An Evening with Richard Sarnoff

Drawing on a decades-long career in publishing, Richard Sarnoff offered this career advice: The best way to advance is to jump between departments, rather than just trying to move straight up. You don’t know what you can’t do, he told an audience of Pace students and faculty, so try everything, because unless you’re willing to fail you won’t succeed. 

Sarnoff, whose former roles include EVP and Chief Financial Officer of Random House, is currently Chairman of Media, Entertainment, and Education for KKR’s Private Equity platform in the Americas, as well as a member of the TMT growth equity investment committee. 

 

His lecture, “Publishing: Past and Future” took place on Thursday, October 10. Sarnoff discussed many aspects of the publishing industry through anecdotes about his own experience. He said he was drawn to publishing because everyone working in the field seemed proud of what they were doing and he wanted to feel that way as well. 

 

Sarnoff delved into changes the industry has gone through over the past few decades. He talked about how in the 1980s hardcover publishers began acquiring paperback publishers, creating larger and, in his view, more interesting companies. In 1988, Sarnoff worked for Bantam Books, where he got his first major assignment in the business. It ended up being a disaster. Bantam Books published A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking and shipped out 35,000 copies before realizing that because of a printing error, where there should have been an image of a crab nebula, there was a picture of a cat. Since Sarnoff didn’t have a formal role at the company yet, he was given the task of trying to get back all of the misprinted copies. But only six came back, as the rest had been sold. He joked that if anyone finds a copy of the Stephen Hawking book with the grey cover, it’s now worth about five-thousand dollars due to the misprint. 

 

Sarnoff talked about mediums that have suffered due to technological advances, such as movies and music. This led him to the topic of e-books, which were initially viewed both as a threat and as a great new market for books. Yet it’s actually been neither. There was a point where people feared what e-books meant for the industry, as sales of the format continued to rise. But eventually e-book sales plateaued because people stopped carrying around tablets and started carrying around a smartphone instead. Sarnoff ended on an optimistic note, stating that print books aren’t going anywhere. 

 

Pace University MS in Publishing is grateful and appreciative for the opportunity to host Richard Sarnoff. 

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