Our newly announced CEO of Penguin Random House U.S., Madeline McIntosh, comes from a book-loving background. She has worked at PRH for more than twenty years in a variety of capacities, from editorial to digital and from sales to audio, from serving as chief operating officer to, most recently, overseeing the Penguin Publishing Group. Like few others, Madeline has experienced the making and selling of books from all possible angles. It comes as no surprise that she has always been a passionate reader—and to round things off, it so happens that she is also married to house author and onetime editor Chris Pavone. We sat down with Madeline to ask about her vision for the company, her goals for our authors, and the book publishing landscape as a whole.
What are your priorities for your first few months in this role?
I’m often envious of new employees, since the freshness of their perspectives provides a kind of clarity that can be hard to get once you’re settled in. Despite being a veteran, I’m trying as hard as I can to bring “day one” eyes to my new experience in the company. That means doing more listening and learning than anything else for a few months. I’m working with the publishing division leaders to reacquaint myself with their lists and their teams. And I very much hope to use this time to listen to our various external partners, especially our authors, to gain their perspectives on how we can work even better together going forward.
Do you think the value that books provide has changed in today’s world?
Many have said that ours is an industry in love with its own demise, and that we’ve been that way since Gutenberg’s first printing. Books have been around a very long time and have weathered more than their fair share of challenges, but, one way or another, they’ve evolved to survive and even thrive.
Today, I think of the challenges as relating primarily to consumer attention span. With the combined effects of addictive technology and a rapidly-more-addictive news cycle, there are days when it feels impossible to get media or consumers to pause long enough to consider a book. And even once they’ve bought a book, it may be taking people longer to make their way to the next one.
Having said that, I know from personal experience, and from paying attention to how real consumers talk about books, that the value we readers place on books hasn’t diminished at all. We all crave the restorative experience of “long-form” reading. We all appreciate the opportunity to escape into a great story. And many of us are looking for answers to the big questions: How did we get to this particular moment? How can we improve ourselves and our culture? Our great opportunity as publishers is to insert books as the answer to many of the questions or problems consumers are trying to solve.
What are some top challenges you’ve noticed that authors face, and how do you think PRH can help with those issues?
It’s safe to say that what would make most authors happier would be to sell more books, and of course that’s always our goal, too. The question I hear from many authors is: What’s the best way for me to help make that happen? What can I do—online, in person, or otherwise—to help grow my audience? I know it can be very frustrating at times that, no matter how much we improve as data scientists, there is rarely a single answer for how best to influence sales. Sometimes it’s a clever marketing campaign or a publicity booking, or a retailer promotion or the author’s own social media platform, that does the trick. Sometimes none of those things seems to work. Sometimes it’s the jacket; sometimes it’s not the jacket. For an author, this can be confusing at best, frustrating at worst. Our responsibilities as the publisher are to continually experiment with new approaches, to communicate what we’re doing, to be respectful of the author’s time, and to be transparent about what’s working or not working. And of course to celebrate jubilantly when the stars align in a book’s favor!
What is your vision for PRH U.S. as CEO?
Despite all the market challenges, I know we will continue to succeed in the world as long as we continue to be the very best partner for our authors, and that means simultaneously acting at a very small and a very large scale. We need our editors, publicists, marketers, and designers to have the bandwidth to bring individualized care and attention to each new book. We need salespeople to have a chance to read (at least in part!) as many of those books as possible so they can persuade the network of booksellers and librarians to provide their support. At the very same time, we need sales and marketing and operations teams who stay resolutely focused on reaching readers at scale. Not many kinds of companies have to manage that degree of tension between big and small, and it’s no wonder that it often feels challenging.
Part of our company’s strength is that we allow and encourage a diversity of opinions—what and how to publish, which problems to focus on and how to solve them, which new ideas to test and which to shelve. At our best, we provide a fertile environment that allows success to emerge from any corner, and then we take that success—be it an individual book’s sales or a marketing capability or a service for a partner—and scale it more aggressively than anyone else can.
What are your favorite kinds of books to read?
I mainly read fiction. I do like to jump between categories to avoid getting in a rut, but I’m a particular fan of crime novels. I’m especially happy, for some reason, when the dead body shows up in Ireland.
I also love memoirs; historical fiction; thrillers; books that teach me how to think about a situation in a new way; books that inspire me to be a better leader; and cookbooks, whether I cook from them or not. I also listen to books, and the Harry Potter audios are still my all-time favorites. A high point from many years ago was visiting the studio while Jim Dale was recording book six. Wow.
What are you reading currently? What have you most enjoyed recently?
My colleagues have given me many recommendations over the last month, and needless to say, the bedside pile is teetering dangerously. A few of this year’s novels I’ve particularly enjoyed: The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin, The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer, Tin Man by Sarah Winman, The Ruin by Dervla McTiernan, and Whiskey When We’re Dry by John Larison. A few recent nonfiction books I’ve loved: Educated by Tara Westover and I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell. I also highly recommend Bad Blood by John Carreyrou, an expose of Silicon Valley darling Theranos, and How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan, which is a fascinating read even if you thought you had no interest in the topic of psychedelics.
Then there are two outside loves I jealously wish we’d published: Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday and Circe by Madeline Miller.
Apart from reading, what do you like to do when you’re not at work?
Anything my twin fourteen-year-olds will do with me—other than play Monopoly, which I can’t stand. I’ve recently migrated them to Scrabble, and I’m trying not to mind too much that I often lose. For the increasingly frequent times when these teenagers would rather be with friends, or when they and my husband, Chris, are fully absorbed by their shared baseball obsession, I console myself with yoga, gardening, baking, and hanging out with Wally, our family’s eccentric labradoodle.