David Steinberger’s Narrative: US National Book Awards

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

David Steinberger will lead the 74th National Book Awards again, and is a key speaker in January’s NYU Advanced Publishing Institute.

David Steinberger and Ruth Dickey, respectively the chairman and executive director of the National Book Foundation, onstage at the 2022 National Book Awards in New York City. Image: Publishing Perspectives, Porter Anderson

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

See also: NYU’s New Advanced Publishing Institute: 2024 Speakers

‘A Big Evolution Here’
When Wednesday’s (November 15) ceremony for the United States’ 74th National Book Awards is held at Cipriani Wall Street, David Steinberger will be in his usual spot onstage with National Book Foundation executive director Ruth Dickey. Steinberger’s role as the foundation’s tuxedoed board chairman is probably his most visible persona for many in publishing.

As industry players know, however, he’s a past president of corporate strategy and adult trade at HarperCollins; a former CEO of Perseus Books Group; a former president and CEO with Arcadia Publishing; a onetime management consultant with Booz Allen Hamilton; and even a former deputy commissioner for bridges in New York City.

Since 2021, Steinberger has been chairman and CEO of Open Road Integrated Media, where, as he puts it, “We’ve become primarily a provider of services to publishers now.

“That’s a big evolution here. We’ve become that provider of services to publishers to enable the discovery of the right readers for their books.”

And when Steinberger speaks on the second day of the inaugural January 8-to-12 presentation of the five-day NYU Advanced Publishing Institute, his topic will be “New Ways To Discover and Rediscover Books: Using Data and AI to Enhance Backlist and Direct-to-Consumer Relationships.”

The program is the successor to the Yale Publishing Course and has been reformulated by Tina C. Weiner, the founding director of the Yale Publishing Course and the former publishing director of Yale University Press, with the support of Andrea Chambers, the associate dean of the Center for Publishing and Applied Liberal Arts in the School of Professional Studies.

The course’s mid- and senior-level publishing professionals who hear Steinberger speak may hear him mentioning the word model frequently, often the evolution of a model: Steinberger has become a deeply experienced veteran of changes in the business, having “joined the industry at the very end of 1996,” he says.

“I’d had a nine-year career in New York City government and had gone to business school. I’d become a management consultant with media companies, and was fascinated by book publishers because I’m so drawn to the product. I remember that when I got to HarperCollins, there was a lot of concern about the state of the industry. Barnes & Noble had become powerful players, increasingly dictating whether a book would be successful or not.”

A second concern at the time, Steinberger says, “was a proliferation of entertainment options. Back then, it was cable television. That’s what people were talking about, how there were now more things for consumers to do with their time.”

Even in what today may seem a naive moment in which the eventual explosion of digitally distributed entertainment options wasn’t yet visible, “We were moving to a more winner-take-all environment,” Steinberger says, “and so the big publishers were doing a couple of things. One trend was that they were trimming their lists, trying to focus more on the books that had big potential. And another thing they were doing was buying one another.”

‘Yet Another Model’

Steinberger had arrived shortly before Open Road’s eventual founder Jane Friedman would get to HarperCollins, he points out. “There were at least a Big Seven at the time. Putnam and Penguin had come together. We bought Morrow and Avon. Bertelsmann acquired Random House. Those three transactions occurred relatively at the same time, and the idea was to get more economy of scale–get bigger–to battle against these large retail players and to get more intentional about what books to publish.

Jane Friedman

“At that time in the late ’90s, people were saying that the industry was really in trouble. There’s this joke in the industry, you know, that the first book ever published was the Bible, and the second book published was a book predicting the demise of the book publishing industry. But Jane [Friedman] and I had a saying. She later attributed it to me, but it was something I learned from her. She used to say, ‘Good publishing is good business.’

“I’d learned a lot from her, and then had an opportunity to lead Perseus Books–a very different model. We were not going to try to vie for the biggest books. Instead, we were going to try to operate at a level just below where the Big Five were fighting like crazy for the books. We were going to try to buy books that had the ability to sustain and sell over time, and we were going to have very independent publishing programs that had a lot of control over their own identity: marketing, publicity, design, as well as editorial.

Open Road founder “Jane Friedman and I had a saying. She used to say, ‘Good publishing is good business.'”David Steinberger, Open Road Integrated Media, National Book Foundation

“That ended up morphing over time into a company whose mission was to enable independent publishers to succeed, whether those were publishers we owned or publishers we served as clients. Eventually, we ended up serving hundreds of independent publishers, becoming the leading service provider to those publishers–a very different model” with Grove Atlantic, he points out, standing as “one of the largest” of these companies.

“They were filled with very creative people typically oriented around very particular niches where they understood their audience very well and were publishing to that audience and we were providing scale for them in selling, and eventually digital services in marketing, ebook distribution.”

Even as Amazon was rising, “displacing Barnes & Noble and Borders as the retailer with clout,” Steinberger says he “ended up working with investors to buy a very different kind of company that had been evolving all along, Arcadia Publishing. Based in Charleston, South Carolina, Arcadia “published highly local content, typically local history–almost the opposite of the Big Five model.”

The kind of ground-level specificity Arcadia had developed made the house “extremely expert in understanding” a given target consumer. “If it was a city like Chicago, we might have 30 or 40 different books about neighborhoods and ethnic groups.” His experience with Arcadia stuck with him as he returned to New York to work with a group on acquiring Open Road: “yet another model.”

