Agents & Editors: A Q&A With Editor Pat Strachan

by Jofie Ferrari-Adler

Feature

Posted 3.1.08

March/April 2008

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I read somewhere that you can tell if you’re interested in a novel within the first two pages. Is that true?
Some part of my brain really responds to an interesting sentence. Over two pages, if there isn’t an interesting sentence or thought or description, or if there isn’t something vivid, it doesn’t mean that I’m going to stop reading, because that would be wrong—there are certainly worthwhile books that don’t impress you with the language in the first two pages—but I pretty much know if I’m interested or not, even though I’ll read to the end in many cases anyway. Some books are more dependent on story than other books, and it can really depend on the outcome. You read the entire book because the outcome might be smashing—the cumulative power of what comes before. But certainly, stylistically, I know pretty quickly whether or not it’s a book I’m going to love. I would say two pages is an exaggeration. Probably ten pages.

How important is it to you that your books sell well?
It’s important to me because I want people to read them. Because when they do, and I get reactions, it makes me feel good, as if I did something valuable. And it’s most important to me for the writer, because the writer wants readers. It’s usually not about the money at all. They want as many readers as they can get. It’s hard to project what’s going to sell and what isn’t, so I just assume that what I buy is going to sell sufficiently to not create a debt at the house. That’s my job. That’s my professional job—not to lose money—and I try very hard not to lose money. And having a great big book to offset some of the books that sell less well would be wonderful. I think I have some lurking in the future.

Agents have assumed a new primacy for writers in the last several decades. How do you feel about that?
I’m very glad to have the agents’ help. The agents know much more about publishing than the writers do, obviously. Some of them have worked at publishing houses and can explain the logic behind the publisher’s decisions. They know what to ask for and what not to ask for. I think agents have become more important to writers because there is not as much continuity in publishing now. So if a writer is jumping houses, if the houses are making the writer jump, then you need one stable person in your life to put everything together. So I suppose that’s the single biggest reason that that shift in loyalty to agents took place. The agent’s job is also a lot more complicated now because of the multiple submissions and auctions and the complexity of selling a book that is desired by many publishers. I don’t want to keep harking back to the days of single submissions, but it was pretty relaxing. If you sent a manuscript to Bob Giroux, he would be really irritated if you sent it to anyone else while he was reading it. Wasn’t his time worth more than that? It was a simplified process.

Are there any younger agents who you’re finding yourself doing business with or liking or admiring lately?
Julie Barer, who has her own agency, is wonderful—very supportive of her authors and enthusiastic about her projects. More for nonfiction, Brettne Bloom at Kneerim & Williams has great energy and intelligence, as does Julie. There are lots of fine young agents, but for fiction and nonfiction, those are two good suggestions.

From your perspective, what do the best agents do for their authors?
They write a very good letter introducing the writer and the book under consideration. If previous books have been published, they include full reviews with the submission. They try to match an editor to a writer—temperamentally, aesthetically—as much as they try to match a writer to a house. Then, once the process begins, they know what to push for and what not to, how to choose their battles. And that’s a very delicate dance. Because often the writer would like a little more pushing than should or could be done, and the agent has to have a good sense of that.

How involved or not involved do you want authors to be in the marketing and promotion of their work? Is it healthy for an author to be involved?
I think that, in the end, the older writers learn that it’s better to be writing their next books. Of course, everybody needs a break, but it can be distressing to become involved. I remember when I left Houghton Mifflin, one of my poets, Glyn Maxwell, said, “Well, Pat, it’s just publishing.” And I thought, “What a poetic thing to say.” Publishing is my entire life and yet he says, “It’s just publishing.” So, in other words: “I’m a writer. I’ll publish my poetry somewhere. We’ll still be friends.” I thought it was very healthy to see it that way—there is writing and then there is publishing. And they’re two quite different processes. I think involvement in the publishing process can be frustrating, and if a writer can resist, I would resist, frankly.

