Bob Woodward’s “Rage,” Mary Trump’s “Too Much and Never Enough” and John Bolton’s “The Room Where It Happened,” three of the biggest books of Donald Trump’s presidency, arrived just as Dana Canedy was settling into her new role as senior vice president and publisher of Simon & Schuster’s namesake imprint. She is the first Black person to hold this position in the publishing powerhouse’s 96 years. Canedy spent 20 years at the New York Times, writing about terrorism, law enforcement, business and finance. She was part of a team that won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting for a series on race.
In 2017, Canedy, 55, was named administrator of the Pulitzers, assessing the best of journalism, letters and the arts. That is until Simon & Schuster called earlier this year. The publisher releases more than 2,000 titles annually and its imprints have won 56 Pulitzers, numerous National Book Awards and many other prizes. Among the other books it published this year are Sean Hannity’s “Live Free or Die,” Brian Stelter’s “Hoax” and Susan Rice’s “Tough Love.”
Bloomberg’s Karen Toulon sat down with Canedy via video conference to discuss the publishing industry, the coronavirus and race.
Karen Toulon: Simon & Schuster is owned by ViacomCBS Inc., which has put the company up for sale, saying it doesn’t fit into its core streaming video and sports programming. But Simon & Schuster has done a podcast deal with CBS correspondent Mo Rocca and published the Mueller report on Russian election interference. It’s not just publishing books anymore, right?
Dana Canedy: That’s exactly right. Whether it’s expanding into new kinds of storytelling or taking advantage of the ebook market and digital reading, there is a lot more to storytelling these days. We have to be really creative about not only how we tell stories, but on what platforms.
I’ve challenged [my staff] to come up once a month with a list of things that we should either stop doing or push on things that we’re not doing whether that is in the marketing department, how we approach book covers, or new platforms for storytelling. One of my main objectives and strategic goals over the next year is for us to consider this the year of innovation.
KT: How has Covid affected your business?
CD: Folks are home and there’s only so much Netflix you can watch. People are reading more, they’re reading alongside their children. But also there are huge stories, and people are hungry for information. We have an election coming up and people are tuned into the politics and to the Trump era. The Black Lives Matter movement, the issues of race that are now in the forefront of American culture again, mean that folks are reading books related to that. And so I think it is a really great time to be a publisher, whether people are reading the actual hard copy of a book, or they’re reading it on a tablet or they’re doing an audio book.
KT: Publishing isn’t the only industry to face criticism for a lack of diversity at the management level, staff level, subject level, author level. Do you have plans to address this?
CD: I do. But what I have also said to my staff is I’m not going to pretend I have all the answers. This is a work in progress. But you’re going to see a more diverse slate of authors on my watch. You are going to see more diverse subject matter. I’m having a lot of conversations with the staff about this, seeking their input, but also challenging them to send me their proposals. I hold myself accountable and I’m going to hold them accountable. And the fabulous thing is that our chief executive officer, Jonathan Karp, is all in on this. He did not hire me because I’m a Black woman, but he gets credit for that. And it sends a big signal about his commitment in the company and in the industry. Diversifying both our business and helping to push our industry on this is something I am going to be paying a lot of attention to. I want to help lead on this for Simon & Schuster and also find a way to gather my peers and competitors at other publishing houses and see if there are things we can collectively do.
KT: There’s a lot of interest in Black American content right now. Is it a fad?
CD: It’s mirroring what’s going on in our country. Something’s been ignited. There is a second civil-rights movement underway, and it’s far more diverse than the first one. That gives me hope that it’s going to be sustained. And so for publishing, that gives us an opportunity because people are more open — White people in particular — than they have been to learning about people of color and our unique experiences. And for journalists, for authors, there’s a huge opportunity there to help educate the public.
KT: What else interests you?
DC: There’s a lot to say about working-class folks. I think the United States, if Trump loses the election, will become engaged again in climate control. People have questions about religion, about evangelicals and questions around their support of Trump. In this era of Covid, and in this era of racial reckoning in this country, folks are looking for hope and for answers, so whether you call it spirituality or religion, there are opportunities there.
KT: What types of authors are you signing?
DC: That’s a very important question because the safe and easy thing for me to do would be to try to acquire big names. But I want to expand the range of authors that we champion and bring in some new names, some potential influencers who aren’t influencers yet.
KT: What is it about words?
DC: It’s how we communicate. Words are as powerful, if not more powerful, than images. Think of when somebody says, I love you, or when somebody writes that to you. The way it hits you. Or when somebody delivers bad news to you. How that hits you. It’s what words represent and the meaning behind them. And when you string them together, the stories they tell.
I was reading a book proposal yesterday and, literally, the hair on my arms was standing up. I could not put the proposal down because it wasn’t just the words; it was the collection of words. And the way the words played, that let you see around the corner in this room that this author was in. And so it’s words strung together in a beautiful, lyrical way or an informative way that get into our consciousness and our psyche and they influence us. They influence how we feel about certain parts of the world. They influence what we thought we knew. They provide information that helps us make better decisions in our lives and in our society. That’s the power of words.
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