Susan Wright

Custom Publishing Editorial Director

By Marjorie F. Eddington

Categories: Arts, Moses

Susan Backus Wright is the Editorial Director of Sunset Custom Publishing. During our interview, she shared ideas about creativity, problem-solving, communication, transcripts, character, labeling, and more.

As Editorial Director, what are your main responsibilities?
Our department creates six main magazines. I oversee the creation of the editorial (the content and the stories) for those magazines. I also work with the Business Development Director to get new clients.

What do you like about your job?
It's very creative. Every project is different. I enjoy problem-solving. All the clients have reasons why they want a magazine: they want to convey a certain message to their customers. Our job is to convey their message in a compelling way so that people will want to read the magazine. Since I enjoy reading magazines, it's fun to think about what makes a good story for me, which in turn helps guide what we may create for others. I also like working with the people in our department; they're a great group of people.

The publishing industry is both a creative and a commercial environment -- trying to sell an appealing product to an audience. How do you reconcile these two different aspects?
In our business, there's a reader and there's a client, so we're trying to use our creativity to get across a message. It takes creativity to produce something wonderful within given parameters. Sometimes with our food magazine, we'll have a non-descript food, such as a root vegetable. The photographers will find something wonderful about the food and create an amazing picture. They're able to see the root with an eye that most people don't use. I took a photo composition class in college. One of our first assignments was to take a photograph of something that on first glance was ugly, but upon closer inspection was beautiful -- like a glob of oil or peeling paint. That's part of creativity.

You mentioned problem-solving. What types of challenges do you confront in your field?
Sometimes after we've started working, clients want to change direction or send a different message. We have to incorporate their needs. There are also logistical challenges with writers who don't meet deadlines or are difficult to contact. It's important to understand how to communicate and work with different types of people to get the best out of each person, whether or not they are independent contractors or part of our staff. I end up doing a lot of mentoring, which I enjoy. Often editors will walk into my office, explain a sticky situation, and ask for help. We'll talk through possible solutions together. Each situation and each day is different.

You talked about communication and its importance in your work. What helps you communicate effectively? Does inspiration play a role?
Inspiration absolutely plays a role. In general, I just want to be straightforward, clear, and communicate with respect. It seems that the things that I pray about most are people-related. Every once in a while, there will be an issue that's more charged. Recently, I needed someone to do something that I knew he wouldn't want to do. After trying to find different ways to get the work done without involving him, I was convinced that having him carry out the task was the best answer. I prayed. I prayed to understand that the Christ was speaking to both of us and that I didn't have to convince him that something was right. Rather, both of us would be able to hear the right answer. Trying to put my thoughts together before I met with him, the story of Moses came to me. Moses felt inadequate as a communicator. He didn't know if he could convince the children of Israel that God had sent him to lead them out of captivity in Egypt.

And Moses said unto the Lord, O my Lord, I am not eloquent, neither heretofore, nor since thou hast spoken unto thy servant: but I am slow of speech, and of a slow tongue. And the Lord said unto him, Who hath made man's mouth? or who maketh the dumb, or deaf, or the seeing, or the blind? have not I the Lord? Now therefore go, and I will be with thy mouth, and teach thee what thou shalt say. (Ex. 4:10-12)

The concept that God would teach me what to say and give me the words I needed was very helpful. I knew that my motive was right and that I wanted to communicate with love and respect. It turned out to be a good conversation that even included humor.

What other Bible passages or stories have been helpful to you?

I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the Lord:… (Jer. 31:33, 34)

On one hand, this passage is about communication with others, and on the other hand, it's about knowing God: "Be still, and know that I am God" (Ps. 46:10). When there's a challenge or an issue, it's important to quiet all the demands and noise around you and recognize that God's law is at your core. As a result, you hear God talking to you. Of course, God has always been talking to us; sometimes we just can't hear because of the noise.

Another passage that I've used a lot is:

Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths. (Prov. 3:5, 6)

Earlier in my career, I was frustrated that I wasn't getting the opportunity to have more responsibility and to progress. This passage helped me realize that I wasn't dependent upon my boss or my boss's boss to give me what I wanted. And now, having worked really hard and having advanced in my career, it's still important not to be egotistical, but rather to be humble and realize that God is still directing me in every decision.

What would you tell teens about a career in publishing or about life in general?
First, I'd like to tell them something about the working world in general. I don't think young adults realize exactly how valuable it is to be a hard worker who is respectful, smart, sharp, and follows through on completing tasks or keeping people updated. It seems so simple, but not everyone exhibits these qualities. Follow-through is so important. If you say you'll get something done before you leave, you do so; and if you can't, you tell someone how far you got and explain the situation.

I'd also like young adults to realize that they shouldn't let the desire to make their resume or transcript look good drive them. When I was in high school, I was doing extra activities just to put them on my transcript. When I got to college, I realized I just wanted to be there. I wanted to do what meant something to me. I often didn't do all the "extras." It's important not to clutter up life with things that really don't matter to you.

And, when I was first out of college and just starting my career, it was hard for me to see that I was ever going to get anywhere. Believing in your own God-given goodness and value is really important. When you have such trust, good things will happen. You have to be careful not to get stuck thinking that you're just spinning your wheels.