Put yourself in the shoes of an unpublished writer. Are there any intangible things she can do to put herself on the radar of an agent or a publisher, besides the obvious things like publishing in magazines?
Get to know other writers. Not so much to learn how to write, but to meet people and learn something about the professional way to do things, so you won’t be sending out e-mails from the blue. Knowing writers will convince other writers to read your work, and possibly give a comment on your work, which might be helpful in selling it. My advice would be to not be alone.

What are the important things for an author to look for in an editor and a publishing house?
I would look at the list and look at the catalogues online, which you can do now. I suppose there’s some way to look at which editors do which books by looking at the acknowledgments. I think it’s important to determine that the minds might get along, to learn the kinds of books the editor edits and the publisher publishes—every publisher has a wide variety, but in the field where you’re writing—to see that you’d be in the sort of company you’d like to be in. And if you can’t get that, then accept an offer anyway. Michael di Capua used to say, “Small children won’t die from this,” when the jacket came out the wrong color or something. It is important—the publication of the book and how it’s done—but the book is still there, and there are only so many different ways you can publish it. So I wouldn’t—as a young writer—get too hung up on who the publisher is.

Obviously the industry has changed a lot over the years, from small shops like FSG to very large corporate companies. Having experienced both, what do you think about what’s happened to the industry?
I don’t feel discouraged. I feel that any good manuscript I read is going to be published, and that’s almost true. I don’t feel that there are good books languishing any more than there used to be. And if that’s the case, I’m fine with it. If it wasn’t the case, I would be less fine with the changes. And the changes are that the business is now considered a conventional business. Or, rather, that conventional rules are applied to what started as a cottage-industry business. It’s very difficult to twist publishing into a conventional business. And yet you have to try. Because how else are you going to learn what works? And how are you going to report to your superiors? You have to accept that there are going to be different ways of doing things now—less off-the-cuff, less impulsive. Yet that off-the-cuff impulsiveness is there every time you read a manuscript. And you’re still making those same sorts of impassioned decisions that you ever were. So maybe the final decision about whether to publish or not to publish is more complicated and complex, and maybe there are more obstacles in the editor’s way. But if you don’t publish it, somebody else will. So it’s not a tragedy. It’s not tragic in the larger sense that we’re now conglomerated rather than small. I really don’t think so. I think big versus small is sometimes difficult for the younger people who are learning, because with small you pretty much go to every meeting—production meetings and advertising meetings—and you pretty much learn the whole business. You know why the book is priced this way and why it’s that format instead of this format because everybody goes to all the meetings. That’s a wonderful apprenticeship to have. In a larger company, it can get a little more Balkanized by virtue of necessity. So I think it takes a little while longer for young people to learn every aspect of the business.

What’s the biggest problem or challenge in the publishing industry today?
This is fairly broad, but I would say bringing readers to books. Let me try to personalize that a little. My husband is from a small town in northern Minnesota, and we used to go out there frequently. I once brought John McPhee’s Encounters with the Archdruid, which is a book about conservation. My in-laws mainly read the newspaper, and nature guides, and cookbooks—very little serious literature. But when we came back the next year, the book was in tatters. It had been passed all around the town. There were five thousand people in the town, and it didn’t have a book store. The people got their books from the Book-of-the-Month Club. So they were all reading Portnoy’s Complaint, but they didn’t know about John McPhee. And that, to me, was a very touching experience. It showed that if they had known about the book, it would have been a best-seller. There were so many people who were interested in these issues. There are so many people who would love so many books if they could be led to them in some way. I don’t have a solution. But I think there’s so little exposure to the choice, and the choice has to be more apparent.

