Ask Washington, D.C., publishers to describe the defining attribute of publishing in the nation’s capital, and they’ll quickly tell you there’s no such thing. Seconds later, however, each of the dozens of D.C. Metro Area industry professionals interviewed for this piece described a bevy of projects, initiatives, and innovations that add up to one characteristic. Perhaps more than anywhere else in America today, Washington, D.C., is a hub for mission-driven publishing.
“People from all walks of life come to D.C. with a very specific purpose,” says Arnie Grossblatt, director of the publishing program at George Washington University. “It’s not for the climate. It’s for some kind of mission, whether to work for a government agency or a professional association, or one of the scholarly institutions.”
D.C.’s publishers harness the drive, focus, and diversity of those people by articulating a clearly defined sense of purpose that stands out in a publishing business already known for its close adherence to the contours of any given publishing house’s mission.
Beyond their ability to tap a wellspring of global talent, D.C.-area publishers keep to their mission because they are in many ways essential components of the associations, museums, think tanks, nonprofits, and media groups that form the working landscape of the part of the city that doesn’t turn over after each election.
From the International Monetary Fund to National Geographic, the American Enterprise Institute to the Association for Talent Development, D.C.’s publishers are the public face of institutions wrestling with some of the world’s most crucial issues. They work alongside a handful of influential trade publishers and distributors who have the same clarity of purpose, and together they form a community set on creating a lasting impact in their hometown, the nation, and the world.
There are institutions by name and institutions by authority. The National Geographic Society and the Smithsonian Institution are among the few that can claim the mantle of both. Founded respectively in 1888 and 1846, each has an affiliated publishing house that produces arresting works on science, nature, history, and politics, in a combination of visual and text-driven works for all ages.
With combined experience that’s as great as the society is old, the senior leadership of National Geographic Books transforms a horde of followers—82 million on Instagram alone—into loyal readers in support of subjects ranging from wolves in North America to children’s books about spiders and historic battles in faraway lands. Since entering into a $725 million partnership with Fox in 2015 the company has a new public message, “We are all explorers,” around which its universe of titles are arrayed.
Internally, that message requires intensive collaboration on projects that sometimes take years to roll out. With children’s books, that means frequent all-staff meetings to determine typefaces, photo spreads, and color schemes for covers, all before bringing ideas directly to children before publication. “Often, we test books out with kids,” says editorial director Erica Green, who recently shared covers of forthcoming books with an audience of 500 children at National Geographic’s amphitheater. “We listen to what they have to say.”
In turn, the press has a message for its young readers. “We’re messaging hope,” Green says. “We want conservation messages to be present.” That means taking some issues that roil the halls of nearby Congress head-on and without hesitation. Describing one children’s title on the environment, she says: “It’s a bellwether to talk about climate change. We present what’s happening in the world.”
Green calls its science publishing program “citizen science stuff” while adding that National Geographic is still keenly aware that readers need a compelling hook or the mission can’t succeed. In its adult division, the hook is clear in forthcoming titles like In Praise of Difficult Women: Life Lessons from 29 Heroines Who Dared to Break the Rules by Karen Karbo (Feb. 2018) and The Promise and the Dream: The Interrupted Lives of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. by David Margolick (Apr. 2018).
Alongside current affairs and historical titles with contemporary relevance, there are the long-term projects with ambitious scope and scale, even for a company with 150 employees. The Splendor of Birds (Oct. 2018), a large, multiauthor photo and illustrated book, is just one component of a Year of the Bird project celebrating the centennial of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act with a slew of publications, advocacy, and programming in partnership with the National Audubon Society, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and BirdLife International.
The press is spurred by a robust backlist of language, reference, travel, field guide, and photographic books; perhaps most famously The National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America. First released over 30 years ago, and now in its seventh edition, deputy editor Hilary Black says the book has sold three million copies to date.
At Smithsonian Books, massive projects are director Carolyn Gleason’s specialty. In 2013, she completed the publication of The Smithsonian Civil War, a project that involved nearly 50 scholars and writers, drew from more than a dozen Smithsonian museums, and took three years to produce. She is currently at work on a new project of similar scope and scale that will honor the centennial of the passage of the 19th amendment which gave women the right to vote.
