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A Life in the Book Biz

Tue, 09/26/2023 - 19:44
John Sargent
John Madere

“Turning Pages” 
John Sargent
Arcade Publishing, $26.99

"Little book who made thee?"
     — after William Blake 

Note to reader: If you love books you should read this one.

Second note to reader: This review is not written by an A.I. chatbot. A real person wrote it. He knows the author. In fact, he goes back over 53 years with the Sargent family. 

In 1970 John Sargent's dad, the president of Doubleday, hired me as an associate editor, my first commercial publishing job — soon to fire me two years later. John's mom, Neltje, was a longtime contributor to our Pushcart Prize Fellowships Foundation, as is John now.  

I may be influenced by all this, but I don't think so. "Turning Pages" is fascinating. You will learn just how books get made. It ain't simple. Good people work hard against impossible financial odds to make books — in small presses or large. (That's after the author takes huge chances to even create a manuscript.) Almost one million books are published each year. Most of them sell only a few copies.

John Sargent is, to put it mildly, an informed guide to modern publishing. An author himself, he was a textbook traveling salesman in his youth, a children's book editor at Simon & Schuster at age 29, the C.E.O. of DK Publishing and St. Martin's Press, and later he was in charge of the German conglomerate Holtzbrinck's many publishers and responsible for forming today's Macmillan, where he worked until the end of 2020. 

In his leisure time he serves on three nonprofit boards and from his home in Bridgehampton, where he lives with Connie, his wife, he goes surfing in Montauk. Sometimes he'll mountain-climb in Wyoming, his home state. He is a busy guy and a good guy. The proof of that is in "Turning Pages" — his easy lope through details of his legendary publishing ancestors, who go back over 100 years, and his own 40 years of book adventures. 

Remarkably, for such a long career, he never utters one nasty note about his encounters with authors, lawyers, agents, etc. This is a huge achievement. The urge to settle scores must have been tempting. (Oh, maybe once he does — Roger Straus, head of FSG, once called him a "little shit" for making a modest suggestion of a salary cut for retiring Roger. This comment does not reflect well on Roger. John backed down politely.)

One would expect that a publisher's tale of the book industry might be a bit boring. As a publisher myself, I suggest mine would be such. One wakes up, reads manuscripts, goes to lunch with agents, reads manuscripts, sleeps, repeats. During my tenure at Doubleday, and later Putnam, it was so. (At Pushcart I get to walk on the beach with my dog Charlie and skip lunch.) John's account of his decades in the business, told in dozens of anecdotal chapters, is anything but dull. 

For example, at age 7, at a hometown rodeo in Wyoming, he tried to ride a bucking bull calf unsuccessfully. Good preparation for the bucking of publishing to come. 

On the road as a young traveling textbook sales rep for D. Van Nostrand in a vast Northwest territory, pre-cellphone, lonely, in an old-style station wagon, he discovered while he was in the wilds that the company had been sold and he had been fired weeks previously.

During a stint as children's book publisher at Simon & Schuster under Dick Snyder, he was warned of Snyder's raging tantrums. A friend advised, he writes, "not to worry when I got fired, because everyone at S&S gets fired." He hung on for many years and among his achievements eased into print a kids' book by Sarah Ferguson, the flamboyant and deeply unpopular Duchess of York. He and Fergie held an editorial conference at Buckingham Palace where they became John and Sarah, dropping royal formalities.

As a volunteer for Jimmy Carter's Habitat for Humanity, John and Connie took a week's vacation time to help construct houses in Wisconsin. Needing two-by-fours, he borrowed a few from Carter's stash and was denounced by the former president. Later, when he published Carter's "White House Diary," the president was gracious but did not smile when reminded about the filched two-by-fours.

John once decided to try a political career. He was asked to run for New York City Council but demurred. Too corrupt. I wish, now that he is retired from publishing, he would run for office. We need people like him. 

During his three years at DK Publishing, he authored three books under a pen name and experienced firsthand what all writers know about the joy of success and the despondency of poor sales. He also learned the following: "Books about gardening are hugely popular in the United Kingdom, and books about sex are hugely popular in America."

Monica Lewinsky had a book to publish about her story in the Clinton affair. John ended up with it at Macmillan, despite her national disgrace and professional advice not to touch it. John did, as it is a piece of history. The book sold well, and along the way Monica admitted she still loved Clinton. "I think so, yes," she told him.

The high point of this personal history has got to be the detailed chapter where John helps to defeat the attempted Amazon takeover of e-book pricing. An eight-year struggle often found him alone in the publishing community facing not only Amazon but the government's Department of Justice. Amazon insisted they had the right to set e-book prices, which would have bankrupted most of the publishing industry. Amazon at one point shut Macmillan off from all Amazon sales, but John persisted. This is an engrossing account of the unknown valor of individuals in publishing. 

As a small publisher at Pushcart, I and hundreds of others like me are profoundly grateful to this man for saving us from being devoured by a giant. 

As the book concludes, John relates one of his final battles, this time with Donald Trump, who had just taken office as president. Macmillan had contracted with Michael Wolff via its Holt imprint to publish a tell-all about the Trump administration's first 100 days. Total chaos! When Trump got word of the book, he exploded and had his lawyers issue a "cease and desist" order to prevent publication. This was of course a violation of our constitutional right to freedom of the press.

With the full weight of the government and its lawyers facing him, John did not blink. In fact, he moved the publication up a few days. "Fire and Fury" was a huge best seller, and the only problem after Trump's tirade was how to keep the book in print. 

There is so much more to praise about this book, not only for publishing biz insights and intrigue but for personal details about someone who has led an extraordinary public life. Despite constant bottom-line pressures and high-stakes gambles, he never forgot the welfare of Macmillan workers. 

The end of John's publishing career came in December 2020. Facing the unknown consequences of the pandemic, Macmillan's German parent company decided to cut jobs and salaries worldwide. John refused to agree. For this he was fired. 

The book ends beautifully with John now in his 60s, surfing with his son Jack on a deserted beach in Mexico. "Jack is eighteen. And this morning, in Sayulita, so am I."

We writers often complain that commercial publishers are only interested in the bottom line. This is half true. But sometimes you find a guy like John Sargent who cares equally about his authors and employees — a balancing act that is tough to follow but for which he is a grand example. 

Bill Henderson runs Pushcart Press in Springs. 

John Sargent lives in Bridgehampton and Wyoming.

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