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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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What do you wish writers knew about you that they sometimes don't?
GARGAGLIANO: I think most writers don't realize that every editor goes home and reads and edits for four hours—that they're not doing that in the office. That in the office they're advocating for all of the authors they already have.
NASH: I don't even get to read when I go home. When I go home, I'm continuing to advocate. I haven't been able to read at all recently. I've really just become a pure pimp.
CHINSKI: I thought you were a whore.
NASH: I'm both at once! It depends on the street I'm walking down.

What else?
GARGAGLIANO: I think it's important for writers to remember that we're not their enemy. We love books and we're looking for books that we love.
CHINSKI: And ads are not love.
GARGAGLIANO: And ads do not equal sales.
BOUDREAUX: If those two things appear in print—that we're working nights and weekends and ads don't sell books—we have all done a fine job here. We are martyrs to the cause and ads are ridiculous. But I think editors like ads too. It's like having your business card published in the New York Times.

Have you guys ever gotten any great advice about your jobs from a colleague or a mentor?
CHINSKI: I can quote somebody, Pat Strachan, who is one of the most elegant, serious, and lovely people in the business. She said to me, "Just remember, when you're all stressed out, that the lives of young children are not at stake." And I do think that's worth remembering. We all love what we do and we take it really seriously, but you have to keep things in perspective. I also have one from David Rosenthal. He used to say, "If you're going to overpay for a book, you should at least be able to imagine the things that have to happen for it to work at that level, even if it may not actually work at that level."
BOUDREAUX: It should be in the realm of possibility.
CHINSKI: Yeah, and you should be able to picture, very concretely, what would have to happen and how you might go about making those things happen. You don't want to just buy something blindly.

What have your authors taught you about how to do your job?
GARGAGLIANO: To be honest with them. I often have the impulse to protect my authors and treat them as if they are more fragile than they actually are. It's better if I can have an open conversation with them. If I start that early on, the better our relationship is going to be going forward, and the easier it will be to talk about tough things. That took me a while to figure out.
BOUDREAUX: They teach you over and over and over—and this is so obvious—but they will always have a better solution to an editing problem than anything you could come up with. If you just raise the question, they will solve it. The universe of their book is more real to them than it could ever be to anyone else. You trust them with the internal logic of what's going on. You just show them where the web is a little weak—where everything that was so fully imagined in their head has not quite made it down to the page. Not only, as you said, are they not that fragile, but the world they've created is not that fragile. You can poke at it endlessly, and you'll just get really good answers and really good solutions. When you bring something up, you never find that you will unravel the whole sleeve. I've never had that happen. Where it's like, "Oooooh, we'd better hope that nobody notices that."

How do you guys measure your success as an editor?
NASH: Survival.

Tell me more.

NASH: For me, for a long time, there was a very direct correspondence between the success of my books and my ability to eat pizza. Now, in the last year, it has become less direct, since I don't have to make payroll, least of all my own, anymore. Because in the past, in order to make payroll, I would do it by not making my own payroll.

But what about in a deeper sense?
NASH: I suppose I was answering as a publisher, which is what I was and in a sense what I am anterior to being an editor.

I think I just mean more internally, in a more internal way.
NASH: When the book becomes what you imagined it was going to be based on the fact that it was almost already there. And you helped it get there.
CHINSKI: But we all want more than that, too, don't we?

