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Barbara Marcus, President and Publisher of Random House Children's Division, Part 1

Real Talk Publishing: The People Behind the Books

Barbara Marcus, President and Publisher of Random House Children's Division, Part 1

For our third Real Talk Publishing feature, we talked to Barbara Marcus, the President and Publisher of Random House's Children's Division. As the head of the division, Barbara handles ALL things children's books, but she has a special place in her heart for marketing. In fact, she did the marketing campaigns for the Harry Potter series and helped with R.J. Palacio's modern classic, WONDER!

In the first part of this three-part interview, Barbara talks about the start of her career, the part of her job that makes her "heart sing" and how she manages to keep track of all things Random House Children's. So read on, and keep an eye out for Part 2, which will be posted on Thursday, May 15th, and will talk about some of her favorite marketing campaigns. Potter won't want to miss it! Did you always know you wanted to work in publishing?

Barbara Marcus: No, but I always knew that I loved to read and loved the touch and feel of books. I was always a reader, and reading gave me incredible pleasure.

TRC: How did you get your first publishing job?

BM: I ran the lecture bureau at my college --- I was in charge of bringing celebrities to my college. At that time, most of the publishing houses had lecture bureaus, and I had become friendly with the people who booked the lectures for two publishers --- Doubleday and Bantam Books. When I graduated, I was deciding whether to go to medical school or do something else. I knew I wasn’t quite ready to make a career decision and needed a job, so I took the job as the Northeast booker for the Bantam Lecture Bureau, which was part of the publicity department at the time.

TRC: And that mainly was for adult books, correct?

BM: Totally adult books.

TRC: What made you decide to switch into children’s publishing?

BM: Well, I must admit, my childhood job was as a page at my local town library --- I got paid to reshelve the books. And instead of doing my job, I would sit in the children’s book room until I got caught and reread some of the classics --- which were at the time MARY POPPINS and BED-KNOB AND BROOMSTICK --- and children’s fantasy books. I was a teenager by that point, but I still had this affinity and affection for children’s books.

In my early days in publishing, I moved from the Lectures Bureau to publicity to marketing --- I was primarily doing adult books. But I always offered to work on a small line of children’s books, so along with my work on adult books, I did the marketing for certain children’s authors and launched certain lines of children’s books. I just couldn’t stay away from them.

At some point, I found that I was doing the educational marketing as well as traditional marketing, and eventually, Scholastic just kept offering me jobs. I got three job offers there! And so finally, I took one, because I just felt that Scholastic was a sleeping giant --- I felt that they had a connection to teachers, parents and kids in a way that no other company did.

And I just felt that I had learned so much in the adult market --- I got to start the Bantam Classics Line to take on Penguin Puffin classics and Signet Classics, and we also started a romance line. So, through these amazing, branded new projects, I felt that I was taking chances anyway. And, I did feel I was of a certain age that I could take a chance on the job at Scholastic. I remember saying, “If I get there and I hate it, or I get there and it’s not the right match for me, I’ll go back to adult.”

So it was a really sort of a grand adventure to go into children’s books. And I thought, number one, children’s books are enduring, and number two, the idea of multiple audiences --- parents, teachers and children --- is very interesting. And the wonderful thing about children’s is that if you establish a book correctly, like HARRY POTTER or WONDER --- which is becoming the next modern classic --- kids will keep reading it as they reach the right age, and so will their teachers, and so will their parents.

So it was just very appealing to me. Did I choose it? The opportunities were offered to me. But it definitely appealed to both my heart and my head. 

TRC: You are the President and Publisher of Random House’s Children’s Division! That is quite an impressive title. What is a President and Publisher responsible for?

BM: It means every aspect of publishing a book; in this instance, a children’s book. Number one, you’re responsible for creating an organization that can produce a fabulous range of books. It’s managing a diversely talented team who has a totally different skill set. It’s about managing programs that deliver what the company expects, both in quality of books and financial parameters, and in having a healthy, satisfied, population.

And then you get into the most important thing, which is the making and the publishing of books. It’s having an incredibly talented team, from the editorial team all the way to the design team. It’s making sure that everyone is clear on mission (and that I’m clear on mission). What do I want the Random House Children’s program to be? I want it to be the best, but how does one define that? And that’s what the head of a division is expected to do. It’s expected to create those definitions and missions and then define them and make sure everyone else in the division understands how they fit into that responsibility. So that’s my job!

TRC: You’re in charge of many imprints! How do you stay on top of everything that’s going on when there are so many publishing programs and people that you’re responsible for?

BM: Number one, there’s an expectation on my behalf and on the people in the division to keep each other informed of what the priorities are and what everyone’s doing. So I really count on the excellence from senior staff to make me aware.

I think it is my job to ask questions that allow me to be really knowledgeable, because people who are really knowledgeable answer the questions. And so that’s how I know what we’re publishing, what’s going on.

And there are processes. I’m a big believer that processes can make your life simpler and help you both do your job well and get it done. We have new processes and old processes since I’ve arrived that allow us to know exactly what is being published and when and how it links to the other books that are being published, and we have forums and meetings where books are discussed. We’ve also instituted new meetings that allow us to look at the backlist, talk about books that are percolating, and allow us to look at the harder issues, so that’s a lot about process too.

