Insights for Growth: Stories of Enterprise Innovation Podcast

Ep. 7: Jean Feiwel, Senior VP & Publisher of children’s book, Macmillan

Jean Feiwel has had a distinguished career publishing titles from Goosebumps to Harry Potter and creating The Baby-sitter’s Club. Listen now to hear her story of establishing new paths to finding authors, and of her creative, data-driven ways to encourage a younger generation to read.

Key Insights:

  • Involve your colleagues from all facets of the business by creating a shared vision to feel support, and ownership, across the board.
  • Mold your ideas around the business you’re working in, use what’s working for them to your advantage.
  • Rejection and failure will be a given, never expect a smooth runway and be prepared to be resilient.

Episode Transcript

Jean Feiwel:

You can’t skip every step that’s in between. There is a certain amount of learning that goes on, but at any level you are, you can make a contribution and be amazing.

Chris Goward:

This is insights for growth, the show where we hear insights from intrapreneurs who drive change within large organizations. I’m Chris Goward, founder of Widerfunnel. Widerfunnel helps great companies design digital experiences that work, proven through rigorous experimentation systems. Today on the show, we have a great conversation lined up.

Chris Goward:

Why don’t you start by telling us your name and title?

Jean Feiwel:

My name is Jean Feiwel, I’m Senior Vice President and Publisher at Macmillan responsible for my own imprint, Feiwel and Friends, Henry Holt, Swoon Reads, and Square Fish.

Chris Goward:

Really excited to talk with you about your involvement with the Scholastic Book Program, which I remember fondly from my childhood as well, which we’ve talked about. But let’s start with Macmillan. So some of our listeners might not really be familiar with it or know what it’s about. So tell us about that, what’s Macmillan about?

Jean Feiwel:

So Macmillan is a fairly large company. It’s probably the sixth largest under Penguin Random House, Harper, all of those. We’re privately held, and what I like about Macmillan is the group of imprints that make it up. It is made up of St. Martins, Holt, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, Roaring Brook, Celadon, Flatiron. I would describe that as like a Star Wars alliance. There are many imprints but they are not mushed together as they are in some of the other larger companies. They retain a kind of independence and autonomy. It’s a great place to work.

Chris Goward:

I never heard of a company described as a Star Wars Alliance.

Jean Feiwel:

I don’t know whether they’re going to love that, but that’s the way I see it. That’s the reason I came to Macmillan is because of their appreciation for the publishing and the contribution you make as a publisher to literature and also the success of all as well.

Chris Goward:

Yeah, okay great. Well, may the force be with them. So what’s your scope of responsibility there. How do you see it?

 

Jean Feiwel:

It’s two-fold. I oversee the imprints, I oversee… I have my own imprint, which is one of the reasons I came to Macmillan about 14 years ago, to start my own imprint. I oversee the paperback for all of the children’s imprints but I also have a senior role in terms of the shoulder to cry on, the mother superior, the person that has all of the people in the imprints. I look after their best interest.

So I have a behind the power. I am working with all of the groups to maintain a collegial attitude and a forward looking approach. It’s been something that I’ve had my whole career. I’m about collegiality, I’m not about competition. I work very hard to maintain that kind of approach because I don’t think competition breeds success or excellence. I mean, I believe looking after the business is a very important thing and I’m all about making money and being successful, but I’m also about creating a certain atmosphere of collaboration and cooperation.

Chris Goward:

Right, so you’ve used your… I mean, you have a long experience of success. So you’ve created a mentor role for yourself there, it sounds like?

Jean Feiwel:

That’s right. It’s something I really enjoy and so yes, that’s my side hustle.

Chris Goward:

Now, this conversation originated because of your work and innovation with the Swoon Reads idea. So how did that come about? Tell us about that.

Jean Feiwel:

So Swoon Reads was started in 2013, but about a year or two before, the company had an off-site where they asked the different groups for innovation. They wanted a new idea, they wanted to think out of the box. So we were tasked with coming up with something and people came up with many different things, like a new book club or a way of distributing books to children via bus, a school bus kind of thing.

So I came up with an idea of sourcing talent, authors, unpublished authors, through a website, so that the barriers to entry, as far as publishing was concerned, these people would not have to have an agent. They could just submit directly. The community on the website would judge the manuscripts and the ones they liked, we developed a whole grading system, would rise to the top. Then as the editorial group, we would review them and recommend them for publication, but it was really based on the idea that publishing is a closed unit and all about having the privilege of having an agent and all of that stuff, which many writers coming up in the world didn’t have.

It was a time when authors were publishing on the web themselves. There were a number of authors who were very, very successful and I eyeballed them and said, “Wow, they’re doing it without a publisher. They’re publishing themselves,” and it was fascinating that we weren’t needed.

