Tips and Thrills: Just a Day in Publishing

Macmillan CEO John Sargent with students

“You guys are the future of publishing.” The NYU-SCPS Summer Publishing Institute students heard those words recently from John Sargent, CEO of Macmillan Publishing. As classmates headed off to book industry visits at Penguin Group USA, Simon & Schuster, Open Road Integrated Media, and Workman Publishing, my colleagues and I had the opportunity to visit Macmillan’s headquarters in the historic Flatiron Building on Fifth Avenue.

In his office with a balcony overlooking Madison Square Park, Sargent began his talk to the students as if composing a choose-your-own-adventure novel. He offered to address current issues in publishing, describe the history of the company or volunteer career advice. “You choose!” he said. The CEO didn’t seem at all surprised when the students wanted to hear his tips on a career in publishing.

He started with the news that “the pay is bad…and it stays bad for a while.” Most of our group chuckled knowingly. Sargent then gave us his career advice: “No job is too small or menial,” he said. “Strive to learn about as much of the business as you can.” But perhaps his final tip was the most important. “Hard work will be the key,” he said. “No two books are the same, so we have to rethink each book. Be prepared to start at the top of a to-do list and just bang away at it.” He emphasized personal connections to the people with whom you work, and that building a reputation as a hard worker with attention to detail was the key to finding a home in the publishing industry.

St. Martin's Press VP & Associate Publisher Matt Baldacci (center, seated) with students

Sargent’s sentiments were echoed by Matt Baldacci, Vice President and Associate Publisher for St. Martin’s Press, a division of Macmillan. When Baldacci first started in the industry twenty-two years ago, he was not expecting publishing to become his career. “But it turned out I liked it, and I was good at it,” he said. And when asked what part of his job he liked the best, Baldacci cited the fact that “every day is different”—an answer we have been hearing a lot.

We also  stopped by the art department to meet  with Executive Art Director David Baldeosingh Rotstein and Art Director Rob Grom and learn about the cover creation  process. We were particularly  impressed to see the number of covers designed for each book before a final is selected.

Students peruse a selection of covers with Art Directors Rob Grom (holding up book) and David Baldeosingh Rotstein (to Grom's left).

The next day, we wrapped up week five of the six-week publishing intensive with a trip to ThrillerFest 2011, a conference for thriller writers at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Manhattan. Walking through the halls decorated with full-sized posters of book covers, we sat in on panels titled “Reel Secrets of Writing for Film” and “Can a Thriller be Both Exciting and Smart?” At each panel discussion, distinguished thriller authors gave advice to their audience, who seemed to be mostly fans and aspiring writers. During an interview session, bestselling author John Lescroart admitted that it took him nearly 20 years as a writer to be “an overnight sensation,” and that some of the first books he wrote sat unread in a desk drawer. His advice to writers matched neatly with Sargent’s counsel to us:  “You have to be brave,” Lescroart said, “and work hard.” And the author also inadvertently made reference to a popular topic that has come up daily, even hourly, during the book portion of The Summer Publishing Institute: ebooks. Someone asked Lescroart if his books were available on the Kindle. He exclaimed with a smile: “You can buy me anywhere!”

by Nick Martorelli

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