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

Feature

July/August 2008

7.01.08

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The last person I interviewed was lamenting that editors aren't allowed to go to sales conference anymore to communicate their enthusiasm in person. As a publisher, what do you think of that?
Well, there are economic factors, and I know that every house does things differently. But I think it's so important that every editor, no matter how much access you have physically to the sales reps or to anybody else, thinks like a publisher. By that I mean that every single book needs support, whether it's getting the right blurbs or getting in touch with a particular rep and saying, "Take a look at this one."

One of the things that I did throughout my career was to make a point of visiting every territory, getting out of the house and going around with the reps to meet with booksellers, to the degree that they were able to give me some time. Not so much to sell, more to just make personal contact and talk about publishing in general, to talk about the obstacles, to say, "Well, if you loved this, you're going to love that." I had a wonderful experience at Tattered Cover one time. It was in the morning, before the store opened, and it was just me and Margaret Maupin and the staff. I brought a bunch of books, and I said, "Here are the stories behind these books." Here's why an editor acquired something, how it came about. Getting to tell those behind-the-books stories, and having that personal contact, not only with the buyer but with the clerks on the floor, the people who talk to each other all day, was just something I enjoyed. I learned so much from talking to booksellers. It was a complete education. Every editor should spend time talking to booksellers.

Yet that doesn't happen much.
No, and it's too bad. I think people get stuck in their offices. I really do. I think it's so great to get out of the office.

Why don't publishers make them get out of the office?
People have time constraints. Booksellers have time constraints. I also think that so much is just too managed, that publishers may be a little bit too cautious about sending people out. I don't know. That's my sense of it, that, "Oh, who knows what's going to happen in that exchange." And the sales force has to be on board for it too. The sales rep doesn't want the editor walking in and stepping all over his territory, literally. It's a delicate thing to do, but I think it really helps everybody if it can happen, if there's more of that contact.

Speaking of bookselling, I'm sure you've spent a lot of time thinking about returns. Could the system ever change, without destroying booksellers and their ability to take a chance on something?
I think it's changing itself. Both the wholesalers and the retailers are taking fewer books up front. They just are. That's a reality of the business: It's becoming more of a wait-and-see business and fewer risks are being taken. That's just something that publishers are going to have to figure out how to manage. It's managing inventory. It's making sure that you can ride a wave when it starts to build—when a book is taking off—but before it crests. There needs to be really good communication between the booksellers and the reps. Part of the problem is that people are overstretched. There are just not enough people in marketing and publicity to go around, and the reps have so many books in their bags. What I hate to see is for the small books not to get a chance, because every publisher has had the experience of the book they least expected—maybe somebody did, but not the whole house—just selling and selling and making the year. Those little surprises are so important, and you want to make room for them. You want to allow them to happen. Maybe they take more work than they used to. A lot of it is just luck and...you know, Oprah.

The computerized systems that bookstores use to track sales is also something you've seen evolve.
Yes, exactly. This whole conversation is really about that. It's about how few risks booksellers can take, are willing to take, and how much they're ordering up front. But I'm probably naively optimistic about this. People go into bookselling because they love books, and they still love finding new things. They love making discoveries. And the sales reps can be really wonderful in helping to do that. I think it's fabulous that they have the reps' picks at BEA—again, as long as it's not entirely orchestrated. I don't like to see everything sort of programmed in advance, where what the reps get to say is only what has been agreed upon in-house because these are the books that must sell. I think every rep should have the opportunity to say, "Here's this little one that I'm hunchy about."

Of the changes that you've seen in the last thirty years, what would you say is the single most significant?
It's hard to say. It's really the confluence of so many different things. I mean, it's the rise of the chains and Internet selling.... It's got to be the computer in every way that you can imagine. The way it now manages inventory and selling. But I also think there are some things that have been consistently wonderful, that some things have not changed.

Like what?
Editors still have the opportunity to be creative, to test their own talent, to try to find new things and not always to do the same thing. That's been true all along. The other thing that hasn't changed is that in every era you can imagine, in my thirty years, someone has always been saying that publishing is in crisis. When I was cleaning out my files, I came across this article by Fran Kiernan, who was an editor at Ticknor and Fields—an imprint that was relaunched and folded in my time at Houghton Mifflin. The article was called "The Great Publishing Crash of 1989." I looked at that and said to myself, "This industry loves a crisis. What would we do without a crisis? We must have one to thrive."

Maybe it's worse now than it ever was, but everybody thinks their own time is worse than it ever was. I really believe that. Publishing is in trouble as much as every industry is in trouble. The economy may be worse than it was in 1989, but I'm not so certain. And for all of the change, there will always be blockbusters, there will always be bodice-rippers, there will always be literary fiction. There just will.

