Agents & Editors: Sarah McGrath

M. Allen Cunningham

Sarah McGrath trusts her readerly convictions—and with good reason: Those convictions have guided her through a brilliant twenty-four-year career in publishing that includes stints at Knopf, Scribner, and, since 2006, Riverhead Books, now an imprint of Penguin Random House, where she is the editor in chief. Along the way she has shepherded many books to phenomenal success—best-seller lists, National Book Awards, Pulitzer Prizes, MacArthur Genius Grant recognition, film adaptations—often after boldly acquiring them through preempts. “If I want to pursue a book, I do,” she says. “There’s something that’s very hard to name as a reader and as an editor, but it’s in your gut reaction, it’s in your conviction that this book feels like it matters, and that other people will feel that way about it too.”    

Sarah McGrath  (Credit: Megan Giulianelli)

Commercial and critical triumphs aside, for every author she publishes McGrath views success as something to be cultivated over time—within the writer’s work across the arc of a career and beyond the performance of any single book. In the Big Five publishing of today, where acquisition decisions are so often steered by sales figures, this approach is something of a throwback to the fabled days of publishing, when editors were less beholden to the bottom-line in crafting their lists, and authors were not yet subject to losing a publisher’s support due to abysmal Amazon metrics or NPD Bookscan data.

Sarah McGrath joined Riverhead shortly after its founding editors, Cindy Spiegel and Julie Grau, departed to start an eponymous imprint of Random House. By then, through a decade in publishing, McGrath had come to see clearly the kind of author-focused editor she was, and the kind of creative, forward-thinking house she wanted to lead. “I thought a lot about how to make sure that all the authors I was publishing would have the opportunities to find their audiences,” she says. She saw in Riverhead’s transitional moment an opportunity to develop her vision, and in the fifteen years since her arrival at the imprint, she and her colleagues have molded an editorially driven culture that is distinctly collaborative. Another way of putting it: Readerly convictions are the driving engine at Riverhead, where editors are empowered to follow their instincts, much as McGrath has always sought to do.

McGrath’s own distinguished Riverhead list comprises best-selling and prize-winning authors such as Brit Bennett, Lauren Groff, Paula Hawkins, Khaled Hosseini, Sigrid Nunez, Helen Oyeyemi, Emma Straub, Meg Wolitzer, and Jacqueline Woodson. Ask McGrath’s authors about her contribution to their work, and they’re quick to speak to an editorial style that focuses on the big picture while keeping the writing at the center.

Some of Sarah McGrath’s authors include (top row, from left) Helen Oyeyemi, Sigrid Nunez, Jacqueline Woodson, Chang-rae Lee, and Lauren Groff; (bottom row, from left) Khaled Hosseini, Brit Bennett, Paula Hawkins, Meg Wolitzer, and Emma Straub. 

Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner (2003), who worked closely with McGrath on his two subsequent best-selling novels, A Thousand Splendid Suns (2007) and And the Mountains Echoed (2013), told me that those books benefited greatly from McGrath’s involvement. “Each time we spoke, I knew more about my own characters. I understood better their psychological underpinnings and their motivations. She elevates a piece of writing by spotting possibilities that may have escaped the author—the unexplored connections and themes that deepen a story. She is one of the very best in the business.” 

Brit Bennett, whose best-selling debut novel, The Mothers (2016), McGrath acquired in a preempt when Bennett was twenty-four years old, recalled her first conversation with McGrath: “Sarah asked me, ‘Who do you want to be as a writer?’ The question threw me. All the other editors I’d talked to were solely focused on my debut novel, but Sarah wanted to talk about how I saw myself as an artist and how I hoped my career might unfold. I knew then that she was interested in much more than just publishing my book—she would help me grow as a writer.” Last June, McGrath published Bennett’s second novel, The Vanishing Half, which became one of the hottest selling titles of the year and, as of this writing, has spent numerous weeks atop the New York Times best-seller list.

