Let’s break down the groups you sell to. First you have to sell yourself to an agent and an author. How do you do that?
Oh, I hate selling myself to authors.
Well, now you have a reputation that precedes you.
I’m a very good advocate for my authors. I could talk you to the moon about why my authors are great. It’s harder to do that about myself. I can sell myself to an author in terms of what I’ll bring to the table and what I’ll do for them. But to say why they should come with me versus someone else? That’s uncomfortable. I don’t love it.
I’d like to think that now agents are sending to me because of what I’ve wanted the imprint to stand for. I’ve kept this imprint very small because what I bring to the table is me. I’m the person who's editing the books. I’m the person who’s involved in everything from the cover design to the flap copy to the reader’s guide. To me, this imprint is the best of both worlds—the attention of being at a small independent publishing house with the backing of a big commercial powerhouse.
Someone once told me that my editorial letters are very direct. I wasn’t sure what that meant. I do have a reputation for being someone who edits and who is quite demanding. Some authors don’t want that, and that’s fine, but then they shouldn’t be with me. But if an author is looking for that experience, I hope that agents know that I would be a good person to send to.
You’re known for finding a diamond in the rough and kicking the manuscript back until it shines like the jewel you wanted it to become. That’s a lot of work.
As much as it’s great when it works, it’s a total pain in the ass! [Laughs.]
Do you have to sell yourself on a project in which you're going to invest so much energy?
Those books are actually the ones where you can't help yourself. My favorite example would be The Postmistress. Not only did I pass on that novel originally, everyone in town passed on it. Sarah Blake’s sales track was not great, and when I got to page 100 of this novel, I knew I was going to reject it. But I read the whole thing. I never do that.
Then I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I was at a Riverhead sales conference presentation, and one of the reps got up and talked about how one of the books made them feel. I had this visceral reaction. I thought, “Oh, I just felt that. What was I reading?” It was that book I passed on from Stephanie Cabot. I went back to her and said, “Did you ever sell that novel?” And I had a very long conversation with Sarah. My first editorial letter to her was seventeen pages long.
No, I don’t think it was single-spaced. [Laughs.] We went through four crazy edits where we really tore it apart and spit it back.
In one part, there was this scene on the beach, and I remember saying to Sarah, “This is really strange! I don't understand this subtext between these two women—it really doesn’t make sense.” The book had gone through so many versions at that point. She said, “Oh, at one point, they were lesbian lovers!”
I never would have been able to buy that book anywhere else. Because to say, “Look, I know the first hundred pages don't work, and I know her track isn't great, but I can fix it”—no one’s going to say, “Great!”
That’s kind of what a young editor needs to do, though—take a chance on a book that other people might not see the value in, and demonstrate that you have vision and can lead an author to success.
I agree. The problem is with the way that a lot of the industry is run. It’s very hard for a young person to get past who they need to get past to buy a book like that.
In your editorial letter, how do you convince a writer to do the work?
I will never buy a book that I think needs work before I have a conversation with the author. I make sure the author’s on board. You can’t buy something and then say, “Oh, by the way, I need you to change the last third.” You have to be up front with writers. There are some authors who really want editorial guidance and some who really don’t. If they don’t, it might not be a good match for us to be together. So almost all the time, my letter does not come as a big surprise. We’re already in agreement about what needs to be done.
How did you learn to edit?
Well, your boss taught me how to edit. Jon Karp did.
I was working at Villard, and Jon was an associate editor at Random House. That doesn't sound like much now, but at the time, if you got to be an associate editor at Random House, that was like saying you were the next big thing. And he was.
I interviewed with Ann Patty at Poseidon, and she had asked me to edit a manuscript. Even though I’d already worked for two people, no one had taught me how to edit. I had no idea where to start.
Jon and I had met in the elevator at NYU, where we were both in grad school. He sat me down and said, “Here’s what you do.” I still edit exactly how he taught me—I start off with the good stuff, and then my structural edit, and then my line edit.