Gleason draws on in-house and affiliate “Smithsonian authors” for about half of the press’s 20–25 titles each year. Her staff of 10 works at “developing a good strategy to interpret the Smithsonian’s values” for a general readership. That means adapting to shifts in the trade while simultaneously responding to the many exhibits and projects underway at the museums.
“We’ve changed a lot,” says Gleason, whose tenure at the press has been marked by a move away from scholarly and academic publications and toward children’s and general trade titles, beginning with Mark Stein’s How the States Got Their Shapes in 2008.
The press has been careful and deliberate about its efforts to reach more readers. With so much material at the staff’s fingertips, it could be easy to go astray. “We could come up with a reason to publish almost any kind of book,” Gleason says. “There is so much in D.C. There are all the political people and think tanks. There are all of these completely unique generators of content. When you have this huge of an umbrella, you have to focus as an imprint.”
Part of her strategy is to look for books that reach multiple, clearly defined audiences. The forthcoming Stirring the Pot with Benjamin Franklin: A Founding Father’s Culinary Adventures by Rae Katherine Eighmey (Jan. 2018) is one example. “It hits on more than one point,” Gleason says, reaching readers interested in both history and cooking.
Balancing the goal of expanding the Smithsonian’s audience while maintaining clear focus has created new opportunities as well. When the press decided to publish a photographic retrospective on rock and roll, it turned to its readers for submissions. An open call in 2015 yielded thousands of previously unpublished photographs from half a century of concerts and recording sessions. Former music executive Bill Bentley culled the reader contributions into Smithsonian Rock and Roll: Live and Unseen (out now).
A handful of trade publishers dot the D.C. landscape, but the definition of what a trade book can be for publishers inside the beltway can differ from the big houses in New York. After all, for librarians, statisticians, journalists, and a few interested parents, a title like Bernan Press’s Millennials in America is probably more than just a passing interest.
Founded in 1952, Bernan is a private outgrowth of the Government Printing Office, pulling essential statistical data that the government produces and providing a lens for people to understand it, whether it relates to business, crime, or general demographics. Today, Bernan’s following is solidly professional and academic, but the press’s role is hardly limited to the dusty corners of mathematical modeling.
Bernan senior marketing manager Veronica Dove says readers have turned to the press as an increasingly essential resource and advocate in the capital. At the American Law Association annual meeting this year, she says, “Lawyers, law clerks, and judges were coming up to us and saying, ‘Especially in this era of fake news, it’s essential to keep this statistical information out there.’ ” She adds, “It’s a huge responsibility we don’t take lightly.”
Bernan’s readers have spurred the press to consider entering the general trade market, and it has already begun with the recent publication of This Day in Presidential History a general history trade title by Paul Brandus, an independent member of the White House press corps. With distribution as an imprint of Rowman Littlefield and a ramped-up production schedule—Bernan will put out 41 titles this year compared with 10 in 2010—Dove says it’s a way to respond to readers and “go beyond just statistics to general public information.”
Listening to what readers want is the driving purpose for Regnery, the hard-charging politically conservative press that made headlines earlier this year when publisher Marji Ross announced that the press would no longer use the New York Times bestseller list as part of its marketing and promotion of titles.
There were criticisms of the move—the Washington Post called it a “stunt”—but Ross has a shrewd sense of her readership and an indefatigable dedication to giving them what they want to read. For years, those readers were politically minded conservatives, and the press thrived on publications like Unfit for Command: Swift Boat Veterans Speak Out Against John Kerry, which was published in the leadup to the 2004 presidential elections and sold two million copies.
Ross, who became president and publisher in 2003, expanded the number of publications and the reach of the press, ensuring that its books were sold at major retailers like Walmart. Today, however, she says the readership has changed. With her eye on potential bestsellers that can also support the press over the long haul, Ross is looking to a religious Christian readership to buoy Regnery alongside political authors like Dinesh D’Souza. “Faith is our future backlist,” Ross says.