‘Discovered and Rediscovered by Readers’

David Steinberger. Image: Open Road Integrated Media

The way Steinberger understood what Friedman’s Open Road vault of sometimes iconic digitized backlist titles was as “a company built entirely around using digital technology to enable books to be discovered and rediscovered by readers. Principally books published in the past, a very distinct model.”

“We had a National Book Foundation event in Wyoming recently, and people drove six hours to see these writers speak.”David Steinberger, Open Road Integrated Media, National Book Foundation

What he was putting together from all these years of experience was “the diversity of business models” that have potential for success in books, “the different ways this industry can adapt to big changes and different types of readers. There’s a world out there, both within and outside the Big Five, that’s waiting to be created just the way these businesses were created, a way that can endure all the gloom and doom of the mid-1990s.”

There were subtle parallels in the evolving models Steinberger was encountering–the specificity of a highly individualized publisher, like the mini-verticals of historical publishing into specific geographical locations, is not unrecognizable by someone who knows the B2C newsletters that have become a core hallmark of Open Road Integrated Media’s marketing services to publishers: Early Bird Books with its ebook deal alerts; the true crime and suspense of The Lineup; the science fiction and fantasy of The Portalist.

“And when I think about the National Book Foundation,” Steinberger says, “we’re going through a very interesting transition.”

‘Allies Outside of the Book Industry’

Despite the obvious prestige and career boosts for authors winning these honors, the National Book Foundation board that Steinberger leads was being urged, often by the late Simon & Schuster CEO Carolyn Reidy to look for how to increase “the cultural impact of books,” as he puts it.

Carolyn Reidy

“Carolyn was an articulate advocate for the mission of the organization,” he says, “and on the impact of books on the culture. That was a key moment for us.”

This evolution of yet another model has meant that the National Book Foundation’s year-round programming, which goes far beyond the awards, is still being developed and enhanced under Dickey’s guidance and,, before her tenure by Lisa Lucas as executive director.

“We’re actually up to millions of books now that have been made available,” Steinberger says, “books getting into the hands of kids and into ‘book deserts'” which have no ready access to books for their populations. This is being accomplished through the foundation’s extensive work with public housing authorities across the United States.

“We have a book club run locally with writers and middle-school, junior-high students, a key point for learning to read,” he says. “We have ‘National Book Foundation Presents,’ sending writers who have been longlisted or made finalists all over the country to speak, and not at the most obvious places. We had an event in Wyoming recently, and people drove six hours to see these writers.”

“If we’re going to have an impact on the culture, we can’t just be talking to ourselves, right?”David Steinberger, Open Road Integrated Media, National Book Foundation

Where Steinberger’s ability to chart evolutionary models is going to come into play for the NYU Advanced Publishing Institute lies in his penchant for asking publishing people the questions he’s spent so many years asking himself: “How do we get people into that room? How do we get them paying attention from outside the industry? If we’re going to have an impact on the culture, we can’t just be talking to ourselves, right?”

Steinberger prides himself on seeing the model even of the National Book Foundation’s board evolving. “We just added a few board members,” he says, “and one is Samira Nasr, editor-in-chief at Harper’s Bazaar. She’s coming from the magazine industry–an adjacent industry” to book publishing “and one that engages design and fashion and apparel. She already has arranged for Dior to become one of our many sponsors for the awards this year.

“So the idea is that if we’re going to have cultural impact, we need to find allies outside of the book industry–and outside of our experiences. They’re out there. There are people from all walks of life who are excited by books or energized by books.

“I guess I’m an optimist by nature,” he says, “but my feeling is that there’s tremendous strength and stability in the business of books itself. At its foundation. There’s a need to adapt, always. Because the world is changing, always. And there’s a big opportunity to expand the cultural impact of books. It’s something for all of us to think about and to work on.”

‘It’s the Consumer First’

Steinberger pauses in a way that’s familiar to those who interview key players in various industries. He’s listening to himself for a moment, listening to what he has just said. The career-spanning arc he’s just put together has a logic to it–that succession of evolving models, the way he watches for them.

“I guess as a book lover, I love a good story, so I find myself reflecting on what’s the narrative.”David Steinberger, Open Road Integrated Media, National Book Foundation

“I guess as a book lover, I love a good story,” he says, “so I find myself reflecting on what’s the narrative.

“One of the keys to Open Road’s success is the focus on the end consumer, that focus on the reader. We’re a company built from the beginning with a focus on the reader. When I entered the industry, I’d say that the orientation was toward the retailer, the wholesaler, rather than the consumer. It was frontlist, not backlist. It was print, not e- because e- didn’t exist. Open Road is in a lot of ways the antithesis of that. It’s the consumer first.

“We’re interacting with consumers directly all the time. We don’t sell directly to consumers but we market directly to consumers. Digital, not physical. Backlist-oriented, not frontlist. We see ourselves very much in service to publishers now, a provider of services for publishers to enable the discovery of their books by readers.

“That’s basically what we’re doing,” David Steinberger says, smiling. “A big evolution.”

Another pause. “I’m just thinking about that NYU talk.” He’s still smiling. “Do you think there’s a Q&A period?”

Full information on the new NYU Advanced Publishing Institute is here, and the latest look at the program’s agenda is here. Speaker backgrounders are here, and registration is available here.

More on events in New York University’s programming relative to book publishing is here, and more on publishing education is here

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.