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The People of Publishing: Ronit Feldman

Our first interview in this brand new series is with Ronit Feldman, associate editor at Nan A. Talese Books/Doubleday.

Thank you very much for giving this interview. How did you get into publishing?

I’m from Huntington Woods, MI, a small city outside of Detroit, and went to college at Syracuse University, where I studied musical theater. I always loved the creative process but by the end of college I knew I wasn’t cut out to make it as an actor. Two of my other passions have always been reading and writing so after I graduated I interned at an alternative newsweekly in Detroit, then got an internship at Marie Claire in New York. I was looking for a job in magazine publishing for months afterwards, which, like book publishing, is notoriously hard to break into. Nothing panned out. My cousin’s fiancee finally suggested book publishing. He knew someone who knew someone who was looking for an assistant, and I ended up interviewing with Nan Talese at Doubleday. Incidentally, I had just finished reading Nicole Krauss’ Man Walks Into a Room but I had read the Anchor paperback edition and didn’t realize Nan had published the hardcover. I talked about the book during my interview and it may have helped. I certainly didn’t have many other credentials! I started working for Nan the next week, and I’ve been with her imprint for five years.

What is your job like?

Starting off as an editorial assistant, it was pretty administrative: typing correspondence, tracking payment requests, putting in requests for contracts. And then also reading submissions and evaluating them for Nan. I’m an associate editor now, so my responsibilities have changed. I’m looking to acquire my own authors, and I’m editing manuscripts that Nan or previous editors have acquired. I’m also writing jacket copy, acting as a liaison with marketing and publicity, working one-on-one with authors. And I create and design our foreign rights guide and manage our online presence.

One of the first books I edited on my own came out in October 2009, Master of Shadows by Mark Lamster. It’s a biography of the painter Peter Paul Rubens that focused on his little-known career as a secret agent for Spain during the Eighty Years’ War. I worked with the author on a couple drafts, trying to make the material more accessible to readers who wouldn’t be familiar with 17th century politics (like me!). Then I shepherded the manuscript and page proofs through production, worked on the photo insert, the jacket copy, and solicited blurbs from authors. Our other departments (production, publicity, art, etc.) are instrumental in producing the book, but it’s the editor’s job to be the spokesperson for the author, to refine and convey his vision to the rest of the team.

So the author has a say in the details of production?

The author doesn’t have final approval on everything, but we try to keep them apprised and involved. Obviously some choices, like trim size, aren’t presented to them, but other things like layout and typeface are. We do go back to the drawing board if an author isn’t pleased.

The Nan A. Talese imprint emphasizes production values, so you’ll notice that our paper is a little heavier and our books have a rough front (sometimes called a deckle edge). I can’t speak for other publishers—I don’t know if their authors are as involved in the design choices, but it’s a priority for us.

Could you describe the process of helping an author shape their manuscript?

The first time I read through a manuscript I’m digesting it as a reader, though I may take a few notes. The second time I’m thinking as an editor, underlining issues I think should be addressed, doing line edits. Then I write up an editorial memo that addresses the work as a whole, including any structural issues. It’s important to put editorial comments in writing because it gives an author a reference point when they go back and revise. I think it’s easier to forget a comment that’s conveyed verbally. The questions and suggestions I come up with arise pretty naturally. Is there a strong enough transition between point A and point B? Is there tension, and how could the author create more? Are there digressions? Inconsistencies? I think as an editor you don’t always need to come up with the solution, but it is your job to point out the problem. Sometimes the solution isn’t on the page yet, and you just need to ask the right questions.

How involved does the editor/publisher get in the development of a second book if it’s already under contract but hasn’t been written yet?

Usually an author knows what they want to write about next, but an editor can help refine their idea. Sometimes an author just delves into the next project (of course, you have a general idea of what they’re writing about) and you won’t see anything until they send the full manuscript. Other authors have a more piecemeal approach. They’ll show you an outline first, or tell you about their research, or send portions as they work. We had an author recently who asked for comments on the first half of his manuscript before he started writing part two, which I think was useful. That’s only typical for nonfiction. Novelists work more independently.

How is the author involved in terms of marketing and publicity?

