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

Jofie Ferrari-Adler
From the March/April 2009 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

I feel the same waythat these changes are going to happen. But the thing I don't understand is why hardcover books still exist.
GARGAGLIANO: I don't understand it.
NASH: It's because of the library market.
GARGAGLIANO: I published a book this fall that we crashed into the schedule because it was shortlisted for the Booker. We did a hardcover just for the libraries and a trade paperback for everybody else.
NASH: I mean, you're right. I was being semi-glib but not entirely glib. The question is, "Why will the print book survive?"

No, I'm literally talking about the hardcover book. Right now, at this moment, why does it exist? I'm looking at a hardcover and a paperback side by side and asking what the consumer is getting for almost twice as much money. Two pieces of cardboard?
CHINSKI: Well, we get two shots to publish the book.

But do we really, with the way the accounts are ordering, or do we just say that?
CHINSKI: But there's still that idea. Also, there's still the hangover of thinking that critics won't pay attention to a paperback in the same way. I know that's not as true as it used to be, but—
NASH: The existence of the hardcover has to do with history. It has to do with certain structures that are in place that haven't been replaced—structures varying from the library market to perceptions about reviewers to perceptions about quality in the mind of the customer. It also has to do with customers wanting certain books at whatever price. They don't care whether it's fifteen dollars or twenty-five dollars—they just want it because of who it's written by. But that's not going to last.
CHINSKI: But here's an interesting case: Bolaño's 2666. We did the hardcover and a three-volume paperback edition in a slipcase. They're priced the same. Which do you think would be selling more? I guess because they're priced the same it's not quite a fair question, but people do seem to be gravitation toward the hardcover just because it's the more conventional format. The paperback is selling well too, but the hardcover seems to have some kind of recognition factor. So I don't think it's just publishers sticking their heads in the sand. It's also readers still thinking that that's the way they discover new books.

Even when they cost ten dollars more for no apparent value?
GARGAGLIANO: I wonder that too. We don't really do very much—
NASH: Value is created in the mind. A classic thing that happens in American retail capitalism is that people will buy the more expensive thing. It's been proven over and over again. If you're at Barneys and there's an eighty-dollar lampshade and a fifty-dollar lampshade, you buy the eighty-dollar lampshade because you think it's worth more. That is endemic in American retail capitalism. But I think the distressing thing in publishing is that we're not making more beautiful objects. I think that one of the things that electronic publishing will allow us to do is free the print object of its need to have a given exact unit cost that is our mass-market way of delivering the product at a given price. The download will allow us to generate volume, and then we can create this gorgeous, elaborate fetish object for which we can charge gloriously outrageous sums of money.

But who's going to be selling them if that happens? Look at what happened to the music business.
NASH: Precisely. Look at the Radiohead model. Radiohead has already done it. Eighty bucks for the limited edition but only ninety-nine cents for the download. That's the model. It's just a question of "How do we get there in a way that doesn't involve complete chaos?" But it seems like that's where we're going. And I think it will be customer-driven—we'll go there as fast as the customers will be willing to go there.

What are you guys seeing in the industry that you find encouraging?
NASH: Fan fiction.

Which is?
NASH: People so in love with a given story and set of characters, or a given world, that they are doing their own version of it. I just think that's spectacular. Not necessarily as writing, but as a cultural phenomenon.

Anybody else? Come on, there's got to be something that's encouraging.
GARGAGLIANO: This is not a good time to ask that question. [Laughter.]
CHINSKI: It's like what Richard was saying—some of these things that are scary are also encouraging. The Kindle and the Sony Reader are bringing people to books who might not have come to them otherwise. I mean, that's something.
NASH: Look at the thing Eric said about people who own a Kindle buying more books than they did before they had a Kindle.
CHINSKI: That's pretty encouraging.
BOUDREAUX: And beyond that, I had it in my head that Kindles and Sony Readers would exist in the way audio books did—that it wouldn't be exactly the same. There would be certain kinds of books that really lent themselves to that format in the same way it was for audio books where you had businessmen driving on business trips. You couldn't get a novel published by your own audio publisher—they weren't interested—but a certain kind of practical nonfiction flew off the shelves. But Edgar Sawtelle has been a huge seller on the Kindle, which is not at all the kind of book I would have thought would be selling well in that format. It's six hundred pages long—there's a good reason to put it on a Sony Reader instead of reading a hardcover—but I just wasn't expecting the number of downloads to be such a close ratio to what's selling in a bookstore. I thought we'd have to figure out what categories worked, and once again fiction would be the category that would be left out as everybody read self-help books or Freakonomics on their Kindle. And I find it encouraging that people are downloading this big fat debut novel.

