On December 3, 2009, AEP will induct Nelson B. Heller, Ph.D., MDR; Michael Ross, Encyclopaedia Britannica; and Pleasant Rowland, Rowland Reading Foundation and American Girl into the Educational Publishing Hall of Fame. Here in his first installment, Michael Ross, Senior VP, Education General Manager for Encyclopaedia Britannica, discusses the person who had the greatest influence on him and the advice he would give to those choosing educational publishing as a career.
Who has had the biggest influence on your career and why?
Probably the person who has had the biggest influence on my career was my first boss in publishing. Causa “Dick” Barry was a veteran newspaper guy who had covered the Korean and Vietnam wars with the Stars and Stripes in Asia, first as a reporter and later as a bureau chief. He was the bureau chief and my mentor when I was working at Time-Life Books in Tokyo. He understood and instilled in me several important lessons: the meaning of a deadline; accuracy and clarity as hallmarks of the editorial process; and accountability to your readers. In Dick’s prior roles, getting something right could have meant life or death, and he approached all of his work with that intensity.
Early on in my tenure there I made several mistakes that he would not tolerate, which put me on notice. Once, while I was working on a story a few minutes past the deadline, he ripped the paper out of my typewriter (it was 1979 and no one had computers) and sent it to press “as is”—incomplete, with my name attributed to it. It was an embarrassing by-line. Needless to say, I never missed a deadline again.
Knowing that falling short of his standards might end my career before it really got started—or worse, disappoint someone I respected—jolted me out of complacency. And I have not been complacent in my work since.
I learned discipline and humility from him and the obligation to perform at my best every day, not just some days. I would like to think that my work ethic is a natural trait, but I feel Dick Barry’s presence even today, 30 years later.
What advice would you give to someone starting out in educational publishing?
Have a passion for education and for the new publishing environment if you want to make a difference. In addition, understand the skills that are required, which go way beyond good grammar and writing—the stereotypical skill-set associated with publishing. Today the industry requires a broad range of communication skills in several media, knowledge of business and marketing, and the ability to think logically and solve problems quickly and creatively.
Be a citizen of the world, with diverse experiences, knowledge of foreign languages and cultures, a strong desire to continue to learn and explore, and a willingness to entertain multiple ways of looking at a problem. Be prepared to work hard, collaborate with others, and abandon your own assumptions if required. Constantly seek to innovate and, above all, listen to what the market is saying.
I believe that the best years for educational publishing are yet to come. We have great tools today that we never had before; we can focus on problem-solving instead of routine, iterative tasks that used to consume the majority of our time. What we need are young, smart people who can think broadly, are willing to reach beyond their comfort zones, produce products that respond to a diverse population of learners with an overwhelming number of choices, and be persuasive and passionate presenters of the truth.
Michael N. Ross is the Senior Vice President, worldwide product development and technology, as well as General Manager of Education, at Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc. He is responsible for the development of Britannica’s digital and print products and the sales and marketing activities for North American schools and libraries. Prior to joining Britannica in 2002, Michael held executive positions at several publishing companies. He began his career as an editor for Time-Life Books, and worked for three years in their Tokyo bureau.