John Sargent, TURNING PAGES: The Adventures and Misadventures of a Publisher

John Sargent, TURNING PAGES: The Adventures and Misadventures of a Publisher

Zibby interviews forty-year publishing veteran John Sargent about his addictively entertaining and profoundly moving new memoir, TURNING PAGES: The Adventures and Misadventures of a Publisher. John talks about the inspiration behind this memoir (it involves a great-grandfather who wrote a very similar book) and his initial hesitation to infuse personal details into the narrative. He and Zibby also discuss the unpredictability of the publishing industry, the impact of trends and publicity, and the unsolvable mystery of why some books become bestsellers while others don’t. John reflects on the current state of the industry, expressing his confidence in the resilience of books.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, John. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Turning Pages: The Adventures and Misadventures of a Publisher.

John Sargent: Thanks for having me.

Zibby: It’s my pleasure. I have to say this is one of my favorite books of the year, for sure. I could not put this book down. I was like, okay, I’ll just check it out. No. Had to stop what I was doing. I’m like, this is ironic, turning pages is exactly what I’m doing. Your stories are fabulous. The way you write is fabulous. The short little scenes and chapters, it’s so consumable and amazing. You must know what you’re doing. That’s all I have to say.

John: Well, I’ve read a lot over the years.

Zibby: Congratulations. Why don’t you tell listeners a little bit about your book, why you decided to write this book at this time, and all of that good stuff?

John: I got fired at the end of the COVID thing. I had time. I had a great-grandfather who was an extraordinary publisher. He got sick at the end of his life. He felt better when he rode in a car because the vibrations helped him. Instead of just sitting in the car, he wrote a book while he was in this car driving around. It was never published. He wrote it for his family and for friends and people at work. It was called Memoirs of a Publisher. Had a white cover with just plain type on it. It was before book jackets were what book jackets became today. It’s back when they used to be very simple. It was passed down through the family. When I read it, I didn’t actually finish it. The first time I read it I was young. He’s not a great writer, so I didn’t finish it. I finished it about fifteen years ago. I took it and read it again. It’s spectacular. What wasn’t spectacular was the talk about staff meetings and real estate and all that stuff. What was spectacular was the little stories in there he’d just sort of drop in. He’d drop in, “We’re doing this, this, this. It was hard to focus because Teddy kept calling and asking me to go down to Washington to help him.” I’m realizing it’s Teddy Roosevelt. Teddy, apparently, sort of dictated his memoirs to him in the White House. Wow.

Anyway, I thought, maybe I’ll do that someday for my kids and my family to see, what was I doing while they were gone? I did that. Then Jonathan Galassiat at Farrar, Straus and Giroux said he’d help me. One of the great things about being me is I know a lot of editors. He’s a good friend. He said, “Oh, yeah, let me help you with it.” He read it. He said, “You have to put more of yourself in it.” I said, “I don’t want to put myself in it.” He said, “No, no, you got to put yourself in it. You got to put your family in it.” I spent all this time trying not to push my family. I’m uncomfortable with that. He finally convinced me. He said, “You know, the reader needs to know the narrator,” is what he said. I remember it was lunch. I said to him, “Look, nobody wants to hear about little Johnny goes west.” He very kindly put his hand on my forearm. He said, “Everybody wants to hear about little Johnny goes west.” There you have how the book came to be.

Zibby: I must say I think he might have been right.

John: He was not alone. By the time I got through the process — I got all the rejection letters. Then finally, someone said yes. It was really a great experience after all these years being on the other side of the table. I knew it was a very small book. You have to have some interest in publishing or it’s not going to be that compelling at all. Everybody after him said the same stuff. More you. More you. More you. I changed it substantially to be more me in it. It’s uncomfortable.

Zibby: I don’t know that you have to have a real huge interest in publishing. By the nature of people actually reading a book, they have some interest in how it got into their hands or in their ears or whatever. That’s a pretty big audience, readers.