Novelist Meg Wolitzer, whom McGrath began editing at Scribner nineteen years ago, also testifies to McGrath’s long-term importance to her work. Wolitzer told me she could see from early on that McGrath’s involvement was having a significant effect on her writing, including her 2013 best-selling novel, The Interestings. “Lunches got longer as we talked through ideas not only about what I was trying to do in a novel, but even more generally about what novels can do. These conversations made me reach higher and write more boldly; and I credit them—and her—with a shift in my work and career. I remember once, I think it was when I was writing The Interestings—a novel that takes place over a long period of time, with a lot of characters—I was getting caught up in all the work I still had to do. Sarah reminded me about our initial conversations about the novel. She brought me back to a moment when I was still planning and scheming and getting excited about what was possible. And in doing so, the excitement returned, and it all became more manageable. ‘What is the book about?’ we asked together. And then we asked, ‘But what is it really about? And how can I best convey that?’”

McGrath and I spoke via Zoom, amid the COVID-19 lockdowns.

Do you remember a particularly formative reading experience from your youth?
Oh, I still treasure my very worn mass-market copies from adolescence. I vividly remember my first reads of The Bluest Eye and Song of Solomon, the way the language physically moved me. That same year I loved Anna Karenina so much I read it twice. One of the things I believe is important as an editor and publisher is finding a breadth of voices and unique stories, as well as books that can transcend category. Books that are not just one thing, not just for one readership, but can make many different groups of people feel that that book speaks to them. And one of the first books I remember thinking about in that way was Sue Miller’s The Good Mother, in the late eighties. Miller is a literary, beautiful writer, but there was a very suspenseful, psychological plot. She was bringing one kind of plot to another kind of writing, and of course she wasn’t the first person to do this, but as a young and unsophisticated reader I noticed it. It then became this huge best-seller and a movie. I watched that happen and, in retrospect, I think it shaped my idea of what was possible if you thought broadly about what you were trying to achieve with a book.

Your work in publishing began at Knopf, where eventually you became Sonny Mehta’s assistant. Tell me about that experience.
He was a wonderful publisher and editor, but a really great mentor, too. He would let me sit in on phone calls with authors that he was editing. And when he went to lunch with his authors he would take me with him. So I saw that author-editor relationship up close. And Sonny encouraged me to read for him and to be very vocal about my feelings about things. I was never shy about showing him my conviction, and often he would respond by buying the book. So it was a positive reinforcement of recognizing when you have a strong feeling about a book and acting on it.

From Knopf you went on to Scribner. How did that transition come about?
I remember saying to Sonny, “I’ve been offered this job and I’m going to take it.” And he said, “But you haven’t learned all there is to learn yet.” And I said, “That is certainly true, but there aren’t that many ladders that come dangling down in publishing. And when one comes and it’s heading in a direction that you want to head, you get on the ladder.” So I did. And it was absolutely the right thing to do.

What a phenomenal moment.
Yeah, he wasn’t wrong, but he wasn’t promising me a ladder within Knopf. And I learned an enormous amount from Nan Graham at Scribner. I was hired as her associate editor. I was given space to acquire my own list, but I was also helping Nan with some of her books. She was juggling life and publishing, as I have done too, and I learned a lot by watching her do that. Scribner and Riverhead are very different places, but Nan had very strong relationships with her authors, and that is something that is important to me, too. Nan, and also Susan Moldow, gave me a very long leash at a very young age. I earned my keep by working really hard on other people’s books, but they let me bid on my own exciting projects and grow my own list.

