State of the Industry: Interview with Jill Maxick of Prometheus Books

By Maria Giordano
Killer Nashville Staff

The symbolism behind the name Prometheus Books is not mistaken. Much like the Greek mythological character, Prometheus, who gives fire to mankind, so does the venerated publishing company give to mankind with its unique and an intriguing stable of reputed fiction and nonfiction writers. Think Issac Asimov and Victor Stenger, who are just a couple of the many names among its stable of authors during the company’s history.

Prometheus was self-sold and self-distributed until 2013, when the company started a sales and distribution partnership with Penguin Random House. Jill Maxick, vice president of marketing for Prometheus Books, took some time to speak with Killer Nashville to share insight into working at Prometheus Books, and it’s history.

Prometheus Books

KN: What is the origin of Prometheus? Who started it? What’s the history, and how does  its original mission manifest today? What’s it like today, and how many people work there today?

JM: Paul Kurtz founded Prometheus Books in 1969 when he was a professor of philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo. Kurtz, who died in 2012, used to call Prometheus “a hobby that got out of control.” The press was started, literally, at his kitchen table, so that Kurtz could put forth ideas that he and his colleagues felt were missing from public discourse at the time.

VP Marketing Jill Maxick
VP Marketing Jill Maxick

He wasn’t initially seeking to create a money-making business, but rather, to stimulate conversation, offer alternative viewpoints, and—purposefully through the lasting medium of books—light the way to reason, intelligence, and independence (like the Greek god Prometheus did.) Our list began with mostly the categories of applied philosophy, atheism, secular humanism, skepticism, and critical thinking. Over time, we developed a popular science list that remains one of our core strengths, and ultimately established a very diverse catalog while still preserving those core niches. We publish in psychology, mathematics, social issues, health and medicine, quirky histories, etc., and often find our books bridge the gap between academic application and the popular, consumer market. Our acquisition philosophy was to seek intelligent nonfiction for the thoughtful lay reader―books that inspire thought and require some intellectual commitment and curiosity. Even though we’ve grown to include two genre fiction imprints (Pyr, a science fiction and fantasy line, and Seventh Street Books, a crime fiction imprint) we still keep Paul Kurtz’s philosophies in mind and don’t often publish nonfiction that’s contrary to his ideological principles.

Paul Kurtz
Paul Kurtz

There are 30 full-time staffers at Prometheus Books, primarily based in our Amherst, New York headquarters, although a few editors work remotely from other states. We were self-sold and self-distributed for our entire history until 2013, when we started a sales and distribution partnership with Penguin Random House. That required huge changes in how (and when) we execute nearly every aspect of our business. The past few years have been a period of rapid evolution in many ways—from physical overhauls, like eliminating our huge warehouse; to staff transitions, such as fresh editorial and artistic direction for our Pyr imprint; to operational changes, like tweaking our production calendar and procedures. But the dust is settling, new habits are forming, and we could not be happier with what PRH has added to our company’s success and growth.

KN: Who are some of the most widely known authors published by Prometheus?

JM: In nonfiction, we’ve published books from many influential names in science, including Neil deGrasse Tyson, Isaac Asimov, Martin Gardner, Victor Stenger, Nobel Laureate Leon Lederman, and well-known forensic personalities like Dr. Henry C. Lee and Cyril Wecht. We’ve had authors like Steve Allen and Peter Ustinov who were familiar arts and culture names. In genre fiction, we’ve been fortunate enough to publish rising stars like Joe Abercrombie, Adrian McKinty, and Mark Pryor, as well as established names like Mike Resnick and Carolyn Hart.

KN: What’s it like working at Prometheus?

Prometheus Books Exterior SmallerJM: Thirty employees may sound like a lot for an independent press, but we’ve always published anywhere from 70 to 100 books a year, and kept nearly everything in print, so that’s a lot of titles to manage. We also outsource very little, doing everything in-house from typesetting to cover design, copyediting to publicity, print-on-demand to proofreading. So the workload isn’t exactly light, but there’s never a dull moment! There are some employees who have always worn multiple, even quite disparate, hats, and many of us balance big picture planning with executing everyday tasks. That kind of stretch can be overwhelming, but it’s also gratifying. For example, even a junior publicist can have significant input into the branding and positioning process, and really anyone here can have a significant influence on our product and program.