A Remembrance of Mark Saunders: Mentor and Friend
Photo: Courtesy of Gene Taft. Michael McCullough (left), Mark Saunders (center), Dimity Berkner (right) at the American Booksellers Association Annual Meeting, 1993
“Directly and indirectly, Mark is responsible for long legacy of success at Columbia University Press and for a network of friendships across the university press community.”
~ Melissanne Scheld, executive director at Dryad
We continue our AUP blog tour today with a guest post by Melissanne Scheld, executive director at Dryad, whose career was one of many Mark Saunders helped launch. Through her story, we learn about Mark’s character, sense of humor, mentorship methods, and vast influence in the university press community.
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Over the past few decades I’ve got on dozens of job interviews and barely remember most of them. But, I clearly recall the first phone conversation I had with Mark Saunders during the summer of 1993. As a precursor to an in-person interview we had what was supposed to be a fifteen-minute conversation, but it lasted close to an hour. We talked about writers (Don DeLillo and David Foster Wallace) and bookstores, about my nonexistent clerical skills and why I was interested in publishing. Something must have clicked because Mark hired me to be his sales assistant in August of 1993.
My official role was to support the field reps, help Mark with national accounts, and to photocopy. So much photocopying in the nineties! Columbia University Press (CUP) was my first “real” office job, I had no idea what to expect; I was lucky to launch my career with a very patient supervisor and mentor in Mark. It’s hard to believe that he was my boss at CUP for only two years, from 1993 to 1995. His impact on my career and on my life is far more reaching that a mere twenty-four months.
“Through his subtle and kind behavior, Mark showed me how to be in the workplace; I was spoiled by such an inclusive and supportive boss so early in my career.”
When I joined CUP our offices were in McBain Hall on Columbia’s campus (corner of 113th and Broadway). Mark sat at an enormous antique desk that filled his unduly small office. Sitting across from Mark could have, should have, been very intimidating for a person who had never worked in an office. I don’t once recall Mark giving me a hard time or ever having walked out of his office feeling badly. Mostly, I remember talking with him about publishing—what made a sellable editorial proposal, how to diminish returns, the scourge of the industry, how to efficiently complete B&N title cards—and about life on the road as a sales rep, including the practical and metaphorical advice of “if you don’t see the gas station sign from the highway, don’t get off at that exit.” These were not one-sided lectures but conversations where Mark asked my opinion as much as he shared his own. Through his subtle and kind behavior, Mark showed me how to be in the workplace; I was spoiled by such an inclusive and supportive boss so early in my career.
During the first few months of working for Mark I met several lifelong publishing friends, including Michael McCullough (now at Duke University Press), Eric Brandt (editorial director at University of Virginia Press), and Gene Taft (independent publicist). Over time and because I was well trained, I became sales manager at CUP, which gave me the opportunity to hire some of CUP’s current key sales staff, including Catherine Hobbs, Will Gawronski, and, of course, Brad Hebel. In turn, there are likely a dozen publishing professionals Brad mentored whose careers have flourished. Staff I hired after my time at Columbia (e.g., Alex Beguin at Cambridge University Press) are also a result of Mark’s impact. Directly and indirectly, Mark is responsible for long legacy of success at CUP and for a network of friendships across the university press community.
“Knowing that my boss trusted me to borrow his car and was OK with my hanging out with with his family taught me about professional openness, that letting people into your life and getting to know them personally didn’t diminish professional expectations and would create lasting bonds well beyond the actual time spent working together.”
My favorite Mark story isn’t the one when he hazed me on my first sales trip, telling me I could only spend the equivalent of $50 per night on a hotel, which forced me to stay at some sketchy drive-up motel an hour outside of St. Louis; or the one when we walked in silence across ice patches at the Walker Art Museum sculpture garden on a frigid February afternoon so I could process just how badly I had bombed my sales call and how I was going to rebound; or the one when he conjured tremendous restraint during a heated conversation with a sales manager from a consortium press who declared, “Well, Mark, I have my reality and you have yours.” (Mark had taken the radical view that seasonal catalogs should not be treated as semiannual phone books).
While those are all great stories and reveal sides of Mark that are mischievous, supportive, and tactful, the story that made the most impression actually features Mark on the periphery of the action. He asked me to drive out to Baker & Taylor’s New Jersey facility to do some prep work for his forthcoming sales call (logging in remotely to anyone’s database was years away). Small problem: I didn’t own a car, so Mark loaned me his, which I had to return to his home in Park Slope.
“My path hadn’t crossed with Mark’s nearly enough over the past few years, but any time we were at a professional event, I would always introduce him as the person who gave me my first shot at publishing. In reality, I should have introduced him as the person who helped me become who I am today.”
I got back to Brooklyn before Mark, giving me a chance to confidentially consult with his wife, Robin. I needed to know if it was appropriate to submit for reimbursement ALL of the receipts I had from multiple crossings over the Bayonne Bridge as I got lost and then made it worse. I didn’t necessarily want my boss to know I couldn’t read a map, but I also didn’t want to be out the money. I hadn’t previously met Robin, but she welcomed me into their home as if I was a long-time friend and advised me on handling my duplicate receipts. Knowing that my boss trusted me to borrow his car and was OK with my hanging out with with his family taught me about professional openness, that letting people into your life and getting to know them personally didn’t diminish professional expectations and would create lasting bonds well beyond the actual time spent working together.
My path hadn’t crossed with Mark’s nearly enough over the past few years, but any time we were at a professional event, I would always introduce him as the person who gave me my first shot at publishing. In reality, I should have introduced him as the person who helped me become who I am today. Without Mark taking a chance on me in 1993, I wouldn’t have the life, the friends, and the professional experiences I’ve been so fortunate to have. I know I am not alone in this view. A long overdue thank you, Mark.