Michelle Richter left a career in finance and banking to attend Pace’s Publishing program, from which she graduated in 2006. She joined St. Martin’s Press the same year, as an editorial assistant, and just celebrated her sixth anniversary there. In addition to assisting a very busy executive editor with a diverse and large list, she has edited and continues to seek her own book projects. She’s worked with bestselling authors including Gene Wilder and Ian K. Smith, MD; with authors well-known in other media such as Janice Lieberman and the Kardashian sisters; and with experts in their fields on fiction and on nonfiction topics including diet, cookbooks and food writing, relationships, memoir/biography, pop culture, humor, pets, and parenting. She has a particular interest in book club fiction and mysteries, memoir, and economics, business, and sociology. In this interview, Michelle will share her thoughts and insights on the challenges and opportunities for aspiring editors in today’s dynamic and competitive trade book market.
Prof. Denning: Hi Michelle, and thank you for agreeing to do this interview. It has been 6 years since you graduated from the M.S. in Publishing program and you have been at St. Martin’s Press since then. Can you tell us a bit about St. Martin’s and some of the work you have done there?
MR: You’re very welcome! St. Martin’s Press is part of Macmillan Publishers; while we’re one of the big publishers, we’re privately held by a German family so it’s not as corporate as some. And I’m very lucky to get to work in the historic Flatiron building! People tend to stay here a long time, and we work on a diverse array of projects. I’ve acquired and edited my own projects, and work closely with my boss on her list. She works with a lot of big personalities, and writers with strong points of view. So I’ve worked on fiction, memoir, diet/cooking/food writing, pop culture, relationships, pets, and humor. I worked with the Kardashian sisters on KARDASHIAN KONFIDENTIAL and with Albert Brooks on his first novel 2030, among others. I’ve worked on some books published originally in the UK, a few of them by rock journalist Mick Wall, and on some books with a packager, like ANIMALS WITH HANGOVERS. Two of the books I’ve edited are a book on Springsteen’s music called MAGIC IN THE NIGHT and a dog training book called IMAGINE LIFE WITH A WELL-BEHAVED DOG.
Prof. Denning: How has the industry changed since you began your career? You have been at the same company since graduating which can have many benefits. Can you tell us a bit about the changes you have seen at the company and/or in the industry since starting there?
MR: It’s an invaluable experience to have colleagues—editors, publicity directors, publishers—who’ve been here 10, 20, 30 years. Our editor in chief started his career here. So I’m surrounded by a lot of experienced, smart people who I can learn a lot from, and I try to do that every day. And I have been able to be a resource for some colleagues too. Working with the same editor for so long, we anticipate each other’s thoughts and can be collaborative, but also allows me some autonomy.
The industry has suffered some setbacks, certainly, but also some advances. A lot of companies, including ours, had layoffs a few years back. We were lucky not to be harder hit, but it was a little scary. Borders is gone, HB Fenn in Canada is gone, a lot of independent booksellers have closed. But ebooks and digital marketing have exploded, and that’s definitely something we think about and talk about all the time, even as we all still love the physical book.
Prof. Denning: Tell us a bit about what your job entails.
MR: I read submissions (both my own and my boss’s), edit, shepherd books through the production process, do photo research, write copy, create P&Ls, submit check requests, make restaurant reservations, order books, send out galleys for blurbs, reach out to agents so they know I’m here and what I’m looking to acquire. I go to writers conferences every so often. I’m on the phone all the time with authors, agents, colleagues in sales, marketing, publicity, design, art, royalties, contracts, and so on.
Prof. Denning: How do you think technology/social media fit into/impact the role of those on the editorial side of things in trade book publishing?
MR: We all got e-readers, so we no longer have to copy and distribute huge manuscripts when we want reads from colleagues. That’s one of the best things that happened to us. And was also a big part of our CEO’s green initiative. We always ask authors about their social media presence and have guidelines to help them (even dedicated social media staff that we’ll ask to come to meetings with authors sometimes). A lot of the social media boom is more relevant to our marketing process than editorial, but an author’s Facebook or Twitter followers, or high-traffic website or blog, can also be a selling point for us at editorial meeting or launch.
Prof. Denning: What do you think the future holds for book publishers? Do you think the launch of designated eBook readers and the iPad (and subsequent tablets) forever changed publishing as we know it?
MR: They definitely have. Most of us are here because we love books, physical books, but eBooks can’t be ignored. There’s a team at Macmillan who’s creating eBooks of backlist titles, and we always try to secure electronic rights when we acquire. Someone’s always going to want a book printed on paper, particularly art books and gorgeous full-color books. But for romance and genre fiction, where mass markets were huge, eBooks are taking over. It’s immediate gratification for readers who tear through books. I’ve seen a huge uptick in eBook sales for one fiction writer we work with, from his penultimate book to his most recent one. At one point, eBooks surpassed physical books. But he also sold more physical books than ever before, and appeared higher on the bestseller list than ever before, so we think his audience expanded rather than just shifting formats. And that’s fabulous.