John: One can always hope. After spending all these years seeing how many small books stay small books — publishing’s fascinating. There’s all these books out there that are fantastic that are small. You know this. You know this probably better than I do. There’s these books that you read. You love them, but it doesn’t happen for them. You look, and you say, why did that book fail? Why did this one work? I always thought after all those years of doing it, it’s like a black box. There are some trends and stuff you can see. It has to do with publicity and all that stuff. At the end of the day, some books just — some of these huge books, I read them, and I think, it’s okay, but it’s not great.

Zibby: Yes. So there’s no answer to that?

John: There is no answer to it. We published a book called The Nearly Normal Family, which I thought was utterly fantastic.

Zibby: Great title.

John: We pushed it. It didn’t work. Meanwhile, right next to it, we published a book which I thought was okay. It was good, but it had been done before. It was one of those. It was a monster. Two first novels, both sort of dark, mystery, suspense things. One worked and one didn’t, on the same list. I would’ve, a hundred percent, said it would be the opposite way. It’s a black box. You never figure it out. How about you with your publishing? You figure it out?

Zibby: Oh, yeah, I’ve solved the black box. I’ve done what you couldn’t do in a lifetime. Yeah, sure. No problem. No, I haven’t done it, but I think about it all the time. It’s maybe, I’m realizing, a waste of time. I feel like those books that don’t get discovered, sometimes the odds are stacked against — before they even come out, they’re already doomed. A lot is in the setup. Then even the best setups can also fail.

John: Then the world does a terrible thing. I remember 9/11 was a good example. We got a great list on 9/11. That happened. No authors got any publicity. No book sold. You don’t get it back. You have your one shot when you get it published.

Zibby: I actually thought about that. In fact, I wrote about thinking about that. In the midst of all the chaos of 9/11 — I actually lost my best friend that day, so I was in it and had to come home. It was a whole thing. I was like, what about all the authors? Really, this is their big day. For anyone who’s tried to write and wants to see great books get their due, it can be very demoralizing. Yet we continue to try. One continues.

John: You’ve written the great literary masterpiece. Eight years working on your book. That’s the week it comes out. Literally, on any given week, there’s thousands of books that come out. It’s not a few books. A lot of books come out every week.

Zibby: What do you think about that? Is it still worth trying? Everybody keeps wanting to do — including me. You just keep wanting to write books and put books out or publish books.

John: Here’s a question for you.

Zibby: Give me all your wisdom.

John: When you write a book, do you get pleasure writing the book? Is it work for you, or is it pleasure?

Zibby: Me personally?

John: Yeah.

Zibby: It’s pleasure. There’s pleasure and stress. Is this any good? I don’t know. Should I have done this? What about this? When you’re fully in it and the characters are kind of talking to you and whatever, yes, that’s very cool.

John: So it’s worth it.

Zibby: Yes, but if you just wanted that, you wouldn’t have to publish.

John: That’s true, and the publishing is not the fun part.

Zibby: So you think there’s nothing to be done? Is it what it is? It’s like any art form, like why a movie hits, why a piece of art —

John: — It is what it is. Sometimes the lightning strikes. Sometimes the lightning doesn’t strike. If it’s really, really good, it has a much higher chance. I’ve always worked in the bigger publishing companies. What happens is the collective inside the publishing house is what makes it happen. The answer is if it’s really good, you might have a publicist who just never gives up on it. Never. A year later, the paperback comes out, and they’re still charged up. They’re still trying to make it happen. They’re getting their friends in the publishing house to be that way too. Just that level of energy and enthusiasm makes it. I’m painting it wrong. Most of the great book do find their way, most of the great books. There is a complete element of just chance. I’m always surprised at the non-great books that make it so big. There’s always a lot of those.

Zibby: Right, so what about that? Why? No answer?

John: I have no answer.

Zibby: Okay, all right. Well, tackling an unknowable system, fabulous. Great way to spend time. Obviously, and from reading your book, I see the interest in all of this and getting stories out and interest in the machinery behind all of it as well and how things work. I was fascinated by what you did when there were changes that faced the industry. I feel like this is also a business book, which I also love. What happens when an Amazon comes in or an e-book comes in? What do you do with a market disruption factor? How do you navigate your ship? Talk a little bit about that. You took a very strong stance and earned a lot of worldwide respect for your stances, which is great.