So I developed this idea and the way that it started was with these pizza lunches where I sent out an email to broadly, Macmillan, but at first just the children’s group and said, “I’m developing an idea for teen romance. I think there’s a market there. It’s teen romance through a website. I’ll feed you, will you come?” About 35 people showed up to the first meeting, which is really pretty incredible because I didn’t give them that much information and there was just a great interest in romance in general. Teen romance for sure. These disparate people sat around a table and we started thinking of ideas, a mission statement. We started to play with different names, we said what makes us different from regular companies. How are we going to reach out? Over a period of something like two or three months, we had these lunches almost weekly and developed a platform for what would become Swoon Reads.

Chris Goward:

So either people are really interested in romance or there’s a lot of hungry people at Macmillan. 

Jean Feiwel:

I think this is my whole professional philosophy, if you feed them, they will come. So just put food on the table and you’ve got a good chance of somebody showing up.

Chris Goward:

Well there we go. The listeners are getting good insight already. Just bring pizza and they’ll show up.

So why teen romance? Where did the idea come from originally?

Jean Feiwel:

Romance is one of those categories in publishing that is huge. A lot of my staff are romance readers and these books are very thick, there are authors to whom they’re very loyal. I was just so interested in the category because I had never been a romance reader myself. It’s like being a mystery reader or a science fiction reader, romance is a core category.

One of the reasons they liked romance is that everything worked out in the end. They were always happy endings and that was the main appeal.

Teen romance, not every teen book, but it’s usually about somebody and somebody else and somebody not liking somebody. Then this somebody likes somebody, and then there’s a third person who’s… whether it’s the Hunger Games, Twilight, there’s romance usually at the core of it, but this was just a more straight forward, we want this to be about love and affection and connections. That seemed to be a category that was not particularly well served in publishing at that time. So we just went after it, and we felt the focus was important, not to just do all of young adult fiction, but to focus on one category and see what we got.

Chris Goward:

Yeah, I mean relationship stories are always powerful and emotional. I read a book recently that says that every human problem is a relationship problem. So I’m looking to disprove that somehow but it does seem like a compelling idea. So I can understand that. Was there data that you looked at to validate this or was it really an intuitive insight?

Jean Feiwel:

It was intuitive but there were enough people that represented a pretty good sampling. So I felt, I am not a data person, I am not like, did you talk to a focus group about this? Did you talk to children ages six to eight? I haven’t, I don’t, and it’s been okay. I think there is a great benefit to really doing research, but I’ve been in focus groups where you can get the information to say what you want. I see it in how the question is phrased and all that stuff. So I’m much more on a gut instinct kind of person.

Chris Goward:

Interesting, okay. So you have this idea and you worked with these 35 or so people that would come to these lunches to develop the idea. How did you… well, first of all, how did you validate what you came out with? How do you reduce risk if you’re taking an intuitive decision like this and just running forward with it?

Jean Feiwel:

At first there was no money being spent, people were just dedicating their time. So they were just trusting that this was going to work out, and they liked the process. I think they just liked working with other people, the person in the sales department, the person in royalties. They just felt like, I never met that person so how interesting that they like teen romance and they’re interested in this process.

But at a certain point the rubber meets the road, we wanted to build this website, and that was going cost money and that was going to have to involve the company and the corporate leaders of the company. My particular boss was supportive of the idea. When it came to talking about $250,000 or whatever it was in the beginning to develop this website, it was very difficult. I think the company was like, we’re all about innovation, let’s keep these costs low, it was like, no, you have to put your money where your mouth is. You got to support it. Thus began the uphill climb, but they just needed us to be relentless and remind them, this is what you wanted so let us do it. This is what I pride myself on as a leader and as a motivator, is I am relentless, to sometimes to my detriment, but if I have an idea and if my team, whoever the team is, shares the idea and we’re motivated and committed to it, I’m going to make it happen.

Chris Goward:

Right, so the main objection sounds like once you started to have to spend money to build the website, then you start to get some resistance. So how do you overcome that? How did you get the buy-in to do that?

Jean Feiwel:

I think there were a lot of people involved and I would involve more. I would go to the head of marketing, I’d involve the head of advertising. I have a track record in publishing that is good enough so that if I’m saying, “I think this is a worthy idea, let me try it. Let’s just put it out there.” My boss said, “Okay, let’s try it.” I feel like there were plenty of reasons to say no to it but they went along with it because of my reputation.

Chris Goward:

Right, yeah, okay. So you had clearly a track record of success, a reputation of credibility, and then you built alliances within the organization to support the idea. Obviously you had created those alliances initially by developing the idea with all of those people in the organization. Right?