Prof. Denning: What do you think the biggest trends in book publishing are today? The biggest challenges that Publishers face?
MR: Anglophilia is riding high, with remakes of LeCarre and Downton Abbey fever coming on the heels of Prince William’s wedding. Reality TV is here to stay, and so all the “stars” keep trying to sell us books. Vampires and zombies are still kicking, and of course, political books are huge this year. The biggest challenge is not riding a trend past its expiration date, and trying to keep ahead of the curve.
Prof. Denning: Would you like to speculate on the future eBooks? Books in general? What areas to you think will be the most impacted (textbooks, children’s, trade, graphic novels, romance etc.)?
MR: I think romance is going to continue to grow in eBooks, and that we’ll see a strong online presence for them, with lots of free or low cost eBooks to entice readers to try a new author. Sci-fi/fantasy and mystery titles (traditionally mass market) will likely grow with them. And we really strive to create eBook editions of every title we acquire, from commercial fiction to diet books to memoir, and so on. We are doing more and more eBooks that are highly illustrated as advances occur with the devices they can be read on (like the iPad and the color Nook); this is something we couldn’t do a couple of years ago. And eBooks will make it even easier to customize textbooks to meet the needs of individual colleges and professors.
Prof. Denning: Have you always been interested in publishing? Where did that passion come from? What do you see yourself doing in the next ten years?
MR: Honestly, until right before I applied to Pace, it never even occurred to me as a career. I’d always loved books and reading, and thought about majoring in English. But I didn’t want to teach or be a lawyer, so what would I do with that degree? So I majored in Economics, worked in finance for a number of years and then burnt out. I started trying to figure out what to do next, wanted to do something with books, and then a friend tipped me off to the Publishing program at Pace. So I quit my job, moved to NYC, and enrolled.
I’d like to continue working at a publisher, whether this one or another, for at least a few more years, and want to acquire more titles. Maybe at some point, I’ll want to try to move to the agenting side, but for now, I’m pretty content.
Prof. Denning: Please tell me a bit about your educational experience at Pace and how it prepared you for your publishing career.
MR: Professors Soares and Carroll (and you!) taught me some practical skills that I was able to put into practice right away, with some adaptations, of course. So did Professor Rabinowitz. At my interview for the job I have now, I was given homework: I had to write readers reports for a novel and a nonfiction proposal and then send them back to my now boss. Fortunately, we’d done that in your class, so it was a snap. The knowledge I gained in the production class has been a godsend. I learned how all the departments at a publisher work together. Reading PW and the WSJ while at Pace and listening to NPR helped me know what was going on the industry, so I could present myself well at interviews.
Prof. Denning: What was the topic of your thesis paper? What advice would you give to students who still have to write their papers?
MR: My topic was literary awards and whether they actually sell books (except for the National Book Award, the answer is usually no, BTW.) I’d suggest that they choose a topic they can be passionate about, and that they do their research early so they can take their time writing it.
Prof. Denning: What were some of the highlights of your graduate experience?
MR: I had a great internship in the Tor publicity department, and learned so much there. I worked really hard, but it was so valuable for showing me the kind of environment I’d love to work in, what I wanted to do, and what I didn’t. I took a few courses with Professor Soares, and I think she’s such a force, and a wealth of knowledge. She brought in great guest speakers, like Michael Denneny, who’d been an editor at SMP, and a publicist from Abrams, to share their experiences. We created marketing plans and talked about bookstore placement and jackets and publicity. Professor Carroll’s copyediting class still helps me today, and her magazine writing and editing course took me out of my comfort zone and made me a better writer. She introduced me to Eudora Welty’s One Writer’s Beginnings, and I still hear her voice in my head saying “The readiness is all.”
Prof. Denning: What do you think are the essential skills our students need to leave the program with in order to succeed in the industry today?
MR: Adaptability; ability to read quickly; an ability to write a readers report, launch copy/flap copy/galley letter to entice readers, reviewers and sales reps; public speaking skills and relative ease in speaking to a room full of potentially bored or hostile listeners; knowledge of Excel and Word and no fear of learning new technology; knowledge of the industry.
Prof. Denning: Any other advice you would like to offer up to our students?
MR: Choose carefully the first job you take in the industry, as it can be hard to switch departments once you’re hired. It’s not impossible, but it can take a long time. Do your research before your interview if you can, so you know what kind of books they publish and what kind of books the editor acquires. When someone asks who your favorite writers are, try to have at least some who are alive and still writing.
Prof. Denning: To those looking to survive and thrive in this industry?
MR: Realize that you’re always selling, no matter which department you’re in—selling yourself, your authors, your employer, your work to potential employers, agents, colleagues, booksellers, reviewers. Never stop learning.