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Agents and Editors: A Q&A With Four Young Editors

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March/April 2009

3.01.09

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Do you think it's too hard to get published today?
GARGAGLIANO: I think it's hard but not too hard. I don't know how many more books we could have out there.
BOUDREAUX: I think we all kind of know that too many books get published. You can listen to your own imprint's launch meeting, you can listen to all the other imprints' launch meetings, and multiply that by every other house, and you know that every book did not feel necessary to every editor. When you think about it that way, it doesn't seem all that hard to get published.
CHINSKI: But there are also a lot of people who can't get published.
NASH: There was a great little moment in an article in Wired about a year ago. It was an article about the million-dollar prize that Netflix is giving for anyone who can improve their algorithm—"If you liked this, you'll like that"—by 10 percent. One of the people in the article was quoted as saying that the twentieth century was a problem of supply, and the twenty-first century is a problem of demand. I think that describes a lot about the book publishing business right now. For a long time, racism, classism, and sexism prevented a whole array of talent from having access to a level of educational privilege that would allow them to write full-length books. That hasn't been completely solved, but it's been radically improved since the 1950s. Far more persons of color, women, and people below the upper class have access now. An entire agent community has arisen to represent them. But finding the audience is the big problem. I guess I'm imposing my own question on the question you asked—"Is it too hard to get published?"—and I think we all may have heard a slightly different version of that question. The version of it that I heard was, "Are there too many books?" I personally don't feel that way. And I get a lot of submissions at Soft Skull. I get about 150 a week. And it's hell having so much supply. But we didn't exist before 1993, and you guys all existed before that, so you are feeding off a different supply and we're enabling this new supply. I love the fact that Two Dollar Radio exists, and all the other new indie presses that have erupted. I think that's healthy. I don't think a solution to the problems we face as an industry is to say we're going to reduce consumer choice by publishing fewer books. Now, at the level of the individual publisher, I totally understand it as a rational decision that a given executive committee would make at a large company. My comment that there are not too many books published has to do with culture rather than a given economic enterprise. I think we could publish more books. You just have to recognize that they may be read by five hundred people. And that's perfectly legitimate. Blogs can be read by fifty people. You just have to think, "What's the economically and environmentally rational thing to do with this thing that has an audience—but that audience is just 150 or 250 people?" It may not be to print the book. It may be to publish it through a labor-of-love operation that is completely committed to a given set of aesthetic principles and will print it in a way that is environmentally sensitive—chapbook publishing, let's say. The poetry model could have a lot to say to fiction and nonfiction publishing.

I think about the midlist writer a lot and I feel like it's harder and harder to build a career the old-fashioned wayslowly, over several books that might not be perfect but allow you to develop as a writer. Part of that has to do with the electronic sales track. Put yourself in the shoes of a beginning writer and speak to that.
BOUDREAUX: When we published Serena by Ron Rash it was such a proud moment of doing that thing—of almost reinventing a writer. So I feel like it can still happen. The model of building somebody hasn't gone completely out the window. It gets hard with the "This is what we sold of the last book, this is all we're ordering this time." And you're stuck with it. But a lot of editors and a lot of publishers stick with people.
GARGAGLIANO: I feel like Scribner is really good about that. We can't do it with everyone, but there is definitely a stable of authors. I have writers for whom I haven't had to fight that hard to buy their second or third books. It's because everyone recognizes their talent.
NASH: It can be because the reps love selling them. The reps love reading that galley, even if they're going to get [orders of] ones and twos. But it makes them so happy to read that galley that they're not going to fight you when you present it to them.
CHINSKI: You have to think about the identity of the list as a whole, too. Sometimes it means paying an author less than what they've received before, but it doesn't mean we're giving up on those authors. I think, speaking for FSG, it's important to us to try to build writers. Roger Straus apparently said, and Jonathan always says, "We publish authors, not books." That's more difficult today, given the way of the world, but it's still the guiding principle. Think about Jonathan Franzen, who published two novels that got great reviews but didn't sell particularly well. Then The Corrections came along. There are tons of examples like that.