 

Jean Feiwel:

Right, I mean I think this is the other thing. You give credit where credit is due. In other words, this wasn’t mine, this was not my Swoon Reads only. So it wasn’t like, okay, well just talk to Jean. You could talk to Jen, you could talk to Holly, you could talk to all of these people. They all owned it, and I thought that was a significant part of getting it off the ground was there were many stakeholders and they were all invested in it.

Chris Goward:

But you were the spearhead for this, right?

Jean Feiwel:

That’s right.

Chris Goward:

That’s a humble statement, but somehow you created this group, this alliance of shareholders in the idea to push it forward and get it across the line.

Jean Feiwel:

Right, I was the founder of Swoon Reads.

Chris Goward:

I’m curious about the intuitive way of coming up with the ideas. Obviously you trust your instinct at this point. It reminds me of Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman, he talks about once you’ve done something enough times, you develop this instinct because you’ve seen the patterns over and over and over again. So you can either go with the thinking slow route, which is to gather all of the ironclad data to support your decision, or the fast route where you just trust your intuition because you have a history in one area that you’ve piloted through this canyon so many times that you just instinctively know where the crevices are and where the dangers are. You fly through it because you’ve got the instinct.

Jean Feiwel:

Right, I think that is absolutely true. I think I have a certain amount of boldness and it’s with equal stupidity. I mean, I think you cannot know what’s ahead. Had I known how hard Swoon Reads would be in some ways, I would have gone, oh my god. This is like, it became its own job. I have the job as the publisher of XYZ, then I have Swoon Reads all of a sudden. It became another job and I love the challenge of it but at the end of the day it’s like, this is exhausting. Not everything that I try is a total success but I get it to the point of the finish line, whatever the finish line is. I’m going to see it through, I’m just going to see it through.

Chris Goward:

Well, it sounds like yeah, you’re touching on a characteristic that I think is common with entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs. There are some differences between the two. We think of an intrapreneur, working within a large organization, they have resources and structure and an umbrella of shelter in some ways. Entrepreneurs often get the limelight of going out there and innovating and driving a new idea forward, but there’s a lot of similarities. You talk about the stupidity, and I think I might frame it as naivety, where either an intrapreneur or entrepreneur, sometimes if you had known the cost or the hardship of doing something, you wouldn’t have done it. I know that’s certainly been my experience as an entrepreneur. I’m not sure if there’s a certain level of insanity involved in the things that we tackle.

Jean Feiwel:

Yeah, yeah. I mean I just, I think the motivation came from the people working with me. That’s what drove me on.

I think that is part of doing anything, if you have a shared vision, if you’re working with people, the pain is shared across the board but it’s also you feel supported and you feel like you’re doing a good thing. Whereas if you’re just alone, I think that’s a totally different experience.

Chris Goward:

So was there a point during this where it’s a lot of work and like you said, you’ve got, now, a second job, that you just felt like quitting and giving up?

Jean Feiwel:

No, but I think there came a point where I felt we had done what we accomplished. I mean, this is five years fast forward to 2020, 2019, where I’m like, I think the experience has satisfied itself. We’ve seen what it can do and what it can’t do, and we’re done, we’re good. We’re still publishing, we still have books, we have a best seller on the New York Times list. We have some film interest, so it accomplished what I wanted. I think I would’ve wanted more books to be more successful, but the experiment, I think it was worthy.

Chris Goward:

Okay, so now even before Swoon Reads, you have an impressive list of titles that you have been involved with, including this obscure British author. What was the name again?

Jean Feiwel:

JK Rowling, Harry Potter.

Chris Goward:

Oh, right, right. Okay, so we’ll get into that in a few minutes, but you had many successes even before that. So tell us about that, what are you most proud of from your time before Swoon Reads?

Jean Feiwel:

So before Swoon Reads and before Macmillan, I was at Scholastic, from 1983 to about 2005, so a good long time. I was brought to Scholastic to create a trade publishing program because prior to that, they had been known as a book club. So they had no original publishing. So it was my job to create content, create books with the book club in mind, which was a vehicle that went directly to children in the classroom. So we got a really great feedback loop. To become a publisher, rather than a distribution company, which is what Scholastic was. The goal was to be a trade publisher.

So it was like going into a completely different world and I realized as I was talking to agents, that Scholastic was not seen as a really interesting company. Nobody wanted to publish there, the books were created and they were very cheap looking books and they were… so we had no cred, in terms of quality or winning awards or knowing how to deal with a library community.

Again, this was my sense starting out at Scholastic, I had a great… I had a sense of confidence, I had no idea really what I was up against because there were formidable houses, Harper and Row and Random House, that we would be competing with. Basically, what we had to do was build it ourselves. We had to approach authors and come up with ideas and build books that way, because agents weren’t submitting manuscripts to us. I mean, it’s not like no one did, but most people did not.

