Corner Office Interview: Susan Bolotin
After a 20-year stint in newspaper and magazine journalism, Susan Bolotin became the editor-in-chief of Workman Publishing in 2000; she is now also the acting publisher. She began her career at Random House, and then moved to Simon & Schuster, where she was the editor-in-chief of Touchstone Books. While there, she published The Road Less Traveled, which holds the distinction of being on The New York Times best seller list longer than any other book. She eagerly awaits the day — not many months away — when Workman's What to Expect When You're Expecting takes over that special spot in bookselling history.
Workman Publishing Company has been producing award-winning calendars, cookbooks, parenting guides and children's titles, as well as gardening, humor, self-help and business books, since 1968. Peter Workman, founder, president, and CEO, passed away on April 7 of this year at age 74 from cancer.
How are you adjusting to business in the wake of Peter Workman's death?
What's happened is Peter surrounded himself with smart people who know what they're doing, people doing their jobs as always with energy, commitment and intelligence. That shows it's going to continue. Before he died, Peter had made clear he wanted a small management committee, which consists of five of us. We meet once a week with Carolan and Katie Workman. We report to the family, and it will remain a family-owned business. This is working just fine. If you were to ask the family, they would probably say, "I don't know how long this management arrangement will be in place," but right now the overwhelming feeling is that this is working.
Everyone needs time to adjust to a reality without Peter. In time, decisions will be made about whatever type of management structure supports the company. The Workman family will remain sole owner.
[Peter's] intentions were clear before he died. He was lucid until he died, quite lucid and very smart — with opinions. It's a period of change. Mostly we want to be respectful of the family.
What defines a Workman book?
A Workman book is always accessible. It is usually jam-packed with information — humor or recipes or whatever it has. It almost always comes with an author with a strong point of view. There is something overtly commercial [about it]. We're not coy. That is not to say the book might not be subtle or witty — they are what they are. When you see one you know what is inside of it. We advertise ourselves and our content.
Each book is made [to be] individual; there is no standard format. The book's format, paper, cover and size of font — everything fits the content. In bigger houses they don't have the luxury of time to really put specific energy into a specific title. We take more time. Our editors are not expected to publish more than 4 or 5 books a year.
Describe the creative process at Workman.
One of the legacies of Peter is that he was a man who was willing to just be. He was comfortable with things taking longer. That doesn't mean you're not impatient or not moving fast or moving things all the time, but if something took longer to get to the right solution, he was comfortable taking that time.
Some creativity is a light bulb, some thought out in the middle of the night. Some comes because of a collaborative effort. Some comes of pure percolation, and allowing things to take their time. All those ways in which people can be creative — by themselves, in a group, collaboratively, sporadically, constantly — we can make room for those different styles. Each book we do probably has been dealt with in each of those different ways.
How do you feel about the changes at Workman?
It has been a difficult personal time. I feel as if I lost a friend, a friend and definitely a teacher, someone I really enjoyed spending time with. It's sad but comforting. There are so many people who have been at Workman for decades. We have little anniversary moments. When people come and they stay, part of the reason that happens is because of the kind of company we are. We persevere. We have stick-to-it-iveness. You know that that commitment to the employees as well as to the books is for the long haul.
Is it a big burden to be tasked with carrying on a legacy?
At some times, I would be lying if I didn't say so. It's not exactly exciting, not exactly scary — it's challenging in a good way to think that this legacy has been in part imparted in my hands and others to make sure to keep the legacy alive. It makes everything that you do fresh and of the moment and contemporary. That's exciting. When you're thrown something you didn't ask for and that you never wanted, like your worst nightmare — someone you love dies and dies so suddenly — at the same time, challenge is exciting. Being entrusted with something that's valuable is very powerful.
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