March 16, 2018

Remembering Peter Workman

Peter Workman

The New York publishing world—and beyond—turned out in force on May 14 to pay tribute to Peter Workman, whom Barnes & Noble chairman Len Riggio termed “one of the brightest stars, and greatest minds, in the history of publishing.” Few of the nearly 1,000 attendees at the memorial service held at Columbia University would disagree.

As family, friends, and colleagues looked on, photos from Workman’s life well lived spooled on a huge screen: skier, outdoor lover, bar mitzvah boy, high school and college grad, husband, father, grandfather, and publisher.  Perhaps an omen of things to come, Peter Workman proposed to Carolan Raskin in front of the stamp collection at New York’s 42d Street Library. (In an aside, she said, “I really don’t want anyone messing around with that library.”)

The renowned founder and leader of the still-independent Workman Publishing Company, who died April 7 from cancer, pushed books like the What To Expect When You’re Expecting franchise, The Silver Palate Cookbook, and Sandra Boynton’s numerous titles to perennial best-sellerdom in bookstores and libraries through a combination of obsessive attention to detail and marketing genius.

His secret, said Riggio, was “looking at books through the eyes of the consumer… almost as if his customers were collaborators in the publishing process.” He gave them books they didn’t even know they needed, and “he created each book as a work of art,” said Riggio. Workman considered not just the content but the ink, the paper, the cover, the end papers, and more, and his books often went late to press as he reached for perfection. “My books are keepers,” Riggio recalled Workman telling him, and then, ever the salesmen, added, “They should all be facing out.”

The family, friends, and business colleagues who spoke at the service, including Carolan, Katie, and Elizabeth Workman (his daughters), all alluded to the “paradox” of the man. He was a “tough teacher” as a boss and “tough and a pussycat,” as a friend, said Elizabeth Scharlatt, publisher of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, which Workman bought in 1989, and which published such star titles as Water for Elephants, A Reliable Wife, Mudbound, and The Girl Who Fell from the Sky. “He hired people who had no experience” in the jobs they were hired for, said Scharlatt, yet many of those same people are with the company today. “He led us all to be our most competent selves.” Like Riggio, Scharlatt, too, gave Workman’s secret of success: “Care deeply, deeply. Make sure everyone around you feels deeply, too. Have a very good time….”