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Agents & Editors: A Q&A With Jonathan Galassi

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July/August 2009

7.01.09

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But what if you have some ambition, as all writers do, and really want a readership and think that you deserve one?
If they deserve one, they'll get one. I believe that. I believe that eventually they will get their readership. Now, I also think there are way more people writing books than are going to get a readership. But I think that the books that really make a difference are going to have a readership. It may not be immediate. There are many examples of writers who have labored in relative obscurity for a long time until their ship came in. Look at Bolaño. His great success is posthumous and not even in his own country.

Writing is its own reward. It has to be. I really believe that. This is a part of publishing that's really hard to come to grips with. But publishers can't make culture happen the way they want it to happen. They can stand up for what they believe in, and they can work to have an impact, but in the end it's like the brilliant thing that Helen Vendler said about poets. She was asked, "What's the canon?" and she said something like, "The poets are going to decide what the canon is. The poets who poets read are the canon." I think that, in the end, that's true about all literature. The books that people read over time, and keep reading, are the books that matter. We can huff and puff and pay money and advertise and everything else, but in the end, if the readers don't come, we can't do anything about it.

Twenty years ago you called writing "a very cruel sport." Has it gotten more or less cruel since then?
I think it's probably gotten more cruel because there's more competition for people's time as readers. But all sports are cruel. Golfing is a cruel sport because only a few people are going to play on the PGA Tour. Poetry is a good bellwether because there are only a few poets who matter in the end. Even a lot of the poets who win honors are going to be filtered out in the end. It doesn't mean they aren't good. It is cruel. It's Darwinian. So if you're going to be a writer, you'd better take rewards from it over and above the public recognition. I remember something Montale said to the effect that even being a minor poet is an honorable thing. Being a novelist or a poet whose books aren't popular is a wonderful accomplishment.

In talking about book promotion you once said something interesting about believing that authors should focus on their work and leave the promotion to others. Some people would disagree with that.
Unfortunately publishers need authors to do some of that. We need authors to be able to go on Charlie Rose and the Today show and All Things Considered. We're dying for them to do those things. We're selling authors, not books. We're selling people the illusion of an experience with an author. They want to know what the author looks like, what he smells like. They want the full experience. In the old days it was "Read John Updike's new book." Now it's "Meet John Updike" or "Listen to John Updike on the audio version" or "Watch John Updike give a reading." All of that can be very distracting for writers. Certain writers aren't any good at it. If you think about it, if a writer has forty good writing years, and he publishes a book every two years, does he want to spend a third year of that cycle on selling his book, in the United States and in Europe and everywhere else? That's a big chunk out of his working life. Even though it can make things hard for us, I'm very sympathetic to authors who don't want to do that. It's not what they're best at. Their real talent is writing.

What drives you crazy about authors?
It's hard for them to drive me crazy. I actually really empathize with authors. Of course there are certain authors who are so obsessive about every little thing, and sometimes I have to deal with those things. But I can usually say to them, almost as a joke, "You're the most obsessive person I've ever worked with!" But their perfectionism is what makes them that way, and of course that's something I value in their work. And then there are authors who are just very, very selfish—just like there are people who are very selfish. You can't admire that. They can be mean, sometimes. I don't like authors who aren't appreciative of the people who help them publish their work. Some of our most famous authors are among our nicest, and then there are others who have been among our most disliked. They can earn the love or the contempt of the people who work for them. But by and large I feel that their problems are very human problems. I think authors are heroic, so I tend to think that their narcissism is justified. And let's face it: The authors you are working with are ones who you've decided are important, so you've already bought into them.

You have lamented how the role of the editor has changed over the yearsthat it used to be more about the text and now it's more about promotion.
I remember being so impressed by something I was once told by Bob Loomis, who's still going strong in his eighties and is one of the great editors at Random House. This is someone who has published so many award winners and best-sellers of all different kinds. He once said to me, "I really just work on getting the books into the best shape possible and I don't worry that much about the selling and so forth. That's other people's jobs." I thought, "Wow. That's the opposite of what everyone says you should be doing." In a way, maybe he didn't have to worry about it because he has such credibility—people believe what he says about a book and go to work. I actually think that's how it works in publishing: Once you've done it successfully a few times, it gets a lot easier. People pull with you instead of you feeling that you have to pull them along. It's true that the editor today should have ideas—he should be market-wise in acquiring books and have ideas about how to sell them. But it all starts with the book. I think the editor's principal job is to identify books and to help them be the best they can, and then to work with the rest of the company to get them across. I think Bob was absolutely right about the primary contribution an editor can make.

