An Exclusive Authorlink Interview with Martha Levin

Executive Vice President and Publisher, the Free Press (Simon & Schuster)

In the first of a series of interviews with publishers and executive editors, we look at the changing mood of the reading public and how publishers are shifting their strategies to meet market demands. Watch for more interviews coming in March.

Martha Levin joined Simon & Schuster last April to expand the Free Press’s serious nonfiction lines to include literary fiction and other works. As publisher, she is responsible for every aspect of the publishing process: what the Free Press buys, publishes, how the house promotes, publicizes, how the books look, and what books get reprinted. “I’m the big picture person,” Martha told Authorlink. ”I’m supposed to be thinking of it all, all the time.”


". . .commercial fiction is not selling as well. Nonfiction about the Middle East, Islam and some current events is selling quite well."


AUTHORLINK: Looking beyond the Sept. 11 attack on America, what important strategic editorial changes will your division or imprint make in the near future (i.e., editorial themes or categories, length of acquired works, format changes)?

LEVIN: Other than concerns about what a weakened economy might do to book purchases (considered a luxury item by many) and needing to be on top of the shifting sands of what categories no longer interest book buyers and what new categories might evolve, I am not doing anything specifically pertaining to post 9/11.

AUTHORLINK: Do you feel the overall health of the industry in 2002 will be stronger, weaker, about the same? Why?

LEVIN: Very hard to answer. Current events can play a HUGE part— both good and bad— in the health of the industry. Last Fall, if you published serious nonfiction, you were in better shape than if you published commercial fiction. It could be exactly the reverse this year.

AUTHORLINK: Are certain categories of books doing better than others since Sept. 11? If so, which categories? For example, has nonfiction taken precedent over fiction in recent months? If so, do you see this as a long-term or a short-term trend? Are you seeing an increase in demand for more stories of hope or heroism?

LEVIN: Yes, commercial fiction is not selling as well. Nonfiction about the Middle East, Islam and some current events is selling quite well. Business books are in the toilet.


"A lot of people are having trouble reading full-length books."


AUTHORLINK: In what way have personal tastes and the moods of readers changed since 9/11? Within the past five years?

LEVIN: A lot of people are having trouble reading full-length books. I’ve heard this over and over again from people. Otherwise, I still see the same level of diversity of interests that I’ve always seen. A broader variety of fiction seems to be appealing to readers.

Celebrity books are no longer a sure thing. Humor books rarely work.

AUTHORLINK: What lines or imprints are you expanding and why? Which ones are you limiting?

LEVIN: We will start to publish some fiction. We’re in expansion mode so we’re not limiting anything, simply choosing not to do certain genres: cookbooks, sports books, celebrity books— all very viable areas.

AUTHORLINK: In today’s tough, competitive market what does it take to break out a new author? Fiction/nonfiction?

LEVIN: A lot of intangibles. Timing, visibility, but most importantly, the book itself. An awful lot of the good ones are found by readers. And, the booksellers play a very important part in that. Get from Knopf the story of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress. That book was made by the sales force and the booksellers.


"I have heard-but don’t know a great deal about it-that mass market as a format is waning."


AUTHORLINK: Pricing books for a recession-minded public is a key issue these days. Are you looking for books that can be sold at a lower price point? Is your company making any moves to lower or restructure the pricing of its products?

LEVIN: No and no. We price books according to what we feel the market will bear and what is appropriate to the individual book. Of course, we can’t lose money so that is an issue.

AUTHORLINK: Are shorter works more appealing to readers today? If so, why? Are they more profitable for your company?

LEVIN: Shorter books are more appealing to me, but I remain in awe of the tomes that are snapped up by readers. Yes, short is more profitable. Books are very expensive to produce.

AUTHORLINK: Has there been any shift in the popularity of one book format or another, i.e., hardcover vs. mass market vs. trade paperback?

LEVIN: I have heard— but don’t know a great deal about it— that mass market as a format is waning. The other two formats remain equally popular.


"I’m just trying to find smart books that I can publish well."


AUTHORLINK: Are any staff additions or reductions planned in your unit in 2002?

LEVIN: We have just hired 2 new editors and will hire one more and one more publicist in the next several months.

AUTHORLINK: At your own imprint or division, what are the predictions for sales in the first and second quarter of 2002, and for the year?

LEVIN: We are budgeted to improve 2001’s performance by a significant percentage.

AUTHORLINK: What is your personal vision of book publishing within the next two, five and ten years?

LEVIN: Boy, if I had the answer to that, I’d be the most successful publisher in town. I’m just trying to find smart books that I can publish well— which means to sell a lot of copies and also get critical and media attention.