Agents & Editors: A Q&A With Editor Chuck Adams

Jofie Ferrari-Adler
From the November/December 2008 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

What you're talking about just emphasizes to me how important the elements of a story are. Are the elements appealing? Are they things that people really want to read about?
Kathy Pories was reading a novel this week, and she asked me to read a part of it too. We all share everything here. I loved the writing. The voice was great. I was immediately drawn into the story. I hadn't read much, maybe twenty or thirty pages, and I told her, "I really like this." She said, "Well, wait until you get to the end." What happens is, you're reading along, you like the main character; he's interesting and complex. All along, you know that something bad has happened. And then he rapes somebody, in the first person. You read that and you're like, "Um, you can't do that." Fortunately, the author understands, so hopefully Kathy will get to buy the book. But she's got to go back through it and find a way to get rid of that problem. You lose your reader immediately when you do something like that.

Do you think literary writers need to be effective self-promoters to have a successful career today?
It's a lot easier to promote an author than a book. If you have an author whom you can get on NPR, for whom you can get some kind of press coverage because of their personality or something in their background or some quirk like that, and they're willing to be promoted that way, then that's a big plus. We always take that into consideration when we're talking about taking on somebody. Because you know that if you have a situation where you can promote only the book, it's harder. I have an author who unfortunately is in a wheelchair and we can't do the kind of tour that this company likes to do. But we're getting really great reviews, and we can capitalize on that, so I think the book is going to do fine. But without that, we would have had a real problem. It helps, obviously, if you have an author who is willing to promote.

As far as self-promotion is concerned, I'm always happy when an author says, "I'm going to network. I'm going to blog. I've got a list of people to whom I'm going to mail postcards." That's always great. It also helps when writers are well connected and their books come with guaranteed blurbs.

What would your ideal author be like?
My ideal author would be one who is anxious—not just willing—but anxious to work with me. I don't mean me, Chuck Adams. I mean me, the editor. Someone who understands that, while they are happy with what they've done, there may be room for improvement. They're open to listening to my suggestions and, once I have shared my wisdom with them, they do something with it. As I said, when I make these suggestions for changes in the manuscript, I don't want to be ignored. Because I'm not wrong. "There's a problem there, and we need to work on it." I may be wrong with the fix I suggest, but I'm not wrong with the need for a fix, and I want the author to respond to that and not argue with me. I see the creation of a successful book as very much a collaborative thing. The author always has to be happy with the book, or otherwise it doesn't matter, but I also have to be happy with it for the company's sake. We've got to feel like we can go out with confidence and make money on this book.

I'm working with an author right now on a novel that I think is brilliantly conceived and could be extremely successfully because when I describe it to people, they go, "Oh, God, I want to read that!" I'm in the editing process with him right now, and he's got his little darlings in there, as Stephen King calls them. He loves his little darlings. Trying to convince him to kill those darlings off, because they're getting in the way of the story, is difficult. I think I'll prevail because he has an agent who's very good and very proactive and understands what I'm doing and basically agrees with me. I think, together, we'll get the manuscript we need. This experience will in no way keep me from wanting to work with this author again. But I do want him to wise up. I'm not making these suggestions because I'm trying to make this Chuck Adams's book—I'm making them because I want the book to sell and to reach a big audience. I think he understands that and it's starting to sink in.

That can take time.
It does. Look, I know how much effort goes into writing a novel. I know how hard it is to hear someone say, "Okay, these sixty pages go in the garbage." They say, "But that's my best work!"

Continuing with this ideal author, how about after the editing? How involved would they be in the publishing process?
They should be thinking about ways they can help us. We're going to be doing our best to convince bookstores to stock this book. In some cases, we'll actually buy placement, and in other cases we have to depend on bookstores to do that. We will do everything we can to get reviews, but there's no guarantee. Everybody wants a New York Times review and everybody wants Oprah. Well? You just get very few. Anything they can do to help us—any contacts they may have, for example—I want to know about them. I want them to say, "You should know that I went to school with so-and-so." Good, get on the phone with them. Talk to them. Tell them about your book. Promote yourself. Don't be shy about it.