But aren't you guys and FSG the exception to that in a lot of ways?
CHINSKI: I wonder if it's really that new. Obviously the mechanics have changed, but there's always been a huge midlist. We remember the really important writers. We probably don't even remember the best-selling writers from twenty years ago. You remember the important ones—or the ones that have been canonized as important. The economics have changed and obviously the chain bookstores are a different part of the equation than they were fifty years ago, but I suspect there's always been a vast midlist.
GARGAGLIANO: I also don't think it's very constructive for authors to think about that too much. You're sort of fortunate if you get published at all. You're fortunate to find an editor who you have a great relationship with and a house that believes in you in which everybody works as hard as they can for you. There's only so much you can do.
NASH: If you're going to stress about something, be worrying about your reader. Don't stare at your Amazon ranking and don't stare at the number of galleys your publisher is printing. Get out into the world. And if you don't have the personality to get out into the world, then you have to ask yourself, "Why does everybody else have to have the personality to get out into the world, but I don't? What makes me so special that everybody else has to go out and bang the drum for me, but I don't?" I have a fairly limited tolerance for people who assume that it is everybody else's job to sell their books while they get to be pure and pristine. They don't have to get the book-publishing equivalent of dirt under their fingernails. Which involves whoring, to use a sexist term, but one that I use to describe myself. [Laughter.] Go out and find a reader. It's not about selling a reader a $14.95 book. If you have ten more books under your thumb, then that reader could be worth $150 to you, and it might actually be worth three minutes of your time to respond to their e-mail or chat with them for an extra two minutes after that reading at which it seemed like no one showed up. Those eight people might have some influence out in the world. None of us is in this for the money. It's sort of mind-boggling how many people think that we're sitting there behind our cushy desks. There's just no one in publishing who couldn't have made more money doing something else. At a certain point, yes, we may have become unemployable in any other industry. But there was a period of time in everyone's career when he or she could have gone in a different direction and made more money, and chose not to.
GARGAGLIANO: Can I add one more thing? We keep talking about self-promotion, and I think there's a stigma that it's a negative thing. It's really an extension of that deep involvement we were talking about earlier. It's about being really passionate about your book. It's a way to figure out how to make the world of your book bigger, and to give other people access to it. I think it's helpful if authors can wrap their heads around looking at it from a different perspective. I have a lot of authors who are afraid to go out there. They think it's about them. It's actually about the book. It's about the writing. It's not about you personally.
NASH: It's about being part of the world around you. One of the freelance publicists I know—I've never been able to afford to use her, but I'm friendly with her—does something that I think is brilliant in terms of dealing with a new author. Rather than trying to make an author blog, which is always hell, she says, "Here are twenty blogs that you should read." And by doing that, they get into it. They start commenting. All of the sudden they start getting that this act of communication is no different than a conversation between two people. It gets the author to start realizing that they're in a community, and that participating in that community is what we're talking about when we say "self-promotion." It isn't this tawdry, icky activity that will demean them. It will help make them feel more connected to the world, and happier.
GARGAGLIANO: I'll give you an example. I published this book about fruit—talk about obsessive people—called The Fruit Hunters. The author is this guy who was writing food stories for magazines and became obsessed with fruit and went on to discover this whole obsessive world of fruit lovers. The book came out and got a lot of attention, and the sales were okay, but it has fostered this whole community of people who are also obsessed. The other day they had an event in a community garden in the East Village. They call themselves the Fruit Hunters, after the book, and they're going to take trips together and everything. There are already a hundred of them. It's this amazing little story of obsession. It's exciting. The author is very involved online. He's happy to engage with anyone who wants to talk to him. He's just really present, and that makes all the difference.

I'm interested in how you guys view your jobs. It seems to me that things have changed quite a bit over time and I'm curious how you see what you do.
CHINSKI: Things have changed a lot. But in terms of the actual editing and acquiring, I don't feel like I'm thinking very differently about what I'm signing up, and in terms of the editing, I still have the same basic ideas of what my role is, which is to make the book more of what it already is—rather than coming in with some foreign idea and imposing it on the book. I try to understand what the writer is trying to do with the book and edit it along those lines. But when I first started in publishing, I had no idea that the role of the editor was to communicate to the marketing and sales departments. I had this very dark-and-stormy-night vision of the editor sitting in a room poring over manuscripts. But you very quickly realize that a natural part of being excited about a book is wanting to tell other people about it, in the same way we do as readers. That's what our job is in-house. And obviously it probably is different now, in terms of the chain stores and all these other things. But I think an editor's job is basically to fall in love with a book and then to help it be more of what it already is.
GARGAGLIANO: I feel very similarly. I'm the first reader, and I'm there to make the book what it wants to be, and then I'm its best advocate. I'm its advocate to people in the company because often they're not going to read it—they're only going to get my take on it—and then I'm its advocate to the rest of the world. I write handwritten notes to booksellers. I write to magazine people. I'm constantly promoting my authors. I feel like I'm the one who was responsible for getting them into the company, and I'm the one who's responsible for getting them into the world. I have to take care of them.
BOUDREAUX: The most fun part of being an editor is getting to actually edit—getting to sit and play puzzle with the book. God, that is so much fun! That's what we like to do. We need to do all of these other things...but sitting there with the paper, which you only get to do on the weekends? That's when you get excited. Like, "I'm a real editor!" But this myth that nobody edits anymore compared with a hundred years ago? I've never worked with an editor who doesn't edit all weekend long, every single night. That's the fun part.
CHINSKI: I think that's important to emphasize. I think we all hear that editors don't edit anymore.
BOUDREAUX: I just don't know who they're talking about. Having worked at two different houses, I literally do not know who they are talking about. Who just acquires and doesn't edit? I feel like everybody I've ever worked with sweats blood over manuscripts. And you reap the rewards of doing that.
NASH: I suspect that agents are doing more editorial work on books before they submit them in order to polish the apple. To some extent the process of acquisition has become more collegial, and it's helpful if a book is not a dog's dinner when you're showing it to people before you can start working on it yourself. That can create the perception that not much happened after it was acquired. And when you have the goal of helping to make a book as much like itself as it can be, that can involve a level of editing that doesn't look very intense on the surface but actually can be quite important. It doesn't have to involve a whole lot of red ink. But the right red ink in the right places, especially when it's subtractive rather than additive, can really make a book fluoresce.

