Publishing Profiles: Dawn Davis, VP & Publisher at 37 INK

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35977Innovative, passionate, and focused, Dawn Davis has a vision for publishing and promoting diverse books, and a talent for discovering unique, empowering stories across a variety of genres. As Vice President and Publisher of 37 INK, an imprint within the Atria publishing group at Simon & Schuster, her efforts bring a special sense of charm, wisdom, and life to an industry working to grow and adapt to the various demands and expectations of the market and its readers. Here, Dawn talks about her unexpected leap into publishing, her experiences with 37 INK and the new Inkwell Book Club, and the people who’ve helped her along the way.

Could you give us a bit about your publishing background? Was this the career you always imagined for yourself?

No, I was not one of those people who knew what I wanted to do when I grew up, so my first job out of college was at a bank because the only thing I did know was that I wanted to live in New York City, at least for a little bit, and the banks actively recruited college graduates to live and work on Wall Street. It was a convenient way to move to New York and to work with a group of other young people new to the city; that part of it was fantastic. Indeed,  many of my friends today still come from that time in my life. But it wasn’t at all soul-fulfilling. I knew it wasn’t what I wanted to do long term. One day, on a trip to London, I serendipitously sat next to a publisher on an airplane, and the rest is history. I thought, You get paid to read? I’d like that job! Not soon after, a chance encounter led to a meeting with Andre Schiffrin, who used to head Pantheon but had just broken away to start a new publishing house called The New Press. So I worked at The New Press for five years. I started as his assistant, but because it was a start-up, I was also able to be the liaison between production and editorial, to work with the freelance publicist, and the business/financial consultant. And, of course, I worked very closely with the editorial staff. We were in start-up mode, which meant all hands on deck, learn as much as you can, no barriers, no department heads saying “you can’t do that.” It was really kind of fantastic and I got to experience almost every side of the business.

You’re publisher of 37 INK now. What are you working toward with this imprint? What makes this special?

I’m trying to publish narrative nonfiction, literary fiction, and memoir.  I think what makes it interesting is that it’s a boutique imprint with the resources of a larger house. We published Dear Leader by Jang Jin-sung, Kim Jong-il’s poet laureate, who escaped from North Korea, which is really an interesting story. We also published The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl. Our books are multicultural, broad.

The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl was your first book in the Inkwell Book Club, right? [The Inkwell Book Club is Davis’ initiative with Simon & Schuster to start a national online black book club.]

Yes, exactly.

What has been your experience with the book club so far? Has it been as exciting as you were hoping?

I kept waiting for the ideal time to launch this book club: when I had the time, and when I had a clear vision, and when I had resources. I work with a corporate sponsor and throw literary brunches where writers and readers get to interact more closely; that’s been very successful. I was introducing one of the authors at one of the events, and I said “It’s so important to support books upon publication because books are increasingly like movies, where opening weekend can determine a lot of the marketing dollars. It’s increasingly critical to not only support authors you love and want to discover but to also support them early. I know that we all read, but sometimes we can be a little lackadaisical about when we buy the book.” In response, many people from the audience said, “We didn’t know that, we didn’t have this information. If we knew, of course, we would buy the book early and read it whenever.” Then I talked to them a little about my idea for book club, and they said “Just start it now. We’ll help you spread the word.” I thought There’s never going to be an ideal time when your desk is clear and your mind is clear. So, with the help of my team at Atria, I launched it. It’s been exciting to watch it go from an idea to a work in progress—and I want to emphasize it’s still a work in progress, we’re still fine-tuning it. The club definitely helped to put Issa Rae on the [bestseller] list; but we also had great publicity and an author with an enthusiastic following, which helped as well. But there is no question that the club helped to create a community around a book and I think people want to read and discuss what they’re reading in a community, not in a vacuum.  We had a Facebook chat, book giveaways, and an author willing to connect personally with her audience. With every book, I think we’ll learn a little bit more.

So you’ve had great feedback from the authors that participated, and the community?

Yes. We’ve had only two. Issa was our first [The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl]. Charlie Wilson’s I Am Charlie Wilson followed. Wilson was one of the founding members of the GAP Band and he has a really interesting story. He’s just this legend, with an addiction and recovery story, lots of personal drama, and a spiritual epiphany. I hope to also include books published elsewhere but it is particularly hard this first year. As I said, it’s a work in progress, and not yet perfect. I want to find a way to work more directly with bookstores. I want more members and beyond. But you can complain about how hard it is to find readers, or you can be proactive and try to set up new ways and adjust as you go. One of the things that really has been inspiring about working with [Atria’s President and Publisher] Judith Curr is that she’s always pioneering new marketing techniques, new publicity ideas. So it felt safe to launch the club within an imprint that is used to innovating.

Do you feel like the publishing industry is taking more steps toward recognizing and appreciating the importance of diversity in its staff and in the books that they’re publishing?

I think it’s house by house. I feel some houses make more of an effort at it than others. I don’t know that the industry is that much more diverse than it was when I started twenty-five years ago. Is it more diverse? Absolutely. But by a significant amount? That’s not clear. I do feel sometimes we take four steps forward and two steps backward; progress is slow. But it has to be about more than just increasing the diversity within the editorial staff. It’s about diversifying marketing, publicity, and sales in adult and children’s imprints—and figuring out how to reach diverse audiences. You have to make it profitable at the end of the day; I mean, diversity can be a corporate initiative, but their ultimate goal is profitability, so you have to mesh the two.  Diversify the staff. Diversify how you find the readers.

And you feel like you’re moving in that direction with the book club.

