Best Sellers Sell the Best Because They’re Best Sellers

Because of its enormous publishing program, with more than 300 imprints globally and a backlist going back nearly a century, the publisher leads the literary world on seemingly every axis, from the highest-brow fiction to pulpy commercial authors. It publishes Nobel Prize winners like Kazuo Ishiguro and Alice Munro; Pulitzer Prize winners like Colson Whitehead, Anne Tyler and Jon Meacham; and prose deities who shaped 20th-century American literature, including Cormac McCarthy, John Cheever, Eudora Welty, Saul Bellow, William Faulkner, John Updike and Joan Didion. It publishes blockbuster authors like Dan Brown, E L James, John Grisham and Danielle Steel. It publishes mega-best-selling children’s and young adult authors like Dr. Seuss and John Green. It publishes the Obamas, whose memoirs Penguin Random House acquired with a record-breaking $65 million advance.

When the coronavirus hit, Ms. McIntosh left her Manhattan home, a recently acquired apartment in the Dakota, for a second property in Orient, at the extremity of the North Fork of Long Island. She has ridden out the pandemic there with her husband, the thriller writer Chris Pavone; their teenage twin boys; and a Labradoodle named Wally.

Mr. Pavone is published by Crown, a Penguin Random House imprint. The couple say they observe a strict separation of “church and state” when it comes to his career: Her only involvement is reading early drafts and passing along encouragement. Most days, he cooks dinner for their family, and enjoys their household division of labor — their sons see a father who’s around for homework help and a mother who’s a C.E.O.

To unwind, he told me, Ms. McIntosh “bakes maniacally” on the weekends. As Covid-19 began to spread, she bought 100 pounds of flour, which she steadily converted into bread, cookies, pies and cakes, though she took a hiatus after breaking her hand in a paddle-boarding accident this summer.

In some ways, Ms. McIntosh’s ascent has been typical — a steady climb up the corporate ladder. But she also stands out as someone who at every turn has rejected conventional thinking, and who has had an uncanny degree of foresight about technological change.

The daughter of an arts administrator and a banker, she grew up in St. Paul, Minn., and Pittsburgh, and studied fine arts at Harvard, hoping at first to become a curator. She took the Radcliffe Publishing Course instead, leading to a toehold in the industry as a temporary assistant to an editor at HarperCollins, then to a permanent position at Norton.

By 1994, Ms. McIntosh saw that the internet would irreversibly transform publishing, and that year she got a job in the new-media department at Bantam Doubleday Dell, a division of Bertelsmann. Her work involved creating proposals to convert texts to CD-ROM and developing and managing the company’s first website. Eventually, she was put in charge of online sales — a small fraction of the business, but one she suspected would grow. Her first task was to set up an account for Amazon, when no one really knew what it was, a bookstore or a distributor.

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