Publishing Consultant Emma House Interviews Members Of The PublisHer Community.
Maria Pallante is President and CEO of the Association of American Publishers (AAP), after building a duel career as an eminent copyright lawyer and seasoned executive, including working for the Guggenheim art museums for nearly a decade and serving at the helm of the US Copyright Office for six years. She has delivered and published a number of major lectures, including ‘The Next Great Copyright Act’ at Columbia University and ‘I am the Captain Now: Resisting Piracy and Contortion in the Copyright Marketplace’, at the University of Wisconsin.
How did you come into the field of law and copyright in particular? What drove your career, and did any women inspire you?
I haven’t thought about this in a long time! I think there were two main drivers, really. I was attracted to the empowerment that the profession affords, meaning that I like understanding the legal frameworks and some of the specific laws—and gaps in those laws—that underpin the world we live in. And I also wanted a flexible career path, as I knew early on that I was equally attracted to the hands-on creativity that business environments offer, where in addition to advising leaders, I could also actively lead. It is always more fun to be at the table!
As I developed a particular passion for copyright law, I was very fortunate to hold both law and business positions within super interesting organizations, such as counsel and assistant director of the Authors Guild, counsel and licensing (branding) lead for the global Guggenheim network, policy head and executive officer of the Copyright Office, and now as AAP’s CEO where I use both my legal and business skills daily.
Stepping back a bit more, I attended a small college that had been founded by women and which was still highly supportive of women when I was there, decades after it had become co-ed. Out of great respect for that legacy and environment, I thought I might pursue an academic life. But a professor of mine pointed out that as someone more interested in politics and leading change as student government president, I was possibly a little too impatient for the life of a scholar and might actually be happier in law school. That moment seems funny to me now because it was so obviously true.
As a law student, I really gravitated to human rights issues, which led me to constitutional issues, which led me to the rights of individuals, which led me to a great respect for the importance of knowledge and creative expression. I took every class I could find on both copyright law and free expression. I immediately loved the complementary relationship of these two areas and how they make so many creative businesses—music, movies, and art—possible. But my first interest has always been books, because stories are at the heart of human creativity. As a child, I used to read under the covers with a flashlight.
Even in law school I started to think more robustly about business and sought out a non-legal internship at Simon & Schuster, which had a DC office at the time. But then I wrote a paper on some legal issues in the publishing industry which helped me meet a local lawyer and literary agent named Gail Ross, who in turn introduced me to the Authors Guild in New York, where I was fortunate to become a staff attorney early in my career, just as the never-apologetic change-maker Erica Jong was elected President of the then-ever-so-slightly-stuffy Guild council. Copyright has always been great for networking!
How was the environment for women in the legal profession when you started? Did it change as you went through your career?
As a young lawyer, I can’t say that I was focused on looking around at the top of the profession and asking why there weren’t more female judges or law firm partners, as I was more focused on trying to distill my own interests and find a paying path into copyright law. I also took an unusual path, against all advice I should say, by foregoing the traditional training grounds of a big law firm, so I missed out on some of the subtle and maybe not so subtle gender politics of early career life that some of my friends experienced.
I will say that when I became a mother, I did not have some of the flexible tools that are available now to both men and women. I remember that my husband, who was and is very hands on as a dad, could not count on understanding or support at work to help with paediatrician visits or other childcare needs, which in turn affected me as a working mother. For context, my kids are now 21 and 23, and I think that things have greatly improved. I’m glad to see women and men openly and confidently assert their family related leave requests.
What attracted you to the publishing industry and the role as President and CEO of the AAP?
Everything! I get to use my legal expertise to advance an industry that prioritizes creativity, education, democracy, and scientific progress. I have a platform by which to lead, an extremely talented staff, a membership I am honoured to represent, and a portfolio that is intellectually fascinating. AAP also has a proud history of having a hands-on Board of Directors comprised of CEOs from all parts of the industry. I was attracted at the outset by this energy and commitment, and I have learned a ton from working closely with so many leaders. As a Board, we discuss many episodic events, but the guiding star is always about leading for the long-term benefit of the entire industry and the greater publishing ecosystem. I’m proud to say that we have accomplished a great deal together in the past few years, making our policy work more impactful and our day-to-day operations more modern and efficient.
