New Voices

Book publishing and bookselling are often described as mature industries with sluggish growth prospects that are staffed largely by aging baby boomers. But, in fact, publishing and bookselling continue to attract bright newcomers who believe there is still life in the publishing field. In a series of profiles that begins today and will run throughout 2008, PW will talk with 50 industry members under the age of 40, seeking their perspectives on what is right and wrong with the business of publishing and selling books.

Twenty-nine-year-old Emily Cook realizes she can’t do it singlehandedly, but she’s determined to get more people to read.

Cook, marketing director of Milkweed Editions, the venerable literary nonprofit press housed in Minneapolis’s Open Book center, describes herself as “obsessed” with the NEA’s documentation of a national decline in reading. It’s a crisis that prompted Cook to participate in the NEA’s “Big Read” program this past year, traveling to communities in Minnesota and South Dakota, training local “ambassadors” to start book groups.

But the NEA’s efforts aren’t even enough, Cook declares. “It’s preaching to the choir,” she says. According to Cook, a more public dialogue has to occur, such as the impromptu conversations she’s witnessed, fueled by Chicago’s “One Book, One Chicago” program selections, when strangers riding the El would spontaneously start discussing the current read with one another.

“If we’re not reading,” Cook insists, “we’re less likely to have dialogue. If we’re not having dialogue, we’re not in a democracy.”

Cook is particularly concerned about the NEA’s most recent findings—that the decline in reading is most pronounced among her contemporaries, adults 25—34, as well as young adults, 15—24.

“The NEA—or someone—needs to choose books [for community reading programs] that appeal to 15—34-year-olds, and also needs to utilize authors that appeal to this age group,” she asserts. “What would happen if Chuck Klosterman went to Grand Rapids, Minnesota? Fifteen-year-olds would have a different concept of literature; 25-year-olds would be excited to read and engage, rather than feeling bored or excluded because their community is reading To Kill a Mockingbird, a book they read in high school and remember somewhat vividly.”

Cook understands well the importance of capturing readers while they’re young. She began her career as a bookseller at an independent bookstore in her native California at age 15, when the manager of San Anselmo’s Oliver’s Books tapped her to work there after school. “I was a regular, always in the store,” Cook recalls. “Indeed, they had watched me grow up. The owner saved me from the Baby-Sitters Club or Sweet Valley High by giving me, for instance, The Adventures of Augie March.

Leaving California for Chicago after college, Cook found another bookselling job at Powell’s Books, but realized she was bored “just working for a bookstore.” After volunteering her services at the 2001 Printer’s Row Book Fair, Cook, then 23, was hired the following year as its program director, responsible for coordinating the event that draws 80,000—90,000 visitors annually.

Three years later, Cook made the transition from managing the Midwest’s largest book festival to promoting Milkweed’s authors and titles. In her spare time, however, she helps organize the annual Twin Cities Book Festival as its co-assistant director. “I went into publishing because, after working with so many publicists, I thought I’d like to see the other side: I wanted to see how books are selected for publication and why some books make it.”

Cook is adamant that, in an era when print media continues to cut back on book coverage, publishers must focus on figuring out how to convince more people to read, in order to arrest the downward spiral of people reading for pleasure.

“You want to publish a good book. But if nobody responds to it, you don’t have much of a book culture,” Cook declares. “It’s up to my generation of publishing professionals to figure out how we’re going to capture readers.

Name: Emily Cook

Company: Milkweed Editions, Minneapolis, Minn.

Age: 29

Hometown: San Anselmo, Calif.

Education: English major, Dominican University, San Rafael, Calif.

How long in current job: 3 years

Previous job: Program director, Chicago Tribune Printers Row Book Fair, 2001—2004

Dream job: “To be the next Nancy Pearl, complete with action figure.”