So I was tasked with first creating a paperback program, because paperback’s what was sold in the book clubs. The first series that I created was called the Baby-sitters Club. This was 1986 and the reason I came up with the idea for the Baby-sitters Club is because in our book clubs, there was this title called Ginny’s Babysitting Job, which had a miserable looking cover and it was offered on the book club on page four and you could barely find it but every time it was offered, it was number one on the club, meaning it could sell 200,000 copies in a month because Scholastic was that big. So that became really a kind of information loop for me. I realized there was a lot of information coming from kids directly, in terms of what they were interested in.

So I said, “Well, there’s something about the idea of babysitting that clearly is resonating with the children who are reading this.” So I came up with the idea for this club of baby-sitters that would have four characters in it. I approached an author, Ann Martin, and I said, “Okay, here’s this idea. Let’s see, what can you do with it?” I’d buy four books and we’d see what was what. She went from there. She said, okay, babysitting, the characters were drawn from her life, from my life. Then there’s parts of all of us who were at Scholastic that are in the baby-sitter’s club. She made it authentic, she made it about real things that the kids were going through, divorce or their grandmother was dying. These were paperback originals, so they were never reviewed. They were never… independent bookstores wouldn’t even put them in the stores because they said, “Paperbacks, they’re not real books. They’re just entertainment, which probably isn’t good for kids anyway.”

So I was bypassing the library community, I was just getting books to kids directly. That is how we started our trade publishing, is to develop series, whether it was The Magic School Bus or Goosebumps, Animorphs, that either I had the idea for or the author had the idea for. We would publish it, we’d marketed directly to children. We had massive campaigns, we were innovative that way. Other publishers were following the traditional model of their hardcover publishing, they would appeal to the librarians, the gatekeepers, as it were. It was a whole different way of doing business and we made a new path for publishing. 

Chris Goward:

That was a really unique situation that you were in, in the early ’80s, to have a direct to consumer channel to children. I mean, I was one of them. I remember being in the early elementary school years and I loved getting these Scholastic little catalog, paper catalogs to look through and find… and back then, I guess maybe my tastes weren’t as high-brow but I remember selecting Garfield and Calvin and Hobbs comics. That was my main go-to, but it’s really fascinating to think that you were on the other end here collecting this data of what the kids are interested in, and then and again, thinking of perhaps the naivety of coming into this situation to create a new publishing area, and not really knowing what challenges you faced. Your constraint then is, no one’s coming to you with ideas so you have to create books but no one wants to publish any books with you. So you had to create a way to overcome that significant challenge.

 

Jean Feiwel:

Yeah, I mean it was really lots of fun. I was faced with people who, when we did The Magic School Bus for example, and it was developed by somebody at Scholastic who said, “I want to do a series for first grade and second grade that is about science but is fun because there’s just mostly textbook kind of information and I think there’s a real interest that children have in learning how water evaporates, or how does the human body work?” I remember because we would publish certain books in hardcover, the head of the librarian system at Scholastic came to me and said, “Listen, you can’t do The Magic School Bus. It combines fiction and nonfiction and that’s a no-no. That’s never going to fly.” I said, “Okay, well we’re going to try it because I think it’s really clever,” and actually within the first month of publication, it was reviewed by the New York Times and said it’s the next best thing to Sesame Street or something. It was really-

Chris Goward:

Wow.

Jean Feiwel:

... groundbreaking because I always will challenge the way things are or the way things should be or how we do things here or this is what you need to… this is the road you need to follow. I just was looking at the business of what Scholastic was, which is going direct to children through the classroom. So it’s true that Scholastic couldn’t put in any old book. There was a lot of concern about certain language and Scholastic was very conservative, but even there they expanded their allowance for what was right for kids.

But the idea of entertainment that way for children, I know that my daughter at the time was The Baby-sitter’s Club age, and so at school if I was introduced as a publisher, blah, blah, and I did The Baby-sitter’s Club, there were a lot of parents who were like, “Oh, that’s too bad. That’s like, gee, not so good for you” because there was just this snob appeal and this resistance to allowing children to have a good time. Parents kept reading Daniel Steele, James Patterson, whoever, but your child should be reading Heidi.

Chris Goward:

Right, yeah don’t taint your kids with entertainment.

Jean Feiwel:

Don’t ruin them. By the way, most of the popular stuff on the Scholastic book club would be the Caribou Pen. Just saying that we had a broad range of stuff and there were some kids who were non-readers, but they saw the Caribou Pen and then they though, okay, and then I’ll take this joke book and then maybe I’ll take a Goosebumps title. We would get them reading.

Chris Goward:

So in that situation, you’re going with a hardcover, the expert in the organization about the library system says, “No, this doesn’t make sense. This is now how you do things.” Yet you went ahead. How did you respond to that? Why did you go ahead?