What are your impressions of women in publishing in the US?
They are incredible! Publishing is not a highly visible profession, meaning that for both women and men much of the culture is to stay behind the scenes, where one can focus on promoting authors or research or educators and students. But more to the point, U.S. publishing depends on women at every level and, as an industry, we do have a higher ratio of women in managerial positions than many other sectors. We are proud of this because it means that both women and men are committed to promoting qualified women to leadership positions. Of course, there is always more to do.
How is the AAP supporting women in publishing?
AAP’s primary role is to support the needs of its member companies and in this work many of our touch points are with women. My team and I work routinely with female CEOs, lawyers, and communications professionals, for example.
More precisely, I have been working with my Board executive committee to identify more female candidates for the Board. When I first joined AAP, we had three women on the Board out of twenty; now we have six and will soon have seven. These exercises are holistic in that the entire Board works together to achieve them, but they take time because gender isn’t the only balancing consideration.
At the staff level, we are predominantly female which includes minority women, but we are always looking for additional ways to diversify and challenge our small team. Small offices allow people of all professional levels, even interns, to have a lot of robust input and access to interesting work, but the scale is naturally limiting. For us it is super helpful to have such a range of member companies, by size and sector, because they are like an extension of our team—we get to leverage their brain power and experiences. As a CEO, I am also aware of my purchase power, and like to challenge firms and consultants to put together diversely qualified teams when competing for work.
Who motivates and inspires you now? Do you have any role models?
I like leaders who are passionate about their jobs but rigorous and clear-eyed about getting to the right answer, if that makes sense. I tend to avoid self-impressed personalities and ideologues because the world is complex and needs complex thinkers who are sufficiently aware and respectful of other people.
I am amazed by young global leaders like Malala Yousafzai and Greta Thunberg who have such clear and selfless objectives. In the United States, I greatly admire Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan, for their extremely impressive intellectual abilities and inspiring public examples of female leadership. I especially love that RBG is both a brilliant lawyer and a pop culture icon. At my daughter’s suggestion have been reading and re-reading Rebecca Solnit’s books; she is such a precise thinker and eloquent storyteller.
I have always admired the talents of authors, songwriters, filmmakers, and artists—how they inform and inspire us while also acting as catalysts for so many businesses. As the head of the Copyright Office, I was dedicated to giving them a voice within the greater copyright debates. Authors should have meaningful rights and remedies, including to the small transactions that sustain so many of them, and should not have to spend their days warding off an endless tsunami of online piracy. I think that writers, musicians, artists, and filmmakers are all part of the public interest equation that copyright propels.
What advice would you give to women?
The usual high-level advice is always true. Learn to listen to yourself, seek out women and men you think you can learn from, don’t be afraid to ask for advice, and don’t wait for a perfect time to seek, accept, or create a promotional opportunity or project. There is no perfect time. If you are a manager, I would say be especially sensitive to how women contribute to meetings and objectives, recognizing that female styles are sometimes understated.
I would also say that natural interests have a way of finding you, so don’t worry that you will get “off track” by trying new things. For example, I considered a publishing career early on, but pursued law and policy instead. Now, as the head of AAP, I am contributing to publishing in the precise manner that makes sense for me but one I could never have predicted. And embrace the job you are in! When I worked at the Guggenheim, the entire atmosphere of contemporary art and iconic architecture was intellectually manic, with my colleagues unapologetically looking for projects across the globe that had never been done before. By contrast, in government policy making, the work ethic is very comprehensive and deliberative and progress is incremental. Both experiences were invaluable to me.
Why do you think the PublisHer network is important?
The PublisHer network is fantastic! In a very short time, it has ramped up the otherwise happenstance way in which we meet other professional women during our hectic lives. PublisHer events have been disarmingly simple—dinners and discussions about and amongst women in publishing—but they have been a smash success thanks to the leadership and global perspective of my friend Bodour Al Qasimi. Last year, on behalf of AAP, I was very happy to join forces with Bodour to co-host the founding PublisHer event in London. The network is one way to give life to fresh ideas and, where needed, change. I think it will be a force for new business collaborations across continents.