If you could snap your fingers and change one thing about the publishing industry, what would it be?
I would say the emphasis on high advances. There's so much risk—huge risk—that comes with huge advances, and so much distortion of the value of a particular work based on how much is paid. I think that if there were more opportunity for editors to take some risks at a lower level, that there would be more opportunity to continue to publish smaller books because you wouldn't see disappointment based on how high the advance was. I think that drives so many other things. When a book doesn't do as well as expected, it sometimes makes the relationship between the author and the editor complicated. Of course everybody wants a million dollars, but I don't necessarily think that's always the best thing.

How did we get to the current situation? Was it the crazy paperback auctions in the old days?
Beats me. I really don't know. I don't think that agents are evil, but I do think that that's certainly been a very big factor—having agents with reputations for selling books for a lot of money. You know, whenever you get a Brockman project, for example, it's going to be expensive.

Tell writers one thing about agents that they don't know but should.
That they can ask a lot of questions; that they should ask a lot of questions. I think that writers, especially first-time writers, sometimes feel as though, "Well, whatever the agent says. Of course the agent knows best." But in the same way that I think authors should be having conversations and asking a lot of questions of editors, they should ask potential agents, "Okay, whom do you represent? Which houses do you work with? Which editors do you like? How do you go about deciding where you're going to send something?" I'm just astonished again and again when I talk to writers at writing programs that they don't know they can ask those questions.

So you think it's healthy for aspiring writers to take an active interest in understanding the publishing industry?
I do. Well, it can be. What you want, all around, is for expectations to match, and I guess it can be kind of depressing for an aspiring writer to find out too much about the industry, because it's a tough business. But I think being more educated is always better than being less educated. It shouldn't mean that an author thinks they know better than their editor or agent, but just to know something about the way things work. I think it's important.

How are you feeling about what you've just been through at Houghton?
I'm very much looking forward to starting my new job. It's a huge change, of course, because I was at the same place for all those years. But that's so unusual in this industry. I was very fortunate to be able to build a personal list and to create an editorial group that could publish so many exciting books, and that is a wonderful legacy to leave behind. Now I can turn some of that energy back toward my own list, which I had not been able to do for quite a while. When you're a publisher, you just can't. I acquired fewer and fewer books the bigger and bigger my job got. I'm not expecting to start acquiring like crazy, but I am excited to be able to focus my energies on individual writers and how best to support them over time. Just to publish any one book particularly well is an exciting challenge. Having known Nan all these years makes it very comfortable. I think her reputation for excellence and quality and sticking with writers over the long term makes it a really nice fit. I was very deliberate in making a decision to go to a place where I felt that my authors would be comfortable and I wouldn't need to do any convincing. It just made perfect sense—for my writers, for the agents. And it's a lot less stressful not to have to worry about all of the finances and the hiring and the firing, and especially not to be at a place that's in turmoil.

Are there any booksnot books you've publishedthat you find yourself going back to and reading again and again?
Middlemarch. Moby-Dick.

Really? How many times have you read Moby-Dick?
Oh, many times—four, five, maybe six times. I spent a lot of time on it when I was in graduate school. And, yes, I do read the whaling chapters. I love nineteenth-century fiction, and that's what I go back to. But recently I've been rereading a lot of Faulkner and Salinger. It's interesting how your perspective changes on a lot of this reading when you're not studying it like you were in school. Reading Salinger as an adult, especially as an adult with children, is a very different experience. What I found was that there was a certain way in which he got those voices, in Catcher in the Rye for example, he got that voice so perfectly. I heard my own son's voice. At the beginning of the book, when Holden is talking about his older brother, the first thing he says about his brother, if I'm remembering right, is something about how his brother has this incredibly cool car. The first thing he says about his brother is about his car! I thought, "Yeah, that's what my kid would say too, and in just that tone of voice." There was something completely timeless about that. So no matter how dated some of the other stuff gets, especially the sort of pop psychology that Salinger fell victim to, he got those voices really right.

What keeps driving you?
I've always felt that I needed to have a goal and a mission, and at Houghton it was helping to change the shape of the list—diversify the fiction, support poetry—and then as a publisher to bring in editors who could really find the best stuff and be creative about publishing it. I still feel really ambitious for particular writers. I would love to have the opportunity to publish the fourth, fifth, sixth book of a writer like Peter Ho Davies, for instance, or Michael Byers, or Monique Truong, and to continue to work with writers like Cynthia Ozick and Anita Desai. I think it's important to publish them well.

I also think—this will sound incredibly snobby—that this culture is sort of deeply debased. I don't think of myself as the one and only guardian of intelligent conversation in this country, but you do want to keep it going on some level. Which is not to say that everything I do is high-minded, not by any means, but there's got to be a place for it. There just does. So it would be great if I can contribute to that.

Jofie Ferrari-Adler is an editor at Grove/Atlantic.

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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