Recently, at a dinner party, there was a sort of roundtable question of “What did you read over August vacation?” And the people who weren’t in the book world really felt they had discovered a writer who was extremely well known—not necessarily on the best-seller list, but well known. They thought they were introducing this book to all of us, when anyone in publishing would know the writer and, you know, know the book itself, know where it was on BookScan, know where it was in the Barnes & Noble display area. But people who are outside the business have other things to do. They’re not keeping track of what books are coming out. I don’t have a solution. Maybe Jason Epstein, who’s very smart, has a solution. The shrinkage of the book review media is unfortunate. That was certainly a way to bring news of books to people. I hope that isn’t dropping out of the national conversation.

Are you discouraged about the state of books in this country?
No, I’m not. In some ways, it’s thinking selfishly, because you would like your writers and your books to be read by as many people as possible. And, of course, it’s dreaming. But I certainly don’t think books are going to go away. The object itself it too essential. The idea of having your privacy is too wonderful. A book signals to other people to stay away. I’m in my private zone right now. I think that’s why so many women who are over-stressed read.

How do you feel about the decline of independent booksellers and publishers? What effect has it had?
I think the decline of independent bookstores has had some effect—I can’t measure it, I don’t know the facts—but some effect on the mid-list book. You might not get that surprise success that comes from bookstore recommendations as often. But other systems have taken over, like Book Sense, where they get the word out on a larger level, and maybe that sort of evens things out. We’ve lost bookstores, but they’re louder than they used to be. There are all sorts of areas in publishing where—it’s very easy, as a person who’s been in it for a long time, to be critical—but there are a lot of areas that are improving and much more professional than they used to be. I don’t find the reduction of independent bookstores to be a disaster by any means. It’s fun to get a Discover selection at Barnes & Noble and know they can be very effective too. And they have lots of ways of doing that.

The independent publisher situation? That’s just a big one. I try not to look at the big picture too much because there’s so much to look at in the small picture: your desk, what’s on it; your author, what their concerns are. The work doesn’t feel any different, big or small. The work seems to me to be pretty close to what it was when I started in publishing. Certainly there is more presentation or performance today in one way or another—more written and oral presentation—but aside from that, the work is just the way it always was. I think, as an editor, you’re a little under the radar of whether you’re large or small, and I think as you go up the ladder it probably makes a much bigger difference.

What do you think about the future of books? Do you think this digital revolution or print-on-demand revolution will happen?
I’m not very well educated in this area. I don’t think that the hard-copy book is ever going to disappear. It’s just not. Maybe it’s unthinkable to me, and that’s why I don’t think it. But there’s something about the aesthetic value of the book, the thingness of it. People like things. They like beautiful objects.

But they like their iPods, too. There’s all this talk about an iPod for books that’s going to come along for this generation of people who aren’t buying newspapers anymore, who don’t buy CDs or records because they download everything. You don’t think it will happen?
I don’t. I think there are a lot of uses for digital publishing, in almost a marketing way. “Here’s a sample chapter.” But when it comes down to reading the entire book, I really think people are going to stick with the object. Reference books are a different matter. You’re just trying to look something up and you’re not spending hours and hours with that little screen.

You mentioned your husband, Bill, who’s also an accomplished editor. What’s it like to be married to another editor?
It’s absolutely marvelous, like a marriage made in heaven. Because we do the same thing. Who’s the woman…? Diana Athill. She wrote a book about being an editor called Stet. She said that she partly became an editor because she was an idle person. She was attracted to idleness. And of course you do have to stay in one spot. And my husband and I don’t mind, we don’t find it boring, one reading in one room and one reading in the next and meeting at the end of the night. That’s the way we’ve always done it. I think for those couples who want to go to the movies or something it would be very boring. But for us it’s wonderful. We can also talk about the business without boring our friends. And he’s much more well educated than I am about the actual business of publishing. He was a math major before he was an English major, so he knows a lot about that. And he’ll explain the digital things to me over and over, which I’ll tell you I do not quite understand. We’ve never competed for a book, which is interesting. But he’s more oriented toward topical nonfiction books and mine are a little softer. And we’ve always been discreet about what’s going on at the other person’s company, and that’s just the way it is, so it’s not a problem.

