Thomas McCormack, ‘One of the Great Contrarians of Publishing,’ Dies at 92 (2024)

Thomas McCormack, the longtime, famously outspoken head of St. Martin’s Press, died on June 15. He was 92.

McCormack began his career in book publishing at Doubleday in 1959 as an editor for Anchor Books. He then held a series of leadership roles at Harper and Row, where he started Perennial Books, and New American Library, where he ran the Signet Classics series, before being named CEO of St. Martin’s Press in 1970.

When McCormack arrived at St. Martin’s, the house was a $2.5 million annual operation, but he “succeeded spectacularly” at the press, as the editors of Publishers Weekly once put it, “turning it in his 26 years there from an insignificant trade house on the brink of bankruptcy to a quarter-billion-dollar powerhouse with one of the most extensive lists in the business.” McCormack also served as editorial director—and, eventually, chairman—at St. Martin’s, and in that role he edited such titles as The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris, All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriott, and The Far Pavilions by M. M. Kaye.

“Tom was a meticulous, perceptive editor and a canny businessman, who built St. Martin’s from a small operation to one of the fastest-growing, most commercial publishers in the business,” said George Witte, SVP and editor-in-Chief of the St. Martin’s Publishing Group. “But more than anything, he was a teacher, and the time he gave to young editors was extraordinary. An unusual number of the assistants at St. Martin’s have gone onto significant executive and editorial careers—a lasting legacy of Tom’s mentoring.”

McCormack retired from St. Martin’s in 1996, when, curiously, his career became bookended by a pair of Johns Sargent; having started out his career at Doubleday under Sargent Sr., it was Sargent Jr. who succeeded him upon retirement. The latter Sargent, in his remembrances, called McCormack “one of the great original thinkers in publishing” who “generally ignored the wisdom of the day and pursued the business following his own logic. He created a unique business model, and took a shotgun approach to finding bestsellers,” Sargent said. “Tom valued input from everyone, and SMP was the only place in town where editorial assistants were allowed to buy books.”

A writer as well as a publisher, McCormack took his retirement as an opportunity to work on his own writing. McCormack was the author of a nonfiction guide, The Fiction Editor, the Novel, and the Novelist, as well as two plays, American Roulette and Endpapers, the latter of which enjoyed an Off-Broadway run. He also wrote an opinion column for PW on book publishing called “The Cheerful Skeptic,” which ran for more than a year on a (mostly) monthly basis

Like his friend Peter Mayer, the longtime CEO of Penguin who retired just five months before him, McCormack was an outspoken CEO during a period in which publishing leaders were more than willing to publicly share their opinions, on the business and beyond. PW once characterized him as “one of the great contrarians of publishing, who believed, against the publishing grain, in volume at all costs.”

That contrarian streak was certainly present in his PW column, which presented McCormack with the opportunity to rail against Bertelsmann’s acquisition of Random House, support the growth of superstores (if not bookstore chains), and criticized the way publishers used profit and loss statements. In his first PW column, published in September 1997, McCormack took on industry naysayers whom he felt always looked at the glass as half empty, something that was not McCormack's style: “The truth is that, though individual houses may need to be burped—and this has always been the case—the book-publishing industry as a whole is alive and very, very well,” he declared.

“He was never afraid to zig when the industry zagged,” Macmillan publisher-at-large Sally Richardson said of McCormack in 1997, when announcing him as the winner of that year’s LMP Award for Distinguished Achievement. Richardson added, in a statement shared upon McCormack’s death, that “Tom was a true original,” noting his “guts, charm, and integrity,” his “great fearlessness and a sense of adventure about the book business,” and his “genius for discovering talent.”

Bob Miller, president and publisher of Flatiron Books, added: “We all know the stories: talking in abbreviations, sharing the tuna fish sandwich at editorial meetings, reading the name of every submission out loud so nothing would be missed. But what I'm left with is Tom's relentless urge to teach. Whether you were an editorial assistant, a publicist, or an art director, Tom wanted you to know how a profit and loss statement worked, how a book was printed, how a book was shipped (and returned), and why every novel should have a character to root for. He wanted us all to think like publishers, to see the whole picture. Tom will forever be holding court on the 18th floor of the Flatiron Building, old-fashioned adding machine at this side, cigar in his hand, rooting for all of us.”

A memorial service for McCormack will be held at noon on Sunday, June 23, at the Riverside Memorial Chapel, located at180 W 76th St in Manhattan.

Thomas McCormack, ‘One of the Great Contrarians of Publishing,’ Dies at 92 (2024)
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