 

Jean Feiwel:

Because I could sell so many books in the book clubs and the book fairs and then in trade. The bookstores eventually, it was the time of B. Dalton and at that time, so I could make much more money going directly to our distribution channel, or through trade. I didn’t need the libraries, I didn’t need them to sign off and say this is a good book, it didn’t matter.

Chris Goward:

You had the confidence to just go ahead regardless of that input. Why? How did you feel like that you… or, what made you confident in that idea?

Jean Feiwel:

I think I came… previously from Scholastic, I was at Avon Books, which was a paperback house. All of those editors who were really genius people, did a lot of original publishing and said, “This can be done.” I had good role models for following your bliss, in terms of what would work. I think that there was a kind of profile of a children’s book editor at a certain time that was a librarian type of person who was brilliant. It’s not like they were stupid, but they required you to follow their rules and the book had to have certain things in it and it had to be… I used to call the Newbery Medal was low-interest, high-reading level. It was always something that nobody wanted to read. I think the whole point of publishing is getting children to read, not giving them a heavy weight that they have to figure out how to carry around.

So I do have a sense of absolute confidence and if somebody says to me I can’t, it’s like, oh yeah, really? No, I can. I can. I try not to be stupid about it, I try not to be arrogant about it, but if there seems to be a good idea and it benefits a population, which were children, you’re not going to tell me I can’t. I can’t even try, I can try. I had the position of authority at the company at Scholastic, so it’s not like I was a junior editor, but… so I’ve always even at Avon, I was promoted from Editorial Assistant to Senior Editor because my boss was fired and they said, “Oh, just give it to her. What harm could she do?” I was 28 at the time, so I did always have a certain level of authority that I could count on if I needed it.

Chris Goward:

Yeah, well and it sounds like you had for some reason a vision for how the industry needed to change. You’re describing a pretty traditional, stayed conservative space. When you saw a different way that this should be done. So it’s almost like the titles were a way of demonstrating your hypothesis about the industry and where it should go.

Jean Feiwel:

Right, right. I think again, Scholastic was and is a unique model for publishing. I do think that that feedback loop from the child directly is an amazing source of information. No one else had it and Scholastic would not tell Harper Collins if they bought a Harper Collins book to distribute into their schools, how that book did. They wouldn’t say, “Wow, that book sold 500,000 copies in the first offer.” Then people knew that Scholastic was distributing a lot of books. How many books they were distributing and how successful they were didn’t seem to reach them because the books were sold for such low prices. So they would say, “Well, they’re 75 cents, what wouldn’t sell?” But that’s not true. Yes, they bought a lot of joke books because that’s what kids wanted to read, certain kids, but there were very good books in paperback that some of the audience would buy as well. So I think that it was just giving credence to the fact that children have a wide range of reading interests and we should meet it, not train them into one lane.

Chris Goward:

So this is interesting. You came into this industry, you had obviously self confidence, a vision of where you thought you could see the industry going, but also some data that was really unique that Scholastic had that was continuously pouring in from the kids about what they were selecting. So you could see the patterns in combination, and I imagine it in some way was supporting your vision.

 

Jean Feiwel:

Yes, it was really, it was unique. It was amazing, and it’s the one situation where the data was… I mean, we got daily reports on sales from the book clubs. Book clubs were offered monthly, so you got that kit September, October, November, December. We’d have sales as soon as those kits went out and we would start getting feedback. It was amazing.

Chris Goward:

Scholastic was protecting that data, you’re saying?

Jean Feiwel:

Yeah.

Chris Goward:

So they knew the value of this book for the customer?

Jean Feiwel:

Right.

Chris Goward:

So I’m curious about that idea. I think that of seeing a different vision for the industry, I think that innovation requires the ability to see things differently than other people. Do you agree with that?

Jean Feiwel:

Yes, yeah.

Chris Goward:

So how-

Jean Feiwel:

But I didn’t…

I basically at Scholastic and even at Avon, I molded myself in their image. I was like, how does this work? So I took advantage of it, I didn’t try to impose anything on Scholastic.

I didn’t say, “Well, we’ve got to do hardcover publishing. You people are going down the wrong road.” I took what I was given and said, “Okay, now how do we use this? This is an amazing tool.”

Chris Goward:

Well, so how do you… I’m curious about how you foster creativity in yourself, because obviously you’ve generated hundreds of ideas over your career. How do you keep that wellspring of creativity going and fresh in yourself?

Jean Feiwel:

I think at the time and to some extent today but it’s different, I live in the world and if I’m seeing there was a picture in the New York Times book review, this picture really I thought was incredible, an editorial illustration. It was by a person named David Shannon who went on at Scholastic to be one of our primary illustrators. It is looking at everything and responding to things and going, oh, I think that could be a book. That’s really fun, and also to encourage that creativity in your authors and in the people that you’re working with, saying, “What’s your next big idea?”

