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Darkness Visible

It was easy to get responses to my first three surveys, so maybe I should stick with lighter fare: what publishers nosh, bad lunch dates, etc. This time, I surveyed a bunch of industry insiders and asked: how do you know if your book is going to tank and when do you know it. I got one response. Being me, rather than drop it, I kept asking, and here I present you with some darker fare. Warning:  if you like to avert your eyes when you see an accident, skip this post.

One editor confides: I’ve been the victim of the “we’ve got to make budget and this book has got to ship this year” syndrome. These authors had previously published an enormous bestseller. I knew when I got the first draft of the new book that it wasn’t going to work. But I had to keep going and force myself to believe that the new book was as funny as the first. It wasn’t. And guess what? It didn’t work. AT ALL.  But the company got to count the initial ship into their budget for that year. I’m sure the returns were brutal…but by then I didn’t work there anymore.


From an agent:  The book  was selected as a Minnesota Talking Books pick and there were no books in the stores and Amazon said out of stock, because the book had been published several months before to little fanfare, and it was around the Christmas holidays. I spent hours calling bookstores in the Minneapolis area asking why they didn’t have the book in stock, and no one had told them!  The Talking Books promoter had delayed sending out a press release because they wanted to announce the subsequent selection as well!  The publisher said they couldn’t help it because the bookstores had to order the books!  I think the author has never recovered, although I’m not sure because she’s still in a fetal crouch.


Another agent: Well, I had a book on ( major publisher, highly prestigious, you fill in the blank) children’s list and it turned out that the publicist never sent the book out. To anyone. We kept calling and asking and they kept reassuring us that books had gone out, reviews would come in…when in fact they hadn’t, and they didn’t. The book — gorgeous and accomplished — never really got on its feet after that.  And I’m still mad.

A senior editor: I knew the book was going to tank minutes after we acquired it. We had a new editor in chief and she was frantic and bullheaded. She heard about a book project I had in and told me to bid six figures. It had a great title, but I hadn’t  even finished reading it.  We “won” the auction. When I asked the agent who the underbidders were, she said she didn’t have to disclose that. Excuse me. I told her my boss would want to know.  And again she declined. Obviously, there were no other bidders.  The book, as it turns out, was horrible. It tanked in every way. The author had no expertise and couldn’t write.   Worse, she still sends me Christmas cards.

Best for last: I hardly even hope for a book to succeed these days, because inside I am assuming that it is going to tank, since most of them do.  This is sad but true.  I can hardly bring myself to ask the first printings anymore…and if, after a few weeks or months, no reprint—well, then you know.  It is the end. I guess I am pretty jaded, huh???

 Tomorrow on this blog: sunshine and kittens.

Find Out What It Means to Me

If you have a chance, check out this interview in Poets & Writers with Jon Karp, publisher of Twelve, an imprint at Hachette. It is a measure of how much I respect him and admire him that I recommend the interview because, well, look at how he answers the question regarding which agents he admires:

There are a lot of agents that I admire—too many to name. It’s funny. I really enjoy working with literary agents, but I’m not socially friendly with any of them. I kind of feel like it’s a business relationship. But I enjoy their companionship at lunch and I love talking to them about their projects. Even when I pass on their projects, I genuinely enjoy talking to them, the give and take. There are literary agents who I’ve known for fifteen years who I’m just finally doing books with. Molly Friedrich was one who I’d wanted to work with forever and finally found a novel we both loved. I’ve known Stuart Krichevsky since I was in my late twenties, and he’s trusted me with Sebastian Junger, for which I am eternally grateful. Rob Weisbach is incredibly creative and he’s going to do great things. I could talk to Tina Bennett and Heather Schroder forever. There really are a lot.

Jon, it’s okay. I’m not, like, needy. I know I’m special. That we have a connection. It’s real. I feel it. You don’t have to advertise when something is real. Congrats on the great interview. It should be required reading for every writer who wants a  window into the mind of a publisher who has had tremendous success and a very smart take on the industry. Does he even remember the time we had bagels at his apartment when we had a lunch date and he had to wait for Comcast? Does he?

