Simon & Schuster’s new publisher Dana Canedy is proof that major career transitions can work

Last week, Simon & Schuster named Dana Canedy, a former reporter for The New York Times, its senior vice president and publisher. In doing so, Canedy, who spent two decades at the Times and most recently as the administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes, became only the third woman and first black person to hold one of the biggest titles in publishing.

Canedy spent 20 years covering topics such as business and finance, race and class, terrorism, and others. She won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting as the lead writer and editor on the series, “How Race Is Lived in America.” At the Pulitzer Prizes, she ushered in a new era of cool when Kendrick Lamar grabbed a Pulitzer for his album, “DAMN.”

She is very much adaptive as she is in the moment and of the present. To some, she’s an outsider coming into the publishing world, but Canedy isn’t interested in labels. From talking to her over the phone recently, it’s clear Canedy has a vision for how she plans to lead Simon & Schuster, where she’s eager to get to work when she officially starts July 27, after taking the vacant seat left by Jonathan Karp, who was recently named president and CEO of the publishing house.

Before taking her new post, Canedy spoke to Ladders about career transitions, diversity in the workplace, working from home during a pandemic, and her vision for Simon & Schuster.

“Outsider” was one of the words describing your hire at Simon & Schuster. What do labels mean to you?

“I don’t care about labels whatsoever. I don’t put any weight on them. It’s really irrelevant to me.”

I’d like to talk about career transitions. You spent two decades at The New York Times before becoming the administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes, where you’ve spent the last three years. What do you take from your previous work and how do you apply it to Simon & Schuster?

“I think once a journalist, always a journalist. In fact, my journalism training and experience helps me in everything from parenting to management to innovation — I will always be a journalist. I also think as an author, particularly writing my own book, I used my journalism skills as they apply across so many areas of my life that I will continue to rely on them.

“In terms of transition, I think we are always in a time of transition in our lives. If you’re not in a time of transition in your professional life, you’re in a time of transition in your personal life and vice versa. Over the years, I’ve become very comfortable with the transition. I think one of the things I say all the time when I speak to students is that ‘Life is a series of phases.’ The minute you understand that and embrace it, transition just becomes so much easier to accept because we’re always in transition. You have to look at each individual transition as it happens and figure out what are the logistics of successfully getting through this specific transition. In this case, the most important thing is getting to know my new staff and our authors, listening to them on what excites them and their vision, and amplifying that and then adding to it with my own. That’s really how I plan to approach this transition and it’s how I’ve approached frankly all the career transitions I’ve been through.”

You’ve worked with books at the Pulitzer Prizes which doesn’t make this transition so drastic. Would you have been able to make the jump from when you were at the Times?

“I would have been ready. I went through about six major transitions at the New York Times. I started as a reporter trainee; I was thrust into a yearlong project on race-relations that wound up winning the Pulitzer Prize with a bunch of my colleagues. I immediately became the bureau chief for the state of Florida and then I was an assignment editor for national news. Then, I took on a senior leadership role. Working at the Times was actually the main thing that got me used to and comfortable to transition.”

I didn’t even think about internal transitions…

“Going from a business and finance reporter to a bureau chief responsible for all coverage in the state of Florida – that’s like taking on a new job. The same thing from going from a reporter at the New York Times to editing the biggest names in journalism – that’s a big deal. Going into a senior management role where you’re making very confidential and high-level personnel decisions, those are real transitions.”

What is the role of a publisher?

“The role is to select the books that we purchase, bring in new authors, have an editorial vision for the kinds of books we want to publish, determine how much we should pay for those books, how we market them, and even down to what a book cover looks like, to motivate staff and embrace their ideas, to ensure we’re profitable in selecting the books at the right prices and marketing them in the right way where they make money for the company. It’s a huge responsibility, but it’s one that I’m ready for.”

I listened to the NPR interview when you were discussing “American Dirt” – that book got backlash and basically “canceled” because people felt that that author wasn’t qualified to write that story. In your interview with the New Yorker, you dove into it a little more where you said writers should be able to write that story just as long as you’re “authoritative” on the subject you’re writing about. You’re arguing that writers should be able to write about whatever they want to write about as long as they master that subject?

