Since day one of SPI, the amount of insider access to the publishing industry given to us has been truly extraordinary. Today’s tour of Workman Publishing was no exception. As we took our seats at a long, wooden conference table, our eyes couldn’t help but wander to the entire wall devoted to a huge, colorful display of various Workman titles, including the bestsellers What to Expect When You’re Expecting and 1000 Places to See Before You Die. The company’s Group Publisher, Bob Miller, began the morning by sharing the history of Workman, which was founded 40 years ago by Peter Workman, the company’s President and CEO. Workman has expanded over the years to include the Algonquin, Artisan, HighBridge, Storey Publishing, and Timber Press imprints. Although the Workman list alone (minus imprints) includes around 40 new titles every year, including practical non-fiction, gardening, crafts, cooking, and children’s books, as well as calendars, it also has an impressive backlist which it supports aggressively. Fifty-three of the backlist titles have sold over a million copies—a testament to Workman’s unique ability to sustain the popularity and relevance of a book far beyond its release date.
Miller then introduced Jessica Wiener, the company’s Marketing Director, who walked us through the campaign for one of their most recent books, the New York Times bestseller Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon. Wiener’s enthusiasm was infectious as she described how Kleon had delivered a mesmerizing speech about the ten things he wished he had known about being creative when he first started out as a writer and artist. Intrigued by his talent, and sure they could develop him as an author, Workman signed him on. While Kleon came to Workman with a formidable online platform, the company was eager to widen his reach and created a Kleon-signed poster contest marketed through bloggers. Wiener reminded us that traditional marketing strategies like creating printed promotional materials and organizing author tours are still incredibly important at Workman; in fact, this approach is one of the things that sets them apart from other publishing houses that focus primarily on online marketing.
On the subject of author tours, Miller chimed in, “You never know who will be there.” He shared a story of an author who conducted a reading attended by the wife of a major food store chain executive; soon the author’s book was on sale in the chain.
Next to talk to us was Lia Ronnen, Associate Publisher and Executive Editor at Artisan, an imprint that primarily publishes cookbooks and coffee table books which are not only beautiful, but also useful to the reader. Ronnen was passionate about the need to be proactive in publishing. “Most editors are trained to receive ideas from others, and that’s limiting at times and a shame,” she said. “They are missing things, particularly in the pop culture world.” Ronnen also spoke to us about the importance of “visual editing” in the context of creating the book What Do You Want to Do Before You Die? This book was another example of Workman reaching out to potential authors, in this case a group of four young Canadian men who had set out in a rented RV to check off their own personal bucket lists, including feats such as appearing on the cover of Rolling Stone and singing The Star-Spangled Banner to a packed stadium. (A popular TV show, The Buried Life, resulted from their quest.) After signing the book, Ronnen described how she used Facebook to solicit items from other people’s bucket lists to include in the book. Overwhelmed with 50,000 responses, she then sorted them into categories and hired illustrators to bring them alive on the page. We were thrilled when she announced at the end of her talk that we would all receive a copy of the beautifully bound and illustrated number one New York Times bestseller to take home.
The next speaker on the agenda was Susan Bolotin, Workman’s Editor-in-Chief, who gave us some valuable insights into the big picture at the company. She stressed that the most important goal of an editor is to find books that fulfill a genuine need in the reader. She also explained how editors must increasingly think like movie producers: they must consider not only the physical book, but all aspects of the project. At a forward-thinking publisher like Workman where editors are always looking for potential projects, the key is to set aside time every week to consider new opportunities. Bolotin’s rule of thumb is to spend 80% of her time working on ongoing projects and 20% thinking about what Workman could do next.
The last person to speak with us was actually an alumna of the M.S. in Publishing program at NYU, Thea James, Digital Sales and Promotions Manager at Workman. James came into the Master’s program thinking she wanted to work in editorial, but fell in love with digital through an internship. She highlighted the importance of having digital skills, but pointed out that having an editorial eye is still a valuable asset. She walked us through some of the exciting digital products offered by Workman including an ebook version of the popular children’s series, Brain Quest, and an app complementing 1000 Places to See Before You Die.
On our way out, Miller showed us “The Studio,” where Mike Vago, Creative Services Director, works to create models and displays related to Workman titles for use at sales meeting and book fairs. Miller was particularly proud that Workman was able to create such high quality models in-house, something that not many other publishing houses are able to do. For many Workman titles, which are highly visual and interactive (a new science book for kids, Potato Chip Science, is designed in the shape of a bag of potato chips), such models are invaluable.
I left Workman once again amazed at the opportunities made available through SPI and the generosity of the Workman staff—generosity not only with their time, but also with their depth of knowledge and experience.
by Claire Posner