Agents & Editors: Dawn Davis

Michael Szczerban

When you started out, did you ever envision doing diet or self-help books?
Never. But I’ve done the Steve Harvey self-help book, and J. J. Smith’s diet books came to me through him.

I met J. J. last year and thought she was impressive. I wonder what authors of any kind can learn from her success, first as a self-published author and then working with you.
Her story’s interesting. Steve brought her to my attention years ago. She was sick, and traditional medicine wasn’t healing her, so she got credentialed in nutrition. She also trained herself in media—she spent money on herself—which is a good example of an author investing in and believing in herself. I liked her hustle.

I’d had a conversation three or four years ago about her coming in, when she was self-publishing, and she said, “I’m having so much fun on my own. It’s working for me. Why would I give a publisher a share?” And then she got so big that she realized there’s so much that a publisher can do for her, and that she didn’t want to do it all on her own. We could get her into new outlets, and give her the kind of publicity she couldn’t get on her own.

That story reminds me of something else. Every once in awhile I’ll get a letter from someone who will have photocopied a letter that I sent to them, saying, “You reached out to me after I wrote this short story and said, ‘If you ever have something, please be in touch.’ Well, here I am!” Seeing your own letter is like being introduced to your former self. It does pay to be entrepreneurial. Sometimes as editors we are so overwhelmed that we want to reach out to the person who’s written a short story, or want to send a note to someone at a reading we were moved by, but we just never have the time, or we think, “Oh, I could do that, but I’ll never hear from them again.” It’s nice when it comes full circle.

Let’s talk about editing the books you publish, because you’ve done such a range. How do you conceive of your role?
My job as an editor is to help you fully express yourself as you intend to express yourself—to have your work be its full expression. Sometimes you, a writer, can get in your own way, and I can gently nudge you one way or the other, and say, “I think you intended to say this,” or “I don’t know if you know your character is coming across in this way.”

I remember a novel I worked on in which the lead character became less sympathetic with each chapter. It’s okay not to like the character always, but ultimately the main character has to be sympathetic for readers to stay with the book. Sometimes it’s pointing out those things to a writer. Sometimes it’s helping writers clear a path, or helping them find their way back to the voice they have 80 percent of the time when they have gone astray. Making suggestions, and being truthful—particularly so with memoir. To say, “This will be of interest only to you,” or “There’s something universal here—expand.” Or “I like this riff. It takes us out of the central story, so let’s stay with it for a couple more pages, and when we come back, we’ll feel gratitude toward the central story,” or “We want to be reimmersed in the central story.”

I have to channel the author. That is always the same, whether it’s narrative nonfiction, even a piece of journalism—though the work there is often more organizational—or fiction. What would you say we do?

One thing is that we help writers see what individual decisions mean in terms of their overall ambitions for the work. That process has value not because I’m a better writer, but because I’m a different human being. Receiving a book and then repeating its message back to the author usually clarifies what they send out into the world.

I love a true collaboration, when the writer invites you to help make the book with him or her. That’s when the job stops feeling like a job to me. To go in that deep can be dangerous, though, because you need some distance to be effective. You’re a therapist, you’re a parent, you’re an employee, you’re an employer—and you’re all of these things at once.
You’re sounding like Anthony Bourdain talking about being a chef! Yes. There is that dance where a writer has to let you in and trust you. They all say they do, but they really have to mean it. But I do find that most writers are waiting for that feedback. They know when something’s not working, but it’s almost like they want to be told. They need someone to gently nudge them out of their own way. Ultimately, a writer might say, “I took 97 percent of your suggestions. There was this one part where I disagreed.” Great. It’s your book, and that’s absolutely your choice. I did get an affirmation the other day that was so nice. We all need it, whatever your industry is.

Where a writer said, “Thank you for spending three weekends in a row working on my book?”
Right. I had one memoir where the author took about 80 percent of my comments, and then there was the remaining 20 percent she wasn’t going to budge on. I said, “This is your story. I can’t make you. I feel very strongly about this, but I can’t make you.” And she was great. She said, “Wait a minute. I didn’t decide to work with you to not listen to you, and you didn’t get where you are by not listening to your own instincts. So let me sit with this.” That was a great moment, because we were both following our instincts, and it worked out. Still, there’s no right answer. It’s not like you get to flip to the end of the magazine and check if you’re right. But we do get to see if readers respond, and that is the key.

