By JULIE BOSMAN
For decades, even after it was renamed and relocated from its original home at Radcliffe, the Columbia Publishing Course seemed unchanging, a genteel summer tradition in the book business, a white-glove six-week course in which ambitious college graduates were educated in the time-honored basics of book editing, sales, cover design and publicity. Not this summer.
With the e-book revolution upending the publishing business, Madeline McIntosh, the president of sales, operations and digital for Random House, stood at the lectern on the opening day in June, projecting a slide depicting the industry as a roller coaster, its occupants frozen in motion at the top of a steep loop.
“You might be wondering if this is the moment where we’re at,” Ms. McIntosh, a tall figure in a slim navy dress, said with a smile, as dozens of students with plastic name tags hanging around their necks watched raptly.
So the summer session began with a focus on “The Digital Future.” Students were schooled in “Reinventing the Reading Experience: From Print to Digital” by Nicholas Callaway, the chairman of a company that produces book apps for children. Managers from Penguin Group USA explained how to master “e-marketing,” and a panel of digital experts talked about short-form electronic publishing — not quite a magazine article, not quite a book — which is so new, the genre doesn’t really have a name.
“You never know what’s going to happen,” Carolyn Pittis, the senior vice president of global author services at HarperCollins, told a packed room of students several days into the course. “So it’s very exciting for those of us who spent many years when a lot of things didn’t happen.”
As the students scribbled in notebooks and clicked on laptops, Ms. Pittis recounted some of the biggest developments in the industry so far in 2011. The proliferation of e-readers and the growing digital market share of Barnes & Noble. Amanda Hocking, a formerly self-published author, making a book deal with a traditional publisher. J. K. Rowling’s selling her own “Harry Potter” e-books online. Even the surprise success of “Go the — to Sleep,” a hilariously vulgar children’s book parody that rose to the top of best-seller lists after being widely pirated via e-mail for months.
In the past year, e-books have skyrocketed in popularity, especially in genre fiction like romance and thrillers. For some new releases, the first week has brought more sales of electronic copies than of print copies.
All of which were ripe topics for discussion for students in the course this year, even as they deciphered messages that could be simultaneously weary and optimistic.
“A lot of what we hear is, ‘Is the Internet going to eat book publishing?’ ” said Selby McRae, a petite 22-year-old from Jackson, Miss., who entered the course after graduating from Hamilton College and completing an internship at the University Press of Mississippi. “And then they say, ‘But everything’s better than ever!’ ”
After appearing on a panel with other literary agents, Douglas Stewart of Sterling Lord Literistic said he had simply tried to explain the unfamiliar aspects of his job. “It is a really scary time to go into the business, and I’m sure they’re hearing that,” he said. “We’re all thinking that as we look out at the sea of eager faces — I wonder if they should be doing this right now?”
The course, which begins every year in June, bills itself as the “shortest graduate school in the country,” where students can learn in six weeks what it would take them a year to learn in the real world. (The second half of the course is devoted to magazine publishing.)
Legions of high-placed publishing executives have been through the course, like Morgan Entrekin (Radcliffe Publishing Course ’77), the publisher and president of Grove/Atlantic; Arthur Levine (R.P.C. ’84), who has his own children’s imprint at Scholastic; and Molly Stern (R.P.C. ’94), the senior vice president and publisher of Crown Publishers and Broadway Books.
This year’s 101 students were chosen from more than 475 applicants, the highest number in years, showing that they were not deterred by the $6,990 fee for tuition and room and board on the Columbia campus — or by the limitations of entry-level positions that pay around $30,000 a year .
The chosen candidates tend to emerge from college with impressive résumés: some have journalism degrees, successful climbs of Mount Kilimanjaro or stints working in independent bookstores or for literary magazines.
“It was pretty magical for me,” said Scott Moyers, the publisher of the Penguin Press, who attended in the summer of 1991. “I went to a small public liberal arts school in Virginia; I didn’t know anybody in New York. I didn’t know anybody in publishing. I’d actually never been north of the Mason-Dixon line. For me, it was quite heady. It was a very cosmopolitan mix of kids.”
The course was established in 1947 at Radcliffe College and was held for more than 50 years in Cambridge, Mass. In 2001, after Radcliffe and Harvard University merged, there wasn’t much room for a publishing course at the newly renamed Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, so with the blessing of Drew G. Faust, the president of Harvard, the course was moved to Columbia, where it was housed in the School of Journalism building.
Since it moved to Manhattan, students have been able to plug directly into the industry and mingle with editors at book parties in the evening, a far cry from the cozy isolation of Cambridge. It is not unheard of for a student to get a job in publishing and drop out of the course before it is over.
Lindy Hess, the director of the course for 24 years, said she designed it to evolve with the business. “The industry has changed,” Ms. Hess said. “My philosophy is for the course to reflect the industry as it is, so students graduate and they know exactly what’s happening. Students have to learn all the old stuff and get a grasp on the digital world.”
After two weeks of lectures and panels explaining the basics of book publishing, students are divided into groups to form their own fictional publishing houses, designing covers, developing marketing plans and selling the finished products only days later to industry professionals like Sessalee Hensley, the fiction buyer for Barnes & Noble.
First they must appraise their own work. During one staff meeting, the group that called itself Wensel & Roe fine-tuned its catalog offerings, which included a cookbook with recipes inspired by romance novels, a nonfiction book examining how parenthood changes the brain and a biography of the fashion designer Alexander McQueen.
Last Wednesday, the real-life publishing executives took their turn. Sarah Crichton, the publisher of her own imprint at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, sat at the head of a conference table with a copy of the group’s professionally bound booklet of catalog copy, publicity materials and sales projections as the students nervously awaited her comments.
“This is extremely impressive,” Ms. Crichton said, peering around the table. “You’re grappling with a lot of the same things we’re grappling with, which is the impact of e-books. You’re taking it into account and thinking about it, and that’s very impressive and difficult. It’s something that we wrestle with on an hourly basis.”