But that is changing, wouldn't you say?
I guess it is. I hear a lot of stuff about how editors behave and how they're playing hopscotch and how they don't really care how much they pay for books because they know they won't be around when the chickens come home to roost. I just haven't seen that. Maybe I'm working in a bit of a bubble because we're a little different than some of the other houses. I hear stories about editors who are competitive with other editors within their publishing house. I think that's very counterproductive and kind of takes the fun out of it. It's a collegial business. You're on a team together and not trying to best each other. But I see people like you and Lorin and Eric coming along who have the same sort of idealism about it that people in my generation had. I mean, why else would you do it? If you wanted to make a killing, you wouldn't go into publishing. You have to be doing it out of love.

Speaking of Eric, would you take us inside the FSG editorial meeting? What's it like?
When I first got here I wasn't very happy with the FSG editorial meeting. I remember Bob Giroux saying, "The editorial meeting is a disaster. Roger has everyone report on what they're doing, and Roger has to be in the meeting. He's too dominant." That was very indicative of the struggles between them and their differences in personalities. It was true, though. There was something about our editorial meeting that didn't allow for the kind of free-flowing quality that you want, where you bat around ideas and talk about the competition and so on. I don't think I was ever very good at that—I hate meetings—but Eric runs the meeting now and he is good at it. He's much more relaxed. We go around and talk about various projects, but there's also some general discussion. We don't use the editorial meeting to acquire books. We use it to talk about what's being considered and what we might think about doing. Even in a small house like this, we don't really know what's been submitted to everyone else. There are ways of solving that but they're quite laborious. Sometimes I hear about books that were sold and think, "Why didn't we get to see that?" Of course we did get to see it, but I didn't know about it. There are so many books out there that I wish we could have published. But as one of my bosses once said, "Don't worry about the ones that got away. Worry about the ones you're stuck with." [Laughter.] There's another line that was said by Ferris Greenslet, who was a famous editor at Houghton Mifflin in the twenties. One of his little nostrums that was quoted at us was "When in doubt, decline."

Talk to me a little about publishing in translation, which is one of the things that FSG is known for. This year you've had amazing success with Bolaño. Do you feel that it's getting easier?
I think we're getting better at it. I don't know if I've talked about my current little buzzword that I'm thinking about a lot: essentialism. We should only be doing things that are essential. I think that's a good way to approach doing translations. I myself have been guilty of not always following that rule. But Bolaño is essential. And Gomorrah, by [Roberto] Saviano, is one of the most important European books of the last five years. We're just being more selective. Another book we just bought that I'm wild about is Roberto Calasso's La Folie Baudelaire. It's about Baudelaire's Paris. He's been published by Knopf until recently but for some reason they were in doubt and declined, and we picked it up.

In a way, the market in translation is an interesting microcosm of publishing in general. You have to approach it in the same way that you do as a publisher, where you're out selling books to the world that you're saying are important. But you know that some of them will turn out to be important and a lot of them won't. You can't just go for the books that all of your foreign colleagues tell you are their important books—they have their reasons for telling you that—but the few books that are actually going to have an impact in your market. You have to look for exactly what you're looking for as a reader. And that's not always the big books. It's not always the books that are part of the big commerce of publishing and that you hear about on the fast track. Sometimes it's books that are published by small publishers and sort of come in from the side. On the other hand of that you have Gomorrah, which was the biggest book in Italian publishing in many years and which we did hear about on the fast track.

What's your favorite way to hear about an international book?
From a friend. I actually have a scout in Italy. It's the only country where we have a scout. She's a really smart woman named Caterina Zaccaroni. I don't necessarily hear about the books from her, but I'll say to her, "What about this one? What about that one?" and she has opinions about them. She saves me a lot of work. And she has books that she pushes on me herself—books that she has decided are important. There's one book that she's been trying to get me to publish for several years now, and I may just cave in and do it because she's so passionate about it. But one of the ways that FSG became an important publisher was because Roger had these people in Europe who would recommend books to him. He published all of these books in translation that other people hadn't picked up. Italian in particular was important for the early FSG. But it's hard to be confronted with the number of so-called "important" foreign books and then to figure out which few are right to publish.