What is the most rewarding part of your job?
Good reviews that make the writer happy. Because that’s the end of the process if best-sellerdom isn’t a prospect. That’s the most rewarding thing. But my daughter’s in medical school, and she said, “You know, when I tell my friends what you do, they say, ‘She reads for a living?’” It’s like a dream to them. And it is a dream. It’s a dream to read for a living. Of course, we do all of our reading in our free time, but still, that’s what we’d be doing anyway. I mean, there are some picnics missed on Sundays, and there are some sacrifices made, so you’d better really love to read, love to not move around too much. And if that’s the case, you’re all right.

What’s the most disappointing aspect of your job?
I think worse than poor sales is no reviews. I don’t normally have that situation. But I’ve seen it. I’ve seen just two reviews. And that’s very, very disappointing. And, again, it’s mainly in empathizing with the writer. That he or she would spend several years on a book that was maybe too complicated for the review community to figure out what to do with—a brilliant book, but a book that wasn’t a natural for review. And it can happen.

Looking back on your career, are there any crucial turning points?
It’s just all such good fortune. I had such good fortune. It feels like it was handed to me. Starting at Farrar, Straus was very good fortune and definitely defined my future career. Because I was taught by people who knew it was an important profession, I had an apprenticeship that sort of guided me. And you never really give up that first impression. So I think the turning point was the starting point in some ways. I think the critical reception of the first novels I did established trust in my mentors, so I had some freedom. The success of the first novels was important. Unfortunately, I have never had a turning point that involved sales. Tom Wolfe was at the house anyway. Tom was a bestselling author—that didn’t have anything to do with me. And, frankly, I haven’t had that turning point, which would have made me a little bit more helpful to the houses I’ve worked for—something I acquired that really sold in huge numbers right away. So my career isn’t based on sales. Although Marilynne and Jamaica and Ian Frazier have gone on to great success without me. And Padgett Powell’s Edisto is still in print.

Do you have any regrets or disappointments?
Disappointments, I think—there is Alice Munro. I had found her Lives of Girls and Women at a street vendor, wrapped in plastic, and I liked the title and bought the book for fifty cents. This was probably the late ’70s. Then I found out she had just recently acquired an agent here, Ginger Barber—Virginia Barber, a marvelous woman. Ginger said, “Well, there’s a manuscript.” It was called “The Rose and Flo Stories,” though the title ultimately became The Beggar Maid. The Rose and Flo stories really, really affected me, and not just because my grandmother’s Canadian and I spent some time in Canada as a child. I gave them to Mr. Giroux. He agreed. Alice came into the office, a fairly young woman at that point, and we talked and I made an offer. I think Mr. Giroux had a few suggestions; I may have had a few. I think we offered sixty-five hundred dollars for the stories, which was a very nice advance at that time. And then, suddenly, Norton bids seventy-five hundred dollars. And Roger said, “Sorry, baby, sixty-five’s as far as we can go.” And that was fine, that was a lot of money for a book of stories. Then it gets a little fuzzy because the editor left Norton and the book was moved to Knopf, and Ann Close has been her editor ever since. I love Ann, I’m very happy for her, but that was something I found on the street! And I really felt I had discovered something in an unlikely and virtuous way.

Any memorable mistakes?
The mistake I remember most for some reason was reading In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin and, not really being a reader of travel literature, just being wowed by it, knocked out by it. It was on submission from Liz Calder at Jonathan Cape. But Roger said, “What do you think, baby? Do you think it will sell?” And I said, “I certainly don’t.” That was a mistake.

Why didn’t you think it would sell?
Remote place. Fancy stylistically. But I would have liked to have worked with him before he died. That book got brilliant reviews and sold very well, but it’s not like it sold a ton of copies. It didn’t make anybody’s career.

