Agents & Editors: Amy Einhorn

by Michael Szczerban

Feature

Posted 2.12.14

March/April 2014

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There was a time, decades ago, when the mark on the spine of a book told a reader something real about the publisher. That was back when you could look up Simon & Schuster’s address, for instance, and send a letter to Dick Simon or to Max Schuster. Today, most of the venerable names one associates with a publisher’s logo have nothing to do with the person who edited or published the book. Both Simon and Schuster are long dead, as are Charles Little and James Brown, James and John Harper and William Collins, Charles Scribner (and his sons), Alfred A. Knopf, and Messrs. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

It’s different for editor and publisher Amy Einhorn, who is alive and well as the head of Amy Einhorn Books, an imprint of the Penguin Random House division G. P. Putnam’s Sons (also deceased). She started her eponymous imprint in 2007 and published its first title, Kathryn Stockett’s No. 1 best-seller The Help, in 2009. Since then, the novel has gone on to sell millions of copies.

Still, what difference does the name of an imprint make? I’ve never chosen to buy a book solely based on the logo on its spine. As a reader, my loyalty is never to the publisher but rather to authors and their books. But many readers do seek out the books published under Einhorn’s imprint specifically because they want to read what she publishes. In fact, I’ve wanted to speak with Einhorn ever since I came across an Internet phenomenon called the Amy Einhorn Books Perpetual Challenge—in which readers who noticed that they liked several of Einhorn’s books decided to read everything she publishes—which upends the conventional wisdom about the importance of an imprint’s brand.

Einhorn is known as a demanding editor who seeks out diamonds in the rough and puts her authors through the time-consuming and difficult work of turning a stone into a jewel. After graduating from Stanford with a degree in creative writing, she began her career as an assistant at FSG in 1990, and worked at Villard, Poseidon Press, and Pocket Books before becoming the editorial director of Washington Square Press, and then the hardcover editor in chief at Grand Central Publishing. In addition to Stockett, the authors published by Amy Einhorn Books include Sarah Blake, Eleanor Brown, Harry Dolan, Lyndsay Faye, Siobhan Fallon, Alex George, Jenny Lawson, Liane Moriarty, Neil Pasricha, and M. O. Walsh.

Let’s begin from an oblique angle. I’ve read that you watched a lot of television growing up.
It’s true. [Laughs.] My husband says that he’s never met someone who likes television as much as I do.

So how did you form a love for books?
I was a socially awkward kid, and in books I found my tribe. One great thing about reading is that though it is a very solitary activity, you keep coming back to it because you find a connection there. I didn’t feel like I fit in, and books provided a place where I wasn’t alone.

Which books influenced you?
It’s funny. My seven-year-old had that light switch turned on in the last couple weeks. It’s so neat to see. Before then, we could not get her to read.

I brought her to the Scholastic book fair at her school. There were all these biographies of Amelia Earhart and Michelle Obama, and I told her that I remembered being in second grade and reading the biographies of Chris Evert and Billie Jean King. When I was really little, I loved James and the Giant Peach.

I was probably one of the worst-read, in terms of classic literature as a kid. I did not go to a great school system or anything like that. I do remember being in my early twenties and loving this book by Norman Rush, Mating. I remember thinking, “This is life’s truth right here.”

The insights you could find nowhere except inside a book.
Where you’re just like, “Oh my gosh, that’s it. Someone articulated what I’ve been thinking, but I didn’t even know I was thinking it.” But I didn’t have a single “The Catcher in the Rye changed my life” kind of book at an early age.

Where did you grow up?
In Rockaway, New Jersey, where no one you’ve ever known lives. It was not one of the New York commuter towns; it was not a very cosmopolitan place. Not everyone in the high school went to college.

In high school, I did have an amazing English teacher in whose class I found my world.

And then you went to Stanford?
My undergraduate degree was creative writing, which was completely useless. I was very much the liberal arts student who never thought that she had to get a job. I never thought of what I was going to do after college.

What gave you the idea to work in publishing?
It was the classic reason: “Oh, I like to read.” Sorry. I’m shaking my head at that twenty-two-year-old.

What would’ve been a more appropriate reason to get into publishing? It’s usually notI want a stable life and to make a lot of money.”
I was just naive. If you’re not in publishing and you don’t know anything about the publishing world, you think that you’re just going to sit in your office and you’re going to read all day. That’s different from a lot of what I do, which is selling.

When I moved to New York, I thought I wanted to work in magazines, but I realized that the only job I was qualified for was at a women’s magazine. I thought I would have a midlife crisis by the time I was twenty-six, because I didn’t really care about this year’s hemline. Then I met with an actual editor at Harper & Row. He told me what he did, and I thought, “That’s what I want to do!” He told me that he knew of a job opening at FSG, and he said, “I’m sure the salary I heard is incorrect.” It wasn’t.

I went for the interview, and I got there early, with my little interview suit on, and I went to the bathroom. At this point, FSG was at 19 Union Square West, and in the bathroom there was no toilet paper. I honestly thought, “I guess everyone brings their own?” I was so young. They had just published The Bonfire of the Vanities, and as only a twenty-two-year-old could do, I said with full hubris that I didn’t like the ending and that it was just too long. Somehow I got the job.

