Are you thinking explicitly of the six things the rep is going to need to say to Sessalee Hensley, the fiction buyer at Barnes & Noble?
No, I want that rep to get out of that meeting and think, “I need to read this book.” For the kinds of books I do, if I had just six things that Sess needs to know, the rep doesn’t need to read the book. I wish I had those books, because that would be great! [Laughs.]
I’m very conscious of how much the reps have to read, and I never take for granted that they’re going to read my books, even though they do. I want them to want to read these books. I hear all the time from booksellers who say a rep they trust told them they had to read a book. A good rep doesn’t do that all the time. They do that for the books they’re passionate about, and you can only be passionate about a book if you’ve read it and loved it.
Once you’ve launched the book, then you make galleys?
First we do RBMs, reformatted bound manuscripts, to send out for blurbs. I don’t like to send a plain old manuscript to someone and ask them to read it. That gives them a good excuse for them to say, “Send it to me when it’s a galley.” So I get these RBMs made, which is halfway between a manuscript and a galley. There are so many excuses for why someone won't blurb something. Why give them another excuse?
What are you writing to somebody when you want them to blurb the book?
My favorite blurb story is from when I first got to Putnam. I was publishing a collection of essays that I wanted to go to Richard Ford for. My husband is a huge Richard Ford fan, and every year he re-reads Independence Day. I had to read it to be married to him. So I wrote this letter to Richard Ford that said, “You don’t know me, and you don’t know my author, and this is basically a shot in the dark, but I have to tell you that you’ve actually played a big role in my marriage.”
I remember coming into the office and seeing a message that Richard Ford had called. I called my husband and was like, “Holy Shit! Richard Ford called!” And then Richard Ford sent me this letter, which said something like, “Usually when I get these requests for blurbs, I feel good about myself, and then I throw out the letter, because if you liked me so much you should have written when you weren't asking for a favor. But your story was good, even if it was made up.”
He ended up really liking the book and gave us a quote. I wrote back and said, “It wasn’t made up! I can tell you how much I paid for a first signed edition of your book for an anniversary present!”
But usually I find the blurb process incredibly time consuming and frustrating. It's frustrating for everyone. I was emailing with Jodi Picoult, and she was telling me why she couldn't give me a quote. She’d gotten literally ten galleys in her mailbox that day. The whole process is just bad for everybody.
Why do we have to entertain this process, which can be so nepotistic and ridiculous? Because we believe it means something to readers?
That’s a thing I’m curious about—if it does mean anything to readers.
It’s interesting that I don’t know this, and I don’t know if anyone knows this: how much the average consumer puts stock in those quotes. It’s amazing how little market research we do. My understanding is that blurbs are not as big a deal in Europe as they are here.
I remember when I published Good Grief by Lolly Winston and we got a quote from Anne Rivers Siddons. One of the people in sales told me that their account’s buyer had read the book because they loved Anne Rivers Siddons.
I view the whole blurb game on the bookseller side as, “Look, we’re going out with galleys and you're going to be one of maybe thirty galleys that someone’s getting that day. What’s going to make them pick up your book and read it over someone else’s?”
A blurb is a stamp of validation—“Look what Elizabeth Gilbert said about this book, it’s really worthy of your attention.”
Do you have direct relationships with booksellers?
When I was at Warner and then Grand Central, I didn’t. But then when I got here, really with The Help, that’s when I reached out to a lot of booksellers directly. It was an interesting cultural shift—that the companies were run differently.
I have horrible handwriting, and I wrote probably a hundred handwritten notes. Now, I have relationships with certain booksellers who I know and they know me. I think that’s really important. Again, why are they going to read a certain book over another book? They can’t hand-sell a book if they haven’t read it.
On the publicity side, are you involved in selling your authors to the people who you want to cover or review them?
You have to be very selective when you do that, because if you do that all the time then you're the publicist. Publicists have an extremely hard job. As an editor, you have to be very selective when you go to someone and say, “You should read this.” But I do it.
While the book is being typeset and the promotional plans are firming up, you’re also working on the material that you’ll use to help sell a book to a consumer when they see it on a bookstore shelf or an online retail page. What you think about flap copy?
At Warner, we had a department that wrote the flap copy, which is vestigial from being a mass-market publisher. It’s a marketing tool. But here editors write the flap copy ourselves.
With The Help, we did French flaps on the galley, so we had written the flap copy early. Then the day before it was due for the real hardcover jacket, I realized that our pitch was all wrong. That sometimes happens—your pitch changes and you realize, “This is the way I should be selling this book.”
Have you heard of the Amy Einhorn Books Perpetual Challenge? It’s a challenge to read every book your imprint publishes, put together by people who noticed how many of your books they loved.
I have. My husband brought it up the other night and my girls were agog.
What that suggests to me is not just that you’re publishing great books but great books that appeal to a defined, established readership. That the same people will like your books over and over again.
Oh, I hear about it when they don’t!
Are you trying to reach a particular person—like someone who’s doing the perpetual challenge—with the copy you’re writing?
The difference between being an editor and a publisher is that as a publisher, I’m keenly aware of how I’m selling this book, how I’m marketing this book, how I’m planning to make this a successful publishing endeavor. As an editor, I’m thinking very much about how this book speaks to me, and the passion associated with that. Melding those two perspectives is interesting.
With The Postmistress, we heard feedback that some readers were upset about the title. They said, “The postmistress isn’t actually the main character. The main character is a journalist.” But if I had called the book “The Journalist,” would you have bought it? No, because it's just not elegant. The Postmistress is. That was very much a marketing decision.
It’s nice that there are people who like what I’m doing, but I’d like to think my list is fairly broad. Look, there are worse problems than being known as the person who published The Help and The Weird Sisters. I should be so lucky if that’s the worst thing that happens to me. But I’m publishing Lyndsay Faye, who’s doing historical thrillers, and Harry Dolan, who writes crime fiction. These books don’t always skew to the same audience.
To think that I need to reach the same audience with each book would be courting disaster. They’re not all going to like the same books. Someone who liked The Help might be really offended by Jenny Lawson—I mean, Jenny is brilliant, but she’s not for everybody.
Plus, flap copy is hard for the same reason that when you go to the movies, you sometimes see a trailer and think, ”I don't need to go see the movie. I know exactly what's going to happen.” I'm always aware of how much you say, and how much you don't say. I'm thinking in terms of how I will make you go from reading this flap copy to walking to the register and buying it.
What makes a good title?
I can’t overemphasize how important I think titles are. When I’m reading a submission and I forget the title, that’s a problem. But they’re hard. I want people to walk into the bookstore and know what the title they’re asking for is, or to know what they’re typing into the search box.
This is a gut-level thing that is hard to articulate, but titles also connote something about the book. Does that sound like a small literary novel? Does that sound quiet? Does that sound like I’ve heard it before?
Have you ever had a problematic difference of opinion about a title with an author?
That hasn't happened. [Knocks on wood.] But take Siobhan Fallon’s You Know When the Men Are Gone. I take pride in being a very hands-on editor, but the only thing I did to that book was change the title. But I brought that up before I bought the book.