Jan Nathan has been the Executive Director of the Publishers Marketing Association since its formation in 1983. She has become known to everyone in the small press world through her 20 years of service to the cause, but I got to know the “Tough Love” matriarch of independent publishing even better during a recent interview.
I learned, for instance, that she has received substantial critical acclaim in another arena–the world of competitive bridge. You’ll find almost as many references to her card-playing prowess online as you will to her publishing advocacy. Bridge is stacked with metaphors for the publishing world–bidding and contracts, transportation problems, finesse. But perhaps the most interesting parallel is that bridge is the only card game designed to minimize luck–you can be dealt the greatest hand in the world, but one false move and you’re going down. You can’t win with good cards alone, and you can’t win at all without the help of partners. I started the interview by asking Jan Nathan what lessons for publishers she learned by playing bridge.
Nathan: Patience with your partners. There are many routes to the same end. Success in competitive bridge–as in book publishing–often requires finding novel approaches to stubborn problems. And failure often provides the exact lesson you’ll need to achieve victory the next time.
Q: I was told you play your cards close to the chest. Could you give us a little peek at your background–where you grew up, your education, and early work experience?
Nathan: I was born in Brooklyn, New York, and I was an only child. My mother used to call me her “first, best, and worst” kid. I earned a B.A. in Modern and Foreign Languages from Cornell, went back to school to get a more marketable degree, and graduated with a Master’s from the Stanford English Writing program.
I lived in Palo Alto with my first husband, an engineer. We were part of the boom in the electronics industry in Silicon Valley in the late ’60s and early ’70s. I got a job in a small ad agency where I wrote copy for companies such as National Semiconductor. I learned a lot of acronyms working there. They’d ask me to make LEDs sound sexy somehow.
You were also raising a family during this time, weren’t you? I understand you have six boys.
Nathan: Yes, I had four boys in four years with my first husband. And for six years, I was a single parent, raising my sons and working at the same time. My second husband and I adopted twin boys. I had four already; how much difference could two more make? It was like an earthquake, though, where a small increase in size has a huge impact.
They’re all grown now, of course, and they all live in the area except for one son in Hawaii. My son Terry works here, and so does Mark’s wife, Andrea. I have three daughters-in-law and six grandchildren–two girls and four boys.
Q: Are they all as nice as Terry? He’s always so friendly and calm.
Nathan: And organized. Yes, actually, they’re all nice boys. When they were growing up, if they wanted to tattle on one of their brothers, I’d say, “OK, but first you have to say something nice about them.” And they’d say, “It’s not worth it.” I learned a lot from those years. You learn to listen. You might not like what people have to say, but you learn to hear them out… to let them get it off their chests.
Q: At some point, you moved this pack of boys downstate and had your first experience as a publisher.
Nathan: In 1974, I moved to Southern California and wanted to make a career change. I was inspired by an in-flight magazine on the airplane. “Why don’t they have these in rental cars?” I thought. And so I pitched the idea to one of the big car rental companies–publish an “in-car” magazine and they said, “Do it.” Then I had to find out how to publish a magazine in a hurry. I turned to the Western Publishers Association (WPA) for help. I received so much assistance from them that I began to be interested in trade associations, which eventually led to my work for PMA.
So you were the first publisher of an “in-car” magazine? How did that turn out?
Nathan: We were the first and probably only. AvisGuide was plagued with problems. But even though it didn’t work out too well, one of the franchise owners also owned a bus-line franchise, and we started producing “in-bus” guides. The real moneymakers were the in-flight guides, however, and we published several of them for smaller airlines.
So you had your own publishing company?
Yes. I lived in Manhattan Beach and it was called the Manhattan Publishing Company. I sold it in 1978 to someone I met through the WPA.
Magazine publishing is a very difficult business. You’re never out of deadline. You’re putting out new product every 30 to 60 days. There’s no credit from the printers–you have to pay your printing costs up front. And advertisers are notoriously slow to pay. It was a cash-flow nightmare.
Q: What did you do after you sold it?
That’s when I began my new career in association management. I took over management of the WPA and ran that for five years until PMA asked for my help. Actually, it wasn’t called PMA for the first couple of years. It was PASCAL: Publishers Association of Southern California. We decided we needed a name change in about 1985. Many of our members were not in Southern California and most publishers were joining because of our marketing programs, so we decided to call ourselves Publishers Marketing Association. They considered the name, Publishers Marketing Services, but I said, “No way am I going to answer the phone, PMS!”
