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Agents & Editors: A Q&A With Editor Janet Silver

Feature

July/August 2008

7.01.08

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Where does that interest come from for you?
I don't know. Maybe it's just the idea that in every era there are the voices you haven't heard from before. In the 1940s and 1950s it was Jewish American writers. The thing that makes reading interesting is hearing from different voices and different perspectives, especially in fiction. And the book that probably typifies that—the most symbolically important of the books I acquired with that mission—was Jhumpa Lahiri's short story collection Interpreter of Maladies.

How did she come to your attention?
It was a combination of things. She had just graduated from the Boston University writing program. She had a couple of small publications, and she did have an agent—who's no longer an agent, Cindy Klein—who was with Borchardt. I think Cindy sent me four or five stories. I pretty much knew right away that she was a writer I really wanted to publish. But I also knew about her through Peter Ho Davies, who called to tell me I was going to be seeing this collection and this was somebody I should really pay attention to. And she was also one of the writers who was on Katrina Kenison's radar for the Best American Short Stories, of which I was the in-house editor for many years starting in the eighties. I met with Jhumpa and talked with her about her writing and her ideas for the stories and the collection. We were very much on the same wavelength in terms of my editorial suggestions. And one of the great benefits Houghton could offer at the time was the opportunity to publish in paperback original.

Let's talk about that.
Mariner had just started, and the fact was that it was really hard to sell short story collections in hardcover. A lot of publishers were shying away from them unless they came with a novel that you could publish first and then have the stories trail along afterward. I think the opportunity to publish in paperback original really made a lot of sense at the time, although when Mariner started it sort of defied conventional wisdom. A number of publishers had tried that format, and the books being published in that format got a reputation for having a particular persona. You know—edgy, downtown.

Like the books published by Gary Fisketjon's Vintage Contemporaries.
Exactly. But in its first year Mariner published a novel by Penelope Fitzgerald, who was in her seventies at the time, called The Blue Flower, which became a phenomenon. I think the fact that it was published in paperback original made a huge difference because it enabled people to take a chance. That's the beauty of it. A lot of publishers had published Fitzgerald's work in hardcover in the States with very little success. But here was a way to say to readers and bookstores, "You're going to read these fabulous reviews, and it's twelve dollars, so take a chance." And the publicity department waged a really aggressive campaign with reviewers, which I think was important. Because that was the other thing about publishing in paperback original—they were seen as second-class citizens and not necessarily to be taken as seriously by reviewers. We made a point of saying, "No, this is really just a way to reach readers by making the price point more accessible."

This was also the moment at which booksellers were switching over to computerized inventory so that ordering was happening based on the sales of the writer's previous book. Well, if you can increase sales simply by lowering the price—if you can double or triple or quadruple the sales you would anticipate in hardcover—then you can establish a base from which a writer can grow.

And now when we're talking to writers and agents, making the argument for paperback original, one of the books we always point to is Interpreter of Maladies.
Right.

But there wasn't any resistance at the time?
It was a short story collection by an unknown writer.

And nobody knew it would win the Pulitzer Prize.
Right, but it really began to sell well before it won the prize. You have to remember that when I bought the book she hadn't published in the New Yorker yet. They bought two stories shortly after I acquired it, and she won the New Yorker's first fiction prize at the end of that year. When the book came out it got great reviews—that always helps—and it won the PEN/Hemingway Award. So by the time she won the Pulitzer there were already something like forty-five thousand copies in print. Then there were a lot of copies in print. Of course it's hugely gratifying to find an author like her. I wasn't by any means the only one to discover her, but I was first.

So the decision about paperback original just made a lot of sense. It made sense to her. Her agent was probably hearing from every publisher, "Well, short story collections are really hard." And we were saying, "No, we know how to do it, and the first printing will not be twenty-five-hundred copies. It's going to be at least fifteen or it doesn't make any sense." So that argument made a lot of sense to her and to her agent. But it was a two-book contract. We had the novel under contract too.

But even after all the successes, authors and agents still resist paperback original. Do you think it will ever take over like it has in Europe?
Well, Europe is certainly way ahead of us. I like to think that Mariner set a precedent that other publishers followed so that the whole idea of paperback original became much more appealing. I guess the problem now is that the economics are even more challenging. The big economic problem with paperback original is that it costs just as much to publish and promote the book, but the revenues are half—for everybody. So you have to make sure it's the right book, that you're not flooding the market. I think it's important for publicity departments to continue to wage that campaign with reviewers. But I don't think it matters as much for reviewers anymore. I think there was something about the uniqueness of the Mariner list when it started—with writers like Penelope Fitzgerald and James Carroll, who had just won the National Book Award—that gave it a certain kind of profile. So while the world at large may not have known what a Mariner book was, booksellers and reviewers did. Now that it's more common, it doesn't have any particular cachet or imply a particular kind of publishing. Unfortunately, that means it's just like every other book. So it's complicated. I don't know where it's going. I think Morgan [Entrekin] did something very interesting with Man Gone Down, by upping the production values, with the French flaps and the rough front, to make the book itself a kind of object. Today the trick is to distinguish these books. Once the distinction disappears, it's going to become harder for everybody.