Why did you all become editors instead of agents? And why do you stay editors when by all accounts you could make a lot more money being an agent?
CHINSKI: Has anybody here ever worked at an agency? My first job, for three months, was at an agency. That's why I'm an editor. But sometimes I do think that agents get a more global view of things. Dealing with film and foreign rights and so on.

But in other ways they get a more limited view because they don't have to do all the things to make a book work.
CHINSKI: I think that's true. Wouldn't that be more fun? [Laughter.] But seriously, when I was working there I didn't leave because I didn't like working at an agency. It just wasn't working as a job. I have a really hard time imagining myself as an agent. It's partly just the obvious stuff of doing the deal and so on. I think you have to have a certain personality to get really excited about that. I'd rather go home and really devote myself to doing the editing. I know that some agents do that. But it's not, kind of nominally, what they are there for.
BOUDREAUX: I literally didn't know there was such a thing as a literary agent. I didn't know anything. I was like, "I guess those people who get to work with books would be editors." I just didn't know any better. And I love to play with the words, which they also get to do, but they're not the final word on it. I also don't do enough nonfiction, which I feel like any editor who's got any sense learns to do. But I just don't have the antenna for it. As an agent it would be even scarier to have a list that is 95 percent fiction. You probably need a balanced portfolio in a way that an editor can still get away with being more fiction-heavy.

What are the hardest decisions you have to make as editors?
CHINSKI: Jackets. I find that the most harrowing part of the whole process. As an editor, you're in this funny position of both being an advocate for the house to the author and agent but also being an advocate for the author to everybody in-house. The editor is kind of betwixt and between. And for a lot of books, especially fiction, the jacket is the only marketing tool you have. It's really difficult. I also find that I know what I don't like, but I don't have the visual vocabulary to describe what I think might work.
BOUDREAUX: And the cover is so important. Even if it's not the only thing that's being done for a book, it's still got to be one of the most important things. You've got reviews and word-of-mouth, and then you've just got the effect it has when somebody walks into the store and sees it. I think it's so important to work somewhere where your art people will read the book and come up with something that you never would have come up with yourself. The idea of a jacket meeting where you have twelve people around a table and you bring it down to the lowest common denominator of "It's a book about this set there. We need a crab pot at sunset with a..." People do that! They think it's a marketing-savvy way to go about it. "We need a young person on the cover. But you shouldn't be able to see the person's face. It has to be from behind!"
GARGAGLIANO: The same thing happens when the author tries to deconstruct the cover.
CHINSKI: Exactly. That's one thing that's changed a lot. When I first started, we would send the author hard copies of the [proposed] jacket. Now we email it to them and they send it to everybody in their family. You can predict exactly what's going to happen.

What are the other hard decisions you have to make?
GARGAGLIANO: I have two, and they're related. One of them is when I love a book but I don't actually think that we're going to do the best job of publishing it. I anguish about that because I want the book for myself, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's the right thing for the author. The step beyond that is when you've already been publishing someone, and it's the question of what's best for their career. You offer a certain amount of money, and the agent wants to take the author somewhere else, and you have to ask yourself whether or not you go to bat for that person and get more money because you want to keep working with them despite whether the house might really support them. That's a hard thing to figure out.

