Do you belong to a book club?
I don’t. My husband is in a book club, and I live vicariously through him. In my next life I want to join one. I wish I could—I just don’t have time. Vacation is when I can read for pleasure.
Many people describe your novels as great for book clubs.
I wonder sometimes if they’re saying it pejoratively.
Maybe. But those groups can get lots of people talking about a book. Is that something you think about?
Not really. We used to have this vision of book groups, that they’re made up of soccer moms in the suburbs. Now, my husband is in one, and it’s all men, and it’s not at all what most people think of when we talk about a book club. Publishers have realized that as much as we try to tell book groups what to read, those groups really pride themselves on discovering books on their own, and feeling that they’re the ones making decisions. But the flip side of that view comes when you see how a lot of book clubs are nonetheless reading the same book.
I don’t consciously think, “This is a book-club kind of book,” because I am sometimes wrong. I mean, I was surprised by What Alice Forgot, the first book by Liane Moriarty that we published. That became a big book-club book, and I wouldn’t have thought it would.
When do you find time to edit?
I usually edit on the weekends, because I can’t edit at night. I get really tired and find it very difficult. I have the best of intentions that I’m going to edit during the week, but that’s basically like saying, “I’m just going to go read in the office.” Uh, no.
My middle daughter once said, “Why do you have to go to work? You don’t actually do anything at work. You just sit there and do e-mail.” [Laughs.] She couldn’t understand why I was a little upset by that comment. The joke in our house became, “Well, Mommy doesn’t really do anything at work.”
So I’ll ask my husband to take the kids so I can edit. But it’s logistically hard when you have three kids to say, “I’m gone for the weekend.” Also, I’m a really slow editor. Last Friday I edited at home, and I got through a hundred pages, with a million e-mails in between. Then I eked out another seventy-five pages over the weekend.
What’s your reaction to the climate of change in book publishing today?
When I started at FSG in 1990—which, by the way, we would look at now and think, “Those were the really good old days”—everyone was saying the sky was falling. There’s a habit in our industry to say that everything’s always terrible.
Yes, there are challenges in our industry, and you’d have to have your head in the sand not to be aware of what’s going on. It’s definitely tougher—there are fewer media outlets, and so on. But there are more bloggers and more things happening on the Internet. It’s easy to get caught up in that noise. I just want to keep my head down and work with my authors and publish good books, and I know how to do that.
Maybe I’m naive, but I feel it always comes down to the book. Your job is to publish the best book you can possibly publish. And I’m not a believer that there are all these great American novels that are not finding their way to readers.
Have you made a decision over the last year or two that you wish you hadn’t made?
Goodness knows I make mistakes all the time. I think you’re not doing your job unless you make mistakes. Sometimes I’ll see a book on the bestseller list and regret that I passed on it. But the fact is I wouldn't have made it a bestseller. If I passed on it there was a reason.
Your gut matters. When I first started this imprint, I had a book in on submission and I remember thinking it was an incredibly hard sell. But I read it and I thought it was amazing. But I read it because I was paid to read it. Go with your first take on that.
So much of our business is based on relationships. You might get something in and think, “I love this agent, I really want to do business with this agent.” The danger is when that feeling colors your take on the project.
What skills are you working to develop?
I will always be striving to be a good presenter and to give the sales force and all the other departments what they need to sell a book. I wish that I had my final take on our copy earlier, because that ends up being a real process. It evolves, and I get there, but it would be so much more helpful if I was there from the start. And I'm always worried that I will miss the next Postmistress because it’s rare that I can read a whole novel despite wanting to cut the first hundred pages. That’s always the thing—am I missing that next great one?
Tell me about how you start working on a book’s jacket.
It starts with a conversation in which I'm telling the author that I’m going to meet with the art department. I say that I don’t like to tell them exactly what I think the cover should be, because if I have that skill, then I should be an art director, and we should let them do their jobs. That said, if you hate, I don’t know, feet, tell us that.