How connected are you to the marketing and promotion of a book?
I do find myself crafting pitches. I find myself organizing events for my authors. I find myself reaching out to people at magazines, in conjunction with the publicists I work with. We are increasingly called upon as editors to help with the pitch, to follow the author’s social media so we can come up with ideas of how we can use their platform to sell their book. Sometimes the only thing we’re not doing is taking the author photograph.

I was on the road with Dolen Perkins-Valdez after her novel Wench. I was going to all-white book clubs—you know, eighty people strong in suburban Connecticut. And then I watched her on academic panels related to African-American studies, and saw her Skype into African-American book clubs. I thought, “This book is really crossing cultures, and playing to different kinds of households. There’s a story to that.” And we pitched it. We got far with the New York Times, who kept saying they were interested, then nothing—and then tried the Post, which did a similar story.

Let’s put it this way: Nobody’s ever going to stop an editor from wearing an additional hat. No one’s going to tell you not to come up with an event where you can sell two hundred copies. So I do an event on Martha’s Vineyard called the 37 INK Literary Brunch.

Tell me about it.
I found a sponsor, and we bring three authors to the Vineyard, and we work with the independent Bunch of Grapes bookstore—it’s an opportunity to put books in front of readers. With bookstores closing, it’s harder and harder to get on their calendar unless you have a big blockbuster. That’s something I’m really proud of, because it was kind of scrappy—it was almost a challenge from an author, like, “Why don’t you do an event here?”

I always have one of my authors, but we now reach out to other authors as I’m building my list. We’ve had Junot Díaz, Nikki Giovanni, and Bill Cheng, who I worked with when I at Amistad.

What was it like to work with Bill Cheng on Southern Cross the Dog? I loved that book.
Bill is a very talented and confident writer, and the book was sprawling. He came in, and I remember saying, “You’ve got a little magical realism, you’re writing across gender, you’re writing across race, you’re writing across geography. You have a non-linear layout to the book. But just because you can do everything doesn’t mean you have to. Our job is to figure where to pull back. Ultimately, it’s your book, and I believe in your voice, I love these characters, I love this story—the bigness, the richness of it—but it needs some pruning.” I think that when Bill went around to see editors, everyone told him how much they loved the book. I felt a compulsion to be a little bit honest, and to find out how open he was to editing. He said, “I don’t want my ego stroked, I want real feedback.” I loved working with him. He is great; so young, so naturally gifted. I loved seeing what he could do with his craft.

He aimed high, and wrote outside of his experiences. He would say that the book is an homage to a type of music, the blues, that at some point in his life was significant to him. I don’t know that he would say that the blues “saved him,” but he wanted to pay homage to it with this story that came out of his imagination. I love it like I love The Known World. I love these books with these big acts of imagination. I wish there were more books like them. If that were the case I’d publish more fiction.

Who in the book business do you most admire?
I think the world of Robin Desser at Knopf. Fantastic instincts, great on the page, beautiful person. Anne Messitte at Vintage, supersmart. Reagan Arthur, working mom extraordinaire, great list, great instincts. I could go on with others.

Reagan is amazing. I’m sure you know that already, since you’re at Little, Brown, but I’ve known her for a long time and I will add this to what we said about diversity: There are very few working moms at her level. It is a job that demands that you are always available, always working, and, if you’re on a baseball field from eight to eleven every Saturday and Sunday, that’s a big chunk of your time. I admire her for that.

I love hearing about who knew whom before I got into the business.
Jonathan Karp, Edward Kastenmeier, Amy Einhorn, Molly Stern, Judy Clain, and I used to be part of something called the Young Editors Group. We would meet once a quarter at a restaurant on the East Side in a back room. I’m sure there were others there; these are the ones I remember. It’s interesting to see where we’ve landed, those of us who are still standing.

How did you remain standing?
One of the things I tried to do at Amistad was to always have something working commercially so I could publish my “smaller” books. I published a lot of story collections when I was at Amistad, but I would always buy them when something was working in a big way. I think that would be what my publishing model is—to have something big enough that allows you to take more risks on books you publish because of the review potential, or because you believe the author’s going to have a big or important book one day, or is saying something from a perspective that no one else is coming from. But you have to bring the publishing house something. Great reviews, great numbers, new audiences.

Michael Szczerban is an executive editor at Little, Brown.