I think part of what makes it hard is that editors serve different mastersthe authors, the agents, the house. How do you guys navigate those allegiances and responsibilities?
NASH: I will confess that I came into this business not motivated to become an editor. I was a theater director and happened upon Soft Skull because the guy who founded it was a playwright whose plays I directed. The whole thing was going belly up in the middle of my friendship with this dude. He basically did a runner, and there were these two twenty-two-year-olds at the company, and no one else, and there were all these authors, and the whole thing was fucked. I had a messiah complex and came in and tried to be Mr. Messiah for six months. And in the middle of my messiah complex, I fell in love with the process of publishing. So in a weird way, I did not come in with the idea of working with writers. I came in as a problem solver, and that's all I've ever been in a certain sense. The problem I try to solve is, "How do you connect writers and readers?" Those are the two masters for me. Recently I've been trying to think, believe it or not, of the publishing business as a service industry in which we provide two services simultaneously, to the author and to the reader. We may pretend to offer a service to the agent, and we may pretend to offer a service to the company. But only to the extent that we fulfill those other two services—to the writer and to the reader—are we truly serving the agent or the company. And we have to use our own instincts on a minute-to-minute psychological basis. Obviously you're accountable to the bottom line and P&Ls etcetera, but you're being asked to use your own instincts, and that's what you have to use in order to bring writers and readers together.
GARGAGLIANO: There are moments when it's sticky. When you're dealing with a jacket, for example. But on the whole, everybody wants the same thing, and that makes it easy. The thing that I always have to remind myself is that the people who are on the sales end also love books, and they also love to read, and they could be making more money in some other industry too. When you remember that, it makes your job much easier.
CHINSKI: I agree that we do all want the same thing, but don't you find that sometimes people don't behave that way?
GARGAGLIANO: Sometimes. But sometimes they do.
CHINSKI: It just amazes me how combative the relationship can become. I mean, it doesn't happen that often, but it does become combative sometimes. When we were talking before about authors saying that editors don't edit...there's just this assumption that the publisher isn't doing enough. Sometimes agents don't quite understand how things actually work in the publishing house. I'm not saying that across the board. But it does happen. I find those situations really difficult, where you feel like you're being accused of somehow not caring enough about the author when we all know how many hurdles there are. I mean, we wouldn't be doing this if we didn't care.
GARGAGLIANO: I've been very lucky with my authors. I haven't had many bad ones. The relationship is all about trust, and once you start that relationship and you start that dialogue, they trust that you're taking care of them. But there is a point when it's out of the editor's hands. And if they've trusted you that far, most of the time they'll accept whatever happens, in my experience. Usually the call I get will be from the agent.
BOUDREAUX: It's like you can almost have two different conversations. In one of them the agent gets what's going on and is just being helpful and trying to get everyone on the same page. And in the other one somebody is making demands or accusations that aren't going to actually help anything. It's more just for show. You know, "Emboss this part of the jacket" for no good reason. You do get the feeling sometimes that they are fulfilling their service to the author in a way that actually doesn't have that much to do with the book.
GARGAGLIANO: But that's the agent. I'm more worried about my author's happiness.
CHINSKI: I agree with that. A combative relationship with an author is pretty rare. Obviously it happens sometimes, but I'm thinking more about the agent. I don't want to overstate it, but sometimes it does feel like we should all understand more that we do all actually want the same thing. No publisher or editor signs up a book in order to sink it. Who would do that? We're not getting paid enough to be in this business for any reason other than we actually love the books we're working on.

Reader Comments

  • Victoria Mixon says...

    Once again, I am simply blown away by Ferrari-Adler's insight into the current publishing industry and ability to bring out the smarts and enthusiasm in the best agents and publishers. I work every day with writers just breaking into publishing, and there's so much confusion and anxiety and unhappiness about what's going on and how publishing has changed in recent decades. I never stop recommending to them Ferrari-Adler's P&W interviews.

  • abinks says...

    My first novel "The Summer Between" will be released this Spring by Nightwood Editions and I am busy editing my second novel for what may be the hundredth time. I feel I have finally taken the curse off it and arrived at a very resonant place. It's like when you were a kid, or even as an adult, and you wet your finger and circled the rim of a wine glass until it hummed. The language in the previous draft was attempting to be clever, and could have been effective in another story, but it just didn't ring true. I never got the sense that there was someone telling me the story. When I finally started the painful process of taking away, that glass started to hum. It didn't happen until page 100, about a third of the way through, so I have worked through this draft and returned to page one with my machete! During this process I never thought in terms of how many pages I could get through in a day; I sometimes spent hours on a sentence or paragraph. For the first time I could look at a paragraph and say it was damn good. All the best to all. Persevere and you'll know when it is right. Thank you.

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