Photograph by Jody Culkin
Photo by Marcia Wilson/Widevision Photography
Photograph by Troy Johnson
Calvin Reid interviewing Junot Diaz, photograph by Jody Culkin
When I began my career as a book publicist, Calvin Reid was the first journalist I met in person. His warmth and wit, his disarming charm, and his knowledge of the book publishing industry cannot be underestimated. As Senior News Editor of Publishers Weekly, the premier trade publication, Mr. Reid has been at the forefront of the major changes in book publishing for the past thirty years.
More than a reporter, Mr. Reid is a businessman. He understands the nature of the medium to the point that he has been a central figure in the rise and success of graphic novels as a genre of publishing. But more than that Mr. Reid is an artist himself, which came as a wonderful surprise to me as we spoke at length for The Click.
Mr. Reid observes, "I always loved books as a kid. As a job, it was a pure accident. They used to call book publishing, 'The Accidental Profession.' A lot of people entered the profession from very disparate fields. Often they started in business, and couldn't bear it any longer. They made career turns and lucked into publishing. I came about it the same way.
“My background is as an artist. I have a BFA in Art Education with a minor in Photography from Howard University, and an MFA in Printmaking from the Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. I came to New York to be an artist. I arrived June 7, 1981. I continued to produce etchings and lithographs as well as drawings after I moved to New York and I have exhibited widely in New York and in shows around the country. Moving to New York and meeting and marrying my wife were the two best decisions of my life. My plan was to find a way to work and to do the artist thing. I got a job as a temp; I was a “Kelly Girl” (laughs). I worked for Kelly Services in different places including Matthew Bender, which is a legal publisher. Later I switched jobs and became a typist at Library Journal, which eventually led to me becoming a journalist.
“Library Journal was owned by R.R. Bowker, the leading trade magazine publisher for the book world. They were a reference publisher for publishers and libraries. Bowker also owned Publishers Weekly (PW) at the time, the trade journal of the book publishing industry, which has been in business since 1872.
“At Library Journal I typed up the book reviews that librarians wrote on little sheets of paper, each about 300 words long. They were mailed in from all over the country and even from Europe where we had our far-flung correspondents. I typed them into the Atex system; this was back in the early days of digital layout and electronic production.
“This was a great job to have as an artist. I showed up, typed, and was out by 5:01 p.m. I was surrounded by books. Books were always magic to me. They take you away from where you are, they make you think, and they enable you to connect with other people even though no one is around. Books provide entertainment and education.
“I was a curious kind of kid, always reading books, newspapers, and comics (comics obsess me to this day) and sports. I still love comics and sports to this day. I was always a reader. As a kid I realized that if you read a lot you had an edge on people particularly adults, especially if you read the newspaper and remarked on a story. I remember thinking that they liked that. I read endlessly. Moving into a job about books was the most natural thing in the world. In the mid 1970s, I got antsy in school and dropped out of college. I worked in a bakery in Washington, D.C. This was some of the hardest work I ever did. Finally I went back to school about two years later. When I eventually went to grad school, when I did have to work, it was at a clerical job, typing. A clerical job was a much easier way to make a little money. And while I didn’t make as much money, I still had energy to go into the studio after work.
“I had always done a little writing since college. If you read a lot you are probably going to end up writing a little. My art, drawings and prints, has a lot of writing in it. I use it in the work. I also wrote for The Hilltop, the Howard University student newspaper, and was the newspaper’s photo editor. We had a big budget, I think about $80-90K per year, and all the editors were paid a stipend. I wrote about jazz and art in The Hilltop and supported myself as a freelance photographer covering a regular schedule of writers’ conferences held at Howard. While I was there, I photographed people like James Baldwin, C.L.R. James, and LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka and musicians from Archie Shepp to Sonny Rollins. I also attended FESTAC 77 in Lagos, Nigeria. It was an Olympics of African Diasporan culture. It was held for one month, every four years and attracted artists, intellectuals and academics of African descent from around the globe. I covered the whole event as a photographer along with another reporter from The Hilltop. Probably one of the most incredible experiences of my college years.
“One of my great friends from Howard of that time is the journalist/critic and musician Greg Tate. He was an all around Afro-Futuristic icon even then. When I came up in Washington, D.C. during the 70s everyone was publishing their own little magazines at the time. We were all helping each other do our own magazines. It was an interesting time to be at Howard as it was a time of transition from the black power movement to more assimilationist black cultural politics that followed. The art department in particular was very focused on black nationalist sensibility and activism and very concerned with the role of the black artist. That really prepared me for the rise of multiple viewpoints, parallel art worlds, market factions, and commercial critiques.
