Inside an Acquiring Editor's Mind
with Amy Gash, Senior Editor, Algonquin Press
March 24, 2013, 2PM-4PM
For this very special Speaker Series event, we followed Inside the Actors Studio's relaxed interview format and thought it would be fun to share our recap in a similar fashion. Here is just a small taste of the conversation as The Writers Circle Directors Judith Lindbergh and Michelle Cameron plied Amy Gash, Senior Editor at Algonquin Books, with questions:
Senior Editor, Algonquin Books
JL: How did you come to editing?
AG: When I first started looking for work, I didn’t know all that much about publishing but I lucked into a publicity job at Times Books, which was then owned by The New York Times. When the company was sold to Random House six weeks after I started, I was told that they couldn’t bring me. It turned out, though, that an editor at the company needed an assistant and so I moved to editorial and went with the company to Random House. I’m very glad I was able to switch over to the editorial department, so it worked out for the best. Eventually I left and worked at Morrow, Harper, Addison-Wesley, and then I had a baby and took some time off. When I wanted to start working again I was thrilled to find a position at Algonquin Books, where I’ve been for the past 15 years.
MC: What types of books does Algonquin publish?
AG: Literary fiction and narrative nonfiction. We are very specific about looking for good stories and for authors who have an original voice. Algonquin only publishes about twenty books a year, so we have to be pretty picky. We also know what kinds of books we do best and what kinds of titles we don’t publish as well. So we turn down a lot of fine books, just because we’re not the right publisher for that particular genre or that type of project. It has to be a good fit for both author and publisher. This seems to work for us because, despite our small list, last year we had six books on the bestseller list.
JL: What sorts of books have you personally worked on?
AG: I edit a lot of narrative nonfiction. One example is Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv, which speaks to the importance of encouraging children to play and explore outside. While it includes research, it really was based on a common sense idea: Children spend too much time looking at screens. This was something parents and others knew instinctively to be true, but no one had looked at studies and hard evidence about just how it was affecting our kids. Rich brought all that together in one book. (Laughs.) At first the author was unsure about the subtitle, Saving our Children from Nature- Deficit Disorder, but we managed to convince him, and I think it has helped draw attention to the topic, even though Rich always points out that it’s not a medical diagnosis! One of the roles a publishing house plays is to help “package” the book in order to make it attractive to readers. Publishing is a business and we need our books to sell, just like any other business.
MC: You sound like you were completely invested in the success of that book. What sorts of books are you passionate about?
AG: It’s critical for an editor to have passion for her books. I work very closely with the author for a very long time – sometimes as long as three years or more – so I better love and enjoy that book. There are times when I see a proposal for a book but it doesn’t quite speak to me and, even though it may be a wonderful project, I’ll still turn it down. Because I know that if I don’t have that passion I won’t be bringing something essential to the author and the book, and that’s not good for anyone. On the other hand, sometimes when I’m very interested in a subject or author, I’ll pursue a book. One example is when I heard Heather Lende speaking on NPR and decided to call her on the phone to ask if she wanted to write a book. There was a long silence on the phone and then she said, “I’ve been waiting my entire life for you to call!” But then the hard work began. Heather had written a lot of essays, but we needed to find a way to give the book a focus. It turns out that she was the obituary writer for her tiny town in Alaska, and we realized we could use those obituaries as a focus and that helped give the book its power and originality. It probably took two years before Heather actually started writing the book, which is called If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name.
JL: What sort of work do you do with authors?
AG: Here’s an example: I worked with the author who had submitted a collection of terrific pieces but the book was lacking a narrative structure. I loved her voice and her writing was fascinating, but the book as a whole didn’t have an arc – a beginning, middle, and end -- and so it wasn’t as satisfying a reading experience as it could have been. We worked together for several sessions, putting her pieces into a type of succession, looking for the theme and story lurking beyond the written words. We discovered that she was really writing about her growth as a woman and as an artist. She eventually wrote new pieces that connected the original chapters and reorganized it all until we had a complete work that told a story and delivered an emotional conclusion. The book is called The Receptionist by Janet Groth.
MC: What about fiction authors? What do you do with them? How are they different to work with?
AG: There is a difference. Fiction writers usually require less line-editing. Well, not always (laughs) but generally. With fiction, we’re usually working on the pacing of the story and on what in movies they would call "continuity" – making sure it all makes sense and holds together. We might work on clarifying characters motivations and getting that perfect ending. Endings are often hard. Beginnings, too!
JL: What can you tell us about the acceptance and acquisition process? Who reads the manuscript and how does it get to your desk?
