As our group of excited students listened intently to seven industry experts at Dutton, an imprint in the Penguin Publishing Group at Penguin Random House, one word resonated: “Passion.” Passion for their jobs, their books, their authors. Given the imprint’s remarkable track record, they must be doing something right.
We were there as members of the NYU SPS MS in Publishing: Digital and Print Media program to learn more about this “small list with a huge audience,” as stated on Dutton’s website. While the imprint publishes only 40 to 50 books annually, each year over 25 percent of those books make The New York Times bestseller list. Jill Schwartzman (pictured above, back row, third from left), executive editor at Dutton, and a member of the MS in Publishing faculty, explained, “We are essentially publishing just four books a month, and that means every one of them gets a ton of personal attention. That allows us to put a lot behind each book.” This summer, Schwartzman will share her editing insights with MS in Publishing students taking the "Advanced Book Editing" seminar.
Dutton publishes an equal amount of fiction and nonfiction titles. John Parsley (pictured below, far left), vice president and editor-in-chief, explained that the imprint’s goal is to publish the best books every season, regardless of genre. “We’re looking for books that the country can talk about,” Parsley said.
Cultivating this approach allows the team freedom to pursue the topics they are enthusiastic about. “I love being at a generalist imprint,” said Schwartzman, who has edited authors like actor Nick Offerman and musician Jeff Tweedy. “We get to take something we’re passionate about in our personal lives and delve into that subject.”
Passion again. Mark Tavani knows it well. Tavani is Executive Editor at Putnam and also edits books for Dutton. In addition, he teaches a course on Book Acquisition and Editing in the MS in Publishing program. In class, Tavani imparts not only very specific editing tools, but also shares his love of writing and editing.
Tavani is the editor of Lisa Gardner’s bestseller When You See Me, one of the books under discussion during our Dutton visit. “Lisa is a total joy to work with,” Tavani said. “She really wants my feedback, and she processes it, but she also has a strong vision.”
Another book under discussion was Tiny but Mighty by Hannah Shaw, who rescues and fosters newborn kittens. Stephanie Kelly, editor at Dutton and Plume and an avid cat lover, recalled how she acquired and published the bestselling book: “I knew I needed to prove to her [Hannah] that I really cared about the topic…to show that this is really a passion project.”
And show she did. “We gave her plans,” Kelly said. “We talked about what we could do for the book, but also about the vision.” The published book had plenty of adorable kitten pictures, but more importantly contained valuable information on how to take care of newborns.” That was very important to Shaw, and thanks to the author-publisher teamwork, the book hit The New York Times bestseller list.
Cassidy Sachs, assistant editor at Dutton, discussed her role connecting with non-fiction authors like Dr. Timothy Winegard, who wrote The New York Times bestseller The Mosquito, or Stephanie Schriock, whose upcoming book is Run to Win. “It’s so fascinating and such a special job to have, to be able to talk to somebody who’s at the top of their field—and be their guide and their counselor [on the writing and publishing process],” she said.
While Sachs counsels her authors on writing, Emily Canders, senior publicity manager, works with them on publicity. “It’s really helpful if I can build a relationship with the author early on and show that, while I am certainly taking the reins [publicity wise], I need them to be my teammate for a lot of it.”
Canders walked us through the publicity campaign for Lisa Gardner’s thriller When You See Me: “Each book has a story behind it,” she noted. In Gardner’s case, the author wrote an article for The New York Times Book Review about her visit to the Body Farm, a forensic center in Tennessee containing decomposing human corpses. The article became a focal point of the publicity campaign and helped propel the book to the #3 spot on The New York Times bestseller list.
Of course, every great book needs a great cover. Christopher Lin, Dutton’s art director, has a history of producing the perfect book cover on the first try, putting just as much effort into finding the right designers as he does into creating the right covers. “Many of my designers come from art schools, but the first question I ask when I hire a new designer is, ‘What books are you reading? What authors are you into?’ This is a very special industry, and you have to have that core love of reading, before art or design, in order to be successful here.”
It’s clear their hard work and passion at Dutton pays off. “Every book on our list is a lead title,” Schwartzman said. “We’re really proud of that.”