What do you still want to accomplish?
It just seems like a continuum to me. It really seems like it will never end because good stuff keeps coming up. I don’t remember if I already mentioned this vision I had of my old age when I was younger. This vision of [editor] Anne Freedgood, in her worn-out chair in the country. You’d be asked to dinner and see her through the window and there she was with the manuscripts, reading all day until it was time to slap the fish on the frying pan. And I thought, “Never, never, never.” Well, now I find that a very happy prospect—that it will still be my work in one capacity or another. To go along and find stuff. It’s very exciting to find stuff. Although it’s sort of dangerous to always want to find. It should be just as important to want to revive. To want to help writers that you admire find their readers is probably more virtuous than to discover, which gives you a lot of credit. I think reviewers like to discover, editors like to discover. Everybody likes to discover. But there’s a lot that’s already been discovered that could use a little boost.

Jofie Ferrari-Adler is an editor at Grove/Atlantic.

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Comments

dweden@comcast.net says...

A rather off-hand referral to a very remarkable woman as working under a "psuedonym"  has prompted this comment. It seems odd that someone who both took the course and worked at Radcliffe for a year after that could not do Mrs. Venn any better. So in order to correct this lapse, I offer the following:

"Mrs. Diggory Venn" was Mrs. Helen "Doylie" Venn, wife of Richard "Diggory" Venn and mother of Tamsin Venn, my wife. Richard got his nickname in high school, where the well-read students made the connection to the character in Hardy's Return of the Native. Doylie ran the Radcliffe course for 26 years, although she had been working with the project for 33 years at her retirement.

Diggory and Doylie were involved in writing, publishing, public relations, and travel throughout their lives. They met in San Francisco while Diggory was working at the San Francisco Chronicle and Doylie was working for the League of Nations. In 1945, she was awarded a citation by the United Nations Conference on International Organization for "faithful and diligent performance of duty, [which] contributed to the creation of the Charter of the United Nations."  Born in England, Diggory came to school in the U.S. and joined the Marines during WWII. He seved as a correspondent in several serious battles, including Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima.

After the war, the Venns moved to the East Coast, first to New York, and then to to Boston. During this period, Doylie worked for Conde-Nast Publishing. The publishing course was founded by Edith Stedman, literary agent and writer, in 1947 to provide hands-on training in publishing for Radcliffe graduates, and Doylie was active in the course as assistant to the director from its inception. Helen Everitt was the first director. Doylie became the third director in 1954. Doylie often had students and visiting authors and publishers who lectured in the course the course as guests to her summer home in Ipswich, Mass, and traditionally included a clambake for participants.

The 6-week publishing course was known as " the shortest graduate school in the world and the most prestigious crash course in publishing." (Boston Globe obituary, Dec 13, 1993). More of Doylie's accomplishments are mentioned in the biography accompanying the description of her donated papers in the Radcliffe College Archives:

"She taught the Franklin Book Program Seminar for publishers from developing countries (1965), led the Radcliffe seminar 'Communications for the Volunteer' (1965-68) in which volunteers learned how to conduct meetings, plan publicity and promotion, speak in public, and fund raise, and the Brazilian Seminar sponsored by the U.S. Agency for International Development, 1967-69. Venn was honored for her contributions to publishing: she received the Dwiggins Award from Bookbuilders of Boston (1978) was chosen one of Boston's 100 New Female Leaders by Boston Magazine (1980), inducted into the Publishing Hall of Fame (1984), and received a Women's National Book Association Book Women Award (1987.)"

Octavia says...
I'm so grateful you have this excellent interview by Jofie Ferrari-Adler in full here on the Web site. I finished the print version in P&W and immediately logged on for more. Strachan's sensibilities and experience across a broad spectrum of publishing houses are hopeful evidence of the intelligence, taste, and discretion still to be found amongst those searching to find, polish, and promote the best talents and deliver them to intellectually thirsting readers. Thank you Pat Strachan! I am glad you are out there for us writers. --Octavia Randolph

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