Founder and Publisher of Glitterati, Marta Hallett has been in the book publishing industry since 1973, and has since been at the helm of houses including HarperCollins, Smithmark, and Rizzoli. With nearly four decades of experience in art book publishing, Hallett discusses her insights into the industry, revealing her ability to stand at the center of the storm and commitment to discovering the silver lining in tough economic times.
Miss Rosen: Having been in the book publishing industry since 1973, you must have seen some impressive changes to the industry. What stands out in your mind as the most dramatic changes to the industry?
Marta Hallett: When I started in publishing, there was a small market for art and architecture, but there was almost no pop culture publishing. Illustrated books were “imported” books and so everything associated with illustrated books was a mystery.
I was lucky enough to be a managing editor on The Cook’s Catalogue, which gave me my start, was one of the first illustrated popular books, at the behest of Peter Mayer, who then headed Avon and was seen as a boy genius! Production managers didn’t know about four-color printing, never mind editors who understood the process to make an illustrated book “package.” The concept of a collaboration between creatives—rather than a linear progression to produce a book that was controlled by an editor and an author from manuscript to finished book—was totally the norm.
All that has changed. Today virtually every American publisher produces illustrated books, which have themselves moved from the category of being merely informative, to being an object in and of itself.
HarperCollins, Smithmark, Rizzoli—you’ve been at the helm of some of the most esteemed publishing houses in the country. What were the strength and weaknesses of leading such large-scale companies?
The positive aspect is that corporations to some extent have brands that can woo authors into paying attention to ideas that editors offer; and they have funds to take risks that small publishers don’t.
The weakness is clearly corporate culture: the need to have literally hundreds of opinions at time to make a decision. Ironically, I think this is the reason for the downfall of publishing; a successful house (failures included) is one that has a single entrepreneurial vision that is executed by a tight team led by someone with the leading vision. But the corporate environment doesn’t allow for this kind of single-mindedness or fast movement forward or flexibility…so with the endless meetings to gather opinions and commentary and signatures (!) on paperwork, the entire process is reduced to that—a process—rather than a creative collaboration between departments. I don’t think it’s avoidable, sadly.
Why did you decide to leave the corporate world and go into business for yourself?
It really wasn’t my decision at all to move to the private sector, in that my division was closed down as it became harder and harder to be profitable. I felt that even if I did move to another corporate organization, I would be encountering all of the issues that kept me from doing what I really like to do as a creative person.
I felt that after 30 years I had the skills, the contacts, and the initiative to develop a new way of looking at illustrated publishing that the corporate cultures wouldn’t allow so that I might as well put my money where my mouth was. Instead of bemoaning the problems of being successful in a large corporation, I should get out there and prove that my theory of how to publish successfully both financially and intellectually was possible!
What was the inspiration for the Glitterati brand? What does it symbolize to you?
Over the years I have worked at numerous jobs, reinventing myself as packager, publisher, book club director, which has allowed me to look at the work, the industry, my job, from a new perspective.
I felt that Glitterati could give me the opportunity to really run the whole shebang (which is no longer possible in the corporate environment) and to personally integrate my interests and my skill in creating something that attaches itself to the niche categories, which is harder and harder for the big publishers to do. As they move towards serving a more mass audience because of their profit requirements, I sensed there was an opportunity for a small publisher to serve the smaller markets. Glitterati doesn’t have the same overheads, profit needs of a large publisher so I can do smaller print runs profitably and still provide high quality books to an eager audience.
I chose the name Glitterati because all of my authors have day jobs; that is they have a platform, although it’s not usually a publishing platform. To me this is the brave new world of what the future of all publishing will be: an opportunity for innovation and flexibility to respond to the marketplace; a real chance to see what is happening in the world and attach the business to it (rather than the reverse, which is the constraint of so many big companies); and making a decision about where the world will go and then producing the product to make it go in that direction.
What has been the most challenging aspect of running an independent publishing house? What has been the most rewarding? The most surprising?