The only thing Kathryn Stockett said to us was that she hates the colors yellow and purple, and of course her cover is yellow and purple. But we did give her a choice, and she chose it. It's good to ask an author for the covers of books they think are for the same audience as their book. And I’ll also go to a bookstore or go online and look at covers.
Meanwhile, I’ll be trying to find someone who’s not the author that everyone else is going to for blurbs. I find that very time consuming. That’s why I’m not editing Sarah Blake’s last hundred pages!
How do you know that a jacket is the right one?
Sometimes the art department gives it to you, and you're like, “You’ve nailed it. That’s great.” But often it’s a process. With The Help, we did something like seventy-five covers. We had a different cover in the catalogue—and even for sales conference—we were going with this cover that I kept calling the dead baby cover. It was these hands, and they were holding a little baby shoe. I thought it looked hideous.
That was my first book here, and I remember going to Ivan and saying, “Look, I know we've done so many covers, but in my gut, I know that this is the wrong cover.” Ivan never gets mad, and he was very calm. But he said, “Amy, we’ve done more covers for this book than any other book I’ve seen in this company.” You have to choose your battles. You just know if it’s the right cover or not.
It’s really important to me that my authors like their covers—again, I feel like this is their baby. I love my art directors, Lisa Amoroso and Andrea Ho. We’ve been able to take our work out of a big committee meeting. It’s just the three of us working on the cover until we feel like we’ve gotten it to a good place.
I remember being at other companies where people would reveal the cover and either everyone would just ooh and ahh, or there would be a weird silence, when everyone’s trying to figure out how to nicely say that it’s not working. It’s hard to talk about covers. I can tell you what I don’t like, but it’s harder to say what is working.
You saw seventy-five covers for The Help. What did you show to Kathryn?
We showed some of them to Kitty. But as a first-time author, she was so great about saying, “You guys know what you're doing”—even if we didn’t at some points. [Laughs.] In the catalog, actually, the cover was a little girl’s dress on a clothesline. When we did the cover we ended up going with, we heard some feedback from booksellers that they liked the other cover better, and that they would take more copies if we went with that one. It's all so subjective. Who’s to say what’s a good cover and what’s not?
But someone has to decide.
Someone does have to decide. I remember talking to an art director once about one of his company's books that was a huge bestseller. He said, “It’s actually not a very good cover. But the book worked, so in retrospect, everyone thinks the cover was great.” There's some Monday-morning quarterbacking. If a book doesn't work, we blame the cover, and if the book does work, we say it’s a great cover.
Eleanor Brown’s The Weird Sisters is a good example. When that book went into paperback, there was a lot of pushback. People wanted three sisters on the cover. I really resisted, because I thought it would look not only like chick lit, but like every other chick lit book. The cover we used doesn’t have people or that human warmth, but it’s gorgeous and different and arresting. It’s not as if I can say definitively that this is the right cover. But in Eleanor’s case, it worked out well.
How involved do you get with your paperbacks?
I'm the editor of all my paperbacks, except for Harry Dolan. Tom Colgan is the editor for him at Berkley, because Tom is the master of that kind of book and he brings so much to the table. But I came from paperback publishing, so it was foreign for me not to be the editor of my paperbacks. In this day and age, I’m format-agnostic. I don’t really care what format you read the book in.
Every editor has had their heart broken at some point. What about you?
There are some great books that I look back on that didn’t work—not on the merits of the book, but as a result of where I was in my career, my ability to champion them effectively. In a way, every book is a heartbreak if it isn’t successful. You work on the books that aren’t successful as much as or more than the books that are successful.
Are there signals in the lead up to publication that indicate whether a book will be a success?
I don’t take anything for granted now. I’ve had books that were number one Indie Bound picks that didn’t work, and the first two booksellers who responded to The Help hated it with a passion.