Do you enjoy the international book fairs?
I love Frankfurt. Roger loved it and I inherited that love from him. I love the rituals of Frankfurt. You basically have the same appointments every year. You see the same people. You see them age and think, "Oh, if they're aging, I must be aging." [Laughter.] It's more about relationships than doing business. We try not to buy books at Frankfurt, but renewing our ties is very important. And Frankfurt is one place where American publishing doesn't dominate as much, which is nice to see. A lot of American publishers don't really get Frankfurt, and don't enjoy it, because they don't engage with the foreign publishers as much. But that's the fun part.

What disturbs you most about the way the industry has changed?
What disturbs me most about publishing today, or the reading world, is that readers aren't loyal. You can't count on continuity. There's still a certain base of readers for an author, but it's much lower than it used to be. Readers don't stick with authors. I think that's partly because readers are more occasional now, and they don't come to books on their own as much as they're told by somebody. They're told by Oprah. They're told by their book club. So they may read another book, but the next book is the next book they're told they should read. It's not that they read Anna Karenina and then go out and read War and Peace. They're less informed and less knowledgeable. They need help. I love book clubs, but I think they're indicative of the fact that reading is now an occasional entertainment for a lot of people and not the kind of obsessive devotion that it used to be. It feels like a lot more people used to read every novel by John Updike, for example, and I don't think those kind of readers are as present as they used to be.

Should publishers be doing anything to try to reverse that trend?
I don't know the answer to that. I always feels sort of ham-fisted when the ABA or AAP does those "Get caught reading" campaigns. That's not what's going to change people's reading habits. I think what publishers should do is try to publish books as well as possible and try to reach their readers in as innovative ways as possible. We have these terrible problems—that book reviews don't matter anymore, that there are fewer of them all the time. And what is taking their place? How do you reach your readers? I guess you have to do it through the Web, but I don't know if I'm buying any books because of Internet marketing. I just wonder how we're going to find the readers. The readers are there. Look, we've sold a hundred thousand copies of 2666. Somehow, people learned about that book and wanted to read it. That shows you that the readers are there. It's just getting harder to get their attention and to get them interested.

What is your take on the current retail landscape?
Bad. Actually, at our sales conference yesterday, some of the salesmen were saying that neighborhood bookstores are doing better in the economic crisis because people are more interested in buying locally and supporting small businesses. I think this crisis could have a lot of good effects for the culture. It's slowing things down—slowing down the pace of change—and making people aware of what's important in life. It's not just more, more, more. But I think all of the traditional bookstore chains are in trouble. Amazon is very, very effective. But I think Amazon is a potential...it's a frenemy. It's not just interested in being a bookstore. So I think we have to sell our own books to people.

Are you guys doing that?
We do it. We don't want to muscle out the retailers. But I think that in the conspectus of the different players in the publishing business, the bookstores are the weakest link in the chain. It's just like with music. There are always going to be bookstores, but I don't think that's where the future of bookselling is.

Reader Comments

  • mikerol says...