Ross was already looking at a growing religion readership when Regnery’s parent company, Eagle Publishing, was purchased by Salem Media Group in 2014. Salem’s established radio and multimedia connections to religious conservatives were a perfect fit at an opportune moment for the strategic vision Ross has for Regnery. “We were able to bring more political content from us to them,” Ross says, “and more faith content from them to us.”
Regnery Faith is the publisher’s growing religion imprint. It has doubled from five titles two years ago to 10 this year, after seeing particular success with a string of titles by David Limbaugh. At the same time, Regnery has added to its children’s publications under Regnery Kids and opened a history imprint, Regnery History, which will publish 14 titles this year.
While based in the capital, and with no shortage of authors who reside there, Ross says the diversification of the press is a sign of its continued focus on readership elsewhere in the country. “I believe there is a ceiling on how many political ‘red-meat conservative’ books a reader is going to buy in a year,” Ross says. Understanding how to appeal to those readers with a broader array of books, she adds, will help serve the bottom line for the 70 year-old press over the long term.
The Library of Congress was founded in 1800, and the Government Printing Office was created a month before the start of the Civil War, but in the past half century, the historic backbone of publishing in Washington has been associations. Filling the buildings in between embassies and government offices, professional associations and interest groups like AARP, the American Chemical Society, and the Association of American Medical Colleges have messages to spread through the halls of the government. Many do it through papers, journals, and books.
Publishing has been an essential part of how the Association for Talent Development does business since 1945, when thousands of soldiers began returning home and starting new careers. Today, the organization—which provides workforce training—is largely devoted to disseminating content to its 40,000 members who are professionals in the field. Along with research reports and magazines, that includes 20 books a year published by ATD Press.
Production and editorial director Kristine Luecker says that having a large association helps the press fulfill its mission and vice versa. As part of a rebranding in 2014, Luecker says the press began looking to produce more books for a general trade readership beyond the association’s members. That meant going back to basics. “Any working professional has some responsibility for developing talent in others,” Luecker says. “It’s not just about training someone to use a computer, it’s about training someone to expand their overall skill set.”
Given their membership, Luecker says the press has been able to easily seek out experts and professionals in training and management who can write books that fit the expanded mission of the press. For example, in December ATD will release tech manager Katy Tynan’s How Did I Not See This Coming? A New Manager’s Guide to Avoiding Total Disaster, a guide in fable form that tells the story of a new manager whose employee quits.
Over time, the membership also helps the press see what works and what doesn’t, according to marketing manager Deborah Orgel Hudson. “When you have a built-in audience, you can take a historical and couple year look and realize what channels they sell in, and more importantly you get feedback,” Hudson says.
The most feedback comes at the organization’s conference, where 10,000 members gather each year. The event provides an opportunity for the press’s staff to talk with readers who have experience in the field. Each year, they set up a conference bookstore, see which books are in demand, and find out which ones need to be updated. One example is Ten Steps to Successful Business Writing, which has been a press bestseller since it was released in 2008. Luecker says that after hearing from readers, the book needed some updates to reflect the digital marketplace in order to remain a strong backlist seller. It went into a second edition in mid-November.
Where ATD thinks of membership in terms of individuals, the International Monetary Fund thinks of it in terms of nations. The IMF serves 189 member countries, and while it is a global institution, it is also an association with monumental initiatives dedicated to promoting global economic health and high employment.
At IMF Press, publisher Jeffrey Hayden and associate publisher Linda Kean are responsible for communicating IMF’s research and findings to members, research institutions, corporations, journalists, and academic institutions, all of whom rely on IMF to forecast trends and understand the major issues facing the global economy today.
In-house teams of researchers work to produce semiannual and annual publications, the most important of which is the World Economic Outlook. “It has been a mainstay for us for many years,” Hayden says. “It provides information on where the global economy is headed.” In addition to the report, the press produces eight to 10 paperbacks each year, along with a handful of larger volumes, most of which are anthologies.
