Michelle Obama’s ‘Becoming’ Editor Starts Her Own Publishing Firm
Two years ago, at what seemed to be the pinnacle of her 25 years in publishing, Molly Stern’s career came to an abrupt halt.
As publisher of Crown, Ms. Stern had released 2018’s biggest blockbuster — Michelle Obama’s memoir, “Becoming,” which sold more than two million copies in its first two weeks. Less than a month later, Ms. Stern left the company in a shake-up, after Penguin Random House merged the Crown and Random House publishing divisions.
Her departure baffled many in the industry because of Ms. Stern’s track record for spotting both commercial and literary hits. A natural next move would have been to set up shop with her own imprint at a rival publishing house, but as she surveyed the landscape, she decided she wanted to build something from scratch.
“What I really wanted to do was tend to my own obsessions and figure out how to do it independently,” she said in an interview this week. “The opportunity to do something new was just too exciting.”
Ms. Stern is starting a new publishing company, Zando, with an unusual marketing and publicity model. Rather than relying chiefly on bookstores, retailers, advertising and other traditional channels to promote authors, she plans to team up with high-profile individuals, companies and brands, who will act as publishing partners and promote books to their fans and customers.
Zando is in advanced negotiations with several potential partners, Ms. Stern said, though the company was not prepared to name them or announce projects. Zando’s partners will get a cut of the royalties; Ms. Stern declined to provide specific breakdowns.
Launching a new publishing venture in an oversaturated media ecosystem — not to mention during a pandemic and economic crisis — may seem like a risky undertaking. But Ms. Stern has aligned herself with deep-pocketed backers.
This summer, she received a significant start-up investment from Sister, an independent global studio that was founded in 2019 by the media executive Elisabeth Murdoch, the film industry executive Stacey Snider and the producer Jane Featherstone. Ms. Stern, Ms. Murdoch and Ms. Snider will sit on Zando’s board of directors, along with Matthew Lieber, co-founder of the podcasting company Gimlet, and David Benioff, one of the producers of “Game of Thrones.”
Ms. Murdoch said in an interview that she wanted to invest in Ms. Stern’s publishing company because it aligned with Sister’s goal of producing high-quality entertainment from emerging writers. The team behind Sister produced the HBO series “Chernobyl” and the British thriller “Broadchurch.”
“When you have a world of massive consolidation and homogeneity, Molly and Sister have a huge passion for new voices,” Ms. Murdoch, the daughter of the media mogul Rupert Murdoch, said.
With her industry experience, Ms. Stern may also have an advantage when it comes to signing authors. During her tenure at Crown, the company published blockbusters like Ernest Cline’s “Ready Player One,” Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl” and Andy Weir’s “The Martian,” as well as breakout works of translation like Han Kang’s “The Vegetarian,” which won the Booker International Prize. At Crown, Ms. Stern helped the actress Sarah Jessica Parker start her own literary fiction imprint, an experience she drew on in creating the business model for Zando.
“That’s an advantage she has from being in the business for as long as she has,” said the literary agent David Kuhn. “There will be authors who have worked with Molly in the past who will be much more open to trying something different.”
By aligning authors with cultural ambassadors of sorts, Zando aims to deploy star power to keep its books from drowning in a sea of online content.
“Discoverability is a real crisis,” Ms. Stern said. At Crown, when she was publishing books by lesser-known authors, the lack of broad support was constantly frustrating, even when authors got positive reviews and retail promotion.
“You felt that you were publishing into a vacuum,” she said. “To find an audience is increasingly complicated.”
Several celebrities and public figures, including Jenna Bush Hager, Emma Watson and Reese Witherspoon, have started book clubs and emerged as literary influencers. Ms. Witherspoon’s endorsements helped turn novels like “Little Fires Everywhere” and “Where the Crawdads Sing” into hits, and she has made her media company, Hello Sunshine, into a book-to-screen factory.
As an independent publishing company, Zando can also experiment with distribution in ways that might be challenging for legacy publishers. Ms. Stern said she would rely on traditional distribution networks to get print copies to bookstores but also plans to experiment with alternative distribution channels such as direct-to-consumer sales. She also plans to make audio a centerpiece of the company’s content; after leaving Crown, she has advised Spotify on how to build its audiobook business.
Zando expects to publish its first books in the fall of 2021. Ms. Stern, who will take on the role of chief executive, initially plans to hire eight staff members and later to grow to a staff of 20. She came up with the name as a nod to the first letters of her sons’ names, Zach and Owen.
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