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How To Hang Out With Bestselling Authors All Day

Katie Swalm Posted by Katie Swalm, Editorial and Digital Intern.

Katie is the Editorial and Digital intern at Berrett-Koehler, a third year student at Westmont College, and a habitual overcommitter. She currently lives and writes in San Francisco.

How To Hang Out With Bestselling Authors All Day

Image Credit: Marco Tedaldi

The elevator ascends to Floor Ten and shows a bird’s eye view of Oakland before I open the inscrutable wooden door to the second day of my new internship. I fortunately hadn’t committed any fireable offenses on my first day, and so Monday morning find myself sitting in a window-filled conference room with Berrett-Koehler’s bestselling authors and the CEO of the company.

How did I get here?   It begins with my boss Charlotte asking Jeevan (Berrett-Koehler's Managing Editor) and Steve (Berrett-Koehler's editor and CEO) for permission for her intern (that's me!) to sit and observe a full Author Day.  An Author Day is an important Berrett-Koehler tradition, whereby the author is flown into the office for an all-day meeting marathon.  Over the course of the day, they make important decisions ranging from cover to marketing strategy to final edits; and they also give a lunch-time presentation to all the publishing staff.   Here's how Jeevan responded to Charlotte's request that I join the authors for the full length of their important day: 

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To which our CEO, Steve, replies:

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And I am in. This non-hierarchical mindset at BK is what lands me, a second-day intern, in the room where the important decisions are being made - and not just in the room, but a participant of the conversation. My voice is not only welcomed but expected to be heard, which differs profoundly from my previous expectations of internship. When asked my opinion the first time, I offer a red-faced, stuttering statement; the second time, my voice and confidence start to emerge as I present what I think. 

I haven’t made a single coffee run yet - rather I contribute to a conversation about a developing manuscript that Berrett-Koehler will publish in seven months, called “The Outward Mindset,” about viewing other humans as with needs, goals, and motivations, the same as oneself. It is an exercise in empathy. 

And I sit quietly by as Steve praises the manuscript and subsequently uses the authors’ own material against them to (bluntly, but never cruelly) critique the authors’ disregard for deadlines. I take this as a fascinating exploration on handling conflict well. 

Later that day, the authors, Jim and Mitch, part of a larger project called the Arbinger Institute, incorporate the critiques into their lunch presentation, noting how they had been lax in sticking to their deadlines. They own up to their mistakes and turn them into anecdotes to share with the group. 

The meetings fly by, one after the other: Editorial, Marketing, Design, Sales, Digital. I find I am the most interested in design of the book cover, the editorial process, and knowing about the various markets over which my peers are buying books (podcasts are making a comeback.) Jim and Mitch have great senses of humor - in the Marketing meeting, Jim says, “Our only goal is to be the number one bestseller on the New York Times” - but given their prior track record, their joke could definitely become a reality. 

In terms of influence, Jim and Mitch have an upcoming workshop with a major city's police department; they'll train the police how to avoid the kind of errors in judgment which lead to lawsuits, complaints, and protests such as Black Lives Matter.  This is the practical application of “The Outward Mindset,” where the ideas become tangible and conflict can be resolved.  

If this sounds like a large claim, let me explain: the premise of the book is that when we live our lives thinking of people as objects, we are much less effective in our relationships, jobs, and all else. For example, when people in power see marginalized groups as more than stereotypes - as people with goals, thoughts, and motivations of their own - harm is reduced and peace is restored. It depends on us, and changing our mindsets.

If there is a place in our society today where conflict needs resolving and healing needs to occur, it’s regarding race. The authors prove that empathy can bring about justice and reduce the wounds that power inequalities have caused to diverse communities. This isn’t just a meeting, or words on a page - if police and other groups can implement these mindsets, this is the opportunity for growth, change, and healing on a large scale. 

Throughout the day, I learn the publication process, and more than that. I watch how members of the staff and authors present themselves professionally, the curiosity and care which the audience asks the authors questions at lunch, and the respect in each interaction between author and publishing team. I learn that these interpersonal skills are important, as much as any technical skill.

As an aspiring writer, I realize how being an author is more than holing up in a cabin in the woods with a typewriter. It is connection with the world, it is social media, it is hard work. It is about believing that you have something good to offer the world and then going through all the necessary channels to make those ideas into a reality. It is also humility about those same ideas which you hold dear. 

At the end of the day I shake their hands and they wish me the best of luck in future endeavors. I wish them luck too, though it is not luck they need so much as a really good team behind them. After today, I believe they do, and as a humble intern, am lucky myself to take part in it.