In celebration of W. W. Norton & Company’s 100th year of publishing, we’re offering readers a behind the scenes glimpse into the bookmaking process—the people behind-the-books and the products we create! Through our “Behind the Book” blog series, discover who plays a role in creating a book, what daily life looks like at Norton, and what being part of an independent and employee-owned company means.
Pete Lesser joined Norton in 1998 and started as a college sales representative in San Diego and then Boston. Pete has also served as a marketing manager, media editor, editorial director of digital media, and discipline editor. While he has marketed and edited books and digital media in many fields (music, history, composition, psychology, and anthropology), most of Pete’s work has been in political science, and today he is discipline editor in that field.
How did you end up at Norton, or what enticed you to apply?
I was an English major in college and always planned on going to graduate school to become a college professor. But after college I wanted to work for a few years and publishing seemed like a natural fit. I looked at my shelf of books and saw five Norton Anthologies of Literature. I wound up applying for a sales rep position in Boston, which I didn’t get. A couple of months later, a sales position opened in San Diego and I took it. Instead of staying a couple of years, I’ve stayed 25 (and counting).
What is your current role, and what part do you play in the book publishing process?
Currently, I am a discipline editor in political science. I recruit and manage authors, help shape their work, and collaborate with media editors, marketing managers, and sales specialists to define a vision for our undergraduate textbook packages. I also work closely with the design, manuscript, and production departments to ensure our books come out on schedule and meet our high standards of quality.
For your current role, what does an average day look like?
Depending on where we are in the bookmaking process, my day involves meeting with author teams to develop ideas for our books’ new editions, closely reading and commenting on manuscript, scrutinizing budgets to ensure the financial stability of our titles, communicating with marketing and sales to help them secure adoptions and to understand the feedback they receive from faculty, and soliciting and interpreting reviews from users of our books and potential adopters.
What skills do you need to succeed in your job? Did any previous work or life experience help you in your role?
For this role, it’s important to have a strong sense of how your books will be sold to faculty on campus, so experience in sales is invaluable. Before working at Norton, I sold golf equipment at Golf Discount of St. Louis, which helped me understand the power of asking questions, being an engaged listener, and working with customers as a partner or consultant. Beyond that, being intellectually curious, having a passion for education, and believing that great course materials can make a difference in students’ lives are all essential components to success in college publishing.
What was your first job at Norton, and since the first job, have you changed roles or departments? If yes, what motivated the changes, and what was the transition process like?
My first job was as a college sales rep in San Diego and then Boston, then I became marketing manager for political science and music. I was always interested in editorial, and marketing is the crucial link between editorial and sales. While doing sales and marketing, I started to take on editorial projects in music. As our editorial needs grew, I shed my marketing and sales responsibilities and added anthropology to my editorial portfolio. I took some brief detours away from Norton to work on political campaigns, but I soon returned to work as a digital media editor and editorial director for digital media. Eventually the political science discipline editor position came open and I was eager to take on that role. Transitioning to new positions is always tricky, as there is little formal training. Luckily for me, many patient colleagues—notably, Steve Dunn, Ann Shin, Pete Simon, and Marian Johnson—took time from their busy lives to provide help and guidance. Now I know what a pink sheet is, what “first pass” means, and the importance of plant costs and gross margin.
What have been some of your favorite projects? Are there any projects or initiatives you introduced to your department or Norton?
There is immense satisfaction in developing market-leading titles like We the People and Governing Texas. It’s a treat to work with authors who fully understand the collaborative enterprise that we are engaged in with them and who appreciate what Norton brings to the table. It’s also inspiring and especially exciting to sign first-time authors and bring out First Editions. Signing Ken Guest to write Cultural Anthropology: A Toolkit for a Global Age (now the #1 book for cultural anthropology), and Jennifer Lawless and Richard Fox to write American Politics: A Field Guide—both of which broke new ground in their markets—was exciting and challenging. Bringing out the First Edition of What’s That Sound?: An Introduction to Rock and Its History was incredibly fun, as we needed to develop a design and photo program that fit with the book’s content and unique focus on active music making. Developing the First Editions of Our Origins and Essentials of Biological Anthropology was a hugely satisfying challenge, as I knew very little about the field and had no experience developing science books. What made all these projects go was the creativity, openness, and laser-like focus of the authors and the design, manuscript, and production teams.
Were there any projects or moments that surprised or challenged you?
As a new editor, my biggest challenge was knowing when to let the authors’ vision and opinion prevail, and when to push hard to alter that vision. It’s sometimes hard to have the confidence to rely on your experience—whether it comes from sales, marketing, or some other place—and push back against authors, all of whom are expert teachers and researchers. Building those instincts, and building that trust with authors, can take years.
How has your current job/role changed while you’ve worked at Norton?
Being a discipline editor has always been a collaborative role, but the depth of collaboration has increased recently as we move to a more digital-forward publishing program. We are now working much more closely with media editors at the beginning of projects as we deliver book, interactive, and assessment content in one tightly integrated package.
What has kept you at Norton? What excites you about the future?
Briefly stepping away from Norton to work on political campaigns clarified what I need my job to be. I need to work as a team, I need to use the intellectual part of my brain, and I need to be connected to something larger than myself. Norton has all three components. I think Norton is an inherent good. It is a humane, patient place filled with brilliant, passionate people. Norton always tries to do the right thing, and it usually succeeds. I wouldn’t want to work anywhere else.
I believe that if we keep listening to our employees and to our markets, if we stay committed to producing quality content, and if we don’t allow analysis of quantitative metrics to drown out the instincts of editors, marketers, designers, and sales reps, we’ll be successful for 100 more years, and then some.
What advice would you give someone just starting out in publishing?
As soon as possible, try to figure out if your interests and skills fit more in the world of trade, academic, or educational publishing. After that, take any job as an opportunity and make the most of it. You can move up quickly in publishing if you really show that you are organized, passionate, and driven. Finally, say “Yes” to any opportunity you are given, even if you’re unsure about it. There are jobs I’ve had, and disciplines I’ve worked on, that, at first, I had no interest in. Many of those turned out to be my favorite jobs and disciplines.
Lastly, what do you like to do outside of work? Any fun hobbies or recent reads you would recommend?
These days, I spend most of my time outside work helping to raise my two children, Knox and Zora, who are five and a half and three. Beyond that, I enjoy playing golf, following the NBA, discovering new soul and jazz music, exploring the Hudson Valley (where I live), and traveling whenever I can. I love reading nonfiction and have an especially strong interest in sportswriting. (Bill Simmons’s The Book of Basketball and The Best American Sports Writing of the Century, edited by David Halberstam, are two favorites.) Because most of my workday is spent focused on politics, I tend to avoid it in my personal life and reading. But I do have opinions.