Who was the editor at Harper & Row?
I wish I remembered who he was. But here’s a fun story: I was put in touch with him by the only person I knew in publishing at the time. My sister had gone to college with this woman, a young literary agent. I spoke to her for five minutes on the phone. She gave me the name of this guy, and then I never spoke to her again—until eighteen years later, when she sent me The Help. Isn’t that wild? That’s how I met Susan Ramer, Kathryn Stockett’s agent.

Tell me about those first days as an assistant at FSG.
I worked for Elisabeth Dyssegaard. It was a place like no other place. I once did an interview, I think it was with the Observer, and I mentioned Rose, the woman who was in charge of the supply closet. Rose was as tall as this table, and when you’d go and ask for a new pencil, she’d look at your old pencil and say, “There’s still an inch on it.” But they were publishing Philip Roth.

I was earning thirteen thousand dollars a year. My parents were mortified. They said, “You earned more working in college than you will here.” I remembering thinking that if I ever made twenty thousand dollars a year I would be set.

Some people would be intoxicated by all that literary mystique.
I can’t tell you how far removed I was from that world. I was one of the few younger people who did not have a trust fund—I was cleaning apartments on the weekend. But it was an incredible place.

At the time, Michael Cunningham was publishing A Home at the End of the World, and I remember going to his readings and thinking, “This is the most wonderful thing.” I loved that book.

He didn’t know me from a hole in the wall, but I learned that he had gone to Stanford. One day I was at a movie, Misery, which is based on a Stephen King novel. I didn’t know what the movie was about—of course it’s about a fan who kidnaps an author—but before we went in to see it, I accosted Michael Cunningham and told him that I worked at FSG and that I was a big fan. We had a whole conversation about Stanford. That was unbelievable.

Was there a moment when you thought, “This is my life now”?
I had my publishing existential crises. There were two different times when I applied to law school and got in, and then deferred. But to my parents’ credit, or actually to their detriment, I never thought that I had to have a job where I was making money. I always felt you should do what you love. To be able to work on something like a Michael Cunningham book—what could be better than that? I mean, I haven’t ever, but still.

A theme common to many of the books you publish is that they come from an outsider perspective. Did you feel like an outsider in publishing?
Yes, which is funny, because on paper it’s like, “Poor Amy, she only went to Stanford, she doesn’t have the pedigree.” But in coming to New York, I had no network. I don’t know how much of that had to do with going to school on the West Coast, or that I didn’t come from a New York City family. But it was so foreign. I guess I have always had that sense.

I remember going to my first and only Paris Review party with a bunch of young people my age. I was like, “What am I doing here in George Plimpton’s apartment?” We went to a diner afterward and they were all talking about it, and I thought, “I’m not going to last here.” The irony is that all of them have left the business.

What happens as an editor matures? Did your tastes evolve, or are you even more connected to who you were all along?
That’s a good question. I went from FSG to Villard—from literary to commercial—and then to Poseidon, which was Ann Patty’s literary and commercial imprint at Simon & Schuster. She published people like Steven Millhauser but also Olivia Goldsmith, The First Wives Club.

Then one day I came back from vacation and everyone had been fired except for me—they forgot I existed. So I went to Pocket, and then I was at Warner Books [now Grand Central Publishing], which were both very commercial. And now I’m here, which I hope is a mix.

I was thinking recently about some books I published when I was younger. If I had done them at this imprint, I think I could have made them work. That’s one thing I found frustrating as a young editor: You’re constrained by your house and what your house is good at. If you’re at Warner, which was a great commercial house, and you get in a very literary novel, you likely won’t do as well with it as if you were publishing it somewhere else. And on the flip side, Warner would do much better with a commercial novel than someone else would.

I think my taste has been my taste all along, but being older, I’m a better publisher, and I know how to work the system better.

Tell me about working the system. An editor orchestrates a whole landslide of actions that you hope will result in the book’s success.
My husband would think it’s funny that I'm about to use this metaphor, because he’s a sports reporter and I really don’t know much about sports, but the editor is like a quarterback. Actually, the editor is the quarterback and the coach, because you’re calling the plays. You have a whole team, but the editor has to mobilize everyone.

How do you turn the feeling you have about a book into motivation for the people who will sell it?
The most influential thing I ever did in my career was to go on a sales call with a rep when I was a young editor at Warner. I was told not to talk, not to sneeze, not to breathe. But I saw how sales reps have to sell your book, how little time they have to sell your book, and how they’re selling your book in the context of an entire list.

When you do your launch presentation and you say, “I love this book,” that’s almost completely meaningless to a sales rep. Every editor loves the books he or she bought. I know only a small portion of what the reps are up against, but related to the perception that everyone thinks that editors just read, a lot of what I do is sell. I have to sell the book to my reps, to publicity, to marketing, to booksellers, to reviewers.

Credit: Christy Whitney

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Comments

Midniyte says...

What would it take for her to be interested in Science Fiction or Fantasy genre?  Is that something she'd ever do?  Does a story from that genre have a chance of ever catching her interest?

Thank you,

M

Midniyte says...

What would it take for her to be interested in Science Fiction or Fantasy genre?  Is that something she'd ever do?  Does a story from that genre have a chance of ever catching her interest?

Thank you,

M

amandabhamilton says...

What a great interview! Very inspiring for both aspiring writers and aspiring editors. Thanks for this!

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