Agents & Editors: A Q&A With Jonathan Galassi

by Jofie Ferrari-Adler

Feature

Posted 7.1.09

July/August 2009

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Where do you think the future of bookselling is?
With the publishers. I think the publishers will be selling the books directly.

Are you talking about digitally or physical books?
Both. I think there are always going to be people who want physical books, but I think the digital part of the business is going to increase. One of the things that all publishers are worried about now is this idea that a book on Kindle is worth $9.99. If that establishes the price of what a book is worth, what does that say? What if I want to sell Maureen McLane's book as a hardcover for twenty-four dollars? I think that's a problem. Again, it's a lesson from the music business. People have been used to the idea that intellectual property—that a book, an artwork—is worth a certain amount of money. It's a mark of respect, in a way. But if you turn it into a widget, where every book is worth the same amount, it's not good. This is where the author, the agent, and the publisher should be working together to protect their mutual interest. And not have the business be decided by a seller.

By Amazon.
Yeah. We should be deciding what a book is worth, not them. It's a problem.

Are you envisioning bookstores going away the way that record stores did?
I think that bookstores are going to be around, but I don't think they're going to be the major channel. Especially if we go more and more digital.

It will be like in music, where there's a nice little record store down the street that nobody goes to.
They buy their music on iTunes. I still buy CDs, but a lot of my friends don't bother. They download it onto their iPods.

So how do we protect our authors' interests and our interests in a situation like this where it's very complicated and there are a lot of competing interests, including bookstores?
Look, I don't want bookstores to go away. But I think they're vulnerable. I just don't think we should be letting a retailer decide what a book is worth.

What's the bigger issue in your mind? Is it the digital stuff or is it the old issues like returns? It's complicated because it's all happening at different speeds.
In a digital world there would be no returns. Returns are a huge drag on our business. The waste is just enormous, and once that is gone it will help our business enormously.

Do you think this digital stuff is going to happen that quickly?
Well, it seems to be speeding up. It's still a very small part of the business, which is something you have to keep in mind as you do your business. We're still selling physical books, mainly, and mainly through bookstores. But everyone's obsessed with change, and everyone's afraid that if they aren't on top of it, they're going to be eaten. And they should be afraid. But in the meantime we have to continue publishing the old fashioned way. That's the thing about these kinds of changes: They're all add-ons. Yes, you're doing Internet marketing, but you're still doing all of the old processes too. So that's a strain on our systems—we have to do all of this R&D. But still, as I said earlier, when the dust has cleared from this crisis we're in, I think we'll have a smaller business but a healthier business.

How do you feel about paperback originals?
I'm for them. We're doing more of them. There's a practical problem with paperback originals, which is that you can't pay that much for them. So you have to find an author who understands that. People always say, "Why don't you do this book as a paperback original?" Well, fine. But the advance available for that is going to be about a quarter of what you might get if we did it in hardcover. We still haven't solved that. But we're doing it more and I think it's the right way to publish a lot of books. And if it works, it can launch an author and later they can do a hardcover book.

You have voiced concerns about the model of conglomerate publishing and its demands of growth in a notoriously low-growth business. When you look toward the future and think about what's best for authorsserious authorswhat would be the best publishing industry of the future look like?
I think small is beautiful. I think small houses like yours and mine are very hospitable to serious writers because they become part of the family. It's a family business in many ways. When a relationship is good, and when the results are good, the author becomes part of the family of the publishing house. There's a kind of collaborative emotional component. The fact is, in the digital world where everybody can do everything at his own desk, it's not like you have to go to a Simon & Schuster to get your book published effectively. It can be done by anybody who's a pro. What you get in the small house is a connection with someone who understands you and can promote your work with a personal commitment.

