Publishing Trendsetter is a production of Market Partners International and Publishing Trends.

Leaving the Big House…with Lou Aronica




Lou Aronica



In this series, I’ll be interviewing a host of publishing veterans who have left “big publishing house life” in pursuit of new publishing-related ventures.  I want to explore what these career publishing pros find to be the perennial aspects of publishing including the key traits and skills those new to the industry are wise to develop, plus their thoughts on the aspects of the business that are in flux.


Time Served: 30 year career including posts as Former Publisher of Avon Books and Berkley Books.

Current Whereabouts: Novelist, New York Times bestselling co-author/ghostwriter and editor; Co-Founder of The Story Plant, a small publishing imprint dedicated to commercial fiction; Founder of The Fiction Studio imprint, an invitation-only publishing program for writers whose work he loves who have decided to try a different path to publishing.


Five Questions:

1.What kind of person thrives in the publishing industry? Who flounders?

I think book publishing is an optimist’s business. This isn’t to suggest that there aren’t plenty of cynics in the industry – we’re awash in them actually. What I mean is that you need to be able to look at every new book and see genuine possibility, and you need to have an optimistic perspective on your publishing program. You need to be able to get over heartbreak very easily (since there’s plenty of it) and be able to believe in the next book you’re handling.

As I said, there are plenty of cynics in our business. Right now, with so much changing, I’ve encountered more of them than ever. However, I’ve rarely seen people with a cynical outlook succeed in book publishing for a sustained period. Too many things need to go right for a publication to work. Entering into the process with a cynical attitude burdens it unnecessarily.

2. With all the current changes in the industry – digitalization, social media, multi-media properties, self-publishing and new publishing contract terms, etc. – is there anything that remains constant?

The reader has remained constant. The tools, delivery methods, and access points have changed, but I haven’t seen any appreciable difference in what readers are looking for. At some point, enhanced e-books might create a new kind of book consumer, someone actually looking for a different experience from what readers want now. I haven’t seen it at all with text-driven e-books, though. Fiction readers still want great characters and great storytelling. Nonfiction readers still want clarity and organization (yes, I do realize I’m oversimplifying). If you go to Amazon, or Goodreads, or any one of the thousands of book blogs out there, you’ll see readers talking about the same things they were talking about twenty or thirty years ago.

This is essential to remember. It’s very easy to say, “Everything has changed.” And everything has – except the reason why people buy the stuff in the first place. When thinking about putting a list together or trying to find readers for that list, it’s critical that you always remember that, while the tools have changed, the audience hasn’t. The key to using the tools available to us now is to use them to underscore a book’s inherent strengths with the kinds of readers we’ve always had.


3. When considering the future of publishing, what has you most excited?

To be honest, I’ve never been more excited about publishing than I am right now. My first mentor in the industry was Ian Ballantine, the man who founded Bantam and Ballantine and was the person who brought mass market paperbacks to America for the first time. Ian talked regularly about the early days of the mass market revolution, and I always listened to this with a tinge of sadness. I’d missed that revolution and nothing anywhere near as exciting was on the horizon. Finally, deep into my publishing career, I get to participate in a revolution. I love the possibilities offered by digital, both from the publisher’s perspective (significantly lower manufacturing costs, no returns, far fewer distribution issues, etc.) and the author’s (much broader potential reach, much longer “shelf life,” new life for old books, etc.). I also think that, for the first time in a very long time, readers are genuinely excited about books. E-readers were the go-to gift for the 2010 holidays. When was the last time you could say that about anything associated with the book business?


4. What risk in your career has been totally worth it? (e.g. asking for a raise, leaving one position for another, finding a mentor, etc.)

By far the biggest risk I ever took was deciding to specialize early in my career. I was 25 when I took over the science fiction program at Bantam. By that point, I’d been a careful enough student of the industry (it helps to have people like Ian Ballantine and Irwyn Applebaum on your side) to know that I wanted a head-of-house position some day because I was fascinated with every facet of the business. I took the science fiction gig not because I was a science fiction fan (I didn’t actually fall in love with the genre until afterward) but because I thought it would show executive management at Bantam that I had the right stuff. The risk, of course, was that I could have been pigeonholed. The publishing world could have seen me as a “science fiction guy” and never given me a shot at the wider gig I really wanted. Because I was aware of the risk I was taking, I made sure to offer my help to the larger program whenever I could. That ultimately led to my being offered the Mass Market Publisher position at Bantam and then publisher positions at Berkley and Avon.


5. What advice do you have for someone just starting out in the business? (including associations to join, industry news outlets to read, people to keep an eye on, etc?)

Read Michael Shatzkin. Read Michael Cader. Read Shelf Awareness. Learn as much about the business as you possibly can, even the parts that don’t interest you. For example, I never had any interest in the financial side of the business, but I forced myself to learn it because I felt it was the only way I could do what I cared about without someone from one of the departments I didn’t care about pulling the rug out from under me. When I started the Spectra imprint at Bantam, I spent much of that year on the road with sales reps. I did this partly because I wanted to promote Spectra, but primarily to understand the needs of sales reps and booksellers as much as I could.

Most importantly, learn as much as you can about why people buy books. Follow the comments on a couple of dozen book blogs (Meryl Moss has a great list of book bloggers on her Book Trib site) and pay attention to how commenters comment and why. At the same time, try to stay on top of every sales and promotional tool available, whether they’re currently being used for books or not. Right now, the biggest challenge facing publishers is discoverability. It’s harder to distinguish an individual book now than ever before (this is especially true with fiction) because online retail isn’t particularly browse-able. Becoming someone who can help publishers raise their books above the noise makes you enormously valuable regardless of what end of the business your interest lie.





  1. Rachel Stark Rachel Stark says:

    I love this post, Krista! Lou’s answer to question one specifically really speaks to me. I attended a series of TED talks recently, and one of the speakers talked about choosing an industry in which to build a career. He said to choose one in which people liked their jobs and were optimistic, because that was bound to be an industry that was growing. Well, publishing might not be growing at the rate at which we’d like, but I think our optimism is going to carry us into at least a few more good growth spurts!

  2. Lou’s answer about optimism spoke to me, too. And I think even the cynicism in the business is rooted in the defensive posture of the person who’s had their heart broken a few times too many. When good books fail, it hurts. And yes, you go on and you keep hoping and pushing your books forward as best you can, because that is the professional standard we must hold unswervingly for our authors, ourselves, and our business

    I really appreciate Mike Shatzkin’s posts because his involvement with digital technology reaches back so far and his vision for it reaches so far forward–and because he’s great at pulling together data from many sources that I couldn’t possibly have time to read on my own.

  3. […] program that year. And yes, that’s the same Lou Aronica who I interviewed for the first “After the Big House.”  Other faculty at the time included John Mutter, founder of Shelf Awareness and Amy […]

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  1. […] program that year. And yes, that’s the same Lou Aronica who I interviewed for the first “After the Big House.”  Other faculty at the time included John Mutter, founder of Shelf Awareness and Amy […]

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