Anything else?
NASH: The use of social media to talk about books: Goodreads, LibraryThing, Shelfari. Reading books is a solitary activity, but books are also the richest kind of social glue, and the profusion of ways to be social with one another will be tremendously advantageous to books. The commonality that having read the same book introduces between two people is so much richer and more dynamic than the commonality of having watched the same TV show, for example.

It seems like agents lament the consolidation of the industry because it gives them less options. How do you guys feel about it?
BOUDREAUX: It doesn't seem to lessen their options when they submit to every single imprint in the house and then you're on the hot-button contest to see who reads it first.
NASH: I think it's kind of pointless to think about it. As individuals, there's sweet fuck-all we can do about it. With everything else we've talked about, human beings at our level can affect things. We can affect the outcome of a given book. We just cannot affect the outcome of a corporate merger.
BOUDREAUX: And for a group of people who've only been doing this for a decade, in which this has always been the case and it was already the death knell of publishing back when we were first getting into it and everybody lamented consolidation—
CHINSKI: When I saw The Last Days of Disco, it was heartbreaking. [Laughter.] That's when I realized what we've lost. As you were saying, it's hard to know because it's the world we live in. It seems like even within the force of consolidation, there are so many imprints blossoming within these places. I don't quite understand what the corporate thinking is behind that. But that's just because I'm not making the decisions, I'm sure.
BOUDREAUX: You've also got a group of people here who have ended up at certain kinds of imprints within those places. So we've all clearly struggled, those of us who are in the corporate world, to find a place that's least like a corporate structure. I mean, that's the great thing about Ecco. When Dan Halpern sold it to HarperCollins he had an agreement with Jane Friedman that basically said, "But we will never have to act like we are a part of corporate publishing. We will keep doing it exactly how we've been doing it." So you get to pretend you're this little thing attached to this big thing, which is how I imagine it being at Scribner and FSG. You get to have the benefits of the deep pockets, and somebody's figuring out the new media thing and revamping this site and that site, and you have the economies of scale of getting your shipping done or whatever, and you still get to sit there and work on your books. So we've also self-selected for a certain kind of publishing within corporate publishing.

And you really did, because you left Random House without having new a job lined up.
BOUDREAUX: I did. I thought I'd go see if anybody wanted me to come do fiction. Thank God Dan Halpern was out there. God bless him. Because it's true: Who doesn't want to do the small list inside the big house, which is just a different kind of experience? I mean, it seems the best way to make that deal with the devil. As you say, Richard, the conglomeration isn't going to go away.
CHINSKI: It doesn't actually mean that writers have less choice, I don't think. There are so many imprints within these companies. It's become an easy straw man to point the finger at. "Oh, these big corporate publishers that don't understand what books are." There are still a lot of editors working at imprints within these big corporations who care about books in the same way that somebody working at Scribner when it was independent cared about books. I think it's really easy, because there are so many frustrations that we all have as writers and editors and agents, to just blame it on some Corporate culture with a capital C. As Richard said, there are a lot of things that we can't control but there are also a lot of things that we can try to control, at least at a certain level. And that probably hasn't changed that much from fifty years ago.
BOUDREAUX: And certainly, the competition in-house is every bit as fierce as the competition out of house, when you and so-and-so from Simon & Schuster both have the book and there's a house bid.
GARGAGLIANO: The agent gets the same benefit of the imprints within the house riling each other up and competing against one another to put on the best show for the author, and the author gets the benefit of choosing between all of these different imprints. I don't think, for the author, it's a major difference. But I wasn't around when it wasn't like that.
NASH: I suspect that to the extent that consolidation has created problems in the industry, the problems are farther downstream than acquisitions. Retail consolidation is the real issue.