How did you get unstuck?
I prayed that my future was not in the hands of other human beings, that I was not at their mercy to help me or stand in my way. Rather, my future was in God's hands. Once I understood this, I was open to taking the next step.

That reminds me of Joseph. He was in a pit and could have easily been frustrated, but he knew that his future was in God's hands.
Yes. And what a switch it was when he had the really great role -- being the first in command next to Pharaoh -- and was gracious and helped his brothers.


This to me sounds like what you were talking about earlier -- being gracious and humble about your progress in your career.
I am so grateful to those who believed in me and gave me opportunities, gave me responsibility, and trusted that I would do a good job. And so I do everything that I can to help give others opportunities to succeed.

It sounds like you have a good working environment. What creates that?
This is one of the neat things about where I work. In our department when we hire people, although we're looking for people with the appropriate experience, we're more interested in the person's character and work ethic. The intangibles will make us hire someone. You can teach the particulars, but you need someone who wants to learn, who is trustworthy, and who is willing to do things the way that they need to be done. You need the so-called "fluffy" qualities that are really the bedrock of a successful individual, team, and company. When you're working on a stressful project and working late, you want to work with someone who has stellar life qualities. It's not just how fabulous the person's resume is.

Another thing I'd like to tell teens is not to pigeon-hole themselves. After I had been working in production for awhile, I felt that I was kind of pigeon-holed into a certain type of work. There was a general perception that production people could not be creative people like the writers and editors. I bought into that stereotype. I started thinking of myself as a good organizer or a good detail-oriented person, but not as creative.

How did you break free from this label?
It was when the first custom publishing job came along. Anyone who wanted to work on the custom job had to do so on the side. At first, I started helping by doing production work for the project. After awhile, I volunteered to do some editing. I had to crack open the shell of limitation that I had created. I had to wake up that creative part of me. After that, I started volunteering for other projects that were creative. It was from showing that I could do those things that I was eventually offered an editorial job as the new custom publishing department started to grow. Had I kept limiting myself by seeing myself a certain way, believing in the label, and not expecting very much of myself, I wouldn't be where I am today.

What enabled you to stop believing in the label that you weren't creative?
There was a conversation I had with someone else who was in a similar situation and who recognized her interest in doing creative things. I realized that I wanted to do creative things. So we discussed the next possible steps. And once I realized that I didn't have to accept such a label, creativity seemed so natural. I was God's child, and the inherent goodness and creativity just shone through.

Based on this experience, what would you tell teens to help them break free from labels?
In some ways it's as simple as, "Just do it." I had a "Wow, I can do that!" moment. It was a reminder of everyone's inherent goodness and infinite possibilities. I think we put up barricades for ourselves, whether we know it or not. And we're the only ones who can take them back down. If we're waiting for someone else to take down the walls, we'll be pinned in by them. When we think of the problem or obstacle as "out there," we set a trap for ourselves. Yet, as God's children, we have the power to rip down those walls. But if we think we can tear down walls by will-power alone, without God's help, then we'll be struggling in vain.

That reminds me of Jesus' words: "With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible" (Matt. 19:26).
That's a good one.

How often during the day do you turn to God?
I think I'd like to answer that in the opposite way in which you asked it. When I am troubled or out of whack, it suddenly hits me that what's bothering me is that I am not feeling close to God. This is a wake-up call for me to drop the burdens, stop feeling responsible for everything, and get close to God again. When I see who God is and know that I'm God's child, any sense of heaviness or confusion drops away, and I get very clear. I work continually to maintain a clear connection with God.

Any last thoughts to share?
A very practical step for people who are interested in a certain career is to do an internship or volunteer in that field to learn about it. When you do this, you become aware of many more possibilities.

About Susan Wright

Susan Backus Wright is the Editorial Director for Sunset magazine's custom publishing division.

Susan was first exposed to publishing in high school when she worked on the yearbook. She served as copy editor of the yearbook her senior year. In college, she did an internship at "Europe Magazine" in Washington, D.C. She graduated from Principia College in 1990.

After college, Susan was hired as Editorial Production Assistant at "Sunset" magazine in Menlo Park, California. The job included proofreading as well as formatting pages on the computer. She was promoted to Editorial Production Coordinator six months later. In this capacity, she helped manage the production of special issues in addition to her work on the monthly magazine.

In 1995, "Sunset" created a magazine for retailer Mervyn's California to send to its customers. Susan served as managing editor of "Mervyn's View" magazine, and did editing and writing for subsequent issues. In 1997, "Sunset" was awarded the contract to do a food magazine for Safeway grocery stores. Susan was hired as Managing Editor of the newly formed custom publishing department, and served as the editor of "Safeway Select" magazine. In 1999, Susan became the editor of a travel, auto, and lifestyle magazine for Acura called "Acura Style."

In 2001, Susan was promoted to Editorial Director of Sunset Custom Publishing. In this capacity, she oversees the creation of all the department's editorial products and works with the Business Development Director to get new business.

Current clients:
Safeway Select (8 issues/year)
Acura Style (2 issues/year)
Mazda Zoom-Zoom (2 issues/year)
Visitor's Guide for the State of California (1 issue/year)
California Driving Tours (1 issue/year)
Avanzando con tu familia (bilingual magazine for Procter & Gamble -- 1 issue/year)
Cisco Packet (4 issues/year)