Agents & Editors: Dawn Davis

Michael Szczerban

What did you learn at Vintage?
I learned reprint publishing. There is less of that now because of e-books, but back in the day I watched Cold Mountain go from a well-reviewed, successful hardcover to a blowout paperback success, and learned how it was done. I learned to trust my instincts, because we read so broadly, and also because we would read things in submission and watch them go from submission to hardcover to paperback. Sometimes there were lots of oohs and aahs, with people saying a book was going to be the next best thing, and you could watch, as you planned the paperback publication, what did or didn’t happen. I learned how many books are published each year, versus how many of them have the tools for a successful paperback launch. I learned how to recognize good writing and good publication.

Tell me about that time in publishing, when books that sold decently in hardcover could explode in paperback. How did that work?
Back when I was a paperback editor, and we’re talking in 1996 or ’97, there was a certain number that the hardcover had to sell before we could do anything with it. We couldn’t make a huge success out of 10,000 hardcover sales. But if a book had sold 40,000 to 50,000 copies, and it had great reviews and bookseller enthusiasm, we could work with it. You work from that base of readers in hardcover; they are like foot soldiers spreading the word. We could rejacket it, make great use of the quotes, maybe even solicit new quotes. You could just act as if the hardcover publication was one thing, and that you were going to go in a new direction.

Publishing a book in paperback reveals a lot about what every editor does—which is not just laboring over sentences, but figuring out how to make people pay attention to them.
Right. It all starts with the book. The book does have to deliver. Then, with Vintage, the track record was such that if we said, “This is our next Cold Mountain,” the machine was primed to listen. You have to do that selectively, but with a book where there is demonstrable interest already, with a nice base of readers and great review attention, you can get people to feel that they’re hearing about the book everywhere. Some prize attention always helps, but it wasn’t necessary. The big ones at the time were The Perfect Storm, A Civil Action, Cold Mountain.

You learned the mechanics of publishing at the New Press, and how to make a book a big commercial success at Vintage.
I also learned from André how to be entrepreneurial about creating books. I have to give him credit for that, because he did so much of that himself. From East to America and others, I learned how not to just sit and wait. With a small budget, we weren’t going to have all the agents calling, and I learned how to come up with book ideas of my own. That serves me well now—being entrepreneurial with my books, such as Steve Harvey or The Butler.

Another example is that when I had a sense that Obama was going to win the 2008 campaign, before it was obvious, I thought it was going to be historic for a community. Maybe for all Americans, but certainly for black Americans. I wanted to do a book called The Historic Campaign in Photographs. Initially the sales department said, “No, we don’t think so.” But the minute it became obvious that he was going to win, they suddenly wanted to. I learned that from André—to come up with your own books and not always wait for them to arrive in your inbox.

Ideas have to come from somewhere, so why not from you?
Right. The truth is, we spend so much of our time advocating internally for our books, making sure we have the right cover, the right subtitle, filling out forms and so forth, that we often don’t have time to be entrepreneurial. But when a moment of clarity comes, it’s fun to pursue it or to brainstorm with an agent about a client whose writing you really like.

Were you able to do that at Vintage?
I was primarily doing reprints and a few hardcovers at Pantheon, which were fun, but I didn’t come up with my own books there.

Was there a moment when you knew that you had found the right profession?
I’ve never really looked back since typing André’s letters. We get to do what we love, we get paid to do it, we get to champion works that we believe in, and even our worst days are, I’m sure, better than 95 percent of the working world’s.

Someone asked me the other day, “Do you still love it?” We were away for a weekend and I was working. I do. There are days when you want to pull your hair out. But I’ve always known how lucky I am to have this as a profession, and it’s something I don’t take for granted.

Would you tell me more about the challenging parts of your job? I ask on behalf of young people getting into the business. It’s not always easy.
Well, I hate to say it, but I’ve been riding a magic carpet. But sure, there are hard parts. Relative to peers who take jobs in tech or finance or law, you don’t make that much money. That’s romantic in the beginning, but it’s harder as you get older. It’s also hard if you want an outside life, because this work does encroach on your weekends, and on your vacations. And then working on books you’ve inherited and aren’t passionate about is really tough. Passion is what makes fighting for a book worthwhile, and frankly what makes it seem less like a fight.