Do you feel like the big, publicly traded media companies might give up on book publishing?
I actually think there is going to be more consolidation. Look at something like Penguin. They have a lot of little pods—that's their approach—and it works well for them. I think it's possible that some of these companies will get spun off. But if I were running one of these big companies I would try to have smaller entities within them. I don't really know the answer. Look at what's happening to Houghton Mifflin. It's so sad. The midsize companies have really been squeezed worse than the small ones.

A few years before FSG was sold, you said the company was doing well because it wasn't able to play "the money game." Now that you are able to play the money game, and sometimes do pay big advances, why would you say you're doing well?
I think we've stayed pretty close to our mission. I think we've become more focused as a publisher. With regard to big advances, I'll tell you a dirty little secret. I think that very often the big advances you pay, at least for a company like ours, don't end up having the result you want. Sometimes you just have to pay them. But the real successes, which make the difference in our business, don't come from the books for which we pay big money. When we pay a big advance our job is to earn back what we gave the author so that we come out clean—basically break even or make a small profit. Whereas a book where we start much lower, and go a big distance, is much more mutually profitable. That model is also much more what we ought to be about, I think.

So, no, there aren't books that we can't buy because of money. When Becky Saletan was here we had the chance to bid on Hillary Clinton's book. And we did. We bid a lot of money. I always knew we wouldn't get it because we were being used to bid up Simon & Schuster. We all knew that. We didn't offer as much as they did, but we offered a lot of money, and I suppose we would have made that money back. But we're a small house, and a big advance that doesn't work out can do a lot more damage to us, relatively speaking, than it does to a Simon & Schuster, which takes a lot of bets all the time. So yes, we do pay big advances sometimes, especially for our established authors, but the real lifeblood of our business is not in doing that.

Do you think the proliferation of big advances will ever change?
I think it is changing. Books that seem like a sure thing are always going to be worth a lot of money, but I don't think they're worth quite as much as they were. And if they don't work out? I think there's more realism, even on the part of the really big authors.

When you find yourself in a situation where you're bidding aggressively on a book, how do you decide whether to go further or to stop?
We try to decide beforehand what we think the book is worth—we do P&Ls and all of those calculations—and stick to it. And most of the time we're pretty disciplined. But when we stretch? It's because of belief in the author, the prospect of a long-term relationship, and passion. But if you stretch beyond the prudent level it can feel like, "Where's the morning-after pill? Sure, that was really great sex, but...." I'd much rather have that experience when we publish the book.

Tell me about the moments when you feel the burden of your office.
It's no fun to tell an editor they can't do something they really want to do. It's no fun to have an unpleasant conversation with an author or an agent. I like to make people happy, if I can. But I've found that it's just like anything else: The anticipation of those things is usually much worse than actually carrying them out. I mean, I've been fired, so I know what it's like on both sides. This will probably sound callow, but it's usually better for everyone. If it's happening, it's happening because something isn't working. So it's better for both parties to cut their losses and start anew.

So many people in the industry admire you. I'm curious about some of the people who you admire the most.
There are so many of them. I'm not very good at pulling names out of hats so I'm sure I'll wake up tomorrow and think, "Why didn't I mention this person or that person?" When I was starting out I had a huge amount of admiration for Bob Gottlieb. He was just one of many people I admired, but I thought that he was good at so many different kinds of publishing. He sort of set the standard, in fiction especially. These days I admire Sonny [Mehta] very much. I admire Pat [Strachan] a great deal. I admire Morgan [Entrekin]. He's the last of the breed that Roger was, as an independent publisher. He does it in a different way than Roger because the competitive playing field is less even than it was when Roger was doing it, but he's definitely a gent and a man of great integrity and a wonderful publisher. He's really good for our business. I admire Graywolf Press—I think Fiona McRae does a fantastic job. I admire Lynn Nesbit, among a lot of other agents who have been great for our business.