Q: Many people don’t realize that “Jan Nathan” is actually a company and that PMA’s day-to-day operations are handled by Jan Nathan Associates, with a staff of 10 people. Do you still manage the WPA? What other clients do you have?
Nathan: I had to drop WPA–we couldn’t handle both associations at that time–but they continue to operate and do well to this day. I’m very good at transitions. Today, my company manages several associations–the Audio Publishers Association, the Los Angeles Direct Marketing Association, a risk management association, and some smaller groups.
Basically, every time we have a skill gap, we go out and find some group to fill it. We got involved with the direct marketers because PMA does so much work in that area. When we were having trouble with publishers getting merchant banking accounts, we got involved with the risk management group because it’s mostly CEOs and CFOs of banks. Our company provides everything from database management services to meeting and seminar services. We act as general business managers for nonprofit professional associations.
Q: Is there some common threshold that book publishers must cross to succeed in this business?
Nathan: A major milestone is when the publisher is no longer the sole author. Once they start publishing authors besides themselves, publishers seem to grow up. Another milestone is surviving a major setback. An example is Craftsman Book Company, publisher of specialized books for the building trades–plumbers, electricians, and so on. When the building market went south, so did their sales. Reasoning that these underemployed contractors had a lot of empty hours on their hands, Craftsman developed a line of software, and it sold very well because the target audience had time to fuss with their computers.
Q: Can you give us an example of a publisher who has made full use of everything PMA has to offer–the co-op mailings, trade show displays, educational programs, online support, rights representation, etc.?
Nathan: Jeanne Lindsay at Morning Glory Press comes to mind. She began by self-publishing a book for pregnant teens. Jeanne’s been with PMA since the start, and she’s participated in every program we have. Her success didn’t happen overnight, but eventually she realized her goal of leaving teaching to become a full-time book publisher. She now has five employees and a backlist of 26 titles.
I also think of Leigh Cohn at Gürze Books, who began with a pamphlet on eating disorders and has become the dominant publisher in a major niche. And, of course, Dominique Raccah at Sourcebooks (see the January 2003 PMA Newsletter for a profile of her).
I always enjoy seeing the improvements publishers make over the years. They’ll bring books to Publishers University, and we’ll critique the cover, the title, the layout, the marketing materials. You’ll see the same book a year or two later, and you won’t recognize it–the change is so dramatic! That’s very gratifying.
Q: Critics have accused PMA and other independent publishers’ associations of making it sound too easy to achieve financial success. Do you sugarcoat the truth?
Nathan: If anything, I err the other way. When a self-published author approaches me, I ask them if they really want to spend 95% of their time selling this product. I don’t want to crush their dreams, but I do want to be realistic. Sometimes I’m wrong. A woman once came to me with a book of profiles of older women–none of them celebrities. I didn’t think it had a chance. It was called When I Am An Old Woman I Shall Wear Purple. When books do succeed, it’s a result of the passion behind them.
Q: In a profile you wrote for BookZone, you hinted that you’d like to write a book sometime. What would you like to write about?
Nathan: I’ve done a lot of freelance writing over the years, but I’ve never had a book under my own name. I had my first success as a freelancer in 1963 when I sold an unsolicited short story to Reader’s Digest. I wasn’t much of a typist–the eight-page story was ALL CAPS! They sent me a check for $2,000 and I couldn’t believe it. It really skewed my perspective on how easy and lucrative freelance writing could be. I did a lot of writing for the magazine publishing company I owned, and for many other in-flight magazines and other markets. I guess if I were going to write a book, it would be a collection of the funny and joyful stories of publishers overcoming obstacles to become successes.
Your name is synonymous with PMA for many people. What’s going to happen to PMA when you retire?
Nathan: I don’t think I’ll ever retire completely; I love this work and being around publishers. There should be no fear about the future of PMA. I’m only prominent because I am a spokesperson, but there’s a great group of people in my company who do most of the work, and PMA has a terrific Board of Directors. As I said, I’m good at transitions.
©2003 by Steve O’Keefe
Steve O’Keefe is the Executive Director of Patron Saint Productions, Inc., a publishing consultancy (www.patronsaintpr.com). His latest book is “Complete Guide to Internet Publicity” (Wiley, 2002). Please send comments or suggestions for PMA’s Publishing Profiles to firstname.lastname@example.org.