When you became publisher of the company in 2001, you became Philip Roth's editor.
Philip started at Houghton with Goodbye, Columbus in 1959, and after being with many other publishers over a long career he came back to Houghton with Sabbath's Theater, when Joe Kanon was the publisher. Roth always worked with the publisher. After Joe left, his editor became Wendy Strothman. When Wendy left, I became his editor. That was when we had just published The Human Stain. He was definitely at a high point. And what a privilege to be able to work with him. It was fun because my parents grew up in Newark and I grew up with Philip Roth in many ways. He was of my parents' generation, grew up in the same town, went to the same high schools, and also sort of made that same migration out of Newark and into the suburbs, to the South Orange and Maplewood area. So it was a world that I had not only been reading about in Roth's novels for all these years, but also kind of knew intimately.

I imagine it must have been incredibly intimidating to suddenly be Roth's editor.
Well, nobody "edits" Philip Roth. It was a real privilege, I would say, but also a responsibility. The biggest responsibility was to make sure that he was published as well as possible—and to be published without a hitch. Philip Roth is extremely knowledgeable about publishing, and very deliberate, and very attentive to detail. My job was to make sure all those details fell into place.

The first time you get a Roth novel in manuscript it's very, very exciting. The thing comes to you. It's complete. And you're one of the first people to have a chance to read it. So there are no preconceived ideas about the book, no reviews to sway you one way or another. The first book I read in manuscript was The Plot Against America. And when I read that manuscript, I just knew it was going to be his best-selling book. I just knew it.

Because of the hook?
Because of the hook and because I think he just hit a nerve. He hit a nerve and an anxiety in the American psyche at the right moment. He is so attuned to the American psyche. And the fact is that he didn't, as he said, write the book to make any particular political statement about current politics. He really did want to write about that era. But what he discovered in that alternative history was a way to touch a nerve that's very raw in our generation.

He is a very private person, and he didn't really talk much about some of his previous books, but we were able to convince him to do some publicity for that book, and to his credit, I think he actually enjoyed doing it. So Katie Couric interviewed him and he was on Terry Gross, who had interviewed him before. That was an opportunity for us. His willingness to talk about those books—he did a little bit for The Human Stain—really made all the difference. People want to hear from him, and his generosity in doing that was tremendous. Somebody said to him, "How come you decided to give interviews about Plot?" He said, "Well, my publisher asked me to do interviews and I said okay." It's much more complicated than that, but I think he was able to talk about the book on his own terms, and what more could any reader want than to hear him talk about a book on his own terms?

When we published American Pastoral, we had Roth come to sales conference. I'm not sure it was that book, but I think so. And this was amazing for the reps. I mean, to have Philip Roth at the sales conference? Edna O'Brien had come in the day before, and if you've ever encountered Edna O'Brien, she's very dramatic and theatrical and just has this regal quality to her, and she swept in and gave a marvelous speech and left. The next day Roth came in. Everyone was so nervous about meeting him. But he strolled into the room, and rather than standing up and giving a speech, he sat down at the table—this open square, the way a sales conference goes—and he talked a little about the book and then asked if people had questions for him. Nobody was going to ask him a personal question about something he didn't want to talk about—he knew he could trust us that way. The [Barnes & Noble] rep raised his hand and said, "I just want to thank you for putting New Jersey on the map." And we all laughed and from there he answered every single question he got about the book, about his writing career.... Someone asked him if he had other people read his manuscripts, and he said there were six people in American who he really trusted to read his work—he doesn't read reviews, that's not important to him—and the opinions of those six people were the only opinions that mattered to him. I just thought he was so thoughtful and gracious and generous in the way he answered and responded to every single question. I think it made such a difference.

Reader Comments

  • stardancer101 says...

    I always get excited when I get to read the new Agents and Editors section. I see hooks like 'editor Janet Silver discusses what she looks for in a new writer and what every author should know about agents," and my eyes light up, being a young unpublished writer myself. But I find myself consistently disappointed in the article. There are usually only two or three questions in the interview that really speak to the subject line, and the rest of them are about publishing eras, job history, name-dropping, discussions of relationships with well-known published authors.... These topics are good to note, but I just wish there was a lot more meat in the article in the areas of advice and the things the opener promised.... Names and positions being slung around don't really catch any interest for me, and that takes up the majority of the article. I found myself craving more from the all-too-short section of common mistakes for new writers, and what she looks for in a writer. I've felt this way about the last three Agents and Editors sections too....

  • Myfanwy Collins says...

    Thanks for this interview (as well as the others). I appreciate Janet Silver's enthusiasm and willingness to share information, and finally I have found someone who has read Moby-Dick as often as I have.

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