We try to work with authors closely throughout the whole process. We get their input on which niche periodicals might cover the book, whether they have any contacts in the author community who we can approach for blurbs. It’s the editor’s job to write the beseeching blurb letters asking for endorsements, but we also rely on the author’s connections. Right now I’m editing a comic debut memoir by Avi Steinberg called Running the Books, which is about the two years he worked as a prison librarian after graduating from Harvard. When Lindsay Lohan was sent to jail, he thought it would be fun to write a prison reading list for her time behind bars and suggested we pitch it to The Daily Beast. The byline links to his book on Amazon. That was very proactive. Another author, Jessica Kerwin Jenkins, has a book out in November called Encyclopedia of the Exquisite. She writes about fashion for Vogue and she’s been very successful in getting her media contacts interested in the book.

Is the author’s online presence something that would be important to have in place before their book is sold to the publisher?

I don’t think so. It’s more important in the months leading up to the on-sale date. Unless the book is very commercial—prescriptive nonfiction, say—and you’re selling it based on a platform that’s already established. Or if it’s based on a blog. Stuff White People Like, for example, probably wouldn’t be a book if it wasn’t already a successful blog.

How do you feel about agents being involved in the promotion of a book?

It’s great when they have ideas, and not so great when they just want to hear about the fruits of your labor. Sometimes we don’t have the budget to produce something like a book trailer. If an agent wants to spearhead that, great. Or if they want to help their author set up a Facebook page, great. With Facebook, an author is spreading information to a network of people that isn’t thinking to check Doubleday’s website every day. It’s an effective way to self-promote.

Will the wrong title ever sink a novel?

Many, many novels don’t succeed sales-wise and it’s probably impossible to point to just one culprit (though we sometimes try!). Aside from great writing, you need a great title, an eye-catching cover, ample media coverage, an author who self-promotes, and so on. These things are all dependent on one another so it can be difficult to pinpoint the rotten egg. But an aspiring author should be more concerned with the manuscript than with its title. Editors will often revise a title, anyway, since we’re more in tune with the market.

What do you look for in fiction?

Well, both as a reader and as an editor I like literary fiction, as opposed to genre. Then the first thing I look for is a strong voice. Is this an original voice? Is it passionate? Does it grab me? I really love voice-driven fiction, first-person narrative. Lolita and Confederacy of Dunces are very different books, but they’re good examples of this. I also like humor—that element really speaks to me. I also look for a kind of searchingness, where the author isn’t writing something that feels premeditated, but is examining something via the work. I read Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese this year, which I loved—it’s sumptuous and the characters are very dynamic. And A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, which is about impermanence and the passage of time and rock and roll. But fiction is subjective and people’s tastes vary. I think the general aim in fiction writing should be to make it believable and to make it interesting. I learned that in acting school. It sounds simple, but it’s not that easy.

Has your theater background been an asset for you as an editor?

Yes, definitely. Having a feel for dramatic structure is useful in editing fiction and nonfiction. And it’s helpful in understanding character. An actor and an editor need to ask the same questions: What is the character’s intention? What tactics is she using? What’s at stake? What happened to the character the moment before this scene began?

What characteristics should authors look for in an agent?

Someone who’s reputable, someone who has placed books with major publishers or who is working with someone who has. If it’s a young agent who doesn’t have a long list of clients, ambition and industry knowledge are important. If you have agents fighting over you—I don’t know how often that happens—but gut feeling is probably important.

Do you have any advice for writers of literary fiction about writing a hook for their novel? Are there services that do this?

It’s true that it’s very difficult to boil down a literary novel to just a few sentences and, as I said, the plot is less interesting to me than the voice. It’s difficult to convey in a pitch. I’ve never heard of any services that help you write a hook, but I think an author should have an awareness of what their work is about. Simple is better than showy. And naming comp titles is useful—books that appeal to your intended audience.

What else can authors do to make themselves more publishable?

For literary fiction, accolades help. Awards or published short stories. It shows a certain dedication to the craft—that this isn’t the first and only thing the author will ever write. Because hopefully, as an editor, you’ll continue to grow this author.

So it’s less about the size of the audience that the writer has reached through the various journals in which he or she has been published?

