A Father's Words of Wisdom for the New Publisher

By Nick Lyons

Fathers love to advise sons, but few have done it with such willing heart and grace as Nick Lyons. Several months ago, after 15 years as head of The Lyons Press in New York City, Nick, 67, turned the page of leadership and made his son Tony, 36, the new publisher. To guide his son, Nick, a former English professor at Hunter College, executive editor at Crown Publishers, and author of 18 books, also sat down and wrote —longhand —two bound notebooks collectively titled, “Notebook of Publishing Tips to the New Publisher.” The excerpts here convey practical business lessons as well as Nick’s pride in the business and his son’s role in it —inspiration for any parent and child building a business together.

—The Editors

Dear Tony:

I'm in the emergency room at Mt. Sinai Hospital, waiting to be examined for a possible “deep-vein thrombosis”—a clot in my left calf, the third such serious threat I've had in the past two years from one thing or another. It hurt severely yesterday morning—so much so that I could barely walk—and then the pain subsided. The fellow who gave me my brand-new titanium hip thought it might be a clot, so I'm here. All hospitals make me think of mortality and confirm my decision to appoint you president of this business I founded years ago.

I want to give you some notes, thoughts, worries, praise, cautions—all that I'm thinking about, in no particular order, as I plan to change my life and to put you in charge of what it has taken me 35 years (if you include my years as editor at Crown Publishers) to conceive and shape and grow.

•   •   •  

It's a spasm, not a clot.

•   •   •  

What a joyous and worthwhile thing it is we do—the bringing of words from the darkness of oblivion into the world; old words that need reprinting; the vision of a book, its portal to other worlds; good words that help people tie a better fly, play better tennis, grow a garden. I cannot think of an adult human activity as worth a life's effort as book publishing.

I have enjoyed publishing immensely. I've liked the choosing of books, the framing of them so they would have the best chance in the world, and I have liked some of the selling, though that and other parts of the business less. I like the fact that there is a business after all these years, a base, a backlist of titles that continue to sell, a logic of how to be a profitable and respected small publisher. I'm proud of how this business started on the dining table of a middle-aged English professor with a lot of children, as a second full-time job, and is now something worth your great energies and vision.

•   •   •  

You have changed our publishing house and you will change it much more over the next years. Not all of the changes sit easily with me, since, as you know, we're different; you're quicker to decide, more confrontational, mathematically sharper, a tough negotiator, a strong sales advocate, and the hardest worker I've ever known. I'm entirely satisfied that your backbone and good sense will mediate between long- and short-term decisions and meet them both. I am satisfied that putting the financial fortunes of me, your mother, and your sister and brothers in your hands is the wisest thing for me to do now. I'm hopeful, even confident, that you will take the base that now exists and raise a great structure; you've already helped powerfully these past three years to build that base. You have great intelligence, vigor, and strength, and they will surely serve you well—though you might want to consider how the suggestions that follow can help temper your steel:

• Seek experience and more experience. Publishing is the most varied of businesses, with an infinite number of different skills and abilities to develop, all of which contribute to the success or failure of a book-publishing firm: the design of the books, the quality of the editing, production values, sales inventiveness, and much more.

• You can't do it all. Delegating properly will duplicate your strengths—and give people beneath you a way to learn and grow.

• Loyalty (to you and the company) is important to cultivate, especially in book publishing—since books take years to develop and the loss of key personnel interrupts the development period needed.

• Any book will do better if it's carefully wrought inside as well as out. This is part of what your editors can do for you—they can keep the boat well trimmed and caulked so it doesn't sink.

• Educating employees is extremely important—even though we have recently experienced the loss of three or four that I educated too well.

•   •   •  

Some random but pointed maxims that came to me this morning, during breakfast:

• Bears sometimes make money and bulls sometimes make money...even hogs make money, but generally lose it.

• You cannot expect to create a machine, ever, that will neatly turn out hundred-dollar bills without problems.

