Is an MBA “value added”? Ask the grads

While MBAs have long been thought of as a major advantage in the corporate job market, there have traditionally been relatively few in trade publishing.  But that has been changing in the last decade or so – beyond house heads such as HarperCollins’ Brian MurrayMacmillan’s John Sargeant, and Perseus’s David Steinberger who have theirs (Simon & Schuster’s Carolyn Reidy has a PhD), Random House’s four newly minted SVPs Milena Alberti, Amanda Close, Nihar Malaviya, and Nina von Moltke all have them.

For many who have sought their MBAs, especially if they have already started on their publishing careers, the most important goals are self-fulfillment and rounding out the experience they already have. “I was working in an editorial department and found myself growing more interested in the business end of publishing,” explained Literary Agent Robin Straus of Robin Straus Agency. “When I did a contract or a projected P&L on a title, I wanted to really understand the different elements in the publishing process and how they contributed to the eventual (hopeful) success to the bottom line…  I was an art history and English major in college and thought it would be useful and interesting to learn more about business.”

“Since college I kept a toe in the academic world by taking a few classes over the years,” said Sabrina McCarthy, President, Perseus Distribution Client Services who took a bigger step when she started NYU’s part time night program. “I had been working in sales for 6 years at that point and knew I wanted to go back to school and was looking for opportunities. Our CEO at the time recommended an MBA as a more useful degree than the one I was considering, a Masters in Organizational Development. I was ready to go back to school and was looking for the next step in my career. While I enjoyed sales, I knew it was not what I wanted to do long term.” In the midst of her degree she was promoted to Director of Business Development at PublicAffairs.

The idea of a career change was a major motivating factor for HarperCollins’ Director, Digital Business Development, Adam Silverman, who, prior to his MBA education, was his own boss as the co-owner of a record label. “Having only worked for myself for 8 years, I was interested in moving away from music… Getting an MBA was an opportunity to take a break and assess where the next opportunity was,” Silverman explained. “For me, there was a real value in getting an MBA for the corporate side of publishing. Especially coming from an entrepreneurial background and having no experience in a large corporation, the program was a real eye-opener culturally.”

Robin Straus agreed, “The publishing world is now a much more corporate environment than it was when I was in business school and if having the degree opens employment doors, wonderful, do it.” However, “There are still many subjective mysteries in this business that are not explained in an MBA classroom.  ‘Word of mouth,’ ‘taste in fiction,’ etc.” In fact, Susan Weinberg, Group Publisher for Basic Books, Nation Books, and PublicAffairs with Perseus, admits that while her MBA helped give her a “level of comfort with the numbers that would otherwise be hard to get in the analytical side of business,” she did admit, “Math in publishing is not that complicated.”

The knowledge of financials and business models in publishing is particularly applicable, however, in start-ups, away from the traditional publishing sphere. For Brendan Cahill, former VP and Publisher of Open Road and current President and CEO at Nature Share, an MBA represented an advantage in keeping up with the quickly-changing times. “When I was applying to programs, I saw a lot of changes in the media industries in magazines and newspapers in general, with search-driven news gathering, and in music with Napster and iTunes,” Cahill elaborated. “I saw that publishing was facing a similar transformational event. I did the full-time program and was deeply immersed in 21st century business, learning analytics, finance, strategy, marketing, and operations. All aspects of the program were vital, and I didn’t see myself coming back to publishing in the same capacity.”

For Cahill, the biggest value of his MBA was being able to keep up with the bigger industry shifts, particularly with the digital boom. “In a more digital world, there are opportunities to optimize things that were taken for granted before. Things are much more efficient in the digital publishing world but the onus is on you to be more forward-thinking, especially as longer production cycles have moved to much faster feedback loops.”

While those with MBAs all agreed that they found some value in their time back to school, many conceded that paying full tuition or taking the time off to do a degree full-time is no longer financially viable or necessary. “The days of MBAs setting prices is gone. An MBA helps open doors up, and is often preferred, but it’s not an automatic ‘in’ anymore,” said Steven Sandonato, VP, Strategy & Business Development at Time Home Entertainment Inc., whose MBA was sponsored by Time Inc. “I had always wanted to go back to get a broader education on the marketing side and Time Inc. paid for 100% of the tuition if approved, so it was the right situation before having kids. I had a feeling it would at least open doors in the long run, but I didn’t go to add X amount of dollars to my salary.”

In fact, many admitted that they didn’t necessarily recommend getting an MBA for the sake of a career in the publishing industry, especially if it means quitting a job to go back to school full time. “With the current difficult employment climate, I would never suggest to go back to school full time because there may not be a job available when you graduate,” said Steven Sandonato. “I would not recommend it unless you’re completely changing careers.” Susan Weinberg, who, as the first person to apply for sponsorship from Book-of-the-Month Club via the then-parent company, Time Inc., admits, “I went to the Columbia executive MBA program in the late 80’s.  It allowed you to continue working, and your company paid for the program. …I didn’t incur debt, and I’m not sure if I would.”

While these MBA recipients are hesitant to say the program is necessary in this economy and job market, their varied experiences both coming into the program and after graduating demonstrate the importance of assessing one’s individual motivations outside of job expectations. As Susan Weinberg said of her program, “It definitely enhanced career and work experience but honestly didn’t change my path. It changed me more than my career.”


Also, for related reading:

In a Tough Economic Environment, Do You Need a Master’s Degree to Succeed? from YPG

HR Pro: ‘Master’s Degrees Often HURT an Application’ from Galleycat

Is Michigan State Really Better Than Yale? from The New York Times

Leave a Comment


  1. Aug 20, 20121:38 pm
    Tim McGuire

    I got my MBA in Finance in an evening program at Fordham while working full time in a book production department. I found the knowledge and experience I gained to be very valuable in my publishing career. Not to mention that running off to class every night kept me out of a lot trouble !

  2. Aug 20, 20124:19 pm
    Kimberly Lew

    Thanks for sharing, Tim! I like how the idea of “keeping one out of trouble” is like a bonus value added.

  3. Aug 21, 20128:01 am

    An MBA is a big committment (financially and time-wise) with no guaranteed payoff.

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  1. […] Can an MBA Help You Get Ahead in Publishing? (Publishing Trends) In the past, relatively few publishing executives had MBAs. Today, more of them do, including all four newly minted Random House senior vice presidents (appointed to help bolster Random House’s digital business). Should you get one? […]

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