The next chapter in the NYU Summer Publishing Institute program—the book session—opened with a keynote address from Michael Pietsch, Chief Executive Officer of Hachette Book Group USA. With over 35 years in the industry, Pietsch progressed from what he called a “supple-elbowed” intern needed to operate the newly-acquired Xerox machine at David R. Godine to editor to publisher to a CEO who, remarkably, still sets aside time to edit books by James Patterson, Stacy Schiff, and Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning best-seller, The Goldfinch.
Of course, we were eager to hear him share “a few things he’s picked up along the way.” But the first slide of Pietsch’s presentation was actually not about himself at all. It read, “You are so lucky.”
“The future of publishing is in your hands,” said Pietsch, “No pressure.”
The possibilities for entering what Pietsch has always seen as a “brilliantly enjoyable profession” right now are varied and exciting. The world of publishing has changed both “not at all” and “in every way imaginable,” he told us. The product of publishing—words and ideas—has remained essentially the same. The amplification of those words and ideas is still a primary function of a publisher. And word-of-mouth publicity remains the coveted “invisible hand” of a book’s success. But there have also been many changes, Pietsch noted.
The toolkit alone has evolved a bit since Pietsch’s early days of editing, when he was armed with a typewriter, telephone, pencils, scissors, and rubber cement for “cutting and pasting” in its true, analog form. Now, editors have to be fully immersed in the scope of the book and the author. The most important tool you can carry, Pietsch said, is a love and zest for books. It’s that spirit that led Pietsch to go on to work with authors like David Foster Wallace, Alice Sebold, and James Patterson. For Pietsch, even new “slush pile” manuscripts were exhilarating in the early days of his career. He couldn’t wait to open the box (as manuscripts came in boxes in the early 1990s and not digitally) and dive in, hoping to be transported.
The love of seeing the world through someone else’s words is so necessary because Pietsch believes—and many others confirmed as the day went on—that book editing is not one, but two full-time jobs. During the day, editors are the voices for both their authors and their readers, advocating the story to publicity, marketing, sales, design and production teams. Reading time (what Pietsch called the most limited resource in the industry) is left for nights and weekends. However, Pietsch articulated a sentiment so many of us in the Summer Publishing Institute feel: “I would have been spending that time reading anyway.”
Pietsch urged students to consider the wide range of great positions in the industry, including publicity, sales, advertising, and online marketing, to name a few. He also shared a few “bright spots:” Children’s books and audiobooks are booming right now. The Internet really has amped up the power of underdog, crowd-sourced sensations like Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl that may not have had that chance in the past when publishing was strictly top-down. Among other exciting advances, Pietsch is seeing much growth in the popularity of sharable graphics on social media, direct-to-consumer sales, dynamic pricing, mobile focus, and the drive for more diversity.
“I’m more optimistic than I have ever been,” Pietsch said.
With renewed excitement, we dove into the key functions and responsibilities of the modern publishing house during a “Publishing 101” talk with Kristin Kiser, Vice President and Publisher of Running Press. Kiser loves the industry because it can scratch whatever itch you have.
“You can be deadly serious or supremely silly,” she said. “Sublime to ridiculous and vice versa every single day.”
The afternoon wrapped up with a panel about “The Future of Publishing” which was moderated by Madeline McIntosh, President of Penguin Publishing Group and featured Reagan Arthur, Publisher of Little, Brown and Company; Bob Miller, President and Publisher of Flatiron Books; Mary Ann Naples, Publisher of Rodale Books; and Liate Stehlik, Senior Vice President and Publisher, Morrow/Avon/Voyager at HarperCollins.
After discussing acquisitions, changing roles, and the new demands for branding, Miller articulated the main takeaway: No matter how much the storytelling vehicles shift, what you need to succeed in this industry is curiosity. You need to look at a bestseller and be hungry to find out the secret sauce in how they did it.
“Many other skills can be taught,” Miller said, “but curiosity will define your success and help you navigate a whole range of market conditions.”
by Richelle Szypulski
Recommended Reads from the Day One publishers:
Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace
Life After Life, Kate Atkinson
The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach
Pretty Girls, Karin Slaughter
Home is Burning, Dan Marshall
The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Marie Kondo
Being Mortal, Atul Gawande
The Patrick Melrose Novels, Edward St. Aubyn
The Witches: Salem, 1692, Stacy Schiff
Kitchens of the Great Midwest, J. Ryan Stradal