Ducksworth, Marilyn 1957—
Marilyn Ducksworth 1957—
Publishing company executive
Though she is unquestionably the highest-ranking black woman in publishing, she stays resolutely out of the limelight. But many people who have worked with her name the same three secrets of her success: long hours, hard work, and shrewd marketing of each year’s list of new books. Together, they account for her meteoric rise to a coveted vice presidency at the Putnam Publishing Group, one of America’s oldest and most highly-respected literary institutions.
When Marilyn Ducksworth graduated from Tufts University in 1979, she seemed to be heading straight for a career in either journalism or teaching. But instead of following these well-worn tracks she found herself a job in the publicity department of Doubleday and Company in New York.
As a new trainee, she found herself learning ... and learning ... and learning. One of the most important things she learned was that the entire organization was serving the same two important masters—the booksellers with shelves full of Doubleday’s wares, and the buying public, whose dollars are always the final judge of every book’s success. She also discovered that the techniques used for publicity are crucial marketing tools to most publishers, who compete not only against each other, but also against the hundreds of other temptations awaiting a buyer’s attention in the marketplace.
By the time Ducksworth came to Doubleday, publishers had been augmenting their advertising with publicity for about 20 years. Credit for this inspiration usually goes to Esther Margolis, formerly of Bantam Books, who was casting about for a fresh way to promote the novels of Jacqueline Susann. Since those early days it has has become such an important speciality that, as a Publishers Weekly article in November 1990 noted: “Books are acquired with their publicity potential in mind, and the sums paid for them reflect that potential.”
What spurred this huge growth spurt in publicity’s importance was the advent of cable TV, which allows the syndication and satellite beaming of talk shows. Since millions of viewers watch these shows every day, publishers are eager to see that their authors are interviewed by influential hosts like Oprah Winfrey and Geraldo Riviera.
Maintaining a foothold in this fast-paced, competitive environment is not easy. But even at the dawn of her career Ducksworth managed not only to keep pace with other publishing contenders, but also to maintain a reputation for the highest integrity. “Her credibility is so intact,” Marie Dutton Brown, a former senior editor at Doubleday once remarked. “People know that they are dealing with a professional.”
One mark of Ducksworth’s professionalism came to the fore in 1983, when a Doubleday book called Children
At a Glance…
Born Stamford, CT in 1957. Parents, Curtis and Pauline Ducksworth; Married, to Donald Davis, attorney. Education: Tufts University, BA (cum laude) 1978; MA English 1979; Certification for Secondary School Teaching, Tufts, 1978.
Career: Doubleday & Co. publicity assistant, 1979-80; associate publicist, 1980-82; senior publicist, 1982-83; manager of publicity, 1983-85; GP Putnam’s Sons, manager of publicity, 1985; director of publicity, 1985-87; G. Putnam’s Sons and The Grosset Group, executive director of publicity, 1987-.
Member: Women’s Media Group; Who’s Who in U.S. Executives; Publishers’ Publicity Association.
Honors: Scholastic Achievement Award Black Educators of Stamford 1974; Dean’s List, Tufts University (every semester) 1974-78; Langston Hughes Literary Award, Tufts University, 1978; chosen to spend junior year in Tufts in London, England program, 1976-77.
of the War by Roger Rosenblatt caught her interest. As Ducksworth later told Black Enterprise, her department was frantically busy promoting other titles when the Rosenblatt book appeared, but she felt it was a fine piece of work, and worth far more attention than it was receiving. So she worked around her other duties to create a campaign for Children of the War, and even secured an interview for the author on an episode of the “Phil Donahue Show” which subsequently won an Emmy.
A streamlined professional to her fingertips, Marilyn Ducksworth also shows the professional’s typical reluctance to stop growing. By 1985, she had spent six years at Doubleday, and felt it was time to move on. Long past her trainee days, she left the company with the title of publicity manager, not only for the flagship publishing house itself, but also for subsidiaries-Anchor Press, Dolphin Books, and Dial Press.
During the summer of 1985 she joined The Putnam Publishing Group. A venerable corporation that dates back to pre-Civil War days, Putnam is now the umbrella company for several equally well-recognized subsidiaries such as Grosset & Dunlap, Inc., Jeremy Tarcher, HowardMcCann, and Riverhead Books. Between them, these companies in the Putnam lineup cover a broad range of books for adult and school age readers both in America and in many other countries.
Hired as the publicity manager for the subsidiary G.P. Putnam’s, Ducksworth initially headed a staff of three. However, before long there were 13 desks in the publicity department, and she herself had risen to the rank of director for the entire Group. Her new appointment made her the highest-ranking black woman in the publishing field, and one with considerable say over how titles at Putnam and its subsidiaries are presented to the public.
Though her publicity department works alongside a 10-member planning board, which comes to a joint decision about how much publicity each new book should receive, Ducksworth is the final arbiter of a publicity campaign which may cost anywhere from $ 10,000 to $250,000. Possibilities range from visits to local bookshops for obscure authors to fullblown campaigns for possible bestsellers involving city-to-city tours, newspaper and talk show interviews, and even coaching for an author unaccustomed to the spotlight and the camera.
While the main object of any campaign is to sell as many books as possible, the experienced publicist knows that he is also expected to shape the company’s public image. Every publisher wants to be known for the prominent authors his house represents, the interesting books it produces, and the integrity of the research that goes into every publication on its list. One way in which the publicist can help to bring all these desirable qualities to the attention of the public is by placing as many new titles as possible where they are most visible—on the New York Times bestseller lists.
