Interview with Joan Feinberg, Co-Founder of Bedford/St. Martin’s

This post was contributed by Jamie Carter, president of Bookbuilders.

Joan Feinberg, co-founder of Bedford/St. Martin’s, retired this year, after a 33-three year career in publishing—spending nearly all of it at Bedford. We wanted to talk with Joan after hearing about her impact on one Bedford (now Macmillan) employee and Bookbuilders of Boston board member, Laura Wind.

One reason we wanted to speak with Joan was to get her perspective on how the publishing business evolved from the eighties to the present, and to understand the skills she found most valuable over her career. Here are five take-aways from our discussion.

“Things were the same for so long. And then they weren’t.”

Joan is speaking here about methods of book production. “When I started, ‘blues’ were really blue,” she recalled. (If you are reading this and under the age of about thirty-five, you may not ever have handled the strange-feeling, strange-smelling proofs that came from printers once film was made from “camera-ready copy.”) The changes are almost too numerous to list—from the rise of desktop publishing and scanning, to direct-to-plate offset printing, and then digital (sometimes on-demand) printing.

Tech-related changes outside the traditional production process, however, did not advance as quickly, and results were less predictable. For example, ebooks impacted scholarly and trade publishing before higher education. Now that there is a strong digital component in composition, rights and permissions have a significance that they didn’t have before.

“Learn everything you can while you are here.”

This was Joan’s lunch-meeting advice to a group of Bedford associate editors. While editors are invaluable to the success of a company, lots of other skills are required to bring books to market successfully. “This is an apprentice industry,” said Joan, and a savvy newcomer will make more opportunities for herself if she is observant and open to filling the needs of an evolving enterprise.

Joan’s career grew on this principle—after serving as Chuck’s assistant for no more than a year, she quickly learned (or invented) the means to accomplish everything required to support the launch of Bedford’s first books. From production, marketing, finance: “literally everything,” said Joan. This background made Joan a viable candidate for president, and for even higher positions within the corporate parent company.

“Things are changing, and it is the responsibility of the company to make it possible for employees to learn.”

We came to this point while discussing the future of Bookbuilders of Boston. As president of this professional group, I have observed declining support among member companies for employee educational opportunities, even when these are offered at no cost.  It is still that case—even with Emerson’s well-regarded master’s program in writing and publishing—that the skills required for a career in publishing cannot all be learned before entry in the field. Perhaps even more than in the past, due to the speed of technological change, publishing professionals need to keep their toolbox current.

Collaboration with technology companies is necessary because “publishers need to pivot.”

Most publishers recognize the need to engage with technology, if only to protect market share. To do this, they need access to the latest creative ideas and innovation, which they will not have in-house. The best ideas tend to develop in the atmosphere of a start-up company, where the smartest people work together with energy and optimism, without boundaries or expectations. Evaluating the potential of tech developments in the field of composition was the focus of Joan’s last position with Macmillan Education. Partnerships with edtech start-ups enable larger publishers to experiment with new ideas—moving on some, passing on others, and refreshing the pool of possibilities often.

The expense of technology requires better ways of testing new ideas (with instructors and students) before bringing them to market.

Joan said that Bedford authors historically tested their pedagogy with students, so the concept is not new. The development cost of a technology-based product line, however, is so great that testing is now critical. An unsuccessful platform decision, for example, can inflict serious damage on a publisher’s bottom line. Fortunately, testing opportunities are available—perhaps more so with the possibility of virtual classroom visits. Though we did not discuss the concept with Joan, it seems likely that “fit-for purpose” testing (as opposed to quality assurance testing) could become a new departmental function in the future of educational publishing.

Here is an overview of Joan’s career.

Background

1981: Joan and Chuck Christiansen found Bedford Books

  • Chuck is president and Joan is general Manager (later editorial director).

Says Joan,

“I was the first development editor, production manager, promotion manager, finance director, and marketing director.  I had an active role in the editorial process—both acquisition and development.  I helped sign every project and developed or oversaw the development of every title.”

  • Joan had been Chuck’s assistant at Little, Brown; Bedford was Macmillan’s entry in the US composition textbook field.

1982: The Bedford Reader is published and is an immediate bestseller

  • Following this success, Joan builds the Hacker franchise of handbooks. When Diana Hacker dies in 2004, Joan brings on her successor: Nancy Sommers.

2002–2012: Joan is president of Bedford/St. Martin’s.

  • Sales, profits, and market share all increase, through both acquisition and organic growth. Twenty-five successful first editions are published in the flagship discipline of composition, as well as in history and communications.
  • Bedford/St. Martin’s introduces digital products—notably, the Writers Help handbook, which let students find answers to their writing problems through a semantic search based on natural language.

2012–2013: Joan is co-president of Macmillan Higher Education with Tom Scotty.

  • Company stays focused and profitable through reorganizations.

2013–2014: Joan is director of digital composition for Macmillan Education.

  • Goal is to tap the creativity of edtech entrepreneurs, merging this with instructor expertise and editorial rigor.
  • Joan sees the potential for technology in composition not in the display of content, but in functional teaching tools.

Joan also serves on the advisory board for Beacon Press.