The most challenging aspect is clearly cash flow! I always say without this element of surprise my job would be perfect. Sadly, as a small company, even with fairly profitable receipts, the timing of those receipts is always an issue and never adequate to keep up with the expenses. So it’s dreary to be dealing with issues that as a publisher you know will be solved in a matter of time; but are emergencies at the moment and affecting suppliers’ stress levels!
The most rewarding aspect has honestly been seeing books that we’ve published that I knew would not have been taken on by another publisher, succeed not just in terms of sales numbers but receive recognition as the finest books published. I remember walking into a bookstore on Lexington Avenue after we had published only about five books, introducing myself and the owner saying, “Oh we love Glitterati books!’ I thought, “This must be a joke, we haven’t published enough books to BE a recognizable brand.” But in some corners we were and are and that is very gratifying.
The other aspect is the actual ability to create and control the destiny of the books, to be able to work with other creative people to make something more wonderful than any of us would have made on our own. I love working with creative people whose goal is just to make the best work possible, and figuring out how to tailor that to the commercial needs of the consumer world.
The most surprising thing is that there is always a new problem that is unanticipated. I always joke that every book has 26 Stations of the Cross and I know that at about Station 18, every author is going to have separation anxiety. But there are other surprises and I think that is what keeps this work so inspiring. These potentials keep us interested in the process, which otherwise might become humdrum and overwhelming; it’s incredibly labor intensive producing illustrated books and the momentum is only kept up because of the constant surprises—both good and bad.
What do you look for when signing up a project? How important is the balance between creativity and marketability in your business model?
I look for books that are of interest to me. I look at whether Glitterati can better publish the book than someone else. I look at how commercially and financially viable the book is: what is the platform of the author, how strong is that category in general in terms of book sales, is it one in which Glitterati has already made its presence known? I think I probably consider all of the same things that all publishers consider, I just give different weights to issues that make it a good fit for Glitterati, or not.
I would say that for Glitterati creativity is marketability. As a small publisher trying to make an impact and a name for itself, we distinguish ourselves from all the big boys by through the personality to the book and the way we publish it. We try not to get swept away by something beautiful and brilliant that we know the buyers in any store (small or large) won’t want to stock. We’ve only had a few cases where we’ve done books so over the top that they probably won’t be acknowledged for 15 years as the incredible pieces of work that they are. In general, the niche market, because it goes outside bookstores, is pretty accommodating to creative new ideas.
There has been tremendous growth of independent art book publishers over the past decade. Why do you think this segment of the industry has expanded? How does Glitterati stand in relation to its competitors and colleagues?
I think that this segment has expanded because major houses dealing with art books have scaled back in the past decade because of issues of profitability so there are more editors without a corporate home available to them; and because the nature of the beast is best served through having an independent publishing mission with a Renaissance nature where the leadership knows art, trends, business, design, and editorial.
I think that Glitterati has actually created something of a reputation that is in line with what we publish. We produce books that can go to a variety of audiences and sometimes particularly ignore the mainstream in order to utilize the platform of our glittery authors to extend book sales outside the normal channels. We have the capacity to move our books into other markets either by working through author contacts, or the contacts that have generated through non-book markets recognizing our product as distinctive and endorsing it through buys and word of mouth.
In many ways, the old model of book publishing no longer fits the world as we know it. The monolithic corporations are cracking and crumbling, while the independents are struggling to survive. What do you see as the benefits to running your own business in a time of economic instability?
Ironically, the economic turndown has had very little effect on us for a few reasons. We sell at least 50% of our books on an annual basis outside the bookstore markets so we are impervious to those ups and downs. We sell to the high-end niche of clientele, and these people are less sensitive to the ups and downs of the economy. We sell, even when highly successful, in a relatively small quantity (usually about 5,000 copies per title) and this is a number that is not viable financially for most mainstream publishers to be profitable and affordable for us because we have such low overheads. In addition, because we are small and independently run, we can turn on a dime and change our product line quickly or amend our publishing plan to suit the market in a much more flexible way. We don’t work three years’ out; we work on a 9-month basis which allows us to go with the flow of the economy, trends, and content.