Interview: Mary Ann Liebert

An entrepreneur speaks about inspiration, giving back, and dealing with change

Interview: Mary Ann Liebert

Mary Ann Liebert owns and runs the eponymous publishers Mary Ann Liebert, Inc., which she founded in 1980. The company publishes journals, books, and trade magazines in many fields, including biotechnology, clinical medicine, engineering, public health, law, and education. Its headquarters are in New Rochelle, NY.

Running a mid-sized, private publishing company in today’s world is a special challenge. In the following interview, Liebert delves into one of the most important but often overlooked things publishers do — audience field detection and cultivation. I listed this as the #1 thing on my list of “102 Things Journal Publishers Do,” and Liebert explains why she might agree.

The following interview was conducted by Caldera Affiliate Consultant, Nicola Poser.

Q: Please tell us a little bit about your background — education, professional life, and so forth that led you the founding of Mary Ann Liebert, Inc.

Liebert: I became interested in medical publishing when I was searching the literature to try to find an effective treatment for my father’s Parkinson’s disease. In the late 1960s, it was a very unusual illness. Although I was not able to find a new drug or therapy, this research ignited my interest in medical publishing. I am from Chicago and came to New York on a visit; by serendipity, I met Marcel Dekker and accepted a job with his company, Marcel Dekker, Inc. At that time, it was relatively small, so I was able to gain experience in many of the facets of scientific publishing, including production, acquisition, and marketing. When I lost that job, I decided to start my own imprint as I was intent on exploring an area of science that came to be known as biotechnology. I had the publishing expertise, and I am known for my prescience, which is something that is instinctive and cannot be taught. So with the publishing background, the ability to think futuristically, and a very robust Rolodex, I founded my own company in a corner of my living room.

Q: To many, the idea of starting a new publishing company might seem daunting.  Can you describe those early days for us?

Liebert: On the first day, I moved the piano out of my living room and hit the phone. I had excellent contacts and wasn’t wasting a minute. At that time, librarians were very receptive to new journals, so I was confident that the journals I would create would be warmly welcomed; they were ahead of their time. In a way, I wore blinders; yes, there were many companies in this space, but I was self-confident, well-connected, and determined. My first journal was Journal of Interferon Research, which then spawned a society, and I coincidentally reconnected with a pediatric surgeon, who received a promotional brochure; my first love, he is now my second husband.

At the same time, I launched Genetic Engineering News (GEN), which was the first publication for the biotechnology industry and was, and still is, the most widely read information source in that space with numerous complimentary products online and in print.

I still vividly remember the first subscription: it was for Journal of Interferon Research, and a check was enclosed. I couldn’t decide whether to cash it or to frame it, but I had just paid the printer the day this journal rolled off the press, so into the bank it went. Twenty years later, this researcher had moved to upstate New York, and I found her and flew her to New York City to be an honored guest at the company’s 20th anniversary party at Tavern on the Green.

As well as meeting scientists and clinicians, I made a point of meeting librarians and attended library meetings as well as discipline-specific scientific congresses, and we created some ourselves which were well attended with strong and well attended scientific sessions and well-attended trade shows.

Every day was different, almost as if each day was a new Day 1 because I was intent on creating publications that would be ahead of their time. AIDS Research made its debut two years before AIDS was declared a threat to public health; there was so little research that it took two years to publish it as a quarterly journal.

Q: When did you know it would succeed as a sustainable business?

Liebert: Knowledge, experience, my savings account, luck, and timing all came together and gave me full confidence that I would succeed, especially because I was intent on focusing on the areas of research and clinical medicine that were still developing. I was not going to be a me-too publisher. I like to be first, and this year, in fact, has been splendid in that regard as we launched The CRISPR Journal; Bioelectricity; and Autism in Adulthood. We are very selective and careful about what we launch. I look at our publication list with awe and with pride. That is why our journals have the slogan, “We publish with passion and purpose.”

Additionally, I have always understood that journal profitability can take a very long time. That necessitates the imperative of keeping an eye on the bottom line. And I do!

Q: Please tell us about the culture you wanted to build.  Why is culture important? What gets in the way of creating it?

Liebert: A collaborative culture is most important to me. We have a very collaborative office and encourage people to participate and share ideas regardless of their official role. We have many long-term employees, and they know that I care about them. It’s a happy office, and it is light and bright physically which is important. This office is buzzing with energy. It’s an exciting, wonderful place.

Culture gets trickier at scale but bringing in people who believe in the mission and supporting them helps. We have a saying that, “There is a Mary Ann Liebert at Mary Ann Liebert, Inc., and that makes a difference.” I really believe that to be true, that treating our employees well and modeling the commitment to our mission makes a difference.

I also believe in giving back. In 2007, I founded the Rosalind Franklin Society, which recognizes, fosters, and advances the important contributions made by women in the life sciences and related fields. We advocate for more tenure-track positions for women, inclusion on corporate boards, and for more nominations and prizes for women who deserve same, but which are much harder to achieve. The founding board, which is comprised of men as well as women, has five Nobel Laureates, and we are well recognized for our effective efforts to advance this mission.

Q: Can you speak about challenges you see in the industry?

Liebert: The early years were less challenging because the subscription system ruled.  Open Access had not yet come into play. Predatory publishers didn’t exist, and peer review ruled supreme.

Many librarians and scientists themselves do not know which journals are predatory and how thoroughly the peer review process is managed. In fact, [peer review] may not exist at all [at some predatory journals]. I once made up a preposterous abstract and submitted it when Dr. M. Liebert (which I am not!) was invited to submit a paper based on my “outstanding credentials.”  The editor liked my abstract (terrifying) and invited me to submit the whole paper. Of course I didn’t, but I called him and told him about it.  He said he had never seen it but was OK with the fact that the “publisher” had acted on his behalf.

Peer review must be assiduous and this takes time. A decimal in the wrong place could have a terrible effect on dosing, leading to complications and worse.

I also don’t like to see money taken from the bench. Research dollars are so hard to come by, and institutions have their own costs that are taken from same. Are APCs the best use of public and private funding? Also, smaller colleges without big endowments often do not have robust funding to support author funded publishing.

Q: If you were to start a publishing company in today’s publishing landscape, what do you think you would need to do differently? What remains the same?

Liebert: The most productive way to start a company, publishing, or related to publishing, is to try to think ahead of the curve and be sure you have the money to support and sustain these efforts. And understand that work-life balance is mostly a fantasy. I see opportunity for publishing books that focus on new sciences and apply them to fiction or screenplays or to develop them with companies that want to grow their documentary endeavors. There is a big opportunity in this niche. NOVA would be high on my list of places with which to connect. I look forward, never backward. There are wonderful opportunities for new writers and artists who can well illustrate new technologies. Money, a good imagination, and dedication are all necessary components. and experience enables many ideas to become realities. Familiarity with the many technologies that publishers use is an enormous asset and enables you to approach publishing uniquely. I still have my desk, by the way, but I am never without my iPads.

For anyone who wants to move up the publishing ladder, experience in more than one specific area is important. This is possible in companies that foster successful collaboration between departments. This is why I strongly believe that working some days at home is not the best plan for those who aspire to big positions. The exchanges that take place in the office are very often spontaneous, and such interactions lead to new ideas and new projects. Being on site is the best way to stimulate such thinking and move new ideas forward. Smaller companies provide the best opportunity for that.  Interaction with your peers as well as various heads of departments; that gives you invaluable insight and opportunities. You will be SEEN, and that counts. Be present!

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