THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST: DENNIS JOHNSON & CHRISTIE HEFNER REFLECT ON THE FUTURE OF PUBLISHING
In this tense, seemingly apocalyptic political moment — one that’s marked by ongoing assaults on First Amendment rights — it’s important to be earnest in the pursuit of making literary art and meaningful journalism.
More precisely, perhaps, it’s important to try to stay earnest.
That was a key takeaway from two giants of publishing, Dennis Johnson and Christie Hefner, both of whom spoke recently at the second annual Los Angeles Review of Books (LARB) Publishing Workshop at USC. From the many speakers, the pair stood out for their longevity and insight — both having seen the rise and fall of integrity, innovation, and everything in between in publishing during the past half-century.
“People who are drawn to literary culture are drawn to change,” said LARB founder Tom Lutz. “Publishing itself is a fundamental disruption of the power structure. Revolutions in equity have historically occurred in print before they’ve occurred on the ground.”
The 2018 LARB/USC Publishing Workshop gathered 40 Fellows from around the US — as well as from Austria, China, Mexico, and Nigeria — to train and attend talks from 60 experts representing the many tiers of the industry, including distribution, editing, agenting, and acquisition.
For Lutz, LARB and the workshop are part of a 35-year career spent working toward creating and improving access for the voices we’ll need to move forward — especially as we, the emerging publishers of the future, look to build something new, rather than reinforce existing power structures.
To help get us started, Lutz enlisted the help of a diverse set of allies, including his wife, journalist Laurie Winer, and a number of award-winning authors, poets, publishers, entrepreneurs, scholars, and thought leaders from across the globe, including Johnson and Hefner.
Don't be stupid: Don't shop at Amazon. —Dennis Johnson
FOR ART’S SAKE
On what seemed like any other Tuesday morning in September 2001, we watched two seemingly indestructible towers fall before our eyes. For a time, the entire nation — particularly New York City, the place we thought of as the center of the written word — seemed shattered.
But not for long.
Following the attacks on 9/11, poetry started to emerge everywhere — from firehouse walls to bus shelters and phone poles. It was a way to grieve, to shout, and to share experiences too painful to discuss in polite conversation.
Journalist Dennis Johnson was in New Jersey at the time. On his blog, MobyLives, he started to publish poetry and direct, on-the-ground accounts from other artists he knew.
Then something magical — and ultimately transformative — happened.
“MobyLives became not just a book blog, but a meeting place,” explained Lutz. “There were interviews and people would have conversations — it became like a forum.”
That community element — and Johnson’s ability to harness it in the burgeoning digital sphere — gave birth to an anthology of poems entitled Poetry After 9/11 — and a new publishing entity called Melville House Books, which he founded in 2001 with his wife, sculptor Valerie Merians.
Johnson explained that from the start his mission was to make acquisition and publishing decisions based not just on the bottom line, but on their ethos.
“We make money some years, and other years we don’t,” said Johnson. “As I say, you have to have a very high threshold for pain. Valerie and I have it from years as living as starving artists. But we’ve had employees come over from the big houses who just couldn’t deal with that and fled. The ‘bennies’ are a lot better there. You just don’t get to make as many meaningful books.”
The now-giant publishers and retailers used to follow a similar model, Johnson said, but argued that corporate influences who are fixated wholly on control of the market have created the bottom line–focused era of publishing we find ourselves in now.
“That’s the nature of a huge international conglomerate,” Johnson said. “The socially-driven model will never be attractive to the ‘powers-that-be.’”
The more you can see around corners and see opportunities — the more successful you will be. —Christie Hefner
Hefner — who is still the longest-running female CEO of a publicly-traded company — has a somewhat different perspective on reconciling a desire to create sustainable change with the pursuit of the mighty dollar in publishing and beyond.
“There’s a pervasive sense of worry about quality journalism,” she noted, and “attacks against the press from the left and the right,” something she’s no stranger to after running a company with both a proud history of publishing some of the greatest journalists and literary minds of our time and a longstanding (if always controversial) approach to the male gaze of the female body.
When her father, the late Hugh Hefner, asked her to come home for a year to learn about the family business, she figured he just wanted to spend more time with her — and that it might be a good way to spend a year before pursuing a career in politics or law.
That one year became 20.
As she took over leadership of Playboy in the 1980s, she was faced with a fundamental question:
What business are we in?
To Hefner, this is the critical question for companies that have successfully disrupted legacy industries. She gave the example of Blockbuster versus Netflix, a company which was able to see beyond the red envelope and into a future of streaming content delivery and content creation. Answering that important question is the way she was able to envision a new way forward for Playboy. She knew that with the rise of cable television, and later the internet, the formerly solitary act of reading the print magazine would need to be reimagined.
And just as Johnson saw beyond the blog and into the social experience of his writers and their readers, so, too, did Hefner. The move towards a more immersive, multiplatform approach to the brand was a sign of what was to come for other publishers as the world moved from print-only to digital to mobile.
“Christie was always future-forward,” said Jason Buhrmester, former editorial director at Playboy. “She pushed Playboy into the online space a lot earlier than other publishers — and not just with a static web presence. Playboy was an online innovator, and was one of the first with original content, a subscription site, webcasts, and other products. It was a very exciting place to be during the dotcom boom.”
As for today’s publishing industry, Hefner made the case that continued innovation will come only when more boards embrace diversity from the top down.
“Progress is going to come from a combination of efforts,” she said. “And part of that is the growing pressure from investors who have seen studies that continue to show that companies with diverse boards and management teams are more successful.”
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TURNING THE CORNER
Still, progress can be slow in a legacy industry like publishing, and many grow weary with the slow pace of incremental change. As the next generation enter the industry, financial and other institutional constraints can seem daunting, to say the least.
Johnson, however, thinks their presence can and will make a difference. They will be aided by “hubris, ignorance of how else to behave, and the high threshold for pain that many artists have who’ve lasted past the point where they should have sold out, or at least given up,” he said. “This is a business that desperately needs people who are brave and ready to stand up to some very powerful market forces in support of art-making and truth-to-power-talking. Plus, being true to your heart can be very rewarding in itself, you know.”
As for Hefner, she encouraged emerging publishers to continue to look around corners for what’s next — and to stay open to all kinds of business models in the pursuit of literary art and journalism, including non-profit, academic, and hybrids.
And speaking of staying open to new ideas, what would her late father have said about the importance of staying earnest?
Former editorial director Buhrmester took a stab at the question: “Hef created Playboy where nothing existed before and followed that vision as far as it would take him. Don’t make the watered down version of something else. Create your vision.”
KRISTIN MARGUERITE DOIDGE
Kristin Marguerite Doidge is a 2018 LARB/USC publishing workshop fellow, an award-winning journalist, and a lecturer at Loyola Marymount University. Her work has appeared in Fortune, Marie Claire, The Atlantic, GOOD Magazine, and on NPR. She holds a master’s degree from the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Journalism. Her forthcoming book is about Nora Ephron.
Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House. Follow him at @mobylives.
Christie Hefner has led major global brands from the brink to the cutting edge through creative vision and transformative leadership, and provides key insights on the power and process of self-disruption in today’s business world. The longest-serving female CEO of any publicly traded company, a founder of the Committee of 200 and WomenCorporateDirectors, and the first woman in the Chicago Young Presidents’ Organization, Hefner has long been an advocate of women advancing women. Hefner’s leadership through innovation, evident in her savvy stewardship of Playboy, one of the world’s most popular brands, and her ability to anticipate trends, has landed her a spot on Forbes magazine’s “100 Most Powerful Women” for three years running.