John: For whatever reason, I took a lot of arrows in the great digital transformation. Look, like it was for movies, like it was for music, it was a hugely disruptive time. My view was always, you had to protect the author’s livelihood. That was the key to it all. Publishers, all we are is sort of the stewards of the author’s work. We bring their work to readers. It has to have a system where authors get paid. If you look what happened with music, if that had happened in publishing, that would’ve been a complete disaster. No bookstores, like no music stores. Authors getting pennies. Authors can’t sell T-shirts and play gigs to make their money. As it turns out, there’s not, generally speaking, 150 people who want to pay ten bucks to come into a room and listen to authors. When I looked at it, the price was huge. The stakes were very, very high. I have this great love of the business. Separate from the profitability of the company and what was good for us and what was good for the profits and what was good for the sales and all that, for me, there was a heavy weight of, what’s right for this industry? What’s right for the authors? Not the authors today, but the authors tomorrow and ten years from now. How do you make it through? I did, in fact, stand up in front on a fair number of issues and paid the consequent price in what it was like, but I would never trade that in for anything. It mattered.

Zibby: It did.

John: The day that Apple came to town and the day that the Department of Justice took on Apple, when that was happening, we didn’t know whether there’d be a future for the business or not. We really didn’t. It mattered. There was consequence. It was great.

Zibby: Wow, amazing. I feel like this should be a movie, even just that scene. I don’t know if you saw this movie about the BlackBerry. Did you ever watch it?

John: Oh, no, I heard about it. I haven’t seen it.

Zibby: Nobody watched this movie in the world except for my husband and me, but that’s fine.

John: But you watched it three times.

Zibby: I mention it to so many people because I find those moments in history fascinating, when there’s something that is so huge, like Kodak. Who ever thought? I worked on the Kodak account at my first job at Ogilvy & Mather Advertising. Nobody would have thought. It was the god. These things happen all the time over and over, so you have to expect all of that.

John: If you’re lucky, if you’re ambitious, which I was, and you’re lucky, you find yourself in one of those moments. Your decisions and what you do have a significant impact on an industry or on authors or on people you care about. It’s a remarkable thing. I saw all that from the inside. That was one of the reasons to write the book, was to let folks know, publishing people, who are interested in publishing, readers who are interested in publishing, what that was like from the inside as opposed to just a mechanical telling of the events, what it felt like to be in the middle of that stuff.

Zibby: From reading your book, you learn what kind of person you are. We see all the patterns. It’s almost no surprise by the time we get to those moments in your life that you have the confidence and the way you’re thinking about it to take those stands. When you think about how many people don’t speak up or don’t feel empowered to do what they want because it’s so unpopular, is that just something you have to feel deep down? Can you teach somebody that? Is it something that just comes from who you are?

John: I think a lot of it comes from who you are. I’m sure you can work on it. If you want to be one of those people, you can work on doing — the only way to do that is to experience it. You have to be adventurous. You have to take risk. You have to like adventure. You have to push yourself to do that. You have to get some reward from that. There’s some people, adventure just scares them. They don’t want to do that. I think it is a little bit of who you naturally are, but I’ve seen many people over the years develop it. You have to have self-confidence to do that. If you’re in a nurturing environment at work and getting the right feedback and you’re having success — it was one of the best things about my job for all those years, was seeing these young people who, if you give them responsibility and you let them make their decisions and mistakes and you don’t punish the mistake but you instead say, okay, well, we’re not going to do that again, and you discuss it, you see their confidence build. You see them become the people who — everybody has to become that. You start once you’re born, and you become something. You become for a long time. That was one of the great rewards at the business, was to see these people become strong people. Thanks for saying that about the book. I was attempting to do that without doing it. You get to the point of the bigger stories at work and know enough just through reading the other stories, not being told, just reading through the other stories. There’s some sort of thread that makes sense going through the book.

Zibby: Back to agreeing with Jonathan Galassiat. The way you write about your wife is so nice, Connie. I feel like you could have a whole side book on that, like a Bridges of Madison County little love story or something. You’re so devoted. It’s so sweet. What is the secret to that? What is the secret to that kind of relationship?

