I loved talking with Wes. He knows every single magazine, always tells me the best blogs to look at, the best people to meet, and we could talk for eight hours about an editorial or its mise en page.
We have the same passion for images.
(We have a person in common too, very dear to our hearts: his fiancée, Delphine, who’s also my friend and agent…)
His job is fascinating: he works at powerHouse, a New York publishing house and he oversees every book A to Z.
I wanted to ask him some questions to find out more about his job that he loves so much and his evolution in a world that is increasingly dominated by the internet…
What is your job title?
I’m an Associate Publisher at powerHouse books.
So tell me, how did it all start?
I started looking at magazines at a very young age. My mother and my sister got all of the women’s magazines and I loved looking at all of the photography and clothes. I grew up in Fargo and there’s not a burgeoning fashion movement there, but I knew I had a real interest.
I was also looking at beautiful photography books from Irving Penn and Avedon and really cherishing the object of it. Flipping through the pages and seeing a beautiful picture of that size is when I knew I wanted to do coffee table books.
So how did you end up at powerHouse?
A week after I graduated from college with an American Studies degree, I moved to New York City. I also have a very deep passion for jazz, so I worked at Jazz at Lincoln Center for about a year. Then September 11th came and there were layoffs. Then I got a sales job at Fendi, where I was able to witness the reality of what it’s like off of a sales floor.
I still really wanted to try publishing. So I got a job at Random House doing library marketing—marketing books to public and university libraries. That was good enough for me, just to get in the door.
I had this great interest in imagery and photography, and Random House does a lot more cookbooks and novels. They’re not known for the kind of books powerHouse does.
So I took a position in sales at powerHouse, all the while hoping that once I got into this world, I could start eventually scouting and editing books, which is what I largely do now. I still do sales because we’re a very small company, but now I get to do a lot of going out and finding projects for us.
How small is small?
There are 4 of us at powerHouse books and we do about 20 books a year.
Since you guys are such a small company, as an associate publisher, what exactly is your role?
We all wear various hats, but basically I work on the front end of the book.
That means getting the book, so meeting potential authors to figure out what we’re going to publish. If I have acquired it, then I work a lot on the editing. If I haven’t, then we have another editor in-house who looks at every project.
So what’s an average day like for you at the office?
I’m online all day. My work day never stops, when I wake up in the morning I get online and start looking for projects, when I go home at night I’m doing e-mails all the time, on the weekends too.
And then it’s just doing the day to day: looking at sales, looking at our inventory, making sure that our reps have the material that they need, being in touch with our sales team. But the more fun part is searching for projects.
I’m also in conversation with Craig [publisher of powerHouse] all the time, looking and saying “Oh this account ordered this many books, this account returned this many books.” We jump all over the place, old books, new books, and future books.
What’s the most challenging thing about your job?
How slow it is to make a physical book.
What do you like most about your job?
Meeting with perspective authors.
How do you find all of your authors and projects?
Tumblr is huge. (You can see Wes’ Tumblr here) I scour Tumblr all the time. I’m constantly looking in people’s archives and archives of museums online. I’ve found projects by getting a snippet of something and then going right to the artist’s website. I mean it’s never been easier. I can do it all within 5 minutes of when I see something. It’s a real luxury.
So, how do you think the Internet has changed the publishing industry?
With all of the rapidity and flow, there is something new coming out every day and things become old so quickly. We used to get about 3 months for books to be on bookshelves when a new book would come out, we now get about 4 to 6 weeks before they start coming back. And we’ve put 9 months into it, so we put our heart and soul into it, and money into it, and here you go world! And nah, they aren’t interested. They want to know what’s next.
But there’s nothing we can do. We have to adapt. If I were sitting here bemoaning that, then I’m in the wrong business.
What about the benefits of the Internet in the publishing industry?
To have a whole backlist–I mean hundreds of years–worth of books at your fingertips to look at. It’s huge.
So what do you think the book of the future is?
I suppose more interactive. I think clicking on a picture and getting a back-story, maybe getting an author commentary, that’s the book of the future. It doesn’t appeal to me that much at this point, but we’re open to it.
What about books on tablets as opposed to magazines?
Yeah, it’s coming…as soon as someone breaks open with an attractive, and a really lovely experience, similar to holding a book. Soon we’ll all have to do every book digitally.
What do you think the downside of having books on a tablet is?
It makes our nine-month project even more ephemeral. Because now you’re not even holding anything, now we’re not even picking the paper, the cover, the cloth—all of that which makes it a real object that you want to put on a coffee table that makes it a coffee table book. You lose that on an iPad. Which is fine for a lot of people but books are like vinyl records now; there will always be a group that wants to have them.
What do you think makes a book successful?
Timing it with what else is going on in the world. And interest. People need to know about it. If no one knows about the book…
So which book do you think has been your biggest success?
Take Ivy. I really like to have a book come out before a trend peaks, but that whole American prep thing was at its peak and it had all of this excitement around it. I knew it would be successful, but it’s been very, very successful for us. It’s lead to some interesting projects coming up that I know we wouldn’t have gotten without it.
What about a project you pushed really, really hard for and failed?
We did a very charming book on a guy who has a Tumblr site, really, really popular called Scanwiches. He makes sandwiches and then cuts them in half and puts them on a scanner and scans them, so the visuals are beautiful.
The moral of this is—and this is a big thing: blog to book doesn’t always work. You can have all of these online fans, but when it comes time for them to pay for something, it can be challenging. That’s something we’re discovering, along with other publishers.
What’s the best piece of advice anyone has ever given you?
My step dad told me, “when you think you’ve done everything, it’s an extra 10% to make a project go from good to great.”
So the question that everyone wants to know: how do you find the people that you hire? What are you looking for?
We look for a passion (there’s not much money in this) so you’ve go to love books.
And then, I look for someone who is engaged with what’s going on culturally and when you’re dropping those references they understand them. Everyone in every department in our office should know what’s happening, it helps and it makes us stronger as a company.
Thank you Wes! And to finish, here’s Wes’ reading list!
Favorite Magazines: Pin-Up, Paradis, 032c, Apartamento, AGMA, Log, Another Man, A Magazine, Self Service
Favorite Books: Male/Vince Aletti, Concorde/Wolfgang Tillmans, Not an Object. Not a Monument/Tony Smith, Bettie Kline/Richard Prince, half awake and half asleep in the water/Asako Narahashi, New
Topographics/Britt Salvesen, Firework Studies/Pierre Le Hors, The Cultivated Life/Jean-Philippe Delhomme, 9th Street Run Down/Christopher Wool, Marriage/John Stezaker, Bird/Roni Horn, Self Portrait/Lee Friedlander, Taiji Matsue/Taiji Matsue, Tauba Auerbach’s books from Deitch Projects, the “in almost every picture.” series from kesselskramer, David Markson’s last three books, anything about Cy Twombly
Check out my other career posts here !!!