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June 17, 2020

Week Two at NYU's Summer Publishing Institute: Falling in Love

By Emily Ratliff, NYU Summer Publishing Institute 2020 student

You probably won’t be surprised to find that the book session at the NYU Summer Publishing Institute this year looked a little different than in years past. The merging of pandemic anxiety and virtual learning with a worldwide push for representation and anti-racism in the workplace and society at large meant a week of introspection and hard questions. But those of us enrolled in this program are storytellers by nature, and the story of the book publishing industry in its entirety is one we wanted and desperately needed to hear.


The State of the Industry

On day one, Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives, a newsletter about publishing around the globe, spoke to us about the state of the industry. A former CNN reporter, Anderson presented a largely optimistic argument for the future of book publishing. This is a resilient industry, an industry that’s been fully globalized, shaped by culture, and favored with opportunity. All things considered, when COVID-19 hit, the American publishing industry fared remarkably well. (I know all of us felt a bit of relief upon hearing that.) But the issue of representation has not been handled so gracefully. “Diversity is an enormous hurdle,” Anderson admitted.

Lisa Lucas, Executive Director of the National Book Foundation, gave her keynote address on this very situation and the state of the industry’s people. “Our community is not well,” she said. It is a community that has failed to correct itself even when presented with the same miserable numbers year after year. But everything can be started over, made new.

Speaking to a Zoom audience of students who believe that there should be a seat at the table for everybody, Lucas offered an uncomplicated call to action, “Let’s change it.”


Small Fish in a Big Pond

First, we’re going to have to find our own place in the publishing industry. If there is anything that I think every one of our speakers from this week would agree on, it is that this is not a journey we will complete on our own. As sessions passed, it became increasingly obvious that the book publishing industry is an industry of relationships. As future publishers, we’re meant to create relationships between readers and books, of course, but we are also meant to create relationships with authors and with each other. Luckily for us, our speakers have been happy to share their secrets to success.

Tracy O’Neill, author of The Hopeful (2015) and Quotients (2020), eased us into the idea that the publishing industry is characterized by “fits and starts.” There are so, so many ways in. According to Sara Goodman, Editorial Director of Wednesday Books at St. Martin’s Press, we should connect with people, build a network, and know what’s going on in the industry. We’ve learned that there is no use being married to the idea of one kind of work; it seems likeliest we’ll break into this industry by keeping an open mind. We’ll fight to stay there with passion, determination, and a number of other assets. Kristin Kiser, Vice President and Publisher at Running Press, who delivered a talk on “Publishing 101,” playfully coined these assets “executive functioning skills.” But one day (in the not so distant future, I am convinced) each of us will come into our own as we discover what exactly we are good at, where we fit in, and how we can fill a void.


“This is a business of falling in love.”

The book publishing industry has been called a lot of things this past week: resilient, social, insane. But as the panelists who joined us for our session “From Passion to Published” explained, this is also an emotional industry. To make a book is to fight through a long process of pitching. Writers pitch to agents, agents to editors, editors to publishers, publishers to readers, readers to each other. Mark Tavani, Executive Editor at Putnam, taught us that successful pitches reach readers on three levels: intellectual, emotional, and personal. It’s the personal details that build trust, and when you create that kind of trust you make room for readers to learn or improve something about themselves, escape from reality, experience new ideas, explore aspirations, or even be seen by others in a calculated sort of way.

Unfortunately, working in this industry also means knowing the pain of falling in love with a book that doesn’t succeed quite as well as others. Rebecca Saletan, Editorial Director of Riverhead Books, assured us, however, that even if we have our hearts broken, “we will fall in love again.” Dawn Davis, Vice President and Publisher at 37 Ink at Simon & Schuster, agreed with Saletan and reminded us that when this happens, we have to maintain the fire and “be driven by possibility, not the past.”


Finding Your Niche

One of the most exciting sessions presented to us this week was a surprise chat with Jennifer Weiner, whose most recent book Big Summer (2020) hit shelves in May. “You always want to have a book that says something,” she told us. Good storytelling happens in all kinds of ways: through conversation, in writing, with pictures. And the kind of work done in publishing houses reflects that. This week we heard from and learned about agents, editors, designers, marketers, publicists, and sales reps. We thought about the movement of projects from one set of hands to another and tried to conceptualize the sheer amount of collaboration.

We learned that numbers tell stories as well as words do and that there is more than one way to be an author’s advocate. We learned that marketing is paid for while publicity is hoped for, and we learned that sales, at its core, is connecting readers to books they’ll love. With every speaker introduced and position explained, we believed even more strongly that there is something for all of us in this world of storytelling.


The World is Watching

I know I speak for the entire 2020 cohort when I say that we are unbelievably excited to see the future of publishing, though we’ve been sobered by the candor of our speakers this week. In looking for a home in the publishing industry, we’ve been forced to acknowledge that so many Black writers, editors, and even top leaders do not feel that such a home in this industry exists for them. The world is watching as we address this. Stacey Barney, Executive Editor of G. P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers, noted that as more people come to understand the book publishing industry and what professionals in the industry do, their gaze will hold us accountable. And all of us are accountable. This is our fight now, too.

The class of 2020 has a lot of work to do, but with the help of our incredible directors and the wisdom we have collected over the past few weeks, I think we just might be ready.


Emily studied English Literature at the University of Maryland and would love to work with children’s books in this industry that she loves for its encouragement of passion and creativity.

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