John: She’s fantastic. She’s just a fantastic human being. In the book, I tried to not hit that over the head. I tried to put in little things about Connie and my two kids. They’re the most important thing to me over it all. Work was there. That’s more interesting to folks. It would’ve been kind of false not to have them be there and try to show just through the little stories, a couple little stories, try to show how spectacular they are as people. They’re spectacular. All three of them are spectacular. I wanted to just let folks know how important that was to me. I didn’t want to make it a big part of the book, so tried to do it just in little ways here and there.

Zibby: Love it. When you said you’ve been in publishing a long time, when I referenced the fast-paced nature of it and the shorter chapters, what are the things that you said, okay, I have to make sure to do X, Y, or Z in this book because I know this works and this doesn’t work? How involved were you with the cover and all the details? Knowing what you know, what decisions did you make with that?

John: Great question. The best books are a good story. Just unequivocally, a great story is — my thought was, just give the great stories. Don’t put any of the filler in between. It’s not necessary. I didn’t want to make it a book of short stories. I wanted it to have some sort of form. That was the hardest part, was giving it a structure that made sense, a narrative arc, all that stuff, and just telling the stories, not filling in the stuff in between. Very conscious effort that storytelling is — I’ve always been good at it verbally. It’s been one of the things I’m reasonably good at, public speaking, things like that. I thought, just tell the stories. The publisher was great. I sort of art-directed the jacket. That thing on the jacket is a sculpture my daughter made for me of one of my favorite books, Leaving Cheyenne by Larry McMurtry. She made that for me when she was a teenager. That sculpture sits on my bureau. Connie took the picture. I asked Connie to take the picture. The publisher did the type. I did the colors. I did the title and the subtitle. The publisher added Misadventures. I wanted The Adventures of a Publisher, is what I had. They said, “No, Misadventures,” which is a good idea. I love their type selection. I chose the red and the white.

Zibby: It’s great.

John: I was more involved than the average guy, probably, because they were great about it. They knew I had a history.

Zibby: Is this the actual book, and she turned the pages down? How did she do that?

John: She cracks the spine. If you look, you can see the spine. She cracks the spines. The pages are varnished. Each individual page, she put spacers and varnished it. As you can see, it’s a cool object.

Zibby: Yes, wow.

John: It’s a great book. If you haven’t read it, Leaving Cheyenne by Larry McMurtry is a great book.

Zibby: Who knew? I have a nightlight. Have you seen those, that you open ?

John: Yeah.

Zibby: My kids were playing with them. I was like, “Look, I have a book that looks just like your light.” They thought that was cool. Where do you see things going now? Do you see a big disruptive force? Everybody always bemoans publishing.

John: It’s a constant. It’s always been there. Everyone’s like, publishing’s dead. I am so old that I can remember when color television was going to be the end of book publishing.

Zibby: So it’s here to stay, right?

John: Yeah. It’s the self-absorption of publishing. The sky is always falling. Sales were down three percent this year. Oh, my god, the industry is gone. You go through these cycles where publishing struggles and it doesn’t. Look at COVID. If you ever have an example of how resilient books are, books exploded during COVID. I remember in the beginning of COVID, the owner of the company really thought it’s all over. You could tell, book by book — the supply chain was screwed up. Amazon would run out of a book, but then you’d see sales at Target go up. Then Target would run out of a book, and then you’d see the sales go up at Barnes & Noble. You could tell people were searching for the books and finding them. You think, wow, that says something. If you look at independent bookstores — you know this. In the community, it’s more than just a bookstore. It’s a place that makes it feel like home. The power of that is huge. Look at the artifact. The artifact is fantastic. Look at your house. . I know, having you described what happened, you organized those books. They’re like your friends, right? You look at the book. You say, oh, I remember when I read that. Oh, I loved that book. You think of the character in it. The artifact is spectacular.