That's what I'm trying to get at.
CHINSKI: We all want our books to have an impact. Beyond sales in any kind of simple sense. You want people to talk about them. You want people to find each other because of them. I worked with a writer who very elegantly described a book as a table that everybody can sit around and start a conversation around. And I think, not to sound terribly cheesy about it, that's what we all want. We want our books to have an impact in the world. And that's really rare. Sometimes it has nothing to do with sales. So I think it's more than just feeling like you did your job on the page. It's feeling like you did your job in the world.
GARGAGLIANO: That it went beyond you.
CHINSKI: Yeah. Books should transcend themselves in some way, and I think that's what we all really want.
NASH: The reason I got excited about publishing, compared to theater, was that the theater I was doing had no fucking impact on the world whatsoever.
GARGAGLIANO: Do you feel like it's better in publishing?
NASH: It's immensely better. Now, it may be that the joy I get from publishing is relative to how hard it was in downtown, experimental, Richard Foreman-acolyte theater. I set the bar so low for myself! [Laughter.] But in publishing, even indie publishing, thousands of people who I will never meet, who don't want to act for me, will actually buy one of my books.
CHINSKI: That reminds me of another great quote that I'll probably get slightly wrong. I remember when Philip Roth came to sales conference at Houghton Mifflin. I think it was for The Human Stain. He gave a presentation to the sales force and basically talked about the death of the novel as a force in our culture. "That'll be a good way to get the sales reps really excited!" [Laughter.] But then he said the most extraordinary thing, which has always stayed with me and which I've said to a lot of writers. He said that if his books were to sell ten thousand copies, which doesn't sound like a whole lot, but if he were to sit in a room, and each one of those people were to walk by him, and he could see them face to face, it would break his heart. I can't believe I forgot that earlier. That's probably the best description of why we do what we do. Whether it's three thousand people buying a novel, or five hundred people buying a book of poetry, it does kind of break your heart if you actually imagine each of those individuals reading the book.
NASH: That's why it was not a value judgment when I said the audience for a book might only be 150 people, in this world of more books. It's about the intensity with which that connection might occur.
CHINSKI: Do you guys all remember one moment where you felt really content? Whether it was something specific that happened or just a moment in your career? Where you felt like, "Okay, this is it. Now I'm kind of happy. This is all I could ever want." Where you actually slept well for one night?

I like the question.
GARGAGLIANO: That is a good question. [Laughter]
CHINSKI: I mean, I'm just wondering, was it when a book hit the best-seller list? Was it when a book got a great review? I'm curious what those different feelings are.
BOUDREAUX: I'm trying to come up with something that won't sound like complete dorkiness. I mean, yeah, the best-seller list feels amazing. It feels amazing because of all the great books we watch not get read. When you see one that's actually getting read? Boy is that an amazing feeling. But that little moment of satisfaction? I was trying to think, "What was the first time as an editor that I really felt that way?" Maybe being promoted to editor was my greatest moment. You know, Ann Godoff was doing the benediction and it was kind of like, "You are now an editor. On your tombstone they can say you were an editor." I had this little glimmering moment of, "Yeah! I came here, I didn't even know what publishing was, barely, and now..." Thank God for the Radcliffe Publishing Course. I wouldn't have had any idea of how anybody moves to New York or gets a job had I not ended up doing that. I had been working at Longstreet Press in Atlanta, where we published Jeff Foxworthy's You Might Be a Redneck If... That's actually my proudest moment—what was I doing forgetting that? But seriously, I did that course because I didn't know anything about anything and I thought I'd go back to Longstreet and work there. But then I thought, "Well, gosh, maybe I'll try New York for one year. I'm sure I'll end up back down in Atlanta before long, hoping that somebody at Algonquin would die so that somebody from the South could get a job at a slightly bigger publisher whose books you actually occasionally heard about." You know, I think actually getting promoted to editor was sort of like, "Wow, here I am. This is really a job that I'm really going to get to do." I still sort of feel amazed at that.
GARGAGLIANO: Getting a good review is also amazing. It's so gratifying when you have loved this thing for so long and somebody in the public says that they love it too. It's a thrill.
BOUDREAUX: Getting a review in a place that's always been hard to crack. I'd bring up Ron Rash again. He was a regional author who had never been reviewed in the Times, never been reviewed in the Washington Post. He had this Southern fan base. The booksellers loved him. The San Francisco and L.A. papers had been good to him in the past. But everybody else ignored him. Getting him a daily review in the Times was such a bursting-buttons proud moment for him. I've never been happier about the work I've seen my company do on a book. Because we knew what he had felt like he'd been missing. And there it was, lining up—the New York Times, the Washington Post, the New Yorker—when everybody had been ignoring him.
NASH: For me it was the summer of 2002, when there were two things that persuaded me that I should stay in the business. One was the first book I ever acquired, by a woman named Jenny Davidson, who I'd gone to college with. I was not even sure what one did at a publisher, and I thought, "I should acquire something." We had to find books because there was nothing in the pipeline. So I asked around and my old college friend had a novel that no one wanted to publish. I didn't know what galleys were at that point. But at one point our distributor asked us for some galleys, so we printed out manuscripts and tape-bound them and sent them some places. And the book ended up getting a full-page review in the Times. It ended up being pretty much the only review it got. It didn't get any prepubs because I probably didn't send it to the prepubs on time. But for whatever reason, some editor at the Times Book Review decided to review it. So I had this sense of not having fucked up—this absence of failure in a world where you're up against it.

