Lisa Lucas didn’t want to leave her job as executive director of the National Book Foundation, which hands out the prestigious National Book Awards every year, but when the offer from Pantheon came, she simply couldn’t refuse.
“It felt important enough to become more uncomfortable — if that makes sense,” Lucas said in a phone interview. “I could not be more excited, but it is an interesting sort of feeling. The bus comes and you get on or you don’t. It’s the bus I’ve dreamed of my whole life. It just came at a time I did not expect.”
Reagan Arthur, the executive vice president and publisher in charge of Knopf, Pantheon and Schocken Books, began discussing the position with Lucas over the phone in early June. But Arthur, who moved from Little, Brown this year after the death of legendary Alfred A. Knopf publisher Sonny Mehta, has long had an inkling they’d eventually collaborate.
“You’re in this fairly small world of books, and you have these people and you think, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to work together someday?’” Arthur said over the phone. “And then when I got here — thinking about Pantheon in particular, what a great opportunity it is — suddenly the ideas merged in my brain.”
The qualities that had always attracted her to Lucas also made her feel the foundation director, formerly the publisher of the online magazine Guernica, was right for the new role: excitement, conviction and a new perspective.
“I look forward to her unique and irrepressible energy and enthusiasm and serious belief in literature,” Arthur said. “I think that’s going to be a combination that serves us all well. She’ll bring a great appreciation for a wide range of books, a great sense of identity about the history Pantheon has and a great vision for its future.”
Decades before the publishing houses were acquired by Random House, Pantheon and Schocken were separately founded in the U.S. by Jewish refugees in the 1940s; among their early authors were Martin Buber, Günter Grass, Elie Wiesel and Boris Pasternak. In recent years the imprints have published Ali Smith, Charles Baxter, Marjane Satrapi and Ha Jin.
“I think that my job, hopefully, is not just to imagine what the vision of a particular imprint is but to imagine the audience,” said Lucas. “To really be as open minded as possible about who might want to connect with any given book. And so, obviously my worldview is quite diverse — Black literature, Latinx literature, Korean literature, science writers. I’m interested in global voices.”
Her move comes a week after Simon & Schuster’s namesake imprint announced its new publisher as Dana Canedy, a journalist and the administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes. Canedy and Lucas will be the first Black people in their respective positions, at a time when the publishing industry — like many fields — is engaged in conversations about diversity and inclusion.
Lucas took the reins of the National Book Awards in 2016 and has been credited with revitalizing the foundation and its annual ceremony. In recent years, recipients have included Ibram X. Kendi, John Lewis, Colson Whitehead and Jesmyn Ward.
Lucas feels the job has prepared her well to work inside book publishing. “I want people to understand that you can’t just make an award,” she said. “You have to make readers, and that starts with children.”
Her mission, she says, will remain the same in many ways: “I think the aggregate effect all the books that we read have on our courage, our behavior, our culture — it’s enormous. I feel excited to work collaboratively with the team that is already in place here and to really think about how you protect and preserve the best of the past and build. You know — steady tracks that lead us into the future.”
She will depend on this team’s experience in areas of publishing that she doesn’t know much about yet — and their patience. “I’m excited to learn from them, to listen to them, to humbly acknowledge what I don’t know as a person who has not spent my life in traditional publishing,” she said. “And then also, with fresh eyes and clear eyes, figure out how we’re going to do this together.”
The long legacy of Pantheon, where she will start in January 2021, reminds her of her current position. “I have a very clear perspective and point of view in the work that I do,” she said, “but the way I have worked is to take those ideas and see how they sit with the existing framework of an organization, find balance there, and to push forward. I think that the synthesis of those two things can yield something really beautiful. I’m just super excited to get to work.”
Lucas recognizes the baby steps that publishing has taken with regard to diversity but believes the process will be a long one. “This is not going to be an easy road,” she said, “but I am encouraged by the movement. I’m encouraged by the fact that we seem to be moving into a new era.” And she sees her appointment as representative of more than just her individual success.
“Historically, as a Black woman who now works in the publishing industry, albeit at a nonprofit, it’s always felt very difficult to enter the spaces that are existing,” she said. “I think that’s not about me. That’s about a reckoning, right? That’s about a realization, and I just hope that this continues and creates opportunities for everyone.”
It will also benefit publishing on the whole. “We have been reading work by people who aren’t our color our whole life,” Lucas said. “So we’re in a unique and valuable place, because we understand all literature. We’ve grown up with the American curriculum, the American canon, we are fluent. We are multilingual in a way that many folks aren’t.”
As for when she might feel comfortable calling herself a publisher, Lucas said, “The idea of walking into a bookstore and seeing a book that you and your team saw value in, shepherded into reality and sold beautifully — that is the day that I look forward to.”