Exactly. One of the things I’m trying to do is figure out new ways [to reach diverse audiences]. For instance, I published this book called Soar by David Banks, who runs something called the Eagle Academies; they are public schools that he specifically put in troubled neighborhoods. Somebody organized a book event for him at a cool bar in Harlem. It was a room full of beautiful people, socializing and also talking about the book, most of whom also bought the book. Obviously, it looked different than an event at a typical bookstore. He did do events at traditional bookstores as well but this kind of reading frankly brought a different audience to a book event. I thought, This is so interesting, I wish we could replicate this on a larger scale. I think we have to invent new models. We have to put the resources behind figuring it out.

Do you have any advice for young people who are within their first five years in the industry and looking to really establish themselves, and make this a lifelong career path?

I just worked with Michael Strahan on a motivational book, Wake Up Happy, and he lays it out so accessibly. Be excellent at what you do, work harder than is expected, take initiative, and attach yourself to a smart person, whether or not they’re your official mentor. A person doesn’t have to say, “Yes, I’ll mentor you,” in order to teach you something. You can observe them closely—ask to read something for them, ask if you can photocopy their marketing campaign, read over their editorial notes. There are ways that you can let the right people in your group know that you’re interested in developing further and that you are really dedicated. I find the people who take the extra initiative are rare; so if you do it, you’ll stick out and people will notice.

Did you have any particular mentors along the way?

Yes, I have had some fantastic people in my corner. I knew [literary agents] Faith Childs and Marie Brown had my back. They were two super agents, African-American women, who were definitely looking out for me. And again, they never sat me down and said “Let me mentor you,” but I knew that they were there and that I could look to them for guidance. Faith once sent me a bouquet of flowers apropos of nothing with a note that said “Keep doing what you do.” Twenty-some years later, that moment can still bring tears to my eyes. Andre Schiffrin [of The New Press] was a great mentor. He encouraged me to spread my wings and give it a go in this industry. He didn’t think I was less capable because I didn’t grow up in a household where everyone read the New Yorker.  He also taught me how to develop my own books. Marty Asher [of Alfred A. Knopf] was a fantastic mentor who taught me to trust my instincts; they [Andre and Marty] actually both taught me the business of the business. Jane Friedman [of Open Road Integrated Media] was also very encouraging. I’ve worked with lots of great people. And then there were the people who I watched closely because they were so outstanding at their jobs; Sonny Mehta and Robin Desser at Knopf and Jeanie Luciano at Norton come to mind.  Again, it’s not like I said “Will you mentor me?” but I certainly watched and learned from them as a slightly younger person just a few years behind them.

What book has most moved you?

Well, in almost every article about my work or interview with me, The Known World, Edward P. Jones’ masterpiece about a black slave-owning family, is mentioned. That book continues to move me. It’s one of the books I know I’ll re-read every five years for the rest of my life, or every decade. That is a particularly important book of American letters but it was also an important one for me to publish because it was one of the first books to put my reinvention of Amistad [an imprint at HarperCollins focused on African-American literature] on the map, and that gave me a lot of agency within HarperCollins and beyond, so I would say that was kind of a life-changing book for me. By the way, I published it with a forward-thinking African-American marketing director, Rockelle Henderson, by my side. She pioneered the book video before it was a standard marketing tool. We published a wonderful debut novel, Shifting Through Neutral by Bridgett Davis, which is set in Detroit. Henderson asked the author to do a video about her favorite things in Detroit. This was years before book videos were everywhere.

And is there a book you’re excited about right now?

I’m really excited about… so many books. It’s hard to call one out because editors love all their babies equally. I’m excited about a book called The Queen by a journalist named Josh Levin; it’s about the divisive figure known as the welfare queen who Reagan’s administration used to wedge a divide in the body politic. Some people thought she was mythical and some people thought she was real. Levin went digging and what he excavated proves that truth is stranger than fiction.  It’s a blend of social history and true crime. It reminds me of Devil in the White City.

How do you keep your career exciting and interesting for yourself? Are you always looking for new challenges?

The books renew my energy whenever it starts to flag, every time. I’m publishing this memoir of a woman named Patricia Cleveland, who’s one of the first early “supermodels.” Beyond what she accomplished on the runway, she lived a really extraordinary life. She went Forrest Gump-like through this life and had encounters with a who’s who of the American and European creative change makers, all in a more bohemian time. It has a Just Kids vibe. She forged a life with all of the people we now think of as establishment figures, just when they were just getting their careers off the ground. As I edited it, I got goosebumps just reading it.

You know, you have a typical day with lots of emails and lots of meetings and you feel as if you’re losing your mind. Then you go home and you read a submission or a delivered manuscript and you’re just refreshed again; so it is really the work that keeps me refreshed.

Where do you go to look for new ideas? Are you searching the Internet, are you looking at pop culture?

A part of the whole diversity discussion has to include a multiplicity of ages. Youth versus a more seasoned perspective. When I was younger, I was able to be about in the world more—and I found authors, scholars, experts, et cetera that way. Just the other day, I made a point of going out and I heard the most inspiring story from a young entrepreneur. I could envision the book—I can even see the movie. But I don’t do that kind of thing as much as I used to, as a working mom with limited time. And the business needs that. Hence my comment about a diverse staff in terms of age. Of course, the bulk of my acquisitions come from agents; sometimes I pursue a story I have read in a magazine or newspaper article. And sometimes it’s pop culture, whether it’s a blog or someone telling me to go check someone out. But I do find as one gets older, it’s important to be surrounded by younger people who are more engaged in pop culture and, frankly, have more time on their hands.

This interview was contributed by YPG member Sarah Woodruff. For more information, visit our Contributing Writers page.

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