• A larger business—which is what we both want—is not merely a bigger small business; it is a related but new entity, with new laws.

• All businesses are different—especially publishing businesses—but they all overlap.

• Only when you have built a proper pipeline, and tested it, can the oil flow.

• The capacity to take risks is the adrenaline that energizes all business enterprises...but betting the farm frequen t ly (or even ever) is for gamblers, not businessmen.

• A business may have to reinvent itself every day, but it must never forget the guidelines that enabled it to grow and flourish in the first place.

• There are always 11 more details to consider.

• The pursuit of white whales need not lead to disaster...if one has a brilliant accountant.

• A business is not a social-services agency...nor is it a concentration camp.

• Trends come and go, but the timeless, useful book like “Practical Fishing Knots” sells forever.

• It is a lot easier to hire a friend than to manage or fire a friend.

• Seeds, seeds, seeds—always be planting them; some will never bear fruit, some will bear it only in a dozen years.

• No business is perfect; no batter ever batted 1.000; but the percentages matter gravely.

• A “work ethic” is a lot more valuable to a business than a “friendly atmosphere”...or a whip.

• If you try to look too far down the road that stretches mysteriously into the future, you're liable to trip on a rock; if you look just past your toes, you'll miss the bear—always hungry, licking its lips, waiting eagerly for you around the bend.

• Forget all of the above business maxims from an old English professor rather than do something truly stupid.

•   •   •  

All of our employees bring different strengths and weaknesses to the house. Like the Arab in “Ben Hur” with his beautiful horses, it is important to learn the special traits of each and then to put the sturdy horse in the center, to keep the others honest, and the flyer on the outside, for speed.

•   •   •  

People like to work with good tools—and you're right in thinking that some new, better computers will be valuable and appreciated. I, who use a Royal Standard manual machine from the 1950s, utterly fail in the arena of technology. You won't.

•   •   •  

I suspect, for all your vast strengths and wise judgment, the thing you should be most conscious of is your love of the quick judgment—on management matters, on books to buy, and such. So many of your quick thoughts are good that you may not be fully aware of the few [decisions] that you make without full awareness of consequences. Don't be shy of asking advice—of me, of the editors, of the people in our production department. We all work for you now. You need to prove nothing with any of us. You are not expected to know all the little skills, only to direct others who have them. Pacing is thus important—making the decision when you have all the proper information to make it. This may be in an instant...or in three months.

The balance of a publisher's book list in any given season, and its size, are worth the most careful consideration. This might include balances of:

• literary and commercial titles;

• expensive-to-produce and cheap-to-produce books;

• new books and classic reprints;

• a list of a size that can be managed by the editorial, sales, and publicity departments;

• the number of books that will last a season and the number that will last for 10 years.

•   •   •  

You are a tireless worker. But think of how much more energy you had after a short vacation.

•   •   •  

Many small publishers, our size and smaller, fail for a host of reasons:

• undercapitalization;

• over-borrowing (at 12 percent, when you're lucky to make 6 percent or so on turnover);

• failure to balance a list between the practical and the literary;

• trying to be what they're not;

• snobbishness;

• failing to understand the value of a backlist;

• a bad accountant;

• a belief that sales should be handled by others outside of the house, or the belief that sales are in some way beneath them;

• lack of a dominant niche—like our fishing books—or the belief that “niche publishing” is beneath them;

• too narrow a niche;

• inability to understand the value of a nickel;

• inability to take proper risks;

• weak management;

• lack of planning;

• timidity, mediocrity, overboldness, or idealism that undermines practicality;

• failure to institute structures that permit and encourage growth.

•   •   •  

Let's call the previous pages the seeds for discussion, as you see fit. Forgive the repetitions, the pontificating, the worries. The main thing is that I believe you will run and develop our family business, The Lyons Press, brilliantly.

Love, Dad

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Summer 1999

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