You’ll Never Eat Lunch In This Town Again

When I was an editorial assistant at Simon & Schuster, there was a very rich and ambitious editorial assistant who used to take out agents and pay with her own credit card, pretending to have an expense account. My friends and I, over dollar pitchers of beer, debated which was worse, the fraudulence or spending your own money. When I finally got promoted to editor and got my first company credit card, it was incredibly exciting. Taking out agents, however, turned out to be a little more stressful than I bargained for. I surveyed some top editors around town and asked them to share their worst lunch dates ever. There was no shortage or replies:

“Hm, oh god, worse lunch date ever, but there are so many to choose from! Probably my first one. I was a baby editor on my first expense account lunch and the agent was 20 minutes late, then proceeded to order a 3 course insanely expensive meal with wine, and spent the entire time talking about much she loved my previous boss who was a notorious sadist and the worst person I’ve ever worked for in publishing.”

Nobody puts Baby in the corner!

Another editor, and a sharp one at that, thought he’d teach an old dog new tricks, “My worst lunch ever was with a literary agent who abruptly suggested we end our meal, even though the food had just arrived. I had been giving her the third degree about her policy of refusing to take editorial factors into consideration and selling her projects only to the highest bidder. She took offense. We did ultimately make it to the end of the lunch. No dessert, though. And I never received any further submissions from her.”

Damn, that creme brulee looked good.

Let’s give the agents a rest: “I was having lunch with an author and his wife, also a writer, on the eve of his publication. At the beginning they let me know they felt nothing but disdain for our corporate parent company. Then to alleviate their liberal guilt over taking money from such monsters, they ordered everything on the menu and stuck me with a $300 bill for lunch.”

Including tip?

Another newbie bought her first big book. The moment the deal was made, the agent insisted the editor take her out to celebrate. “It was my first sign of things to come. The agent chose the restaurant, the date, the time, and believe it or not the table…you can imagine my surprise when the agent was not only there ahead of me, but seated with a drink already sweating on the table, half-way finished.” DANGER WILL ROBINSON! Agent proceeded to dress down the waitress in “epic proportions” for slow service, needed each dish to be specially prepared,  sent food back when it wasn’t hot enough, and  ordered coffee and dessert. “Needless to say, after the agent scraped the final bits of frosting from the plate, shook out the napkin from his collar, patted his stomach over the too-tightly belted high-waisted pants, I was ready to sprint back to the office. I left the poor waitress at 50% tip…It was 3:30. We never lunched again.”

There’s no excuse for high-waisted pants. Not then, not now.

Another editor in her youth went nearly 100 blocks to meet an esteemed agent. (An unspoken rule of lunching: the younger or more junior person always travels to a restaurant convenient to the senior person.) So, our intrepid editor hopped the subway and nearly an hour later arrived at the lunch spot chosen by the agent. “The agent was there when I arrived, her head in her hands. I sat down and asked if everything was alright. She replied that she would kill herself if she had to have the Cobb salad again. When I suggested she try the Chef salad, she started weeping”

Clearly, this was a lunch date prior to the invention of SSRI’s.

For me, the worst lunch date is when the young editor across from me starts to blend into every other lunch date I’ve ever had, when I no longer remember her name or which publishing house she works for, when I start to time travel and remember all my nervous lunch dates taking agents out for the first time, skittish as a blind date, how I felt like a fraud yammering on about how much I loved books or thought the house I was working at was swell. It was all true enough, but it always felt false like too much make-up. It was the “Showtime” feeling from All That Jazz, being on like that, a trained circus animal. Sometimes I’d go to the restroom in the middle of the lunch just to get a look at myself in the mirror and make sure I was still there. Not exactly an existential moment worthy of Sartre, but still my little reverie.

Where Have All the Flowers Gone

A reader asks: Is it true that editors no longer edit, and if so, why?