“New York is the central marketplace for art and after grad school (and a short stay in Pittsburgh) I had moved to the East Village/Lower East Side of New York just as the East Village art scene started to buzz in the 1980s. I was making prints at the historic Printmaking Workshop, under the late Bob Blackburn. A little later my roommates (shout out to Patty Harris and Janet Gillespie!) and I started a zine called 108 East Village Review, named after the building number of the loft we were living in. We reviewed the shows and artists on the gallery scene that blew up after FUN Gallery opened in the East Village. We reviewed shows, went to parties, rode that wave.
“The East Village was having a moment, and I said, ‘Hey we should write about this!’ The artists were doing it themselves. We weren’t waiting to be picked out of a crowd. It was a very cool time to be in New York. You could show your work in a gallery, or an abandoned building. You could meet editors, collectors, curators, and publishers directly. Writing about art got me into shows. The early East Village Galleries, artist-run galleries, that were showing their friends before it all evolved into a more professional gallery scene. I eventually went on to write about contemporary art for the old Arts magazine, Art in America and other art magazines.
“I picked up a lot of skills while I was an art student at Howard that became useful to me over the years. While I was at Library Journal, I moved over to Publishers Weekly to be the Assistant to the News Editor in 1986. In a weird way it is almost the same job as I have now—except everything has changed. PW is a multi-faceted publication that is updated hour-by-hour. Today PW is a content-generating monster with the weekly print magazine, BookLife, a new self-publishing supplement, 8 podcasts (including More to Come, the comics podcast), a Twitter account with 400,000 followers, an internet radio show and more. The magazine went from having virtually no competition to having everyone compete with us; in the digital era anyone with a blog and a Twitter account is breaking news about books.
“I am not only a Senior News Editor at PW, I am also the co-editor of PW Comics World, with my colleague and co-editor Heidi MacDonald. My obsession with comics has evolved into a department in the magazine. I first began reviewing graphic novels at PW in the late 1980s before eventually launching regular news coverage of comics publishing and later, with Heidi, PW Comics World, a now-twice a month newsletter on comics and graphic novel publishing.
"Comics in this country have traditionally been part of the magazine industry. But thanks partly to the role of PW and our coverage (as well as the changing attitudes of librarians and teachers), comics and graphic novels are now established as a category in the book industry. Book-format comics were originally an afterthought in the comics industry. That was transformed when graphic novels became a significant and growing niche in publishing proper. The big New York houses now all have imprints or editors that acquire comics titles for their lists. PW has become a pulpit to bring comics to the book market. It has proven itself indispensable.
“Comics are a powerful creative medium in their own right but they are also the seed for so many other media: movies, Broadway shows, and merchandise. Comics are an inexpensive way to produce ideas that become fodder for blockbuster projects. It became clear to me in the 1980s through the 1990s that comics were a business opportunity in the book trade, and that there was money to be made in his market, particularly with the rise of manga, Japanese comics, which grew in popularity during this period. Comics in Japan are bigger than the superhero genre, which has dominated American comics for decades. What has really transformed the American comics marketplace and brought in new readers has been an explosion of genres beyond the superhero genre, including literary fiction, serious nonfiction, adventure, fantasy, and science fiction. As comics have grown in the book trade, distributors and other vendors have grown up to support comics in the book industry.
“Publishing has been transformed by the digital world. At one point, like so many other legacy print publications in the digital era, PW was looking into the abyss of declining print circulations and the lack of a digital strategy. But the magazine has revived itself, thanks to the acquisition of PW by our new owner George Slowik in 2010. George rescued PW and gave the staff the tools to reinvent the magazine for a new era in book publishing and book retailing. In some ways, the new PW is doing what the old PW has always done: covering the industry and spotting the trends, the opportunities, the big books, and the players in book publishing. The challenge now is covering an industry that doesn’t look anything like it once did. I feel like I live in the future. I don’t even remember how I was able to do my job in the old days. “
"Here’s a picture of me with my first boss at PW, PW’s longtime news editor Madalynne Reuter, who hired me, although I had no experience or journalistic credentials of any kind, and turned me into a book industry reporter. She was the best. She died a few years ago at the age of 90. The picture was taken about 1993 at her retirement party at the old Lions head bar in the Village."
Artwork by Calvin Reid
Artwork by Calvin Reid