I’ve been getting great feedback for this novel Troika, and the author, Adam Pelzman, asked me how much he should read into it. I said he should be cautiously optimistic. I wish you could say that if you get this one thing, it’ll turn into this other thing, but you never know. If we could make a book successful just by crossing off A through Z on a list, we’d all do it.
What distinguishes you as an editor?
I think the main reason I’m here is for my taste. I can sniff out books that might not be the most obvious, and for whatever reason, make them work. Liane Moriarty is an author whose first two books were published as trade paperback originals by HarperCollins, and her track wasn’t great. And I thought that she was terrific, and that she should be bigger—that we could publish her in hardcover. That’s not rocket science. But I feel as if I’m here because I have an eye for books that other people seem to respond to.
What’s the most important thing you do after you acquire a book?
I’m a complete pain in the ass to everybody. [Laughs.] Whether it’s the authors, or publicity, or the art department. If you ask my assistant, she would say that too. I worked really, really hard to get where I am, and I expect that level of effort from everybody involved in the book.
What does an agent do after you acquire a book that helps make its publication more successful?
I'm a big believer that we’re working together as a team. I copy my agents on pretty much everything I send to my authors. Frankly, I want them to know how hard I'm working on their books. I want them to send me more stuff, and I want them to know what's going on because they might say, “Oh, you’re sending this to so and so? I happen to know that person.”
Some agents sell you the book and that's the last you hear from them. They’re just happy to be kept in the loop, and they’re not doing much. There are others who really want to be involved. I have one agent who had really strong feelings about the trim size. Recently we had a lengthy conversation about the pub month within the season. And you know what? That’s great, because he brings a lot of experience to the table. I can learn from that. Why not use that wealth of collected experience in publishing a book, rather than just what I think?
I would never do a book without an agent. They’re so valuable. They’re very good at being a buffer, in terms of the financial conversations an editor shouldn’t be having with the author, but also in terms of having another voice explaining to the author, “You know what, Amy’s right”—or explaining to me that I’m wrong.
You’ve described your imprint as the sweet spot between literary and commercial storytelling. But I haven’t heard you mention voice.
Actually, I think I would choose voice over story, if I had to. That is not necessarily a good thing, but I’m a sucker for a really strong voice.
Is the writer’s voice what helps you see potential in a book that you might otherwise pass on? The thing that gets you past the first hundred pages of plot that you want to discard?
Eleanor Brown’s The Weird Sisters is a good example. When that came in, the story wasn’t as strong as it could be, but she had this amazing first-person-plural voice. We talked on the phone before we were working together, and she asked, “What do you think of that? I’ve spoken to another editor, who wants me to change that.” I said, “I don’t care who you end up going with, but just promise me you won’t change that, because that’s the book.” I can help somebody with the story, but I can’t create a voice. I can’t teach that, and I can’t fix that.
What’s your favorite part of working on a book?
It’s that trite “being the first person to discover it” thing. As much as I think of myself as an incredibly pessimistic person, editors are eternal optimists. You always think, as you read through submissions, that the next one could be it. In a way we’re all addicts. We’re all hoping for that next fix.
I started my imprint in the summertime, and the summer was dead. I wasn’t getting any submissions I liked. I thought maybe I was being too picky, but then I got The Help. It was the same thing as when I was dating: I’d think, “Maybe I’m just being too picky.” But then I met my husband, and I realized, “No, this is what it’s supposed to be like.” That’s kind of how being an editor is. You can read something and be concerned that you’ve set the bar too high. But then you read something that makes you realize what falling in love is.
Take this book by M. O. Walsh. This is why I got into publishing. He has no idea how insanely talented he is. I’m not from Baton Rouge, and I’ve never been a fourteen-year-old boy, but his book spoke to me so profoundly and on so many different levels. It’s exciting to be at the beginning of that.
When we spoke on the phone for the first time, he said, “Do you think you have the best job in the world? Do you realize that you change people’s lives?” And you know, we’re in New York. We get so jaded. But I had to think, “I kind of do have the best job in the world.”
Michael Szczerban is an editor at Simon & Schuster.