That is the one thing I don't understand about writers sometimes. It takes so much work to write a book. It takes a lot of ego to write a book. And then they finish it and find a publisher and go, "Oh, I'd feel cheap trying to sell it." Bullshit. That's part of the process. You wrote the book for a reason: You want people to read it. Help us. Help us get it out there. I want writers to be as proactive as they can be. Not to the point of being a nuisance, however. Don't expect miracles, and don't call up and say, "Why isn't this happening? Why isn't that happening?" Believe me, we're doing everything we can to make it happen. Don't keep after me about why it isn't happening.

But some writers, maybe not at Algonquin, know that their publishers are not doing what they can. They're putting their efforts behind the books that have gotten the huge advances. What should those writers do?
Anything they can to get people into the bookstore to buy the book. I don't know what their resources might be, but if they have any personal connections that can help get the word out—again, the Internet is a great way to reach people—that's the key.

Having worked at both big and small publishers, what would you say to a writer who finds himself with identical offers of, say, twenty-five thousand dollars from a big house and a smaller house?
When I was at Simon & Schuster, I would use the argument of "This is Simon & Schuster" for why an author should come there, knowing that I probably wasn't doing him a favor but also knowing that I needed to buy books and I liked this book. I was not a good person sometimes. We all have to fill our quota of books, and if the publisher liked the book, and I could buy it, I would pull the trump card of "This is Simon & Schuster," knowing that the author probably might be better off at another house. Now that I'm at the other house, I can admit that I did that. I think a writer who gets bought here is lucky. I really do. We don't succeed every time. But we try every time. And I can't say that's true with the big houses. There are other houses like Algonquin—we're not alone—who really think about what they're doing with every book.

First of all, if a writer is offered a choice between a Simon & Schuster and an Algonquin, I think their agent should advise them about what's going to be best for them. I think agents would generally say to go with Algonquin. The author should talk to both editors—I think authors should always ask to have a conversation with an editor before committing. Then they should go with the one they like best, hopefully at the smaller house where they're going to get more attention.

The problem with a company like Simon & Schuster or any of the large houses isn't that they're not good publishers—they're really great publishers—it's just that they're not great publishers of all the books they do. Your book is either going to be one of the ones that gets attention or you're just going to be thrown out there with the rest of them. A writer has to think about that before they commit. A lot of effort goes into every book at the smaller houses, because the smaller houses can't afford to bury anything.

If somebody gave you a magic wand and you could change one thing about the industry, what would it be?
I guess I'd go back to what we talked about earlier, the idea that we need more diversity in this business. We need to become a more encompassing business. We need to recognize the fact that we are serving a very narrow portion of the marketplace. There are people out there who we probably could get to read if we published books that they would enjoy—if we didn't feel so fucking superior to them all the time. There's a tendency of publishers to pooh-pooh books that are really commercial. You get this at writers' conferences sometimes. "Oh, how can you edit Mary Higgins Clark?" People just shiver because they think she's not a great writer. I'm sorry, she's a great storyteller, and she satisfies millions of readers. I'm all for that. Again, Harlequin romances—give me more of them. A lot of good writers have come out of Harlequin romances: Nora Roberts, Sandra Brown, Barbara Delinsky, to name three right there. I think literary fiction is great, and the ideal book is one that is beautifully written and tells a great story, but if it's just a great story that's written well enough to be readable, that's good too.

Are you worried about the decline of independent booksellers?
Of course. I worry that there's nobody out there to sell books. I don't mean to put down people who work at the big chains. We've hired an assistant here who works part time at Barnes & Noble, so I know there are good people out there working at Barnes & Noble. But too often they could be selling shoes or light bulbs. They don't have any real passion for books. I think people need to be passionate about books in order to sell them. They have to believe in the book and love it.

