As he marked 40 years at Random House this month, Erroll McDonald, v-p, executive editor in the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group of Penguin Random House, talked with PW about a recent acquisition of his for the Pantheon imprint: Augustown, a novel by Jamaican novelist and poet Kei Miller that was published in May.
PW’s starred review described Augustown as “a rueful portrait of the enduring struggle between those who reject an impoverished life on [Miller’s] native island and the forces that hold them in check.” When he first saw the Augustown manuscript, McDonald, who was born in Costa Rica and raised in Brooklyn, was reminded of his own immigrant upbringing, particularly “the central role that my Jamaican maternal grandmother played in my early life, the cultural concerns—as a child, I attended programs run by my town’s chapter of Marcus Garvey’s black nationalist Universal Negro Improvement Association—and the lilt of the Caribbean English of my childhood.” He added that it’s the language in which he and his mother still communicate.
McDonald has spent his career publishing the intellectual elite, and among his authors is an extraordinary group of Nobel Prize winners that includes Wangari Matthai (Nobel for peace), Toni Morrison (Nobel for literature), Kary Mullis (Nobel for chemistry), and Wole Soyinka (Nobel for literature). There are also heads of state (French president Nicolas Sarkozy), literary giants (James Baldwin, Salman Rushdie, and John Edgar Wideman), and critics and academics (Harold Bloom, Henry Louis Gates Jr., and Robert Farris Thompson).
McDonald was named executive editor of Pantheon in 1990 in the wake of the controversial firing of Andre Schiffren, the imprint’s longtime publisher. McDonald was among several editors who publicly supported the popular Schiffren’s firing, spurring still more controversy at the time. A lecturer at Yale and an adjunct professor at Columbia, McDonald has for the past decade taught such courses as the Narrative Art of Toni Morrison and William Faulkner and World Fiction.
Although McDonald didn’t plan for a career in publishing, it would be hard to find someone better suited. Halfway through graduate school at Yale, he had several professions in mind, but publishing wasn’t one of them. He was considering law school or an academic career—but he really just wanted to spend the summer of 1977 working in New York City. On campus, he’d met Toni Morrison, at the time a professor and Random House editor, who helped get him an internship there.
Initially McDonald worked in a variety of departments at Random House: subsidiary rights, then as assistant to various editors, before Jason Epstein, then the legendary head of Random House and Vintage Books, hired him to work at Vintage. “My instructions from Jason were, ‘Go out and find books that matter to you and that will matter to everybody else,’ ” McDonald said. The first book he acquired, Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy by Robert Farris Thompson (1983), is still in print and has become a landmark scholarly work on African-American aesthetics. Another Vintage title still in print is Soyinka’s 1983 memoir, Ake’: The Years of Childhood. “That allowed me to go to the Nobel ceremony for the first time,” McDonald recalled. “It’s the greatest book party in the world.”
Today, McDonald acquires and publishes eight to 10 books per year across the Knopf, Vintage, and Pantheon imprints, books from “distinguished authors who want to have that iconic dog on the spine,” he said. More significantly, he is one of a mere handful of African-American senior publishing executives.
“The issue right now is not so much diversity as it is power and people of color,” McDonald said. “Publishers frequently use the term diversity to deflect this awkward issue—as in, ‘Well, diversity is not just about race but about gender, economic class, religion, every category under the sun,’ rendering the term virtually meaningless. Publishers need to face the apartheid-style power structure of the industry, the fact that its key decision makers stubbornly remain of the same stripe, comprising a kind of cultural hegemony. Publishers need to ask themselves why it has been so much easier to imagine a person of color as POTUS than it is to imagine a person of color leading one of the Big Five companies anytime soon.”
McDonald added: “I’m not entirely sure that any of this will resonate where it should: with the powers that be—many of whom, I believe, are well-intentioned. So HR departments can continue to champion harmless proposals—implicit-bias seminars, awareness of microaggressions, insistence on so-called safe spaces to call grievances out—and talk until we’re all blue in the face about inclusiveness, but more often than not these initiatives, practiced mostly by junior staff, are unwittingly informed by hypocrisy, condescension, and, even, contempt. Change in the industry will not come from these efforts, but from corporate commitment at the highest level to broadcasting and dealing forthrightly with the enduring cultural shortcomings of the industry without fearing litigation. And I’m not feeling it.”
Current title: V-p, executive editor, Pantheon Books
Higher education: Yale College, B.A. in English; Yale Graduate School fellowship, comparative literature; Columbia Business School, executive M.B.A.