You can feel caught in the weeds when you have to let people know you can read and advocate outside of your own background. To have people only think of you for African American projects—or, if you’re Latino, to only be thought of for Latino culture–based projects—that can be disappointing and exhausting. I feel that’s something I’ll always have to navigate. Some agents get it right away and have always gotten it, and others—well, maybe they do, maybe they don’t.

Then there are the books that you’re convinced are worthy of more attention than they received—and other books that have not been written with a golden pen, but do go on to be huge successes. You think, “Why didn’t my book get a fraction of that? It’s just as beautiful and just as moving, and the author is just as worthy!” We all go through that.

Having been the editorial director and publisher of Amistad for twelve years, I can say it’s tough watching where some books get shelved, or how a universal story can be bought only for African American accounts. When I published The Pursuit of Happyness, I begged for the Harper sales team—which was very receptive—to see it as a rags-to-riches story that is at the cornerstone of what Americans want to believe about ourselves, that you can pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. I wanted to publish it like that, and not like some book that you have to go to the basement to find in a dusty corner in the African American section. That’s been a constant challenge.

How did you land at Amistad?
I got the call when I was an executive editor at Vintage, and at first I said no. I was working on all kinds of books and didn’t want to be pigeonholed into doing exclusively African American content. I always advocated for it, I always published it, but I didn’t want to be limited to it. And they said, “Well, you can also be executive editor at HarperCollins, and you can do whatever you want to do there.” And I said, “But I really like paperback publishing, too.” They said, “You can also be our reprint manager.” I was so happy and so comfortable at Vintage, and I liked my colleagues and loved my authors. But I had run out of excuses. I thought, “They’re giving you everything you say you want, so you should say yes.”

It sounds like you accepted three jobs at once. How did that sort out?
At Amistad I inherited a bit of a mess and I had a lot of work to do. By the end of the first two years, I’d let the reprint piece go. I hung on to the executive editor piece, which was great, because I got to see all kinds of proposals and to work with my colleagues at Harper, but I spent most of my energy making Amistad a destination for authors and their books.

How did you set about achieving that goal?
I tried to take everything I learned from watching the people at Knopf and Vintage publish, and apply it to books about the black diaspora. I had authors from the Caribbean, black Americans, white authors writing about the black experience. I wanted to publish quality literature in a fine and, if applicable, commercial way. I wanted to bring prestige to the list.

People kept telling me, “You’re going to do street fiction, because it’s so commercial,” and I thought, “Nope.” Harper gave me freedom to publish books that I loved and that interested me. It helped that the first couple books that I signed up had some success. One of them, Austin Clarke’s The Polished Hoe, won the Giller Prize in Canada and became a Pennie’s Pick, which was strange but lovely.

You’re referring to Pennie Clark Ianniciello, the book buyer at Costco?
Yes. And then I published this young writer named William Henry Lewis, whose book I Got Somebody in Staunton was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway award. Early on we had books that people were paying attention to. I wanted review attention. I wanted agents to see us as a destination. And we were able to do that. Then, of course, there was The Known World. I got there in late 2001 and then we published that book in 2003.

What was it like working with Edward P. Jones?
It was a dream. The manuscript came in and it was nearly fully formed. He’s a beautiful writer and he knows his craft. He’s receptive to discussion around small points, but he’s very much in command of what he does. It was a privilege.

I remember when I first read The Known World. I was at a friend’s weekend house sitting outside, and I knew within the first five sentences that I was in the hands of a master. I thought it was my responsibility to take care of it, and that it would be an honor to be able to take care of it. And that’s basically what I did.

It’s inspiring when the quality of a book begins to pave its own way.
Yes, it is. It’s the vision of publishing that we all stay in the business for—that the work will speak for itself, and all you have to do is put it in as many hands as possible, so that it can go as far as it’s meant to go. Even the copyeditor said to me, “Thank you for letting us work with this material. I know this will be here long after I’m gone.” How often do you get a note of thanks from the copyeditors, who are overworked and underappreciated? I had support early on, and I had support all the way through.

I didn’t know that I wasn’t supposed to do this, so I went to booksellers I had been friends with for a long time and asked them to give me an early quote about the book. Then I went into a sales conference with those quotes, and told the reps, “This is what your own community has said about this book. I don’t want to hear that it’s a black book. This is a book of the world, for the world. Let’s publish it that way.” That was a real aha moment.