An Intervay with Publishing Insider, Joseph Montebello

Lisa Hoffman and Charles Atkins

Published April 21, 2005

Charlie Narrates:

A few weeks back I did a radio interview for a local program called Between the Pages with Joseph Montebello, a publishing insider who among his other credits was Vice President, Creative Director in charge of book and jacket design for HarperCollins and Editor for HarperStyle. The interview flew by—mostly me pitching my upcoming book—but I realized that Joseph, who is surprisingly modest about his accomplishments, would be ripe fodder. . . I mean, a good interview subject for this column, as both Lisa and I have a long-standing interest in everything related to writing. . . and to getting published. I’ve also got an ulterior motive; it’s craven; it’s naughty. He should be warned. But lately Lisa and I have wondered about publishing some of our illustrated essays in book form. Something heart warming and funny geared toward people who’ve had catastrophic illnesses, and those who care for them.

So for today’s interview/essay—or intervay.

"Oy vay," Lisa groans.

We’d like to invite you into what turned out to be a fascinating afternoon, with Joseph Montebello, a man who has overseen the publication of dozens of best sellers, and magnificent illustrated books that have become industry standards of style and design.

He arrives on time in a sparkling white SUV, and I’m pleased to see that despite being one of the arbiters of American fashion, he’s dressed casual in jeans and a tangerine turtleneck. As he opens the car door, I spot a stack of large-format books, "these are a few of the ones I’ve done," he comments, as we both take an armful, and trudge up the ski slope to Lisa’s place.

It’s one of the first true spring days, the birds are chirping, and Lisa is bedecked in yet another fun-fur boa. We settle in with cups of tea and a very good coffee cake, prepared to get the skinny on the publishing industry.

I warn Joseph that we will misquote him atrociously, and he runs the risk of being turned into a cartoon character. Having read our column, he’s prepared for these eventualities, and seems not too concerned.

Lisa clicks on her recorder, and asks, "Tell me about your early years."

"I was born in Nutley New Jersey--Martha Stewart and I went to school together. I went to Syracuse University and got a degree in English and Journalism. Then I went to NYU at night, and moved into an apartment I couldn’t afford, because Greenwich Village was the coolest place to live. I still have a place there, same building, but a bigger apartment. [Joseph splits his time between Manhattan and Litchfield.]

"I wanted to be a writer and I was sure that all of these magazines would want me. The New Yorker offered me $40 a week; I was enraged. After all this money my parents spent on my education that’s all they offered me!

"I didn’t take it, which is something I now regret. Instead, I went to Prentiss Hall, which was my first job in publishing."

"I was published by Prentiss," Lisa comments, as they reminisce about the book industry of the 1960’s.

Joseph then tells of his career trajectory, how he started in business books for Prentiss, and got pushed into all aspects of publishing—editing, book design, proof reading and dealing with authors. After a year of developing books about taxes, and trial procedure--that left him a bit cold--he took a job at Random House working on their first unabridged dictionary. "There were ten of us in a huge pen," he remarks "And for months on end I did nothing but read galleys.

"One day, just about the time they were getting tired of me, because I was sluffing off. A job opened up in the production department. So I figured, I’d go and see what this was all about. There was this horrible snarly man, and he throws this book across the desk at me and says, ‘Tell me if this is letterpress or offset?’ I knew enough that in letterpress it was a raised impression. So I’m flipping through the pages, trying desperately to run my hand over it, and I said, ‘It’s letterpress.’ And he snarled, ‘I don’t know how you knew this, but you’re right,’ and he gave me the job.

"Random House in those days was one of the best publishers and an incredible place to learn. After three years there, I took a job at Harper and Row, which was a very sleepy place, like one of those images you have of old time publishing, with tiny offices filled with books that would topple over because there was just so much stuff. At one point, we had a publisher who decided to take us into the 20th century, and he hired Roger Strauss, III, the son of the man who started Farrar, Strauss & Giraux."

"At the time, we had an art director who started drinking Martinis at 10:30 in the morning; he kept a jigger in his drawer."

"He was a very spirited man," Lisa quips.

"Actually, he was," Joseph says, "and after lunch nobody wanted to go near him. So Roger came into my office one day and said, ‘This is really crazy. . .’" Joseph tells how moments later the decision was made to fire the art director, and Roger Strauss turned to him and said, "’Of all the people I’ve met so far, you got taste, you got style, you know what’s going--Why don’t you become the art director?’

"And in one of those rare instances, I said why not? And that’s how I became an Art Director. From then on, I was in charge of a 150 jackets a season, and eventually was made the creative director. I ran the whole design department for many years, and was put in charge of their illustrated books, and I had an imprint called HarperStyle where I published photography, interior design, and fashion--they pretty much let me do what I wanted."

As he talks—and so much has to be edited for the sake of time and space--we start to look at and chat about some of his favorite books, everything from The Art of Makeup by Kevin Aucoin—his first big seller. To splashy Hollywood picture books like James Cameron’s Titanic that to date has sold over 850,000 copies. In his years with HarperStyle, he’s published books that have defined American fashion and culture, everything from Dressing the Man to setting the table.

"I did that imprint for five or six years, but the place had changed. By the end it got to be where too many people had to approve something before it could be published."

"You’re not the first one to say that," I comment, and relate, my recent experience with getting published, where individual editors are no longer able to give the green light to a book, but that it must be approved by some unknown committee.

"It just got to be too much," Joseph says. "So I’ve gone back to writing and doing some freelance book packaging and my own radio show"

"When did you start your radio show?" Lisa asks.

"About three months ago."

"What made you do that?"

"By accident, a friend came over and said they’re starting up a local radio station in Torrington. So I went in and they said I could do an hour. I figured that’s not so long. So I wrote up a bunch of reviews, and when I read them aloud saw that it only took fifteen minutes. But the show has gone through some changes, and I’ve found that the authors are. . ." He searches for the word.

"Chatty," I comment, feeling abashed at how shamelessly I’d dominated the interview.

"Yes, chatty. So the authors start talking about their books, but then we veer off into different topics. This week I had Catherine Valentine, and we ended up discussing this whole renaissance in religious novels."

"Let’s talk about getting published," I suggest, as I leaf through one gorgeous volume after another. "How does someone pitch a picture book?"

"The ideal way is to bring in a proposal, or a sample chapter, along with a pile of pictures. The problem is that most art directors, don’t know how to put it together. So what you’ve got to do is hire a designer, or if you can do it yourself, actually do the spreads, typeset the script, put the pictures in place and bring them boards of what eight pages of the book would look like. Then they can say, ‘Oh wow, this is great!’ because they can turn the pages and see how the pictures relate to the text."

"If you were going to give a single piece of advice to a writer starting out, what would it be?" I ask.

"Unfortunately," he says, "you have to find a good agent, because, no one’s going to read your manuscript without one. Editors in publishing houses no longer have slush piles [a term used to describe manuscripts that authors would send in without an agent]. I think it’s fallen onto agents, who now have slush piles, to develop books and authors. And because of this, they’ve become more selective about who they represent. I think aspiring authors now spend as much time trying to find an agent, as they do writing the book."

As Joseph talks about the changes in the world of publishing, I think about my own agent—Al—who represents Ken Follett, Nora Roberts. . . and of course, me.

"You know, Lisa," I say, "This is excellent advice. If we’re serious about pulling together a picture book, it might be time to put pen to paper, do up a couple chapters and give Al a call. What do you think?"

To View, or to purchase a few of the many books edited by Joseph Montebello, click on the following links that will take you to product pages on amazon.com