“Absolutely – that’s always been the case. A book that’s not authentic whether it’s a memoir written about someone’s own life where they don’t go deep enough or a book where an author hasn’t done their homework in an area where they should have expertise. Readers will always see through that and that’s always been the case. I don’t see this as new. It doesn’t matter who writes what; a reader will embrace it if that author has his or her homework to really understand their subject matter, to master it – to own it – and present it in a way that’s compelling, understandable and true.”

That’s what you were explaining about your memoir, “A Journal for Jordan,” where you didn’t know much about the military and you were coming at it as an outsider…

“Yeah, that’s right. It’s even more than that – I thought I knew about the military and I realized I didn’t. Sometimes, it’s a matter of understanding what you don’t know. If you think you own a subject and you’ve done all the work to master it, it behooves you to go even deeper and say, ‘What am I missing here?’ I had to do that with the military story. I thought I understood the military and I realized through my reporting I really didn’t. I could’ve presented something that was thinly reported but my reporting chops kicked in and I knew I had to dig deeper on this.”

Speaking about books, how long has this transition been in your sights? Did you notice early on in your career that this is where you wanted to be?

“No. I just wanted to be all about words and letters whether that meant spending my entire career in journalism or transitioning as I now am into books. I had no game plan for that – I’m so grateful for things to evolve the way they have. But I knew I wanted to spend my life writing, reading, and editing. I’ve been able to do that.”

Diversity in the workplace is something always being discussed. You’ve encouraged diversity and inclusion when you worked at the New York Times and at the Pultizer Prizes, where rapper Kendrick Lamar won the 2018 Pulitzer for Music and this year’s Pulitzer Prize recipients included several black voices. How do we move forward with diversity and what do how do you plan to address it at Simon & Schuster?

“I think you’re asking two questions – where do we go with diversity in general and where do I want to go with Simon & Schuster. What I would say about Simon & Schuster is I have to get in there and roll up my sleeves to see what’s been done first and then I would have a much more informed answer about that.

“The simple answer is I don’t know. I think there’s work to be done everywhere but I have to get to the company and sort of figure that out by looking at diversity numbers in terms of authors, staff, and so forth. I have a long history of building out diversity programs specifically at the New York Times. I will probably borrow heavily on the work I did there. I think diversity, in general, has to be incorporated in management training, in hiring, looking at promotions, fresh assignments, making sure there’s a diverse slate of people being considered.I think there’s a number of things that can be done. Number one is I hope reporters from now when they’re interviewing someone about the job who happens to be a white male will also ask that question to them. I doubt very many white men that are being interviewed about new jobs like this get asked about this. That’s one thing that can and should happen. I don’t think those questions should only go to people of color when they land in big positions. There’s a tremendous amount of work to be done. I’m hopeful. I think there’s a movement that’s taken hold that will continue and it’s a broad coalition of people from all backgrounds and that gives me hope.”

Is diversity something you’ll be trying to address in the books you acquire?

“Absolutely. I’m interested in a broad range of books, but for sure – one of the reasons is it happens to be an of the moment topic that the public is interested in. Purely from a business point-of-view, it makes sense to go after those books but of course, that’s going to be part of my mandate and goal.

Are there any books you’ve read lately that you’ve really enjoyed?

“One of my favorite books that I just read again is “American Tapestry” by Rachel Swarns. She was a reporter for the New York Times that wrote this book about Michelle Obama’s white ancestors. It’s fascinating – talk about authenticity. The depth to which she went to track down Michelle Obama’s white ancestors and relatives that Michelle Obama didn’t even know she had and wove that into a narrative that was a really profound story in American history is absolutely fascinating and a riveting read.

What’s your morning routine?

“It depends on whether my son’s in school or not. When he’s in school, it’s getting out of the door as fast as we can and hope I didn’t forget to feed him. When he’s not, we spend time at our home on the Jersey Shore and usually get up and have a bike ride and breakfast together. I’ll get in front of my computer and answer email and get to work.”

What has the transition to work from home been like during the COVID-19 pandemic? Have you learned anything new about yourself as a leader?

“Actually not because I’ve been working remotely off and on for years. I took a year off to write my book and I wrote that from home. My staff at the Pulitzers – we’ve been working from home during the summer for the last three years. I think in general what we’re all learning that it works. People continue to be productive and get their work done. I think there’s going to be a profound impact on the workforce long term based on this experiment we were thrust into.”