LJ Talks to Norton President Julia A. Reidhead | Eye on Publishing

ljx170401webEyePub1As executive suites go, Norton president Julia A. Reidhead’s new sixth-floor office at the firm’s Fifth Avenue headquarters in Manhattan is modest, furnished with bookshelves and a comfortable sofa that make for a welcoming and collegial atmosphere. The payoff, though, is the wonderful view of the New York Public Library’s Beaux Arts main building on 42nd Street and of the two sculptured lions, Patience and Fortitude, who guard its main entrance. “They are the foreground to the modern building,” says Reidhead. “In them, I see continuity and change, the two things I am always trying to balance in my work.”

Reidhead herself represents those qualities at the esteemed 94-year-old publishing house. After starting her career at Norton in 1983 as a traveling college sales representative and working her way up the editorial and managerial ranks in the College Department to vice president and publishing director, she became in December the company’s sixth president and the first woman to hold that position. Reidhead also assumed the roles of president and director of the National Book Company, Norton’s distribution arm, and of the Liveright subsidiary.

How does Reidhead feel about shattering the glass ceiling? Although she sees the new job as an opportunity to help a wonderful publisher continue to thrive, she was overwhelmed by the outpouring of support, especially in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, from women and men who were thrilled to have a woman head the house. “That’s made me mindful,” comments Reidhead. For her younger female colleagues at Norton, her promotion shows that the brass ring can be within reach. “Publishing is a great industry for women,” she notes.

Having worked on Norton’s academic side for most of her career, Reidhead now enjoys dipping into the house’s trade division more deeply. Although she had over the years occasionally edited trade titles, such as The Norton ­Anthology of World Religions and The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, she is now in the thick of commercial publishing. “It’s a lot of fun to see the faster pace,” says Reidhead. She is also fascinated by seeing how her trade colleagues’ minds work when they consider potential acquisitions. “Who is the audience for a new trade project? How much can we sell? What should we pay?”

Unlike college publishing, which has a specific market and audience, Reidhead finds the trade arena to be much more intuitive, more about current events and trends. “Fundamentally, it’s a gamble based on taste and pleasure. Is it going to be something that readers find intriguing, appealing, and pleasurable?”

Recent and Forthcoming Titles

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The Burning Girl, CLAIRE MESSUD (aUg. 2017)
Norse Mythology, NEIL GAIMAN (FEB. 2017)
The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, 3d ed., HENRY LOUIS GATES JR. & VALERIE A. SMITH, EDS. (2014)
The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 9th ed., STEPHEN GREENBLATT & Others, Eds. (2012)
The Norton Anthology of World Religions, JACK MILES & OTHERS, EDS. (2014)
The Norton Shakespeare, 3d ed., STEPHEN GREENBLATT & WALTER COHEN, EDS. (2015)
The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve, STEPHEN GREENBLATT (SEPT. 2017)

However, this academic-trade divide is not set in concrete at Norton. “We have a very permeable border between college and trade, and I don’t think there is any other house that works quite like this,” explains Reidhead. Because Norton straddles what she describes as the “sweet space” between the academy and the trade world, its editors always consider whether an academic title could cross over to trade and whether a particular trade book has course potential. Reidhead points to Neil Gaiman’s best-selling Norse Mythology as having a future life in high school and college classes.

What also connects the two divisions is the emphasis on publishing quality books. “On the trade side, we publish serious nonfiction and high-quality literary fiction,” says Reidhead. “And we are very proud to have a vital program of publishing new works of poetry.” In the college market, where competitors such as Pearson and Cengage have scaled back on their editorial processes in the rush to go digital, ­Reidhead believes Norton’s maintenance of editorial standards is key to the house’s continued success. “We are definitely contrarian in that respect.”

Pondering Norton’s fall list, Reidhead eagerly anticipates Claire Messud’s coming-of age novel, The Burning Girl, and Stephen Greenblatt’s The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve. Having worked with Greenblatt since 1990 on three editions of the best-selling Norton Shakespeare and in 2006 bringing him in as the general editor for the flagship Norton Anthology of English Literature, she admires the author’s ability to be scholarly as well as entertaining and engaging. “He’s taking this myth that we think we know and exploding it by following its historical traces through literature, religion, and culture.”

As Norton approaches its centennial in 2023, the company remains close to founders William and Mary Norton’s purpose of publishing “Books That Live.” Reidhead credits Mrs. Norton’s decision in the 1950s to create an employee-ownership structure that has enabled Norton to remain independent and tied to its original roots over the decades. No one outside of Norton owns any shares, she explains. “The benefits of employee ownership is the ability to swim against the tide.”—Wilda Williams

Reidhead Photo ©Beowulf Sheehan

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Wilda Williams About Wilda Williams

Wilda "Willy" Williams (wwilliams@mediasourceinc.com) is LJ's Fiction Editor. She specializes in popular fiction and edits the Mystery, Science Fiction, Christian Fiction, and Word on Street Lit columns.

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