Good question but kind of boring. Still, I have a couple of theories. My first is that some editors don’t really know how. Editing was always an apprenticeship and you would toil away for years working with a senior editor before you got promoted and edited anything on your own. Now, editorial assistants get promoted in a few years or take the hint and go to Law School. You also typed and filed your boss’ correspondence. The first agent I worked for wrote 6 page editorial letters to his clients; I didn’t just type and file them, I inhaled them. Today, most of the work of editing and communicating is done via email so the assistant is no longer privy to the editorial letters, etc. that are exchanged between an author and her editor.

The other reason is expedience; some editors don’t believe that an edited book is going to sell a single copy more than an unedited one. And many are probably right on that score. If you want to read about Mackenzie Philips’ drug fueled consensual sex with her father, does it really matter if the transitions are weak? And for all I know that book might have been brilliantly edited by a whip-smart young editor with a PhD in linguistics from Princeton — it probably was.

Do editors edit? I think most do, and some quite brilliantly. Most of us still believe that if you strive towards making the book the best it can be, sentence by sentence, word by word, that if you search for the perfect title and subtitle, get the perfect jacket, write sublime flap copy, etc. then you will give the book its best possible shot in the marketplace and give readers what they deserve. We also believe that if we clap long and loud enough a little fairy will come and save us. Or do we save her?

If You Don’t Know Me By Now

A reader explains her predicament: she submitted her manuscript to a publishing house a year ago and has still not heard back. Now, she believes the editor will be at a certain bookstore because one of her major writers is giving a reading. She wants  to know if she should go to the reading, approach the editor, and ask about the status of her manuscript.

My advice: find out where the editor gets her Brazilians and follow her into the waxing room and ask her there.

The One That Got Away

When the venerable editor and publisher Robert Giroux died last year, his NYT obituary listed some of the illustrious writers he worked with  including Flannery O’Connor, Robert Lowell, Bernard Malamud, Jack Kerouac and Susan Sontag. Equally interesting to me were stories about the ones who got away.  One of these writers brought in his manuscript on teletype paper pasted together into a roll of 120 feet long and demanded that no changes be made. Giroux would not agree and Kerouac walked out, On the Road with him. Giroux had also courted a new short story writer whose work had appeared in The New Yorker. When it came time to offer on his first novel, the brass at his company said it wasn’t right for them: adios Catcher in the Rye.

With this is mind, I surveyed some of New York’s top editors asking if they would divulge which books got away, either because they didn’t recognize their value (either commercial or literary) when they saw it, or because the deciders said nay. Friends, the results:

“My saddest loss was the three day auction of the Steig Larsson trilogy which I was sure I was about to land,” writes one editor. He goes on to say they lost the book to Sonny (that’s Sonny Mehta, publisher of Knopf, and known pistachio nosher). “If you’re going to lose it might as well be Sonny.”

NOTE: Everywhere I’ve ever worked, there was no publishing house people would rather lose to or win from more than Knopf. I worked for a publisher who actually defaced a jacket with a ball point pen because she was so frustrated with the art director. “Well, what do you want?” the art director screamed back.  “I want Knopf jackets!” the publisher yelled. “Can you make a Knopf jacket?”

Then there’s the so-called  beauty contest, that is when two publishers make the same bid and the author chooses the publisher/editor she prefers. One editor writes in, “I wish I had acquired The Physick Book of Deliverace Dane. Our offer was identical to the acquiring publisher, but the author went with the other house. ” That’s always a great feeling, like standing in line at your camp social, or for that matter sitting on a bar stool at 3:00 a.m., and not getting picked, not that that’s ever happened to me.

“I passed on Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld.” another editor shares. Years later she approached Sittenfeld for a blurb on a debut novel and praised Prep in the letter. Sittenfeld wrote back saying she’d be glad to read the novel, but did the editor remember that she had turned down Prep?  Ouch. P.S. She never got the endorsement.

Another editor is still smarting over her boss’ refusal to let her bid on Kevyn Aucoin’s Making Faces. (What’s with that spelling of  Kevin??) The book immediately hit the list  and the editor shares how she relished the “oh-so-immature-yet satisfying feeling of I-told-you-so.”  (Disappointing, but not exactly Holden Caulfield.)