What makes you admire somebody?
I admire people who are having fun doing what we do and who do it with passion and devotion and integrity—and do it really well. I mean, you have to remember that I was a very slow starter in this business. I slogged along for a long time until I had some good fortune and found a place where I could do what I believed in. I think the thing I really admire... Pat is a good example. She's just kept doing what she believes in, very, very consistently, for a long time. Drenka [Willen] is another editor I admire in the same way. I admire Norton—they've stuck to what they do. I grieve for places like Houghton Mifflin and Harcourt, whose approach to publishing seemed very right and true. I just think that they were eviscerated by their owners, and it's a terrible shame. Jonathan Burnham is a very formidable competitor and someone I admire a lot.

How are you feeling about Grand Central after losing Scott Turow to them?
I'm very fond of them, actually. Jamie Raab called me and there are no hard feelings. I'm absolutely sure that it wasn't a case of Grand Central going after him. I think Scott decided that he needed to take a new tack in his career. I'm sure he decided to go to them because they have his paperbacks. And their approach to publishing is different than ours. In the days when we sold our paperback rights, we sold more books to Warner [now Grand Central], at a certain point, than anyone. They were very good. I also admire St. Martin's Press—they do a fabulous job.

Did you read the proposal for the book they just bought about the history of FSG?
I did read it. It came into my hands. I actually thought that Boris [Kachka] got the story really well. I mean, I don't know who's going to want to read it.... [Laughter.]

Did they come to you and ask if they could buy it?
They asked if we had any objections and I said no. I don't think we should be censoring things like that. I don't think there are any dirty secrets to tell. I'm sure there are juicy stories, but I don't think there's anything to hide.

Are there any books that you feel embarrassed for not having read?
There are a lot of great books that I haven't read. I've never read Bleak House, for example. I've never read The Brothers Karamazov. I haven't read Thomas Bernhard. How's that? [Laughter.]

Do you have any big regrets?
If I had been a different person, I might have tried to be a writer instead of getting a job. My friend Jim Atlas went off and wrote his Delmore Schwartz book after school. I've always thought that was a very gutsy thing to do. I always admired his courage and craziness in doing that, and he wrote a great book and it paid off. Or look at someone like Jonathan Franzen, who went and sat in a room for five years and wrote The Twenty-seventh City. I've always thought, "That's heroic." And I'm not heroic. So I don't know if that's a regret but it's definitely a Walter Mittyish admiration for people who do that.

I regret that I was too callow to make my time at Random House productive. I never learned how to operate in that system. I had been coddled at Houghton Mifflin, and I think I was cocky, and then I came up against the monolith of Random House. They weren't bending to do things my way and I should have tried to figure out how to do things their way. I think I could have learned more.

You grieve over relationships. We published Oscar Hijuelos's book The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, which was another book I did with Harriet. It won the Pulitzer Prize and did wonderfully. We did one more book together, and it didn't go terribly well, and then he left. That was sad—we had been very close and we aren't any more. I'm regretful that my time working with Scott Turow is over and that we aren't going to be publishing the sequel to Presumed Innocent, which would have been a lot of fun. I'm regretful that Tom Wolfe had to leave FSG. I'm regretful that Pat Strachan left FSG all those years ago. It would have been fun to have worked together and it would have been enriching for us. I'm very regretful that Philip Roth left Farrar, Straus. I think that was unnecessary, and it was very sad. It was a real loss for us—he was a perfect FSG author. I regret that Joseph Brodsky died so young and that Thom Gunn is no longer with us.

The more I think about it, the more regrets I have. [Laughter.]

At the end of the day, what's the most rewarding part of your job?
It's the intimacy with the author—the love affair with the author. When you're reading the author's book, it's as intimate as any love experience, really. And if you can give them the kind of unconditional love and support that goes with that, and they feel that you're on their side, and doing good things for them, they give that love back to you. The connection with the author is very moving. And then a core of trust is built and you're sort of bound together at the hip in this aspect of life. That's one of the best feelings in the world. That's what it's all about for me.

