Publishing Talks: David Wilk interviews Michael Jacobs

In this series of interviews, called Publishing Talks, I have been talking to book industry professionals and other smart people about the future of publishing, books, and culture.  This is a period of disruption and change for all media businesses.  We must wonder now, how will publishing evolve as our culture is affected by technology, climate change, population density, and the ebb and flow of civilization and  economics?

I hope these Publishing Talks conversations can help us understand the outlines of what is happening in the publishing industry, and how we might ourselves interact with and influence the future of publishing as it unfolds.

These interviews give people in and around the book business a chance to talk openly about ideas and concerns that are often only talked about “around the water cooler,” at industry conventions and events, and in emails between friends and they give people inside and outside the book industry a chance to hear first hand some of the most interesting and challenging thoughts, ideas and concepts being discussed by people in the book business.

Michael Jacobs is the Chief Executive Officer at Abrams Books.  He started out in publishing as a page in the main branch of the Oakland (CA) Public Library and was the first sales rep hired by Bookpeople, the innovative and much missed employee-owned Berkeley wholesaler of independent press books (which is when I first met him – late 1970s).

From there Michael moved to Penguin USA, starting as a sales representative based in the Pacific Northwest and quickly rising to become President of the Viking Penguin division and a member of the board of directors. He then served as Executive Vice President of Simon and Schuster’s Trade division, Publisher of the Free Press, and Senior Vice President in Scholastic’s trade book group.

At Scholastic, Michael was responsible for the publishing, marketing, sales and distribution of the most successful books in publishing history—the first five Harry Potter books, which sold over 80 million copies in the US.  He joined Abrams in 2004, and has directed the company successfully through virtually a complete business makeover.  During his time at Abrams, the company has launched the best-selling Wimpy Kid series – which has sold 42 million copies in North America and has been published in over 36 countries, as well as a number of other highly successful books and series.

Founded by Harry N. Abrams in 1949, Abrams was the first company in the United States to specialize in the creation and distribution of art and illustrated books. It is now a subsidiary of La Martinière Groupe.   Abrams is best  known as a publisher of high quality illustrated books, especially art, photography, cooking , gardening, crafts, sports and children’s books.  In recent years, under Michael’s direction Abrams has successfully broadened its reach, especially in pop culture and comic arts.  I wanted to talk to Michael about his work at Abrams – not the least because illustrated books have faced so many different kinds of challenges in the past few years and he and his team at Abrams have been so successful throughout.  But I also think his experience across a variety of trade publishing genres and company sizes (independent press, adult, childrens and illustrated books, large companies as well as smaller ones) gives him a unique perspective on the past, present, and future of publishing, in both print and digital formats that is valuable for others in the book industry to hear.

Michael’s success at Abrams may provide ideas and inspiration to many in publishing who are looking for ways to help remake their companies as the retail landscape continues to evolve and change.  He is always cogent and incisive in his thoughts, and is someone whom I have always enjoyed talking with about books and ideas.

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