So I think that it’s not asking for the same thing that is selling yesterday. It’s not saying, “Okay, I’d like the new Twilight, send me that. I’d like the new Hunger Games.” It was being completely open to anything, even the fact of Scholastic could see that seasonal books were always very popular. There was always a fall book, a fall leaf book. Then there was a Halloween book, then there was a Christmas book, the back to school in the summer, the Saint Patrick’s Day. There were things and we just published into it. I said, “Okay, well Saint Patrick’s Day is a big deal, let’s do some Saint Patrick’s Day books.” It was just what the information showed me. Publishing had not really caught up to it.

So we were the first in really establishing some commercial categories, which today seems obviously. You look at the New York Times Best Seller list, there are 12 Christmas books on it. Well, that didn’t exist. That didn’t exist 20 something years ago.

Chris Goward:

So that’s interesting, there’s a combination here where you’re looking at the patterns in the data, looking for these seasonality trends that you can ride the wave, and it’s always the easiest way to innovate is to identify a trend and just jump on the wave. Right?

Jean Feiwel:

Yes, yes.

Chris Goward:

But at the same time, you’re combining that data with it sounds like what you’re describing as almost a presence of mind and a creativity of just looking for inputs into the creativity from anywhere, whether you’re at a news stand or in the bus or something and you’re just… whatever catches your interest, you’re being very present to those things. Then trying to make those pattern connections.

Jean Feiwel:

You can fail, I mean you reach out for something and you think this is a good idea and it’s like, no, doesn’t work. That’s the other thing, is that the company at the time, I was not dinged for failures. I mean, it was like, okay well what’s the next thing in this? Allowing the editorial group, which got larger and larger, to bring in their own kind of ideas and opinions and they would do books that I never would’ve thought of but I think were really important to widen our program. So biographies, a whole realm of serious publishing or important publishing that we embarked on. The biography of Martin Luther King by a black writer, was at the time, it was like, not unheard of but it was rare, it was rare.

Chris Goward:

Okay so yeah, there’s a lot in there of also not having an ego to think that all the ideas have to come from yourself, being open to innovation from anywhere, whether it-

Jean Feiwel:

Right, well my friends and colleagues love to say, because I say it myself is like, “Give me all of the ideas, they end up as mine anyway. This is my input and it’s going to be my idea. So just..

Chris Goward:

You might as well just hand it over.

Jean Feiwel:

It’s truly… but now I really… they are recognized. They were recognized for the ideas they had but of course it was all under Scholastic, so it was all a benefit for us as far as I was concerned, for me to encourage that. Be as good as you can be at this company, and that’s going to benefit all of us. Yes, my star will shine.

Chris Goward:

So here’s another thing. I find that a lot of times, creative people, creatives in any industry have to overcome a lot of rejection especially when you’re seeing things differently and challenging the status quo, as you’ve said. That sounds like your particular superpower is challenging the status quo. How have you developed the ability, or was it just natural to face rejection?

Jean Feiwel:

It’s not easy because you always want the applause, you want to feel good, but at a certain point because I’ve learned it from going to different companies. I’ve learned it from meeting new people. The initial response when I meet some people are always they want to say, “You’re not that good.” It’s, I don’t know, they’re hazing you or they’re… and I just learned just not to care. You can’t care, you have to… again, you don’t want to confront something. You don’t want to be nasty, but…

…I don’t let anybody discourage me or demean me. I don’t have any patience or tolerance for it.

At the beginning, if I’m sitting in a room and I’m presenting an idea and this acquisition committee is going, “I don’t think this is so good,” usually, I have a boss who is supportive and saying, “Well, you want to do it, Jean. Go ahead.”

Chris Goward:

Okay, so there must be some natural inclination that you have to be resilient in the face of rejection, which is what your ability is.

Jean Feiwel:

Right, right. I think rejection is a given. I think resistance is a given. So I never expect a smooth runway.

Chris Goward:

Okay, so now I want to switch a little bit here because successes are easy to talk about but I find that failures or mistakes are where some of the greatest learning comes from. So talk to me about that. What have been some of your biggest either failures or mistakes or learning points in your career that you’d-

Jean Feiwel:

I think what I see as a big failing or a mistake is staying too long at a company or staying too long with an idea, but I’ll take thinking that a company is your company and that you have control over what happens to you. I think it’s staying too long and not looking out for your career and looking out more for, this is good for the company and this is… that, I think especially in this world today, I believe in being loyal but I don’t believe in being loyal to the detriment of your own person or your own career.

Chris Goward:

So what’s the moment that you learned that?

