Priscilla Painton was born in Rome, raised in Paris, received her B.A. in history from Mount Holyoke and has spent her adult life in journalism and publishing. Having first worked for The Washington Post and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, she joined TIME magazine as a correspondent in 1989, specializing in politics and American life. She was appointed TIME's Deputy Managing Editor in 2006, but in 2008, she shifted gears from journalism to book publishing and joined Simon & Schuster. Today, she is Vice President and Executive Editor of Nonfiction at Simon & Schuster and has a stellar resume of books, including biographies of Michelle Obama and Edward Kennedy, that she shepherded through the publishing process to become major bestsellers.
It was Stay Thirsty Magazine's great pleasure to visit with Priscilla Painton in New York City for this Conversation.
STAY THIRSTY: You were born in Rome, raised in Paris and moved to the United States to attend Mount Holyoke College where you said you felt like an outsider. Did you feel that way because of cultural differences or because of something else?
PRISCILLA PAINTON: I felt every kind of difference! I spoke English with an accent, and my writing was full of European-style meandering sub-clauses. I thought everyone read Marx at breakfast, just the way I had. The first two years at college were rough, but what finally made me fall in love with America was realizing that Americans are better at intimacy than the French, and their sense of humor is much more developed.
STAY THIRSTY: Since your formative years were spent in Paris, do you see the world through a French filter or through an American one? Because you are also fluent in French, when you are alone with your thoughts, do you think in French or in English?
PRISCILLA PAINTON: I am the cliché of the outsider who wants nothing more than to be reassured that she has been adopted—so I tend to be excessively American in my outlook: A huge optimist who loves American history and institutions and entertainment, and who is also crazy about the precision that English forces on storytelling. But you can never quite leave behind what formed you, so I tend to be tuned in to issues of class, and I still carry a few lingering biases about, say, personal grooming.
STAY THIRSTY: In Rome, your father, Frederick, was the Bureau Chief for U.S. News and World Report and then your family moved to Paris where your father continued as a correspondent for the magazine. Eventually, he joined TIME magazine to help start its European edition. Your mother, Patricia, had a career as a business journalist. Clearly, journalism is in your DNA and has played a major role in your life. Today you are an influential force in book publishing. How did you make the mental transition from being a journalist to being the Executive Editor of Nonfiction at a major publishing house? How have the skills you honed over thirty years in journalism helped or hindered you in adjusting to publishing books?
PRISCILLA PAINTON: The hard part was distinguishing between a story that would hold up on a shelf for years—and for which someone would pay $25—and a story that would just make a good magazine cover. I have made mistakes not knowing the difference. But in the end, you are looking to achieve the same things in both formats: seduce the reader into the story, keep her there with good transitions and the right pacing, make sure the facts are straight and the ending is satisfying. In both journalism and publishing, you also want to expose a problem, make big revelations, start debates, deepen existing ones, identify the next conversation. So moving from one genre to another didn't feel too jolting.
STAY THIRSTY: You have worked for several of the premier news organizations in the country as a journalist, including TIME, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The Washington Post. At TIME, you began as a reporter in 1989 and in 2006 you became the Deputy Managing Editor in an organization whose leadership was dominated by men. Did you feel like an outsider as a woman during those years? Do you still feel that women are at a disadvantage and that inequality and sexism in the workplace is a battle that still must be waged?
PRISCILLA PAINTON: Coming from France and then landing at a women's college made me deeply appreciate how naturally rooted feminism is in American culture. But I have to admit I am surprised at how stubborn the problems of inequality and sexism continues to be—not just at major journalistic institutions, but everywhere, even in places like Silicon Valley that we imagine to be cradles of open-mindedness and social innovation.
STAY THIRSTY: As technology and new tech companies overtake the old corporate brands, are women finding an equal footing? Does gender matter more to women or are they more focused on the causes that affect them?
PRISCILLA PAINTON: Women start nearly twice as many businesses as men, but don't get nearly the level of funding. And we know from the headlines coming out of Silicon Valley that Mad Men-era values seem to have found a whole new life there. So I don't think technology has advanced the standing of women, but I also think a whole new generation of feminists has this problem squarely in its sights.
STAY THIRSTY: How do you see your job as an editor vis-à-vis an author you either want to or will be publishing? Are you a champion and protector of their creative vulnerabilities or more of risk manager focused on reaching a specific audience and making the numbers work?
PRISCILLA PAINTON: I think you buy a book because you believe in the story and in the talent of the author, so yes, your most important job as an editor is to champion both.
STAY THIRSTY: Since book publishing is generally a long lead business vs. a daily newspaper or a weekly magazine, how has your perspective on choosing ideas to make into projects changed over the past few years? How influential are literary agents in bringing new ideas to you? Do you cultivate and support talented young writers with the goal of making them into bestselling authors over time?
PRISCILLA PAINTON: It is very tempting to jump on books or people in the headlines, and humbling to see how quickly the American reading public has moved on when the book eventually comes out. So I look for projects that have been long in the making, at least in the head of the writer, books whose characters make for classic drama or whose ideas have enduring value. I am lucky to have received wonderful submissions from agents, but I also chase writers and ideas myself, and sometimes even get those writers and ideas to pair up. If you are lucky, your author ends up enjoying the experience and wanting to be nurtured as a success.
STAY THIRSTY: Because of the noise of 21st century daily life, having a book and an author be noticed is a challenge for every publisher. Do you think that "Breaking News" books are likely to become more common as a way of capitalizing on the public's short attention span/headline news mentality?
PRISCILLA PAINTON: Crashing books has always been a habit in publishing to capitalize on the news, and some of those books end up working because they ride the perfect wave into the curiosity of the reader. But I think in the age of ubiquitous information, where no one can afford to hold on to breaking news for very long, it is getting trickier to catch that wave.
STAY THIRSTY: How influential is an editor's bias in journalism vs. book publishing?
PRISCILLA PAINTON: I think any honest editor in publishing and in journalism would have to admit to carrying biases. These biases can be a burden, but they sometimes can be useful.
STAY THIRSTY: How has blogging changed journalism?
PRISCILLA PAINTON: At the risk of offending a whole generation of bloggers: I think we lost a generation of journalists to blogging because they went straight into writing, and writing personally, without having the benefit of developing some fundamental skills. Those skills include testing evidence, making phone calls, tracking down sources and cultivating them, trying to reconcile very different sets of facts, and appreciating the beauty of brevity. But I think these skills are being appreciated anew lately, and I see a whole new generation of journalists coming along who are equipped with them and eager to deploy them.
STAY THIRSTY: Is a career in journalism still possible? How about in book publishing? How important are passion and rigor in building a professional reputation?
PRISCILLA PAINTON: You don't go into either journalism or publishing to make money, so passion has to be there. Rigor is important too, of course, but I also know that no amount of training, experience and mental clarity can guarantee you will avoid making a mistake. As for careers in journalism and publishing, I think that the surprise has been that even in an age of huge upheaval, people are still showing up at the door of both professions, and that's because some people just have to tell stories.
STAY THIRSTY: If you had the chance to only recommend one book for someone to read, what would it be?
PRISCILLA PAINTON: That's like asking me to pick between my kids. I am always recommending the last book I have published. At the moment, those two books are The Path by Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh, and The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu by Joshua Hammer.