Getting Real: the Making of a Nonfiction Imprint

One thing we are learning quickly here at the NYU Summer Publishing Institute (SPI) is the importance of diving in. In our magazine and book projects—and in our careers!—we’ve had to continually just go for it.

A little advice from Chris Guilfoyle, SVP and Group Publisher, Meredith Corporation, sticks in my mind. She spoke at the end of the magazine session of SPI and shared secrets of how to be great in our future publishing jobs. She stressed how important it’ll be for us to take initiative and figure out how we can help. Among other tips, she said, “Do more than your job description,” and “Proficiency is more than just learning.” When in doubt, figure it out.

Chris Guilfoyle, SVP and Group Publisher, Meredith Corporation, (center) gives students advice after her presentation at the NYU Summer Publishing Institute.

We have now successfully completed the magazine session of SPI and are assigned to specific  groups of ten students to create hypothetical book imprints  in the book session. When we first met together in our groups,we knew it was up to us, just as Guilfoyle said. We received some instructions about what we had to create—a book imprint and three potential titles, including a lead title. Okay, but  the how of doing that, at least initially, and the what of the content, were up to us.

Our group was assigned to create a hypothetical nonfiction imprint. (Other groups were assigned to categories such as illustrated books/graphic novels, children’s, entertainment, mystery/true crime and more). In our group, we started out with  a lot of ideas scattered across a wide range of politics, news, history, and memoir. As we began talking, a few specific ideas stood out.

One of our strongest ideas was a memoir by a popular comedienne. Judging from recent bestsellers by her famous contemporaries, we knew the memoir would sell really well; we also liked the things the comedienne had to say about self-love and self-acceptance. We liked her strong voice, and her interest in speaking to people who may not always be  considered a primary audience… in other words, those at times under represented. We also identified a compilation of personal essays and an exploratory look at the phenomenon behind Trump’s ascension as top ideas to present for review.

Book session Keynote speaker John Sargent, CEO, Macmillan Publishers, Holtzbrinck Publishing Group, introduces students to the world of book publishing.


Next, we knew we needed a point of view—a coherent message and feel for all of our books. One of the book session speakers, Charles Ardai, Founder and Publisher of Hard Case Crime, emphasized the importance of having a unique and consistent vision.“All our books have a very specific DNA. When you pick up one of our books, you know it’s a Hard Case Crimes book” he said. So what was our imprint about and how would our books telegraph that specific message to readers?

We started to see a common thread: voices. All of the concepts we were most passionate about involved strong, unique voices with something to say. We decided our imprint should feature diverse voices that may not always have safe and broad forums.

Our executive editor, Hannah Neuman, said it best in our initial pitch to the program directors on day one: “We want to feature really distinct voices. Our authors say: ‘This is my story and this is how I see the world.’”

Students review manuscripts and learn how to construct a reader report with Lucia Macro, VP/Executive Editor at HarperCollins Publishers (center).

That first pitch meeting went better than we expected. Two of our book concepts were approved, and we just had to do a little more work on our imprint title. The program directors suggested that our proposed imprint name didn’t really communicate the human element we were so passionate about. Our early Trump idea also didn’t make it through the pitch meeting. The program directors helped us see that it wouldn’t sell really well long-term.

With that advice, we did some digging and found cool options of unknown powerhouse women in history. Alas, as much as we loved “A Tank Named Fighting Girlfriend,” the program directors pointed out that a biography about a Russian woman in WWII—regardless of what she named her tank—might not garner the sales and exposure we need as a new imprint.

Back to the drawing board we went, this time with the advice to go broad. We needed to find something people were talking about, something currently relevant. We brainstormed and researched some more and pitched an investigative look into a US crime trade not often talked about. Heavy stuff, but certainly broad, relevant, and giving a voice to the voiceless. The program directors agreed that this had potential, and with that we started digging deeper into our  subjects  and creating our imprint—now aptly named to invoke voices.

Jim Levine, Principal, Levine Greenberg, (left) acts out the roles of literary agents, authors, and editors with fellow agents (l to r) Josh Getzler, Literary Agent, HSG Agency; Kate McKean, Literary Agent, The Howard Morhaim Literary Agency; Andrea Barzvi, Principal, Empire Literary; and Seth Fishman, Literary Agent, The Gernert Company.

Now we are  9 days away from presenting our hypothetical nonfiction imprint to a panel of industry experts. We are learning about the constant refining and zeroing-in required in the creation of a book imprint. With more and more insights each day, we are excited to see where we go—both in our imprint and in our future careers.

by Jill Hacking

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