Jean Feiwel:

When I was fired from Scholastic. I just felt like, what? These are all my books. How can I be fired? I think the point is, this is not your company. No matter what you contribute to it, no matter what you do, it is not yours. So be aware of that, protect yourself as much as you can, be forward looking as much as you can, and get out when you can. It’s not… I think now being fired is not considered a big deal because companies are just more influx and I think I say to my staff, “You’re not hired for life, just remember that. This is not a guarantee forever. Work hard, make your goals, and we’re good,” but I was not… I didn’t know that.

Chris Goward:

Yeah, so when was that, that you were fired?

Jean Feiwel:

2005.

Chris Goward:

Yeah, 2005, okay. So thinking of that point, you felt this sense of ownership that you had built so much of this business. Then to realize suddenly that, oh wow, it’s not actually yours anymore. How did that day feel? What happened then?

Jean Feiwel:

I was called into a meeting from the new… my old boss at Scholastic had left a month or two before, that she had been with me the whole time and there was a new boss who I really didn’t like. She sat down with me one day and she said, “I want to talk to you about your future. You’ve had a good run here at Scholastic.” That was like, I said, “You’re not going to have this conversation with me. So I’ll go talk to the head of the company, thanks, and shut up.”

So I went to the head of the company and I was promised, she said, “It’s just time for you to leave,” and I’m like, “Okay.” It was after Harry Potter and midstream Harry Potter, between books four and five, I think. I think the company had become public during that period, and I think the expectations of the street were like, do Harry Potter every year. How come you can’t do Harry Potter every year? This was dealing with financial people going, okay, this is not how it works. You don’t have a phenomena like this that you can then put on a schedule. This is a person, this is a creative endeavor. So our results would go down because the expectations would get higher and higher. So the disparity was like, okay.

My boss at the time said, “I think it’s time for you to leave and let somebody else have a chance. We’ll pay you a package and you’ll retire and blah, blah, blah.” I said, “I’m not retiring. I’m the breadwinner of my family, so I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m not going to sign this or that or the other thing.” It became ugly and I learned a lot from it. I just learned, you’re on your own. You’re on your own.

Chris Goward:

It sounds like a hard lesson, obviously. That would’ve been very impactful and counterintuitive. To thinking about what you have done there. So it seems like a big leap to being fired after all of this success. So I’m curious about how that evolved. You had gone in, developed this publishing, had all these successes with Goosebumps, Baby-sitter’s Club, all of these titles. Then so what changed? I guess first of all, maybe tell us a little bit about how the Harry Potter… how did that happen? That story.

Jean Feiwel:

Harry Potter was a great example of just trusting your gut. I mean the manuscript came into our Arthur Levine, who had his own imprint at the time at Scholastic. It was a fantasy, it was by a British writer. The general feeling at that time was, you can’t sell British books in America. American kids, they’re not going to know. The language is weird, the settings are weird. Fantasy at that time was a very under published in category, so the feeling was, fantasy books don’t sell. But my boss at the time, Barbara Marcus was a huge fantasy fan and she supported the acquisition, which was not nothing. It was $100,000 for two books. She developed a whole strategy for publishing Harry Potter in this country and we brought Jo Rowling over to tour and that was called a pre-publication tour which is like, what the hell is that? Well, it was meant for her to introduce herself to book sellers and get them to know her and love her, because she was an incredibly appealing person, and we innovated in the marketing. Again, Scholastic, children’s only. We dedicated a huge amount of money to marketing Joe Rowling and Harry Potter, and developed midnight parties. That was Scholastic that did that. That was the first time. Kids were so anxious to get the book, we literally had midnight parties and at 12:01 you’d get your Harry Potter books.

So, and the volume, the numbers of what was being printed and sold were incredible. I mean, and I see it as really the best of times. Then eventually, the worst of times because the expectation of what we could produce was built on what Harry Potter was, and that was just a phenomena and it was not repeatable. We then began to separate Harry Potter publishing and non Harry Potter publishing, which was ridiculous. I mean, it just felt terrible. It’s like, we want to look at your results without Harry Potter. Okay, well why? Why does that make any sense? It was just, I think that a company needs to be able to manage success. It’s not failure that’s the problem, it’s you. When you have a phenomenal success, how do you get to enjoy it and not find yourself suffering?

Chris Goward:

So the success of Harry Potter, I mean there’s a lot within the Harry Potter story it sounds like, of innovation as well. Doing things differently and trying new things especially in the marketing area.

 

Jean Feiwel:

Right, because I think we looked at it and it was, it was bigger than any adult book. At the time we published Harry Potter, for some reason a lot of the adult best selling authors were on a cycle. They did a book a year, and I think there was an opportunity to say, “Here is something fresh. Here is something very different.” We zeroed right into the adult market because we felt that the read was so good. There was tremendous resentment and the industry was like, who are these people and what is this series? Get out of here. But she was a Time person of the year, she was on every talk show, she was on every cover. I mean she really became a phenomena because of who she is and was. It was a genuine, it was amazing. It was just amazing.