In March 1989, Marilyn Ducksworth achieved the seemingly-impossible. Due to her efforts, seven Putnam titles appeared on the New York Times bestseller list at one time. Among the authors listed: Dick Francis (The Edge) Dean Koontz [Midnight) Tom Clancy (The Cardinal of the Kremlin) and veteran actor George Burns’ affectionate memoir of his wife, Gracie. Needless to say, all these titles remained bestsellers for months.
While this once-in-a-lifetime event did a great deal to burnish the Putnam image in 1989, a later incident could have brought serious legal consequences. Events centered around an expose-type biography of Senator Edward Kennedy penned by a former Kennedy aide named Richard E. Burke, who had claimed, in 1981, to have been subjected to frightening death threats. Later, after admitting these had been a hoax, Burke had been forced to resign.
Though Putnam had been very interested in the Burke manuscript, the appearance of this telltale skeleton killed all plans to purchase it. Ducksworth’s reticent comment to the Publisher’s Weekly on August 17, 1992 said what was necessary, but no more. “... wehad to make a decision, and we felt we couldn’t proceed with the book.” The result was exactly as anticipated—a short-term loss for a season’s list, but a longterm protection for the Putnam reputation.
Other publicity-related hurdles Ducksworth has faced have stemmed from authors’ unwillingness to put their best efforts into their publicity campaigns. One experience came in 1989, when she was working on a fascinating account of a man convicted of killing his wife and two daughters called Blind Faith. Despite the major sales and review potential of this title, author Joe McGinniss hesitated to undertake a major tour because of intricate legal issues surrounding the journalistic structure he had chosen to use.
Ducksworth’s dilemma: run the risk of losing potential sales because of McGinniss’ reluctance, or run the risk of legal repercussions that could tarnish the Putnam image? As always, she took this challenge in stride and opted for no-holds-barred action. Two months and 150 telephone calls later, she was able to persuade McGinniss to do a couple of radio interviews, appear on the influential “Phil Donahue Show”, and handle a satellite hookup that connected him with viewers in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Boston. As a result of this publicity, Putnam sold some 380,000 copies of Blind Faith, as opposed to 174,765 copies of a previous McGinniss work publicised in different ways.
Authors may also dig their heels in more subtle ways that carry less risk, but need more patience. Amy Tan, author of the blockbuster novel The Joy Luck Club, explained her feelings about the large parties usually given by Putnam during the annual American Booksellers Association convention. Like many other best-selling authors, Tan usually enjoys meeting the retailers who stock her books, but finds the parties themselves a little stressful. “... when I’m standing there and the cameras are all going, I feel like I’m being shot—executed,” she confided to the New York Times in June, 1991, during a Putnam party at the Four Seasons Hotel in New York. While sympathetic up to a point, Ducksworth put forth sound reasons for this particular gathering. “You get major booksellers, major media, major authors, and a major celebratory thing—and that all adds up to great press for our books.”
One facet of Marilyn Ducksworth’s expertise is the ability to cope with the unexpected. This was rigorously tested in 1991, when the Persian Gulf War changed the priorities of several television shows regularly hosting the authors of soon-to-be bestsellers. Carol Hartsough, author of The Anti-Cellulite Diet was originally scheduled for a two-week tour, but was cut to one when Ducksworth discovered that television stations preferred not to concentrate on personal topics like dieting at this time.
If there have been any changes in marketing strategy during the 1990s, these have centered around new literary developments. Children’s books, for example, have burgeoned. But interesting as their marketing is, it is very different from marketing books intended for adult consumers. “We’re a news show and children’s books are rarely news,” the book editor of the “Today Show” explained to Publishers Weekly, in April 1990. “The content just doesn’t lend itself to real discussion.”
As from 1988 Putnam’s solution to the children’s book challenge was to merge the children’s and adults’ publicity departments. Still, this did not mean that both adult and children’s books were handled in exactly the same way. As Ducksworth, now a vice-president and executive publicity director, reflected in the April 27, 1990 issue of Publishers Weekly, it is important to understand what the interviewer is looking for, and to make sure her office provides it. Another must, she feels, is to ensure that every children’s book being promoted is presented with a newsworthy angle. As always, her intuition on this occasion was quite correct. Within two years of the merger, Putnam began to reap a handsome reward, in the form of six to eight major media tours per season for children’s book illustrators or writers.
By far the most important development of the 1990s is the new renaissance in black literature and publishing. Though authors such as Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison have been in the vanguard of this movement for many years, the literary trend now is for protagonists whose challenges and lives center around contemporary issues common to middle class black readers of today.
Ducksworth believes that the marketing potential for this type of commercial fiction has always been present, but that up to now insufficient attention has been paid to publicizing the work of black writers in the general media. As long ago as 1989 she noted: “They’re just as interested in books by black authors as we are in ones by white authors.”
Nevertheless, the principal market for works by black authors lies with black readers, and many sources acknowledge that reaching black buyers requires different techniques from those primarily used for their white counterparts. “That review in the New York Times is not going to sell books, Vanesse Lloyd-Sgambati, a literary promoter told Newsweek in April, 1996: “Forget booking your author on the morning TV talk shows. “At 8.00 in the morning, most African-Americans aren’t watching TV. They’re on their way to work. “Her solution points in different directions: “radio’s a better way of getting the message across.” Lloyd-Sgambati also advocates using churches, since word of mouth is still the black community’s greatest form of publicity. Whichever method proves to be the most efficient, Marilyn Ducksworth is listening, learning, and selling.
Black Enterprise, August 1989; February 1995.
Newsweek, April 29, 1996, p. 79.
New York Times, February 14, 1981, p. 16; February 19, 1989; March 26, 1989; June 2, 1991, p. 41; February 18, 1991.
Publishers Weekly, February 17, 1989; April 27, 1990; November 16, 1990, August 17, 1992.
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