The publications are inextricable from the IMF’s larger operations, which include research, talks, and conferences with member states. Hayden says the typical path to publication begins with an author delivering a paper at an IMF talk. Editors provide comments and authors revise accordingly. Content is then gathered thematically and published in time to align with new initiatives and conferences. At the same time, Kean spearheads efforts to enhance the publisher’s digital presence, including e-books and more sophisticated tools to allow readers to digitally mine the content of the books.
Under IMF’s managing director, Christine Lagarde, two areas of content have been of specific interest for the press. Fiscal Policies and Gender Equality, just released, reflects new research on gender and the economy. Digital Revolutions in Public Finance, also just released, is the result of a partnership with the Bill Melinda Gates Foundation, dedicated to looking at the impact of digital technology on the economy.
For IMF and the many other associations and interest groups in Washington, Hayden says, books are the essential component of “building credibility for certain policies.” He adds: “There is a strong institutional and association publishing presence here, and that segment is focused on influencing and informing policy decisions. It’s very much public policy advocacy.”
For more than a century, think tanks—perhaps even more than associations and institutions—have acted as Washington’s nonprofit research hubs that provide interpretations of government policies and recommendations for how they would like to see them change.
Founded in 1938, the conservative American Enterprise Institute has had publishing at the forefront of disseminating its work since its earliest days, according to senior fellow and amateur press historian Karlyn Bowman, who has been at AEI for 38 years. “Think tanks were pretty sleepy places at the time,” Bowman says, but even at the beginning, AEI had what she calls “a very active publishing program.”
Engaging in projects that took years and sometimes decades to produce, the press would contract with law firms to write pamphlets that were disseminated on Capitol Hill. In recent years, Bowman says that AEI has moved in-house scholars to trade publishers more, scaling back its own publications to focus on large projects that often have grant support. For instance, in 2016 AEI teamed up with the Center for American Progress and the Brookings Institution, fellow think tanks, to publish The States of Change: Demographics and Democracy, which was supported with funding from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
While AEI has scaled back, other think tanks have launched and expanded their own operations. The Urban Institute recently relaunched Urban Institute Press, dedicated to sharing research and recommendations on urban policy issues that range from public housing and segregation to criminal justice reform. Brookings has also expanded its reach, adding more trade titles and growing its list.
At AEI, Bowman has recently been going through half a century of press publications, now housed in a new library at the institute. If there was any doubt about the relevance of the work that think tanks do in publishing, she says that her journey through the backlist has dispelled it. “One of the things that’s really interesting looking back at those publications is the durability of public policy publications,” Bowman says. “There are books from decades ago that ask, ‘Should we have a national health insurance system? Should the federal government provide aid in private education?’ ”
Like the streets of the capital, the avenues of publishing in Washington, D.C., intersect at hubs that link a community of publishing professionals to one another. Publishers in D.C. take advantage of webinars, lunches, and print resources offered up by Association Media Publishing. Along with a design award competition, 41-year-old Washington Publishers presents specialized programming for members six times a year, as well as hosting regular meetups across the city.
For learning the publishing trade, however, all roads lead back to Arnie Grossblatt and George Washington University’s publishing program. Grossblatt’s mission is to ensure that students have fulfilling careers, and that means convincing them that a life in publishing can mean many different things.
“People come to the program thinking that they want to do editorial work, and if the program is successful, they realize there are other things,” Grossblatt says. “We try to train people for management positions and give them skills that will transfer across areas.”
While the program has a growing distance-learning community, in Washington, D.C., Grossblatt’s curriculum is part and parcel of the capital’s mission-driven focus. Current and former faculty lead presses across the region, while alumni can be found at nearly every publisher in the city.
Grossblatt says that the dedication and commitment of publishing professionals in Washington comes down to communication: “We’re a mix, and unlike other places, we’ve got it all together in close quarters, so there’s more cross-talk across publishing segments than you might find in New York.”
“With people moving from scholarly publishing to association publishing to trade,” Grossblatt says, the cross-talk, the communication, and the mission-focus all come back to a simple fact. “There’s a community here.”