How did the move from Scribner to Riverhead come about?
Riverhead was open to change; there was turnover in its leadership. Geoff Kloske was brought in as publisher and a few months later I joined him. I had known Geoff for a while, and he called me very early after his arrival. I had already been thinking about my next horizon, and this seemed to be the job that would allow me to be the editor I wanted to be, which was to grow my list and to develop these long-term relationships, but also to have more of a hand in how we were going to publish these writers, working closely with the publicity and marketing teams. Riverhead is a very small list, and it allows us to be really agile and creative and to invest in the writer in a way that’s a very long-term plan. By invest I don’t just mean financially, I mean in terms of the creative energy and industry we put into the publicity and marketing from very early on. We publish authors, not books. The goal is to grow writers over time, and if you look at our list, we do. The writers who I brought over in 2006, or who I have developed over time since then—Meg Wolitzer, Lauren Groff, Emma Straub, Jacqueline Woodson, Sigrid Nunez, Brit Bennett, Danielle Evans, Chang-rae Lee, Helen Oyeyemi, Khaled Hosseini—you know, these are all writers who have grown over time, title over title. It’s a record that I take a lot of pride in, but it also takes a huge amount of care and planning and collaboration.

As editor in chief at Riverhead, how much of your typical day’s work is acquisitions, how much is hands-on editing, and so on?
The struggle for any editor is finding the time to do all the things, all the time: the thinking work and the relationship work and the office work, the creative, generating work and the public presenting work. There’s the reading of the submissions, there’s the editing on paper, there’s the talking to authors. And every day I believe I’m going to do all of them. Never have I done all of them in one day. But this is the thing about this job: You have to be a really hopeful, optimistic person, I think, to start over every day looking for, and expecting to find, a new project or a new opportunity for your books. And I don’t know why I never have learned that I’m not going to edit this whole manuscript, and also read these submissions, and also help my colleague pursue X, Y, or Z all on the same day. You just have to find the little nooks of your week where you can tuck in the editing, because a lot of the workday gets spent doing business you didn’t anticipate in your schedule—but it’s important business in the service of the books.

In the acquisition process, how far do you generally have to read in a manuscript to know whether or not it’s a fit?
Sometimes I know right away. With C Pam Zhang I knew right away. With Brit Bennett I knew right away. There are several like that. There are some where it really takes getting to a surprising twist—and I don’t just mean that in a suspense novel kind of way. You know, something changes in your understanding of the project; the ambition and achievement become even clearer the further you read.

Are there particular disqualifiers that stand out when you’re considering a manuscript?
Almost every book that comes across my desk is quite good. So I never consider my job as being about disqualifying anything. They’re all qualified to be on my desk. My job is to find the few that I think can achieve escape velocity and not get lost in the very large pack. So I’m not deciding which books are worthy of publication by anyone, I’m just looking for the books I think I can make work on my list at Riverhead.

What’s an upcoming Riverhead title you’re really excited about?
This fall I’m publishing Lauren Groff’s Matrix, her first novel since Fates and Furies, and it’s a read and an experience I’ll remember for my whole career. In some ways it’s unlike anything she’s ever written before, but in others it feels like the perfect natural extension of her style and work. I do know how lucky I am to witness that up close, to see a writer like Lauren move her talents from book to book, from Fates and Furies to an award-winning story collection, and now to this groundbreaking new masterpiece.

I saw a wonderful quote from you about your early reading life. You said, “I always loved the way that I could disappear into a book. I couldn’t imagine a life where that wasn’t happening all the time.” In your work, to what extent do you still get to experience that kind of disappearing into a book? Is the editing process predicated on that same kind of immersion, or in your experience is the editor’s immersion somehow different?
For me, the best editing happens when I’m reading the book on several different levels at the same time. So there’s kind of three different mes reading. One of them has to be that person who fell in love with the book in the first place and does get lost in it. And as I’m making my notes to the author as that me, I try to keep track of my emotional response to the book. So if there’s a place where I’ve cried, if I’ve laughed out loud, if I suddenly looked up and realized that I forgot where I was—I think that’s useful information for the author to have. My notes to Jacqueline Woodson on Red at the Bone were almost entirely of this sort. And it’s important to keep reading the work in that way. But then I also have to be reading more critically—looking both at the language on the line level and the bigger structural questions, or character, pace, plot. That’s the critical me. And then there’s the publisher me who is simultaneously thinking about how best to talk about the book, how to sell it. That version of me is sometimes copying down useful marketing lines from the book, thinking ahead to how people will interact with this work in the world. So, in editing I’m trying to do all of those things, be all of those people, at the same time.