I saw that with Water for Elephants when we went out to Lexington, Kentucky, at the request of Joseph-Beth. They were doing a thing in conjunction with the Lexington newspaper, and they wanted Sara and me on a panel. The booksellers were so excited about that book. It wasn't even a book yet—it was still in galleys—but they had all read it. Everybody in the store had read it, and they couldn't stop talking about it. That kind of passion is what sells a book. Without the independents, without that kind of passion, I don't know.

It's great that Barnes & Noble puts a book in the window, when you pay them to, and it's great that they put it on the front table, when you pay them to, but it means so much more when the independent bookstores really get behind something. Don't get me wrong. I'm not against Barnes & Noble. I think they have made reading sexy, in a way, and they've made it fun with their coffee shops and all that stuff. I think they've done a great service in many ways. I just worry that the price we'll pay will be the loss of the independent bookstores.

How are you liking the culture at an independent house compared to the culture at S&S?
To be honest, I didn't dislike the culture at Simon & Schuster. I lived in it for a long time and felt comfortable with it. I loved my job at Simon & Schuster. I don't have bad things to say about Simon & Schuster. It was a good company to work for. It was a difficult company to work for. When I first went there, my friends said, "You'll never survive. You're too nice." What my friends should have known, and what I said, was, "I'm not nice. I'm pleasant, but I'm not nice." They found out pretty soon at Simon & Schuster that I'm not that nice. And they found out here that I'm not nice. In fact, I think I surprised a few people because I came here with this reputation of being so nice.

How does that manifest itself?
I'm stubborn as hell. I'm like a dog that won't let go when something gets me, either positively or negatively. I'm just not going to stop until you've listened to me, until I've been paid attention to, and, usually, until I get my way. One of the things that I guess surprised them here is how demanding I can be sometimes. I know what I want, and that's what I'm going to get.

What does that usually involve?
The cover. The type. Things like that. I mean, I don't necessarily have to have my way. But I have to be listened to, and they have to try and placate me, or I'm just not going to stop complaining. I don't think people realized that about me. I heard Kathy Pories telling somebody that I surprised them when I came here because everyone thought I was going to be a pushover for everything, because I had that reputation. But I'm not. At Simon & Schuster I didn't have occasion to fight about things as much. I fought with the publisher all the time—and I think that's one of the reasons why I got fired—but I didn't have to fight with other people there.

At the end of the day, what's the most satisfying part of the job for you?
At the end of the day in the big picture, feeling like we've published a book well and done well for the author. At the end of the individual day, it's usually that I've started reading something I'm excited about, and I'm looking forward to getting back to it.

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


Capturing The Voice

Great interview and questions, I especially liked the mention of capturing the voice and reeling in the reader. Often times you get the impression that just because one knows where to place a noun, subject, and adjective that somehow its equivalent to building the eighth wonder of the world. ... Yet if an editor or two suggest the slightest change to a word or a sentence it’s as if the author’s soul has been sliced. ... I’m all for letting editors cast the first stone because often times they see the heart, and when that happens those books become our friends. Well done. –Floe

James River Writers Conference

I have gone to all of the James River Writers Conferences in Richmond, Virginia but one, and this year Chuck Adams was on the panel. Here is a guy with wonderful advice, good humor, and a lot of great, down-to-Earth qualities. Thanks for the interview. I hope he returns to a panel in the future.

Chuck Adams interview

This is one of the most helpful, informative and encouraging interviews I've ever read. Thanks so much.

Chuck Adams Interview

I really enjoyed reading this interview, as well as the interview with Molly Friedrich--this kind of information and insight is so very helpful and encouraging to us struggling writers. As a writer who regularly submits his work to editors and agents, I inevitably find myself asking each time the work comes back, "Why has this story I felt so passionately about failed to engage?" The workshops and MFA programs teach craft, but apparently, an understanding of the market is sorely needed as well. These interviews, at least, give us some insight into these matters. - John Martin


What an amazing interview. Great questions and answers, giving me a ton to think about as an author. I'll turn back to this one again and again.