Wendy J. Strothman ’72
As an undergraduate Wendy Strothman developed a reputation among University administrators as a “polite activist.” She marched against the Vietnam war and called for adoption of the New Curriculum, but what most struck her elders was the cogency of her thought. She was the kind of student who knew how to change a bureaucracy from within, holding it to its core values when expediency was arguing otherwise.
In the world of letters Strothman has also demonstrated for nearly thirty years that publishing quality books is fiscally sound. As director of Beacon Press in Boston she revived a once-proud but foundering independent publisher. At Beacon, Strothman produced two characteristically influential bestsellers—Marian Wright Edelman’s The Measure of our Success and Cornel West’s Race Matters—as well as Beacon’s first National Book Award winner, Mary Oliver’s New and Selected Poems. Revenues tripled, and in 1993 her fellow publishers named her “Woman of the Year” for her courage in speaking out during several First Amendment controversies.
In 1995 Strothman went corporate, joining the prominent publishing house Houghton Mifflin as executive vice president in charge of the reference and trade divisions. There again she has revived an institution with a noble history, but this time a publisher with a dispirited presence. “There’s been a lot of cynicism in the publishing community,” she says, “and low morale in the industry—first because of the chains, then Amazon, and then this looming threat of e-books. What people tend to forget is that quality still sells.” She laughs: “If you publish really good books, they will come.”
And so they have. Thanks to her leadership, Houghton Mifflin has won two National Book Awards, two Pulitzer prizes in fiction, two Caldecott medals (the highest honor for children’s literature), and a Newbery Award (the top prize for illustrated children’s books). “Those awards,” Strothman notes, “sell books.”
Ironically, one of Strothman’s greatest financial successes and most lasting legacies may be virtual: the just-released fourth edition of the American Heritage Dictionary, complete with color images and notes on slang and usage. In August, Strothman was predicting that digital dictionary licensing would produce $1 million in profits this year, accounting for more than 10 percent of her division’s earnings. After all, quality sells on-line, too.