Do you feel that editing is fundamentally a creative process?
I do. I think one of the most important skills as an editor is to know which tools to bring to each book. The relationship between the editor and the author is very important, and so is my ability to understand where that author is, emotionally and psychologically, in the process of the book. As an editor, sometimes you’re a critic, sometimes you’re a coach, sometimes you’re a cheerleader. But ultimately you are just trying to get the best book possible from that person, and trying to figure out the best way to do that, differently, each time.

Maintaining that sense of where the author is emotionally and psychologically means, I guess, that the job also entails telling an author, in the most appropriate and gentle way, that their book is not ready but needs more time.
Yes. But it’s more than that too. Sometimes in talking to them about the book or what they were thinking about when they were working on the book, I realize that what they were thinking—or the feeling they were reaching for—isn’t on the page. So I’m sort of helping them draw out what they wanted to achieve there. What did they want me to feel? Why isn’t it working? Or, why is it? Or, it is working, but do we want to amplify it? Being able to read them as well as the text is part of the process for me. It’s really about what the author needs.

Once a title on your own list has been released and the in-house publicists are working on it, how much of your day-to-day work continues to be oriented to promotion for that particular title, supporting the work of the publicists?
We are really collaborative at Riverhead. It’s not an assembly line where there’s one department working on a book at time. It is all the departments all the time. I often will start talking to my publicity and marketing teams—and even the art team—right away when I acquire a book. I’m particularly lucky to have such talented colleagues in all these departments. Together, we’re all planning for the publication even before the manuscript is ready. And that’s partly because all the publishing parts ideally work together. It’s in talking to publicity and marketing that I start to understand what kind of package we all want for the jacket. There’s a lot of collaboration at every step. Certainly everybody has their own area in which to lead, but we’re all talking to each other throughout. And the author-editor and author-publicist relationships will outlast the timeline of that book. These relationships don’t ever really close.

How do those lasting author-editor relationships shape your perspective on the so-called midlist? Would you say that a midlist still survives in contemporary publishing?
One of the reasons I came to Riverhead was to create a place where there was no midlist. To bring up the word “midlist,” you’re already making a compromise. You’re saying the potential and the effort should be calibrated based on the advance, or some other preexisting status measure or something. And that’s not the way we go into this. I have had people in the business assume that we have outlaid a large amount of money for a book, based on the amount of attention it’s receiving, because they see it everywhere. But I think they’ve misunderstood something about the way we do things. There’s not a spreadsheet that says: Because the advance was X, or the previous sales were Y, this is the industry we’re going to put toward it.

What’s your favorite part of the editorial process?
I really love all of it. I mean, who doesn’t love the first infatuation where you actually become breathless with excitement about a project? I find it exciting, satisfying, to see a book come together and see a career take flight. And I love seeing the actual physical book with its beautiful jacket. Maybe I most like signing up the next book by an author I’ve worked with—the building of the bridge, the next step across the river.


M. Allen Cunningham is an author, editor, and teacher. His latest book, Q&A, is a fictional reimagining of the 1950s quiz show scandals. He is the founder of Atelier26 Books and teaches creative writing at Portland State University and the University of California in Berkeley.

Photo credits: Oyeyemi: Manchul Kim; Nunez: Marion Ettlinger; Woodson: Tiffany A. Bloomfield; Lee: Michelle Branca Lee; Groff: Kristin Kozelsky; Hosseini: Elena Seibert; Bennett: Emma Trim; Hawkins: Alisa Connan; Wolitzer: Nina Subin; Straub: Melanie Dunea.