Speak to that. How do you feel about so much power being concentrated on Fifth Avenue and in Ann Arbor and Seattle?
NASH: It was all going to happen anyway. The book business was just later to the party, quite frankly, than the clothing business or the cereal business. The real estate was all the same. One of the reasons why we've become really dependent on social media is that it's a kind of hand-selling at a time when the 1,000 people who used to be able to hand-sell are now down to 150. And the capacity of the corporate retailers to hand-sell is either purchased or anecdotal. When I say anecdotal I mean it hasn't completely vanished. I can tell that the B&N in Union Square is putting Soft Skull books on the countertop that weren't paid to be put there. So there is anecdotal hand-selling going on. But you have a situation where the capacity of the retailer to sell a given book to a given, recognized individual has virtually disappeared—down to percentage points. It will work with a few titles—I'm sure you guys have all published books that have been made by independent retailers. But their ability to be a part of the social network of the community of books is gone and we have to find some other means of generating that word-of-mouth. Retailers just exist to shelve the books and make them visible in a given community. They're not selling them to the community.
CHINSKI: But don't you think they understand the crisis they're in, to a certain degree, too? That's why Barnes & Noble has B&N Recommends now, and Starbucks is getting involved, and everybody's trying to—
NASH: Yeah, you're right. I think they realize what they have wrought. Well, they do but they don't. Half the time they're trying to sell on price—they're doing inventory churn—and then the other half of the time they're trying to go intimate. I think they're kind of schizophrenic about it. I think that's part of the problem. I mean, a lot of the independents that went out of business deserved to go out of business. They weren't actually trying very hard to hand-sell. They were just taking the finite number of books that publishers could then publish and saying, "Okay, you pick from these five hundred books." But the great ones are the ones that we have with us right now—St. Mark's and Prairie Lights and the rest. They're doing a great job of being retailers. But you're exactly right about the chains. At times they are definitely trying to find that community-oriented approach.
CHINSKI: The way they'll host book clubs in the stores, for example. In the same way that people like to blame the corporate publishers, it's really easy to point your finger at the chains. I'm not saying they don't present a certain set of problems. But it's interesting that, in a way, they're wrestling with the same kind of issues that we're wrestling with in trying to find a way to interact more directly with their customers. It's a kind of funny crisis all around.

At the end of the day, what makes it all worthwhile?
NASH: This roundtable.
BOUDREAUX: The glamour of this!
CHINSKI: Going home and editing for four hours.

That's funny. That was actually going to be my next question, but I was going to do it in the anonymous section at the end so you wouldn't have to lie about it. Seriously, though, what makes it worthwhile for you?
BOUDREAUX: Books mean enormous things to people. They are things that save people's lives, at times.
NASH: Even the lives of children!
BOUDREAUX: That's right! The lives of children! I don't think any children have ever lost their lives because of something an editor did, but children have most definitely had their lives improved by something that a writer, and an editor, put out there.
CHINSKI: We're doing it for the kids!
BOUDREAUX: Why don't we make that, "We're doing it for our children, and our children's children."

Later, after the pizza was gone and even the most constitutionally strong among us were getting a little punchy—and understandably so—the panel agreed to speak anonymously on a range of topics that would be awkward to discuss for attribution. As usual, a number of verbal tics have been altered in order to preserve anonymity.

Does it bother you that so much of your work has to be done on nights and weekends?
Sure, every once in a while it catches up with you. But you can't concentrate in the office so it's just the way it is. But I'd be lying if I didn't say that sometimes you don't feel resentful. I always have that in the summer because I find that authors all deliver at the beginning of the summer because they want to go on their summer vacations.

Yeah, it's always just before Christmas, just before New Year's, just before the Fourth of July. The book's might be three years late but they go and deliver it on July 3rd.

Publishers have to let you have some time out of the office. And I feel like that is increasingly looked on as this sort of three-martini-lunch thing—that the editor needs the occasional Tuesday to edit at home. You can power through an awful lot, but at a certain point there are too many manuscripts stacked up, and it's been going on for so many years, that you've got to be given some time to do it that isn't just every Saturday of your life.

Such a big part of the job is to pay attention to what the rest of the world is doing and what's being written everywhere else and what other people are interested in and what you yourself are interested in—because you take all of those obsessions and you find the books that you're passionate about on all of those topics—but I don't really have time to do that.

That's my biggest frustration: not having enough time to read published books.