Chris Goward:

Well, there’s so many things to learn from all of the stories here. It sounds like you’ve come into this industry with a particular set of skills and characteristics. You’re not going to back down from a challenge, maybe see things in a different way, come with a balance of self confidence, as well as an eagerness, willingness to share credit, which is really unique, and build alliances and true partnerships with your authors and team within the publishers. I mean all of those skills are a really interesting combination that I think are probably uniquely powerful to develop that intrapreneurship track record. So I wonder how much of that is innate and how much of it can be developed or learned by someone.

Jean Feiwel:

Well, I think it can be learned. I think that my staff looks at me and can see a certain model. Now, I often say, “Do as I say, not as I do. I am much older than you are, I have gone through much more. So my arrogance and my way of being has been earned. You can be confident and you should be confident in your ideas, but overconfidence is missing the point. I think everybody can contribute but you’re not going to be the publisher, I’m the publisher, but contribute from your position as editorial assistant, I think that can be major. I think you can acquire a major book, but you can’t skip every step that’s in between. There is a certain amount of learning that goes on but at any level you are, you can make a contribution and be amazing. Be amazing.

Chris Goward:

So okay, so building on that. What do you see as the biggest mistakes that aspiring intrapreneurs or change agents in organizations or those that are arising in their career, what are the mistakes they’re making today?

Jean Feiwel:

I think they want to skip steps. I think they want to get to the top. I think they want to be the boss. I don’t think being the boss is such a great thing. I think operating at different levels is really important and the kinds of things you learn. As a person who did skip many steps from my first job on, I appreciate what the authority and the power does give you, but I had to learn very quickly on the job and figure it out. I would listen more than I would speak and I think that a lot of people I work with today are just, they want to be at the top, they want to be at the head. They don’t want to go through any learning or any steps.

 

Chris Goward:

Well it sounds like yeah, regardless of the steps that you might have skipped or the titles that you’ve had, you still have it sounds like, the willingness to put in the hard work behind an idea. Thinking of Swoon Reads and the effort that was involved in doing that, that doesn’t come automatically. That takes really, real creativity and team building and overcoming challenges. Yeah.

Jean Feiwel:

It does, and I think that’s part of the… that’s a good thing. I mean, having hardship. Listen, I don’t wish it on anybody, I really don’t but I’ve learned from it and I’ve learned it’s difficult. If I go to a meeting and they’re like, “I don’t think this idea is great, I don’t,” I take that in. I’m not just going to push forward and say, “Well, what? They don’t know anything.” I’ve got to work with people, I’ve got to convince them, otherwise they don’t have a stake in the idea and then I’m doing it alone.

Chris Goward:

Right, so thinking about over the arc of your career with all of these things, what’s your motivator? What’s motivated you or what keeps you excited about the day?

Jean Feiwel:

I really like working with people, I really enjoy it. I enjoy working with my staff, I enjoy working with my colleagues. I like succeeding, I like when things work. So, but I think if you don’t enjoy working with people, this would not be a good job for you.

Chris Goward:

Okay yeah, great. Cool, so yeah, you’ve kept that joy in… sorry, observation that we talked about. That spark of creativity that comes from just being aware and present and being interested in ideas and not-

Jean Feiwel:

That’s right, and interested in the people attached to the idea. Also, making their idea much better than it is or much different than it is, and working collaboratively to make that happen. That’s satisfying.

Chris Goward:

Okay, so the listener who is working in a large enterprise really wants to become the Jean in their career. They have ambition and energy and believe they have creativity, maybe believe in themself. What would you tell them that you wish you had known earlier in your career or… to be successful?

Jean Feiwel:

I think you have to enjoy what you do. I think if you’re slogging along doing something, it’s just never going to get any better, really.

Maybe you need to switch careers, maybe the boss is not the right person for you. I don’t know about that kind of stuff. But Cleo Wade, who is one of my authors and an influencer who’s about to do a book with me. She has a line in there that just says, there are all sorts of questions and she just says, “Keep going, keep going, keep going, keep going.”

 

Chris Goward:

Great, well thank you so much. There is so much wisdom in a few minute there. Really appreciate your input and time, and congratulations on all the success, really.

Jean Feiwel:

Thank you. Thanks very much for having me.

Chris Goward:

This show was made possible by Widerfunnel, the company that designs digital experiences that work for enterprise brands, proven through experimentation. For more information, visit widerfunnel.com/tellmemore. That’s W-I-D-E-R-F-U-N-N-E-L.com/tellmemore.