I think process is underrated sometimes. I think it can really allow people a certain comfort level to know that there are times and places where fabulous opportunities can be discussed and where issues can be discussed.

But it all adds up to your first question, which is information. How do I know? I know because we have processes, and we have curiosity and talent.

TRC: How many books do you read each season? Do you have a rough percentage?

BM: I do feel it is my responsibility to read as many of the books as I can. I’m in a bit of a learning curve because there was a giant list of books when I came in that already existed, and it is important to read the key books from that list, as well as what we’re about to publish. It’s what we are publishing, what we’re about to publish and what we’re considering.

I would say of the hundreds and hundreds of books we publish, 50% of them are what we would call licensed, and 50% of them are what we’d call trade books.

For trade books, I probably read between --- counting picture books --- 20-30% of the new books we publish. Because, number one, I love to read children’s books so it’s a joy to me, and number two, I  think it’s important to really see --- to try and understand --- what each consumer might see in the book, whether they’re the child or parent or teacher. I think you can only do that by reading the books.

TRC: You mentioned licensed books. Can you explain what those are?

BM: Licensed properties are books where we are the licensed publisher, the master publisher. We license the property from a licensor, which could be a TV station like Nickelodeon or Disney, or a toy company like Mattel. Usually those books are based on storylines that we create with the licensor --- we primarily create them, and they approve them. And we create art with them from what they call “art pools” --- they create art that we are allowed to sort of take and move around and design.We know that Elsa from Frozen had blond hair --- we’re not going to make her a redhead.

TRC: How do you work with other departments within the Children’s Publishing Division (publicity, editorial, sales, etc)?

BM: I’m corresponding with somebody all day. And again, we have meetings --- we have cover meetings, we have production meetings. I talk to people all day; I definitely do not sit in this office very much. Number one, it’s not very fun to sit in the office --- it’s much more fun to be part of what’s going on! And number two, I’ve always liked to hear ideas and come up with ideas. I think that’s what makes this job so much fun.

TRC: How closely do you work with authors?

BM: Well, as I have bigger jobs, I don’t as much, but I try to. I get in there as much as I can be helpful. Because really, the first and probably most important relationship is the editor and the author, or if it’s an illustrated book, the art director and illustrator. That is the first key relationship, because they have to have a bond and a vision together. That is paramount to a successful book being created.

But yes, I have authors who I have stayed friendly with, or now that I’m at Random House, I have authors who I am really enjoying spending time with and reading and staying in touch with, especially as the book goes on sale. I really do try and be there if I can. It’s hard when there are so many, but I try.

I remember saying, “If I get there and I hate it, or I get there and it’s not the right match for me, I’ll go back to adult.” 

TRC: How aware are you of what other houses are doing? Is that an important part of your job?


BM: Yes. It’s again back to mentoring and learning. If you don’t know what your competitors are doing, you’re not going to be successful. You want to be everywhere, you want to be publishing everything, you want to be cutting edge, you want to be doing the best marketing things, but it’s absolutely impossible. So the way one learns about the market --- both books and marketing and sales --- is by paying attention to what other people are doing. So that’s how you get to do your job better.

TRC: What is the most frustrating part of your job?

BM: I don’t have a frustrating part. I think sometimes the thing I have trouble with is moving on if I don’t think we’ve done absolutely everything, even if it’s already wildly successful. Sometimes I think the most difficult is to realize there’s a pace in this business, and even if the list is perfect --- like the spring list I’m working on right now --- you’ve got to move on. And I find that’s probably frustrating because there’s always something else to do.

But I think there’s sort of that sense of “you can’t stand still. You have to move on.” You have to look at the next list, and the list after that, and always be looking forward. Sometimes I’d like to just sort of stay with where I am right now. So I think that’s probably my most frustrating thing, especially if I feel like we’re in a wonderful place. The thing about children’s is that you can take some things along and keep promoting them and keep working on them, but you can’t do it for the whole list.

And I think sometimes what perhaps is a little frustrating is that there are people in other businesses and other aspects of this business who don’t get how great children’s books are, who really sort of see them as lesser than publishing great adult --- that there’s something not as complex, not as sophisticated, or not as important about publishing great children’s books. And I would say I find that frustrating.

 And that’s probably the favorite part of my job --- just reading something that makes my heart sing. 

TRC: What is your favorite part of your job?

BM: Wow! I like so many parts of my job. I love working with marketing and publicity, I do love reading a manuscript that comes in, that someone has described as something that they’re passionate about. I mean,[all editors] think their books are special, but when they have that certain look in their eye, they just know they touched something so magical, there’s nothing better. There’s nothing better than the first time you read a book that you love, for whatever reason. And that’s probably the favorite part of my job --- just reading something that makes my heart sing.

I also think the part I really enjoy --- the part that made me come back to Random House after consulting --- is that I missed working on a team. I think that’s very fulfilling. There’s nothing better than having these great conversations, or even hard conversations! But that’s really fulfilling --- to work with people who are as passionate as you are.