And it's a great disservice to your own job not to ever be able to read anything for pleasure—and not to ever be able to read the other books your company is publishing—because you've got x number of submissions to read and your own new authors' backlists to read and what your house is doing that's working because you just need to understand what that thing is that so-and-so just published. About eight rungs down you get to read something just because it sounds good—something that you're not reading to learn something about your job.

What do agents do that drives you crazy?
Ask for ads.

Submit the next book when you haven't even published the first book and you don't even know how many you're printing.

Assume that just because one book did really well you have to pay for your previous success.

And with fiction, more and more, the success of one novel does not mean that the next novel is going to sell at the same level. And I don't think that a lot of agents have caught up with that fact.

"Have you read it yet? Have you read it yet?" I want to be like, "Have you prepared for your launch meeting yet? Have you written your tip sheets yet?" They don't realize that you may have something from the four other big agents. I'm being flip about it, but they do tend to forget that. Two days later it's "Have you read it?" "No, I'm actually editing your author who's under contract."

There's also a tendency to misinterpret an early read for actual depth of publishing program behind that early read. Sure, being the first editor to get back to them on a novel may well mean a particular enthusiasm and a good match, but it also may not. So to require that everybody be in on day two, set up meetings on day three, and be ready to do the auction on day four? Is that all the thought that you want us to put into it?

And using the weekends and holidays as a tactic. I hate the Friday e-mail saying, "Just in time for you to enjoy this weekend..." Or over Labor Day weekend! It's like the new destination wedding. You know, in the same way that you hate your friends who picked the three-day weekend to get married on so you can all go to Hawaii. I'm like, "Really? You had to save this for Labor Day weekend? I had all summer when I didn't have shit to read."

What are the biggest mistakes that writers can make in dealing with their editor or agent?
I think the bigger problem is dealing with their publicist. You have to be very nice to your publicist. You should send them flowers.

I had an author who used to leave messages at four in the morning saying that she didn't want us to publish her book anymore. She wanted us to take them off the shelves! That was fun.

Despite the fact that there is a real personal connection, authors should realize that we're not their therapists, we're not their best friends in the world, etcetera. I can fix your book but I can't fix your whole life.

What about when an author calls because there aren't enough hangers in his hotel closet? [Laughter.] That's happened!

Tell me about a few up-and-coming agents who you feel are great for fiction or memoir.
I think Jim Rutman at Sterling Lord is really smart. He's both a no bullshit guy and a genuinely nice guy. That may sound naïve, but it really does matter.

I think Maria Massie is fabulous. If I could publish the writers of only one agent, it would be Maria.

Julie Barer. I did a book with her and she went about getting blurbs like nobody I've ever seen. She brought them to me, every day, like a cat bringing me a bird. Eight in a row. I've never had an agent who went to bat that much and called in that many favors. It was amazing.

There's also Anna Stein, who's wonderful. She's got a very cosmopolitan worldview and she's also got a taste for a certain kind of political nonfiction that is quite interesting. The first book I got from her was a left-wing case for free trade, which you don't necessarily expect from Ira Silverberg's former foreign rights person.

You know who else is good? Robert Guinsler. He's really smart and really enthusiastic about his books. He has a lot of smart projects.

What kind of information will you withhold from your authors?
I never tell them when my bosses don't love their book. Or when it's been a battle to get them attention on the list.

I will hold back particularly bad feedback. If it's a novel, not everybody is going to agree on it. I've never had such a tsunami of bad feedback that I thought they really needed to hear it.

Do you send them all of their bad reviews?

I leave that up to the author.

I've started telling debut authors, "A lot of writers who have been through this don't want to see the bad reviews. Will you give me permission to not send you the bad reviews?"

When it comes to sales figures, I give them the information. I mean, I don't go out of my way to do it if the news is not good. If it's great news and I can say, "We did this and we did that and we did this," I give it to them all the time. But I don't go out of my way to say, "You're holding steady. Nothing's happening."

What other editors or houses are you impressed with lately?
I think Penguin Press is doing a great job. You look at their list and there's a consistency to it that is really amazing. I don't know how the finances look. But just as books, they're incredibly consistent.

I think Bob Miller and Jon Karp are doing a great job.

I've been impressed with a house called Two Dollar Radio. The reason I'm impressed is their own tagline: "They make more noise than a two-dollar radio."

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


"well-crafted but tame"

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."


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.

"A refreshing firehose of a

"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

finding the voice

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.

Once again, blown away

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.