I remember when I started at FSG, one of their spiels for why I would be paid what I was paid was that there’s no graduate school for publishing, so you learn through mentorship. If you have someone who's going to explain to you what's going on, that’s a really valuable thing. And unfortunately there’s too little of that going on now.
Ann used to walk around and edit. She would pace back and forth with a Dictaphone, and then I would type her editorial notes. That was wonderful. I learned a lot.
Have you ever tried to do that kind of editing—in the open air?
No way. I’m not nearly as cool as Ann was in her day. She was a genius about how she did it, and her comments were amazing, but I need to write it down. I used to edit on hard copy, and then I was doing it electronically. Now I’ve gone back to editing by hand and having my assistant input my changes electronically. Then I go back page by page to make sure they’re right, and to make alterations.
There’s something about editing hard copy that helps me say, “Wait a minute, I’m seventy-five pages into this, and nothing’s happening.” I don’t get that sense when it’s just text on a screen in front of me, even though I can look at the page numbers.
That’s usually how I edit, too. It’s incredibly time-consuming.
It is very time-consuming. But that second pass is important. It makes you react differently, once you’ve read the whole thing in context. You see how one thing was foreshadowing another, or how one of your comments doesn’t hold up, or that not only did you think something, you really think it now.
I type very quickly, and that can be kind of problematic—if you can just whip something off. If you edit by hand, you have to think more about what you’re saying.
What feeling do you want to communicate to your authors at the end of your letter?
Encouragement. Editing an author’s work is so incredibly intimate. You’re probably reading it closer than anyone else is going to read it, and your author has now spent a year or two or sometimes four or five working on it.
Jenny Lawson was doing a reading and someone asked her about the editing experience, and she said, “It was great! It was like I spent ten months creating my baby, and I handed it to my editor, and she said, ‘Your baby is so cute, and we’re just going to cut off its arms and its legs, and it’s going to be so much cuter!’” [Laughs.]
Authors rightfully feel like their books are their babies, so you have to be respectful. If I haven’t worked with someone before, I usually start off by saying, “You should know how I view this process, which is as a collaboration. But your name is on the cover and you have to be 100 percent happy with whatever is inside. If you don’t agree with these changes, we should discuss them; nothing is written in stone. But I do think these changes would make the book much stronger.”
At the end of the letter I want an author to think, “I might have a lot of work to do, but this is going to make the book better, and I can do it.”
What gives you the confidence to assert that the book will be better one way over another?
This whole business is completely subjective, and you and I can read the same book and have completely different suggestions. But it comes down to this: The author decided, for better or for worse, that she wanted to come with me. This is my vision for the book, and hopefully our visions align. That’s why we have that conversation early on, because otherwise it’s not going to work.
How do you know when you’re done with an edit?
You just get a sense. Sarah Blake is both the best-case scenario and a great example. She did four versions [of The Postmistress], and each version was getting better, and when we got to that fourth revision, I thought, “This is it. We’re done. She’s fixed everything.”
But there are other times when you realize that you’ve gone as far as an author can go. The book is not perfect, or where you might want it to be, but the author’s not going to be able to take it any further.
How do you conceive of your first presentation to people in the company about the book?
I’m competing for time and attention with so many other books just internally—forget about outside with other companies—that when I go to launch a book, ideally I want to have one or two quotes for it already.
I will also seed the company so that by the time I go to launch, I’ve had other people in the company read the book. Ivan Held, my boss, always says that editors are paid to love a book. But if Leigh Butler, who’s in my subsidiary rights department, gets up and says she loved the book—she doesn’t have to say that.
For instance, when I did The Help—I feel like I’m going to be an old lady and keep talking about when I did The Help—I had given that manuscript to a couple of key people internally. When I went to discuss it, Leigh and her department rose like a Greek chorus and talked about how much they loved the book. It gives a presentation extra validation. A sales rep might think, “Leigh doesn’t really get excited by a lot of books. She's really tough, and if she's saying she loves it, I should take a look.”