    As a former quite small publisher [of Urizen Books http://isbndb.com/d/publisher/urizen_books.html ] who got his first steady job at Farrar, Straus, in 1966, and brought them Nelly Sachs, all the Hesse books, Hans Erich Nossack, Christa Wolf, and most importantly, Peter Handke, I would say that the now nearly venerable firm has much improved under Jonathan Gallassi's guidance. Jonathan's description of Roger Straus and his conduct of editorial meetings, brings to mind the founder's rather Runjonesque, which I must admit I appreciates, as I appreciate "characters" of all kinds. What is surprising, especially in this retrospect, is how many far nicer people were working there at the time, Hal Vussel, Mr. Henry Wohlforth, the treasurer, Ms. Nicholson, author of a manual on style, in rights and permissions, Ms. Miller, Roger's assistant. Overall though, I would have to agree with the decision by Robert Giroux, as quoted in Christopher Lehmann-Haupt's obituary - Christopher also wrote Rogers obit for the N. Y. Times - that thought of Roger was so distasteful as to keep him from writing a history of the firm. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/05/books/06giroux.html?scp=2&sq=robert%20giroux&st=cse Each sentence in those two obits is well weighed. Not that Roger was not serious, but he was not passionate about literature, he liked the social side, the hobknobbing at least as much, having no end of never enobling Nobel Prizes, and in that respect Roger does not compare either with his contemporary American [Alfred Knopf, Bennet Cerf, George Braziller, to mention just three of the many] or European equivalents such as Siegfried Unseld of Suhrkamp, Michel Krueger of Hanser Verlag, even a true hobknobber and delightfully social animal such as Ledig-Rowohlt of the Rowohlt Verlag could get down and translate and edit with the best of them and had languages and world wide interests; ditto for Jonathan Maschler of Cape, Mathew Evans the then editor of Faber, no end of great French, Italian and Spanish publishers. I want to tune this point with a very specific example, that of the publication history of the work of Peter Handke in this country, an author since he burst on the scene in 1966, of some 66+ books, who has developed and changed over the course of time to an author of the importance of the greatest in German literature in the past two hundred years. The fellow Handke translator Scott Abbot mentioning, a few weeks back, in a discussion on what is everybody's favorite Handke title at http://handke-discussion.blogspot.com/ that Handke, while he and Handke were together in Yugoslavia, had shown him a letter from "Robert" Straus to Siegfried Unseld where Straus mentions that he's got a big problem called Handke, elicits these thoughts on Farrar, Straus has published Handke in this country: Farrar, Straus did 11 printings of KASPAR AND OTHER PLAYS. FS+G sold the first half a dozen Handke titles to various paperback publishers for reprinting, the Brit Methuen shared upfront costs, over and over, and so certainly did not lose any money. However, in all these years I have never seen an ad for a Handke book in this country. Even the diary-novel, as I think of it, Weight of the World did well, not that FS +G has had the good sense to publish it's successor Die Geschichte des Bleistifts which exists in the major Romance languages of course, to inform Handke's English language reading public, as this book does and can, how Handke's thinking on writing and his project is changing.[Little chance that the mostly idiot reviewers that the mostly idiot book review editors assign books to would take the trouble to give the matter of change any thought to as they so very obviously have not, baffled! I happen to have about each and every review, and there exists a single outstanding one, by Willim Gass in the L.A. Book Review when it was edited by Stever Wasserman]. First major mistake of Roger's was to fail to publish HISTORY OF THE PENCIL, the second and more serious one was to publish A SLOW HOMECOMING jointly in one volume together with LESSON OF SAINT VICTOIRE and A CHILD'S STORY [to save money and also on the individual presentation which these three very different books deserved. These failures in publishing finesse are compounded by failing to put books which had wide readerships in their paper editions with Avon and Collier Books into the FS+G quality paperback imprint Noonday Books to make for continuity [many have recently been reissued by New York Review of Books Books] and then in passing on Handke's greatest plays, WALK ABOUT THE VILLAGES [Ariadne Books] and THE ART OF ASKING + THE HOUR WE KNEW NOTHING OF EACH OTHER [Yale University Press] and many others not even translated yet. So what Roger is complaining to to Unseld is something that was easily remediable by him if he had been as good a publishers Handke's French and Spanish, Italian and Portuguese, etc Publishers were. Handke, also, has had about ten different editors assigned to him since I left there in 1969. Some first rate, the first several, some not, but each of course incapable or unwilling to construct the history of publication, that is to be a real editor! Recently the excellent Annie Wedekind left and so far I haven't found out to which overworked novice Handke has been assigned. Imagine, you're a bright young thing and Goethe is assigned to you! Elizabeth Sifton had a wonderful piece in Slate some years ago about being assigned Saul Bellow when she was a very junior editor at Viking http://www.slate.com/id/2116502/ Evidently Ms. Sifton did not drown, but this indicates the amateurishness with which these matters can be handled. And the case of a foreign author is then far more serious, especially of the new editor who assumes that load does not know the original language. michael roloff http://www.roloff.freehosting.net/index.html

  • Victoria Mixon says...

    Every day in my work as a freelance editor I hear aspiring writers complain that authors are the only people in the publishing industry who care about the quality of the work, that everyone else is obsessed with the money. Thank you for bringing Jonathan Galassi to us in this wonderful interview, so those who hope to become a part of the industry can see what the industry to really is.

    I'm very happy to have this article to mention in my blog on the craft of fiction.

    best,
    Victoria
    http://victoriamixon.com

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