Another editor admitted that she cried over losing  The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. And also regrets not getting a shot at Edgar Sawtelle and Olive Kittredge. (Note to self:  post a list of novels that are titled with the character’s name? Have a contest? Too nerdy?)

Another editor confessed: “I turned down Guernsey even though I thought it was a very commercial idea because it was stiffly told. Of course then it was rewritten and the rest is history.” And another, “I passed on Shopaholic because I had a current bestseller and thought I didn’t need another one. Ha.” (Funny, no matter what I have, I always want another.)

In the If-You-Don’t-Have’Anything-Nice-To-Say-Don’t-Say-Anything-At-All department, one editor addmitted to having passed on Cold Mountain. But she didn’t just decline, “I airily declared to the agent that I grew  up on a Civil War battlefield and that if I didn’t believe it, noone would.” Thanks for sharing.

And then there’s the horse. Everyone wished they had published The Biscuit.  For two years, all editors said when asked what kind of books they want to publish was Seabiscuit. One editor wrote in to say that she offered, “Except, I told the agent is was worth $50,000.” What are the odds that the book would’ve wound up on the NYT Bestseller list for 23 weeks? And be made into a feature film starring the incredibly sexy Jeff Bridges and be nominated for an Oscar?

And last, our annual “The One That Got Away Award” goes to the editor who claimed he “turned down James Patterson’s first novel Along Came a Spider because it was so poorly, sketchily written even though it was pacey, as the Brits say. MISTAKE!” Hey, you don’t get the prize for nothing.

Full disclosure: When I was an editor, I turned down The Liar’s Club. I just didn’t believe her.

You Are So Beautiful To Me

I did two very close line edits over the last few weeks, a novel and a memoir. They were both quite brilliant in their own right and as a result the editing was a pure joy. There were many books I’ve had to work on over the years where the prose was less than stellar. I used to compare editing those books to correcting papers, catching the same predictable mistakes over and over again.



When you have the chance to edit something you believe to be brilliant, the pencil comes alive in your hand. You engage in a dialogue in the margins of the page that becomes an intricate and intimate dance. You feel smarter, you may actually be smarter, because you are inspired. And because you don’t have to worry about big things, your attention is more finely tuned and with each suggestion, even as small as a word change,  you see the thing more fully realized, elevated, nailed. 

There is nothing more satisfying than fine tuning.

Well, a few exceptions come to mind, but this is not an x-rated blog.

There Are Two Kinds of People In This World

Had lunch with two great friends, also agents. After a lot of industry gossip, commiseration about the business being really slow (July is the new August), comparing and contrasting notes on editors, the conversation finally turned to something I could get my brain around: who we would rather sleep with, Jon Hamm from Madmen or Gabriel Byrne from In Treatment? Just for one night.

If you’ve ever even toyed with the idea of leaving a comment, please weigh in now:

The A List

Got one for the Asshole File today, a real doozy. I wish I could reprint the letter here, but that would be CAREER SUICIDE. I’ve heard from some readers that they’re starting their own A-hole Files, inspired by an earlier post on this very blog. Do you people have any idea how happy you make me?

No You Didn’t

Yesterday,  I had lunch with one of the smartest editors in the business. She allowed how she keeps a file for letters from authors that express their gratitude — and that these letters buoy her on particulary rough days.

I allowed how I keep an “asshole” file. I started it when I first became an agent, and I didn’t quite know how to handle the sting of rejection. After all, as an editor, I had been on the rejecting side for so long.

I didn’t put just any letter in there. No, the rejection had to strike a particular note of condescension, arrogance,  falsehood — you see where I’m going with this.

Eventually, some client letters made it into the file, especially the three page single-spaced letter dipped in acid from the gnome who fired me –who will go unnamed. You know who you are, and that was a fuckin’ brilliant letter, completely raising the bar. I salute you.

The best letter so far, however, is from a distinguised editor who wrote that if the book I was submitting was my idea of art, I should look into a career in real estate. That’s a keeper!