I don’t worry about it. People carry on. The death of publishing, it’s been that way. Every five years, we have a “death of publishing” moment. I look at the young people. People say, the young people today in publishing, they don’t appreciate freedom of speech. They don’t appreciate this. I say, there’s some issues, but the young people in publishing are fantastic. The people age twenty-two to fifty in publishing are fantastic. They’re bright, hardworking, great love of books. Freedom of speech will change a bit. Freedom of speech generally does change a bit. It might change more now than it did. There’s a moment where publishers can’t publish certain books because of this, that, or the other that’s going on in the culture. That’ll all sort itself out. Those are pendulum swings. They come, and they go. I have great confidence that it’s all going to be fine. You look at how many truly difficult things have happened, digital transition — I remember when the bookstore chains were going to kill publishing. There were going to be no independent bookstores. Amazon was going to kill independent book retailing. That didn’t happen. The Kindle was going to dwarf the physical book. That didn’t happen. It’ll be an interesting, vibrant business for a long, long time. Right now, the library lending thing is a really interesting issue. The freedom of speech stuff is a really interesting issue. People are going to have to stand up. There’s going to be moments when people got to stand up and really fight for what they believe in.

Zibby: Wow, I love that. Aside from promoting your book, what are you doing with your time now?

John: Oh, man. I kept thinking it was going to be bucolic walks on the beach and this, that, and the other. I got involved with Tattered Cover Book Store in Denver.

Zibby: I was just on a call with one of the board members yesterday who was asking for advice. I’m like, you’re asking me? Okay. She was so nice.

John: Who was it? Leslie or Margie?

Zibby: Margie.

John: Margie’s fantastic. She’s a fantastic human being. I’m on the board of that with Margie.

Zibby: Oh, great.

John: I ended up taking the slot as the chairman of the Ocean Conservancy. That’s really important stuff. Fifteen years ago, we started the carbon emissions work at Macmillan and made tremendous amounts of headway. There’s a lot that we can do. Everybody’s so negative about that all the time. There’s a lot we can do. We’ve gotten ourself in a pickle by being really bad about it. There’s a lot of steps you can take to be better about it. I’ve spent a lot of time working on those issues. I have a very complicated Wyoming life. My mother died at the end of COVID.

Zibby: I’m sorry.

John: She still had all these interests in Wyoming. She gave everything to the University of Wyoming. I’m managing it all on their behalf. I still have a bunch of full-time employees in Wyoming. I’m busy cattle ranching, property development. It’s good stuff. I’m having a great time. I advise some people. I don’t get paid, and the alarm clock doesn’t go off at four AM anymore. Those are the two largest differences. Still having a great time.

Zibby: You used to wake up at four on purpose every day?

John: Yeah. It was either four on the days I exercise — I always got home for dinner. I always did about twelve hours of work a day. That meant the average day, I was at work by six thirty in the morning. Somewhere between six and six thirty, I got to work. I’m a big believer in exercise. I exercised before I left for work. The three mornings a week I exercised, it was four AM. The other mornings, it was five AM I set the alarm for. I got up early every morning.

Zibby: What time would you go to sleep at night? How much sleep are we talking here?

John: You’re going to make me sound hideously boring. Ideally, I went to sleep at nine thirty.

Zibby: I do not feel like this is boring at all. I just wanted to know if you were one of those people who doesn’t need that much sleep or if you just went to bed early and got up early.

John: I do need sleep. By Friday of every week, I was pretty run down. On average, I would probably get six hours of sleep a night, in reality, something like that. Particularly, when it was stressful, it was a lot of trips to Europe. I used to fly coach because everybody in the company was going to fly business, or everybody was going to fly coach. I’m not one of those guys who says, okay, the executives go one way, and everybody else goes the other. Publishing is a thin-margin business, so we all went coach. The red-eyes to Europe once a month on coach was not ideal.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. Well, it all paid off. Turning Pages, you got a book out of it. This has been such an honor. You’re such a legend. The stories were amazing. The book was great. I just feel so lucky I got to sit and chat with you for half an hour. Thank you.

John: What fun. What fun. Thanks for having me.

Zibby: Take care. Buh-bye.

John: Take care. Bye.

TURNING PAGES: The Adventures and Misadventures of a Publisher by John Sargent

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