Friday, August 3, 2012

Joseph Monti: How I Got into Publishing

Guest post by a once bookstore buyer, editor, and now prominent literary agent at Barry Goldblatt Literary.

I grew up thinking that no one in publishing ever came from where I grew up, Yonkers, NY. I had the kind of high school experience that smothered dreams, said you weren’t smart enough to have what you wanted. I grew up with a limited perspective and a small idea of what the world of publishing was like, that it was elite. And it is an elite environment because it is a intimate field, not because:

You need an ivy league degree.

You need to be financially well off.

You need to have an upper middle class background, minimum, and the worldliness that life presumed.

I was a lower middle class kid from a mixed-race immigrant background, whose guidance counselor recommended I abandon my goals of either becoming an editor or a professor of English and take a look at a solid trade like sanitation management. Fortunately I have a personality that is a combination of old fashioned romanticism, which came from reading, and a deep sense of practicality, that comes from the way I grew up, being sickly, and poor enough to know I could not have everything I wanted. Then something wonderful happened: I stayed home one Saturday afternoon and watched T.V.

PBS on channel 13 was playing a marathon of The Power of Myth interview series by Bill Moyers with Joseph Campbell. It changed my life. It fulfilled my romantic idealism with a plan: Follow your bliss. So I thought about a way to get what I wanted, a life in words. I was working already, part-time, at a local B. Dalton Bookseller (#321), so that was my back-up plan: Be a full-time bookseller; rise in rank, and run a store. Then I lied.

I went to the Fordham University admissions office nearby in the Bronx, and applied to an upper level English course on short stories with the Dean of English. I lied and said I was a matriculating student at another college. I lied and said I was in my junior year. And I worked really hard.

Here was my scheme: I do well in this class, with the Dean, then I ask to talk to him and tell him how I desperately want to be an English major, and with his blessing, I’d get around the process and be admitted. I had an A- in the class when I asked to meet in his office. It worked.

Five years later, my then girlfriend, now wife, and I moved to a nasty little studio in Manhattan, where I was an assistant manager at a B. Dalton. Back then, Barnes & Noble, which owned B. Dalton, had a route to become a buyer, which I then saw as my way into publishing: Rise up in the stores and apply to become an assistant to one of the V.P.’s of Merchandising, and if you proved yourself there, and a buying position opened up, it could be yours.

I was an assistant for thirteen months and six days -- If you were ever an assistant, you know what I’m saying. I was ready for more. I was also so very green, but I was passionate. When I became a buyer, I had another break, I was put in charge of children’s fiction for the B. Dalton chain. I got a break and was determined to earn the position. I read everything my crappy school system didn’t offer me, I grew wiser. I took chances. I was in the right place at the right time, again, and again because I was following my bliss.

As the company changed, and the B. Dalton chain of stores gave way to the larger B&N Superstores, I took on new challenges, and more specific ones: chapter books, middle grade, young adult. I was fascinated by sales numbers and patterns, I was amazed by the continued growth year upon year, and in some ways, utilizing this growth for artistic opportunities. The old paradigms of what could sell to a readership, and for how many copies, no longer applied. YA, in particular, felt wide open. After eleven years, I felt I had done some good work. Helped to affect some constructive change and was ready for something new.

I left B&N to work at Houghton Mifflin, in children's sales. Despite my exposure as a buyer, I had so much to learn about the hows and whys of publishing, and I drank it up, adding what I learned as a buyer to sales. Working within the traditional triangle of editorial, marketing, and sales, was fascinating. Navigating those tensions, was exciting, and the enthusiasm and experience of the staff made it so enriching. It was the end of an era, in many ways, at Houghton, as folks who had worked there for decades were retiring, and their accumulated knowledge was vast. The fly on the wall moments of conversations of glory days, and failures, were gifts.

Then, as Houghton was merging with Harcourt, an opportunity came up to work at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers in editorial. It was my high school dream come true, after a circuitous route of eighteen years, I achieved it. Again, I had so much to learn as the minutiae of process combined with the level of detail involved in being an editor is great. Even more so at an executive level where entire work days can be spent in meetings. I had a wonderful guide though in a then junior editor, Julie Scheina, who helped me tremendously. It was also the most diverse work environment I had experienced outside of working in the book store. I edited books that became bestsellers, did things, out of necessity and naïveté, that weren't done before at LBYR.

I acquired a few novels, one was largely about a brown boy and a brown girl, a terrible father, and a helpful monster, in a dystopian world. Science fiction, with brown protagonists. The narrative of publishing will tell you a book like this can't succeed. But then editorial director Jennifer Hunt and the editorial and marketing and sales teams didn't buy into it and under Hunt's shepherding Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi became a National Book Award finalist and was awarded The Michael L. Printz award.

My life changed again, as I left LBYR to become a literary agent. It's funny, as when I was at B&N, thinking about what to do next, I thought being an agent would suit me. But I didn't pursue it then as I felt I wasn't ready. Here, as an agent, working with Barry Goldblatt who has had so much success at his agency, I've found an opportunity to utilize all of the skills I learned along the way, and to explore my passions fully. I love being an advocate and counselor for my clients. The publishing landscape is always changing and my experiences help us all to navigate them together. And the opportunity to work at home and help raise my son is priceless. The work day doesn't end in this life, but the seams are much more permeable, and very rewarding. And in publishing, jobs change. You may go from house to house, department to department. It can be a river of a career, with tributaries and bends. It is a community. And I'm staying on my path, eager for what's on the horizon.  


  1. Good on you! Great on you! I hope you'll forward the link for your success story to every teacher and administrator (even if they've retired) from your high school alma mater. Kids need to be told--and retold--that they can succeed. Adults who squash the hopes and dreams of kids aren't doing it because they don't think the kids have what it takes. They do it because their own hopes and dreams were similarly squashed in their youth.

    Best of luck to you in your brilliant career,


  2. What a mind-blowing experience to be championing one's first few books and have one of them be the National Book Award winner. What an encouraging account of someone seeking the magic and the joy of their passion -- and having it work out. Sure, it took several years, but I love that this guy kept his eyes on the prize.

    ...and now, back to work.

  3. Thank you for sharing your hero's journey of a life story. Joseph Campbell is an inspiration, a mentor in the purest sense of the archetype. I recall reading in one of his books of the necessity of slaying your dragon, and each scale on the beast's back was an edict of society: "Thou shall not." You faced a perilous dragon in the form of a career counselor advising a job as a sanitary engineer, yet you held onto the spark of passion inside yourself and used it to blaze to victory. And it sounds like the dragon in question was guarding a treasure trove of contentedness and fulfilling work.

    My utmost congratulations.

  4. Terrific post, Joe, and there was a lot here I didn't know before!