AG: I read through hundreds of manuscripts. While I may eventually look at everything that arrives in my office (or in my email, these days), if it comes from an agent, that submission will probably be higher up on my priority list. This is because I can hardly keep up with all the submissions I get each week. I have deadlines I must meet for books I’ve already accepted -- deadlines for editing manuscripts, writing copy, sending out galleys for blurbs, looking at press releases, going to meetings! -- so my job is a constant juggling act. But, still, acquiring books is probably the most important part of my job. Once I find a book that interests me, I bring it to our editorial group meeting. Before we meet each week, I send a portion of the manuscript to the other editors in the house and our publisher along with my own thoughts on the project. And then we talk about it. Sometimes one editor loves it, another doesn’t -- we “argue” sometimes -- but we all respect each other’s taste and we usually make a group decision about whether to acquire the project. Or when we can’t, our publisher has the final word. It’s pretty informal at Algonquin, probably due to our small size.
A question from the audience: What are the chances that you’ll actually look at a manuscript if it doesn’t come from an agent?
AG: There’s a large basket in my office that contains what’s called the slush pile – unagented manuscripts. Eventually I’ll get to the basket but unfortunately it’s often last on my list of things to read. It can happen, but it’s a lot slower.
One way to improve your chances would be to work through an editorial assistant. They’re sometimes “hungrier” and want to find the next great book because that’s the way they’ll move up the ladder. So if you do send in a manuscript without an agent, see if you can talk it up to the assistant first, so they’ll be excited to read it and, if they like it, recommend it to someone in the house or acquire it themselves.
It also helps to have published before, maybe in newspapers or magazines or online. Write articles, even if they aren't connected to your work-in-progress. Publishing houses are more likely to take on a writer who has a platform -- a readership or a following. For example, editors are always looking for the blogger who has attracted fans. We’re always in search of “the next big thing” -- whether that project comes with an agent or not.
Another question from the audience: Can you give us names of good agents?
AG: Finding the right agent is so specific to the book you’re writing that I really can’t be useful there. But there are lots of resources available to you, such as Publishers Marketplace, which is on line and lists what was acquired at publishing houses each day, along with the agent’s name so you can tell which agents are representing books like yours. Or the LMP (Literary Marketplace), which you’ll find in most libraries. It lists all agents and what they specialize in. The Internet is a great resource, but make sure the site is up to date. And maybe the best suggestion is to look at books that are similar to the one you’re writing and check the acknowledgements page, where the author will thank his or her agent. Then you’ll know that agent has an affinity for your kind of book.
MC: What does it feel like to pass on a book that later becomes hugely successful? Why does that happen?
AG: It happens, but an editor who passes on one book might be the editor of other hugely successful books, so passing on one doesn't necessarily reflect on him or her. So much is about taste and passion and not every book is for every editor. And you have to remember that a successful book published by one house might not have been as successful if published from another. . I often see books that are really good books but still are not quite right for our publishing program, and if it isn’t, we can’t make the success of it that another house might. Or at least that’s what I tell myself when I see a bestseller that I passed on!
JL: It seems that acquiring a book is an intuitive process. What makes a book stand out?
AG: For me, it’s always the voice of the author. I’m attracted to a book when the writing style is particularly beautiful or the writing is insightful or the author is saying something I’ve never heard before. But it really is personal. There are also times when I have to pass on books I like a lot but I know they aren’t a good fit for Algonquin, and sometimes I’ll even suggest another place for the author to take the project.
MC: What can the author control during the publishing process?
AG: Authors don’t usually control whether publishers send them out on a book tour or advertise their books or even in what season we publish their books. We have a budget allocated and we need to use it wisely – and differently – for every author. Of course we hope that every book we publish will be a bestseller and we try hard to make that happen. We’re small and we give attention to every title. Algonquin has a reputation for acquiring authors who haven’t necessarily done well at other houses and making their books work. And that’s very gratifying. We provide a marketing and publicity plan for every book we sell, but these days it helps a lot if the author must also understands how to use social media and can play a part in their marketing.
MC: What about self-publishing, which is a huge trend right now? What does traditional house bring that self-publishing doesn’t?
AG: First and foremost, publishers have the ability to distribute books, to get them into the stores. Plus, I like to think we understand how to market books, to draw the attention of reviewers and others. Then, there is the editorial perspective that we bring – I think, I hope that’s worth something! We hear about that one book that is self published and becomes a huge bestseller. But for every self-published book that breaks through, so many more don’t. On the other hand, I suppose that’s true of any publishing route, traditional as well as self-published. Book publishing is not an exact science and there’s no perfect formula for success. I’m glad there are lots of avenues for authors.
JL: What is the best advice you could give to an aspiring author trying to navigate the current publishing world?
AG: Often I see proposals of nonfiction books or drafts of novels that aren't ready yet. Writers need to work and revise and rewrite and make sure that book is the best it can be. Take classes, go to workshops, read the best writers out there. I would seek out as much feedback as you can. And preferably not just from friends! A writer needs to be resolute in his or her own vision, but at the same time be open to hearing criticism and learning from it. It’s a fine line.