Mel's Diner: Recipe for Reinvention -- From TV News to Big-Time Books
Who: Lisa Sharkey, senior VP-director of creative development, Harper Collins
Where: Sharkey’s “green” townhouse, Upper West Side, Manhattan
When: March 12, 2012
The Dish: It may be hard to believe, but one of the major forces behind Tim Tebow’s bestseller Through My Eyes: A Quarterback’s Journey, is also a big force behind a wide range of books from recent memoirs by Regis Philbin, Susan Lucci, Gregg Allman, Sammy Hagar and Pat Benatar to books by the late Amy Winehouse’s father, the prosecutors in the Casey Anthony trial, HRH The Prince of Wales, Maria Menounos, Lauren Conrad, the Kardashians and J Woww.
Perhaps even more surprising: Before working on all these books, this force also spent 27 years producing TV in trenches from local TV news to Good Morning America to running Al Roker’s production company. But indeed it is one woman. With two big careers. Her name is Lisa Sharkey.
A week away from Sharkey’s five-year anniversary of reinventing herself from TV news producer to a big-time book exec - she’s senior VP and director of creative development at powerhouse HarperCollins Publishing - she invited me to dinner at her home on Manhattan’s Upper West Side (a fully green townhouse, more on that later). Also being four weeks away from B&C’s 2nd annual “Keynotes & Cocktails: Women of New York” event — where the discussion theme will be “Reinvent Yourself” — I was especially eager to hear how and why Sharkey made the dramatic transition and how it’s worked out.
Five years ago, she was ready for a change, she says. The Emmy-winning news producer had just left her job as president of Al Roker Entertainment. “I wanted more meaning in my life,” Sharkey says. “Not that TV didn’t have meaning, but there’s a difference between being part of telling someone’s life story in a book and an hour-long taped interview that you cut down to pieces.”
Books have long been a passion for her. “I loved books my whole life,” she says. “On those questionnaires, where they ask if you had an hour would you see a movie, watch TV, get a manicure, go for a walk or read a book, I picked ‘read a book’ every single time. To be able to do something now where I check that box, I skip to work.”
Sharkey says she worked closely with some execs at HarperCollins while at GMA and Roker’s company - the latter is where she executive produced NBC’s Profiles In Courage: A Kennedy Legacy, upon the 50th anniversary of the bestselling Harper book. Sharkey says she at one point told Jane Friedman, when Friedman was HarperCollins CEO, that from what she gathered, the publishing process “seemed so backward.” If the masses had heard about whatever topic or person was being pitched for a book, it was too late, Sharkey contended. She won herself the opportunity to create her own job at the publishing giant; on March 19, 2007 she was named to her current position.
She now taps into her vast TV and pop culture experience, overseeing the Creative Development team responsible for acquisitions of personality-driven and current event books for all imprints of HarperCollins; developing book proposals based on popular trends, people, and ideas; working with publishers to position authors for maximum TV and press exposure; and publishing time-sensitive books quickly. She also oversees video enhancements to the digital versions of books.
“I approach book publishing the way I used to approach booking TV segments — I don’t wait for the agents to auction things off,” she says. “We look at what’s the idea, the big idea that everybody will be talking about a year from now.”
Sharkey’s been following Tebow since he was in college. And since his book came out, she’s witnessed the impact of the one-on-ones fans get with the NFL star during his book tours. The impact goes both ways, she says, and is nothing short of daily inspiration. “The most exciting thing is how happy books make people,” she says, as she plays outtake videos from book tours on a Macbook on her kitchen counter. “These events, you’re watching people’s lives made. Where else does that happen but at a book signing…every person gets to look in the eyes of the person they’re there to see and then go home to read their life story.”
Dined On: The creativity flows as well as the water and wine during dinner with the tight-knit Sharkey-Gleicher family. Sharkey and her architect husband Paul Gleicher renovated their townhouse from the ground up - and wrote a book about it, Dreaming Green www.dreaminggreenbook.com. The frequent entertainers’ space is as artfully appointed as it appears in the pictures.
Along with Sharkey and Gleicher, their son Doug and daughter Casey, Doug’s girlfriend Alex and author Lois Cahall shared our meal of crustless spinach pie with Gouda, grilled chicken, green salad, and for dessert strawberries and cream and Crumbs cupcakes courtesy of Cahall.
Like many executives in the content business, the dinner table is a powerful focus group. Conversation here centered on Youtube sensations, including little girls singing Nicki Minaj songs on Ellen, and Doug’s balancing act between his band Upper West’s gigs and his studies at Sharkey’s alma mater Washington University in St. Louis, where Doug and his older brother Greg are also on the baseball team.