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

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Comments

mikerol says...
As a former quite small publisher [of Urizen Books http://isbndb.com/d/publisher/urizen_books.html ] who got his first steady job at Farrar, Straus, in 1966, and brought them Nelly Sachs, all the Hesse books, Hans Erich Nossack, Christa Wolf, and most importantly, Peter Handke, I would say that the now nearly venerable firm has much improved under Jonathan Gallassi's guidance. Jonathan's description of Roger Straus and his conduct of editorial meetings, brings to mind the founder's rather Runjonesque, which I must admit I appreciates, as I appreciate "characters" of all kinds. What is surprising, especially in this retrospect, is how many far nicer people were working there at the time, Hal Vussel, Mr. Henry Wohlforth, the treasurer, Ms. Nicholson, author of a manual on style, in rights and permissions, Ms. Miller, Roger's assistant. Overall though, I would have to agree with the decision by Robert Giroux, as quoted in Christopher Lehmann-Haupt's obituary - Christopher also wrote Rogers obit for the N. Y. Times - that thought of Roger was so distasteful as to keep him from writing a history of the firm. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/05/books/06giroux.html?scp=2&sq=robert%20giroux&st=cse Each sentence in those two obits is well weighed. Not that Roger was not serious, but he was not passionate about literature, he liked the social side, the hobknobbing at least as much, having no end of never enobling Nobel Prizes, and in that respect Roger does not compare either with his contemporary American [Alfred Knopf, Bennet Cerf, George Braziller, to mention just three of the many] or European equivalents such as Siegfried Unseld of Suhrkamp, Michel Krueger of Hanser Verlag, even a true hobknobber and delightfully social animal such as Ledig-Rowohlt of the Rowohlt Verlag could get down and translate and edit with the best of them and had languages and world wide interests; ditto for Jonathan Maschler of Cape, Mathew Evans the then editor of Faber, no end of great French, Italian and Spanish publishers. I want to tune this point with a very specific example, that of the publication history of the work of Peter Handke in this country, an author since he burst on the scene in 1966, of some 66+ books, who has developed and changed over the course of time to an author of the importance of the greatest in German literature in the past two hundred years. The fellow Handke translator Scott Abbot mentioning, a few weeks back, in a discussion on what is everybody's favorite Handke title at http://handke-discussion.blogspot.com/ that Handke, while he and Handke were together in Yugoslavia, had shown him a letter from "Robert" Straus to Siegfried Unseld where Straus mentions that he's got a big problem called Handke, elicits these thoughts on Farrar, Straus has published Handke in this country: Farrar, Straus did 11 printings of KASPAR AND OTHER PLAYS. FS+G sold the first half a dozen Handke titles to various paperback publishers for reprinting, the Brit Methuen shared upfront costs, over and over, and so certainly did not lose any money. However, in all these years I have never seen an ad for a Handke book in this country. Even the diary-novel, as I think of it, Weight of the World did well, not that FS +G has had the good sense to publish it's successor Die Geschichte des Bleistifts which exists in the major Romance languages of course, to inform Handke's English language reading public, as this book does and can, how Handke's thinking on writing and his project is changing.[Little chance that the mostly idiot reviewers that the mostly idiot book review editors assign books to would take the trouble to give the matter of change any thought to as they so very obviously have not, baffled! I happen to have about each and every review, and there exists a single outstanding one, by Willim Gass in the L.A. Book Review when it was edited by Stever Wasserman]. First major mistake of Roger's was to fail to publish HISTORY OF THE PENCIL, the second and more serious one was to publish A SLOW HOMECOMING jointly in one volume together with LESSON OF SAINT VICTOIRE and A CHILD'S STORY [to save money and also on the individual presentation which these three very different books deserved. These failures in publishing finesse are compounded by failing to put books which had wide readerships in their paper editions with Avon and Collier Books into the FS+G quality paperback imprint Noonday Books to make for continuity [many have recently been reissued by New York Review of Books Books] and then in passing on Handke's greatest plays, WALK ABOUT THE VILLAGES [Ariadne Books] and THE ART OF ASKING + THE HOUR WE KNEW NOTHING OF EACH OTHER [Yale University Press] and many others not even translated yet. So what Roger is complaining to to Unseld is something that was easily remediable by him if he had been as good a publishers Handke's French and Spanish, Italian and Portuguese, etc Publishers were. Handke, also, has had about ten different editors assigned to him since I left there in 1969. Some first rate, the first several, some not, but each of course incapable or unwilling to construct the history of publication, that is to be a real editor! Recently the excellent Annie Wedekind left and so far I haven't found out to which overworked novice Handke has been assigned. Imagine, you're a bright young thing and Goethe is assigned to you! Elizabeth Sifton had a wonderful piece in Slate some years ago about being assigned Saul Bellow when she was a very junior editor at Viking http://www.slate.com/id/2116502/ Evidently Ms. Sifton did not drown, but this indicates the amateurishness with which these matters can be handled. And the case of a foreign author is then far more serious, especially of the new editor who assumes that load does not know the original language. michael roloff http://www.roloff.freehosting.net/index.html
Victoria Mixon says...

