fotinos turned down a promotion at Harper just as he received a phone call from Phyllis Grann, the CEO of Putnam at the time.
“She asked if I would be interested in being publisher of Tarcher, an imprint at Putnam Berkley, before it merged with Penguin. I was 27,” Fotinos recalls.
His 21-year tenure as publisher at Tarcher included several changes, such as the change from Penguin Putnam to Penguin Random House, and the formation of a second division, TarcherPerigee. His decision to leave the company in 2017 was quickly followed by an opportunity to launch the St. Martin’s Essentials imprint.
“I had grown Tarcher, but starting an imprint took a lot of effort. I had a lot of freedom and creativity,” Fotinos says.
Thirteen St. Martin’s editors have contributed over 100 Essentials projects over the past two years, while agents and authors find the imprint’s delineation very appealing, according to Fotinos. “St. Martin’s Essentials is a lifestyle imprint; spirituality is part of it, but not all,” he says, referring to books on business, relationships, wellness, and motivation, to name a few.
“We’re growing so quickly,” he adds. “I asked myself, how is it different? I don’t want to fill quotas; I want these books to matter and be super deliberate with each one. It’s called ‘Essentials,’ and that’s how we feel about it.”
While ever expanding into areas such as self-help, health and wellness, philosophy, and more, the mind-body-spirit category has its ups and downs, according to Fotinos. “We’re up at the moment,” he says, noting the current popularity of tarot and astrology. “It’s cyclical, in vogue, but we will be here always.”
Authenticity and originality reign supreme for Fotinos, and he’s looking for passionate authors who love what they do, rather than books that are calibrated with current trends and interests. Forthcoming St. Martin’s Essentials books include The Book of the Soul by Mark Nepo (May 2020) and A Monk's Guide to Happiness by Gelong Thubten (June 2020).
"These books are my life,” Fotinos says. “My whole career has been on the front lines of good books—across all positions and iterations, it’s been the same thing for me.”