Corner Office: Editor Ascendant: Michael Pietsch
Michael Pietsch is Executive Vice President and Publisher of Little, Brown and Company. Pietsch attended Harvard College and entered publishing as an intern for David R. Godine, Publisher, in Boston. In 1979 he came to New York to work for Charles Scribner's Sons, where he edited fiction, mysteries, histories and nonfiction including Ernest Hemingway's posthumous memoir The Dangerous Summer. In 1985, Pietsch moved to Harmony Books, an imprint of Crown Publishing.
Pietsch joined Little, Brown in 1991, was appointed Editor in Chief in 1998 and became Little, Brown's Publisher in 2001. Just a few of the many celebrated writers he has worked with are James Patterson, Keith Richards, Anita Shreve, Janet Fitch, Chad Harbach, Rick Moody, Donna Tartt, Mark Leyner, Stacy Schiff, John Feinstein and cartoonist R. Crumb. He worked with David Foster Wallace on his monumental novel Infinite Jest and edited his posthumous novel The Pale King, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. On April 1 he will step into the role of CEO of the Hachette Book Group. Here Pietsch shares some thoughts about his career with Book Business.
So, how does it feel? You're about to take over the reins at the Hachette Book Group. Are you nervous? Excited? Is this a dream come true?
I've been an editor and publisher at Little, Brown for 21 years and in those roles have had the benefit of being part of a well-run publishing company without ever really seeing it whole. It's exhilarating to have the chance to work with every aspect of the company, in this time that the business is changing enormously and fast.
What made you decide to go into publishing in the first place?
I was always a kid with my head in a book. One of seven children in a military family that moved often, I found continuity and privacy in books, plus access to larger worlds. From the first moment that I heard there was a profession called book publishing I was drawn to it. Working with writers to help them make their books all they want them to be, and to connect them with their readers, is richly and endlessly rewarding.
A CEO with an editorial background is somewhat unusual, isn't it? Will that make you a different kind of CEO?
I hope that having a CEO who has been a publisher and editor makes it instantly clear that writers are the most important part of a publishing company. Putting someone in charge who has worked directly with writers makes sense as it grows daily more imperative that publishers partner closely with writers and make clear all the complexity of the business.
How are you handling the transition? How would you describe your management style?
David Young remains CEO through March 30 and during the transition I am taking the opportunity to learn everything I can from him about the company as a whole and about managing the many aspects of the business. I try to be both an enthusiastic manager and an orderly one—I love creating systems and processes that help everyone function well almost as much as I love supporting and championing publishers and editors in their passion for individual books.
Can you share some of what you hope to accomplish in your new role?
1. To make Hachette Book Group even more a favorite destination for authors and agents, a place that is built around the author's experience, featuring editors who really edit, marketers who know their stuff, and state-of-the-art publishing support systems.
2. Marketing. HBG already has the highest ratio of bestsellers to titles published in the industry and I want to expand its tradition as a place that really gets its books noticed, using every tool of modern publicity, social media, advertising, and partnering closely with booksellers, bloggers, librarians and other industry booklovers.
3. Growth. We have identified several subject categories we believe will continue to expand in the years ahead and will be expanding aggressively into those areas.
It looks like mergers will be changing the "Big Six" to a smaller number. What's in store for Hachette?
Arnaud Nourry has grown Hachette Livre impressively over the past many years making a number of exciting acquisitions and I hope that will continue.
Not to be grim, but you seem to have something of a specialty in editing posthumous books, from Hemingway to Foster Wallace. What's it like editing a book with no author to consult? How does the editor's job become something different in that situation?
Two books in 35 years hardly make a specialty! In both cases there was an estate that was very involved in the editing and presentation of the book. And both books gave me an opportunity to think through the publisher's obligation to make the editorial process transparent to readers.
Traditionally an editor's work is more behind the scenes, yet with The Pale King, in the sad absence of an author, you stepped into the spotlight as the book's media spokesperson. What's it like to make that transition?
It was an invaluable education in the writer's experience. Undergoing media training, taking midday taxis to studios to talk intensely for 11 minutes and then be shuttled out to the street alone, talking in front of a large audience and answering their questions, being called to go sit in an empty studio at night in front of a screen for a satellite interview—all were dislocating and lessons in the performances we ask writers to do. Every editor, publicist and publisher should do it if they get the chance.
In your experience, what are the characteristics of a successful author/editor relationship? How can editors improve their relationships with authors?
I've worked on more books with James Patterson than with any other writer and have learned enormously from the experience the importance of frequent and honest communication. It has been made plain to me over the years that for most writers, publication is mostly long and confusing stretches of silence. Constant communication about both the broad arc of publishing goals and the immediate specifics is the best counter to the alienation that can grow in those silences.
And how will the transition to CEO affect your ability to do the editorial work you love?
I do love editing—it is work of great trust and intimacy, and it engages me as deeply as any work I do. I won't give up that direct connection. It's my plan to keep editing two or three books a year.
Any books coming up you're excited about?
So many! Jeffery Deaver has a great thriller coming from Grand Central, The Kill Room. Malcolm Gladwell is about to deliver his new book David and Goliath, on the power of being small. LBYR has a wonderful new collaboration between Lemony Snickett and John Klassen called The Dark. And Kate Atkinson has written the novel of a lifetime, called Life After Life—I could talk for hours about its amazing structure and emotional power and ideas about the tiny moments that change a life.
Can you let us in on a fun behind-the-scenes story about something that happened with an author or book?
Being teased by Keith Richards as I tried to give a toast for him in front of a group of booksellers. First he gave me a hard time for my poor microphone technique—no fair, he's a professional! I used the word "festooned" and he cut in "Festooned? Whoa, he's good!" Who could ask for anything more? BB