The second thing that happened had to do with the second book I acquired, Get Your War On. I'd look at my distributor's website and see the sales and the backorders. And one order came in—I think it was the second order that the book got—and it was Harvard Bookstore, which ordered forty copies. That was more convincing than the Times Book Review. It was the first time a bookseller had ever trusted me, the first time a bookseller had ever said, "You're not an idiot." I don't think in either of those situations did I realize how hard it was. It was only later, when I tried to get the second Times review and the second forty-copy-order from an indie bookstore, that I realized how good it was.

But the second thing was bigger than the first thing because ultimately it's about survival. I wasn't being glib when I was talking about survival. There was a very direct, one-to-one translation between my ability to sell books and my ability to stay in business and pay everyone. There is a British publisher call Souvenir Press, apparently they've been around for a long time, and I got a catalog of theirs one time. It included a letter from the publisher, and in the letter he quoted some other august independent publisher, saying something to the effect of, "A publisher's first duty to his authors is to remain solvent." Which was instructive because if you don't, it's not some glorious failure. All of your authors go out of print. And one of the reasons I ended up selling the company—one of the reasons was that I fucking had to because PGW had gone tits up and there was just no way to avoid that—but there was also a sense that if I fucked up too badly, the whole thing would go kaput, and I had an accountability to the authors to not let it all go kaput because it was not going to be some cute little failure where everybody would be like, "All right, peace, Soft Skull. It was very nice but now we'll all move on." It was like, "Oh, there are a number of authors whose careers actually depend on this."

Let's talk about agents. Tell me about the difference between a good one and a bad one.
GARGAGLIANO: A good agent knows what to send you. They're playing matchmaker, and they do it well. Those are the happiest relationships—those authors are happiest with their agents and they're happiest with their editors.
CHINSKI: A good agent also understands the process inside the publishing house and the kinds of issues and questions that an editor has to deal with on a daily basis. But I think, most importantly, they know what they're sending and who they're sending it to.
BOUDREAUX: A good agent can be very helpful when you get to those sticky wickets, whether it's the cover, or an ending that still doesn't work, or something else. An agent who can honestly appraise the work along with you and add their voice to the chorus of why, for example, the author needs to change that title. You want it to be about the book and you want it to be about the author, but every now and then the sales force knows what the hell they're talking about with a "This is going to get lost because it is black and it has no title on the cover. It's not going to degrade the integrity of the book if you change it." An agent can either be helpful in that conversation or they can sit there and be a roadblock and let you be the bad cop. An agent who's willing to be the bad cop with you can save an author from impulses—and help them understand why it's the right thing to do in a world where two hundred thousand books get published every year.
GARGAGLIANO: The same thing is true on the publicity front, when you have an author who wants something and you have an agent who's able to make the additional phone call and work on the team with the publicist and the editor. It's much better than getting a phone call from an agent who's just yelling at you.
CHINSKI: Just to step back a little bit, obviously the agent's job is to be the advocate for the author. But, along the lines of what you were both saying, that doesn't always mean agreeing with everything the author says. I think sometimes the agent forgets that. That, actually, they can be most constructive for the author—not just for that book, but their career—by explaining some difficult things to their client.
GARGAGLIANO: And encouraging their author not to be difficult, which doesn't win any fans in the house. If the agent is able to step in and say something in a constructive fashion, that is often helpful.
CHINSKI: It's human nature. We don't like to admit it, but people like to work for somebody who's appreciative. That doesn't mean, in a saccharine way, just affirming everything that the editor and publisher are doing. Obviously, we all make mistakes. But the conversation has to be constructive. We've all seen it over and over and over again. If an author, even if they don't agree with you, is appreciative and trying to work constructively with the house, and so is the agent, it just changes the energy of the way people respond to that project—from the publicist to the designer to whoever. It goes back to what we were saying before: We all want the same thing, and if everybody can keep that in mind, it just makes everybody want to work all the harder on behalf of the book.
NASH: The squeaky wheel theory is bullshit in our business. It's just complete bullshit. It doesn't work.
CHINSKI: I have a sense that authors sometimes get that as concrete advice—to be a squeaky wheel—and for everyone out there, there's a way to express your convictions without being...
GARGAGLIANO: And that ties into being proactive for yourself. If you're out there doing a lot of work for yourself, that energy is—
NASH: So inspirational. When you have an author who shows up at a bookstore and then a week later the sales rep shows up at the store and the rep emails me and says, "Guess what? So-and-so just came by Third Place last week. The buyer was so excited to meet him." Then the rep emails everyone else on the sales force and says, "Look how hard this author is working." It's amazing how effective an engaged author is. But if the author is like, "Why aren't my books in Third Place?" it accomplishes nothing.