Every day in my work as a freelance editor I hear aspiring writers complain that authors are the only people in the publishing industry who care about the quality of the work, that everyone else is obsessed with the money. Thank you for bringing Jonathan Galassi to us in this wonderful interview, so those who hope to become a part of the industry can see what the industry to really is.

I'm very happy to have this article to mention in my blog on the craft of fiction.

best,
Victoria
http://victoriamixon.com

LitPark says...
What a beautiful interview - from Monte Cristo to the eagerness and heartbreak of young editors to Elizabeth Bishop. Loved all of it. And thank you.
lapidaire@netze... says...

Thank you, Mr. Galassi, for putting today's publishing woes in a hard nutshell. Yes, book reviews are overrated; I used to take out from the library the books rated favorably by The NY Times, The NY Book Review, et al, & sometimes brought them back half-read, impatient, because I found them wanting. But this is the truth of reading: It is subjective. One size does not fit all. & do not condemn book clubs, at least they spread the word(I don't belong to one)but less informed & less knowledgeable people could be reached (partic. young ones)through schools & libraries,esp.since you want to market directly.& please, interviewer, Ferrari-Adler(I do not know whether you are male or female), & Mr. Galassi-the accusative of WHO is WHOM,& the dative TO WHOM.As a European-American & a writer myself,it physically hurts me to hear people misuse the cases - both you & the interviewer should know better(worse still:they invited Harry & I).Keep the English language beautiful.Thank you, Ingrid Wild Kleckner

Jessica Keener says...
What a stupendous article. Honest and yearning. Thanks to you both—I also wanted to say to Jonathan how much I loved reading the Bishop-Lowell letters that FSG published. It came to me by way of a gift from my sister. I sank into their correspondence every night for about a month. After that, I ran into Bishop or Lowell in unexpected conversations, and unexpected places. The friendship and love these two great writers gave to each other over their lifetimes was inspiring and surprising. Thanks for publishing it. Jessica Keener, fiction editor at Agni magazine and writer.
jj1009 says...
I honestly believe that this is the best interview I've ever read. The questions were perfect, leading to very informative lessons about editing, publishing, and writing. Jonathan Galassi is amazingly in love with his business, which shines through in this well managed interview. Thank you Jofie Ferrari-Adler.
Rick Rofihe says...
Jonathan Galassi was my book editor for FATHER MUST, published by FSG. [ http://blog.fictionaut.com/2009/05/23/rediscovered-reading-father-must-by-rick-rofihe/ ] Besides being paid very well for this short story collection, I remember Jonathan suggesting that only one word be removed -- an "Oh" in the story "Helen Says". I agreed. It was published to all-positive reviews.

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