We all know that there are less than great agents out there. How are writers supposed to avoid ending up with one of them? Put yourself in their shoes.
CHINSKI: I think they need to do a lot of research, for one thing, even before they get an agent. It amazes me how many times we get query letters from agents who clearly haven't looked at our catalog. I think they need to ask a lot of questions of whatever agent they're thinking about signing up with and make sure the agent knows who they're submitting to and why and so on.

But what if the author doesn't know any of that stuff?
GARGAGLIANO: The author should know. It's their business.
CHINSKI: So much information is available online. There's no excuse now to not know what a house is doing and even what individual editors are doing.
GARGAGLIANO: Every time you read a book, the editor's name is in the acknowledgments. It's very simple.
NASH: The fact that agents don't charge money to read is so widely an established fact online that it's mind-boggling that you still get submissions from agents who are obviously functioning that way. The agenting equivalent of chop-shops.

I mean more the difference between a B+ agent and an A+ agent.
GARGAGLIANO: I think that goes back to what we were talking about with the author's relationship to their editor. It's a personal connection. You want someone who understands your work and is articulate about it and has the same vision for it and can talk to you about your whole career and not just the thing that's in front of them. And then that conversation extends to the editor and the editor's conversation extends to the house.
NASH: With regard to the so-called "A+" and "B+" agents, when I've seen authors switch agents to get somebody more high-powered it pretty much has always failed. So if that's what meant by the difference between a B+ agent and an A+ agent, there is no difference. If they met the criteria that Alexis just articulated, then the odds are that they're the right agent for you. I mean, there's not a whole lot of variance in the advances I pay—there's not a lot of variance in what I can accomplish and not accomplish. Maybe there is with you guys. I've always had this theory—I could be wrong—that who the agent is might make a 20 percent difference in the advance an editor is going to offer. But it's not going to make an order-of-magnitude difference. Probably. It's not going to be the difference between ten thousand and a hundred thousand, let's say.
GARGAGLIANO: I think that's true 90 percent of the time. I think there are a very select group of agents who people just pay attention to before they even know what the book is. And that sets expectations.

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.

  • Andy B. says...

    "A refreshing firehose of a roundtable, followed by spirited towel-snapping." Many thanks to Richard Nash, Lee Boudreaux, Alexis Gargagliano and Eric Chinski, and to Jofie F-A for bringing them all together. I learned much in a hurry, without the usual painful side effects. - AB

  • jonathanmendelsohn says...

    Tonight I went to a little club. A colleague was playing guitar, singing some songs he wrote. He'd made flyers. Asked all of us at work to come. Three of us came. Three. Thats's how many people were in the audience. But this colleague, who is shiny head bald and nearly 60, who wears circle frame glasses and seems rather reserved, downtrodden at work, he came alive onstage. He had soul on stage. Personality. And even though he was so desperately - how could he not be? - dissapointed in the turnout he gave me a kind of hope. So did reading about the passion these four put in their work. It's just heartening to know. When junk food TV and internet are everywhere and you are staying up late, after long days, trying to finish that first novel, it's good to know there are people who, if it were good enough, care to read it. Thank you.

  • sesgaia says...

    This article/interview is so timely for me. Having completed what I know to be a "well-crafted but (somewhat) tame" novel, I've sent it to agents despite my lurking belief that it needs to go to the next level, wondering or hoping if perhaps an agent or editor would be willing to help me figure out how to get it there. Still, instead of just waiting for that slim chance, I've begun a new novel- one that I am risking all for. The first time around, my courage went into seeing if I could write a novel in terms of sheer craft. Ok- been there, done that. Now, as I write the next one, I can direct my courage toward what it is I really want to say. As someone pointed out to me- "You've had the singing lessons, done the scales. Time to get out there and sing."

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