Yes. It’s less about “Zoetrope has a circulation of X” than that they endorsed the work. That makes me curious. There are lots of great journals, not just The New Yorker, that have high standards for fiction.

Do you think, with the corporatization of publishing houses, that books are trending to the formulaic?

It’s true that we’ve been forced into publishing conglomerates, but it’s still people who are working for the companies, and people have personal tastes. And the various imprints within the conglomerates have different tastes. There’s not a uniform aesthetic formula that every publisher is adhering to. That’s not to say that the public doesn’t shape the market at all. As an editor you are looking for things that you think will sell, but that doesn’t mean, especially as a literary publisher, that you have to reject something new or different. Some books become breakout successes because the author is doing something original. As a writer, I don’t think you can be too concerned with the market. It will only limit your creativity.

Do you think people are reading less literary fiction these days?

Probably. I’ve only worked in the industry for five years, but that’s the news. Sales are down. It’s hard to draw attention to literary fiction when a novel doesn’t have a “newsy” element. Review space has shrunk. There are a lot of books clamoring to be heard. And with less bookstores comes less browsing. Someone recently complained to me that there just aren’t any good, contemporary novels being written these days. That’s entirely untrue! There are lots of wonderful books being published, there just aren’t that many avenues for them to get attention.

I don’t read much commercial fiction—maybe not any!—so I’m not sure what draws so many readers to it. I think people like to be gratified quickly, and commercial fiction does that. The story is about an external journey and there’s a central question that needs to be answered in a satisfying way. That doesn’t always happen in literary fiction, which asks broader philosophical questions. Things aren’t as neat and tidy. When you want to unwind, do you pop in Requiem for a Dream? Or do you watch Dating in the Dark? If you’re looking for a diversion, then commercial fiction is going to fulfill that need. But literary fiction will always be around, just like serious cinema will be. Provided that people are literate.

Do you have any advice for writers who have the talent, but for whatever reason haven’t had success in securing representation or getting published?

Keep writing. I heard someone say that you should put your first novel in a drawer and try to sell the second one. I’m not sure that’s necessary, but if you’re devoted to the craft of writing and it brings you joy, continue doing it. If your goal is to be published, write until someone wants to publish you. It’s a very subjective field and there’s a lot of turnover, so the editor who may have loved your book yesterday might not be here tomorrow. But if you’re truly devoted to writing, don’t get discouraged. And that doesn’t mean that writing should be your only job. A few years ago we published a wonderful novel, The Stolen Child. The author worked for a federal agency when he wrote it and now he’s published a second novel, and I think he still works there. Writing doesn’t have to be the be-all end-all of your life. After all, you need something to write about.

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8 comments to The People of Publishing: Ronit Feldman

  • Ronit and Chris,
    Thanks for taking the time to share your wise insights with us. It’s great to have a look at publishing from the inside.
    Ronit, you’re so right, keep on writing no matter what.
    Greg Gutierrez

  • Thank you both for such a thoughtful view from the other side of the table. As I can’t imagine a life without reading and writing, I’ll continue to do both and not fret so much about the end result.

    Dorothy Binder

  • Rob

    This was fantastic. I learned a lot. More importantly, I’ve come away with renewed enthusiasm. Thanks.

  • This interview was interesting and insightful. Thank you for taking the time to make it available to writers.

  • john andrus

    The helpfulness of a theatrical background is interesting. And as an actor/director or writer/editor, it must also be important to distinguish drama and histrionics; one can be an aid, the other an impediment.

  • Mary Leigh Volkman

    I, too, studied theater for a time before focusing my education on a BA in English. I’ve found this useful in characterizing, especially when I reach a certain block, and I have to say to myself, what would I do at that age and in those circumstances? On the other hand, I often find that if I try to make my character do things as I would do them, I end up with a scene that comes across as contrived or phony. Characters take on a life of their own; they simply will not do what they’re not inclined to do.

  • Mary Leigh Volkman

    If possible, I’d like to hear Ronit Feldman’s thoughts on third-person narrative that is so closely tied to the protagonist’s POV that it feels almost like first-person. This is how I tend to write; and I find it useful because I can sometimes pull back, ever-so-slightly, to reveal something that the protagonist might consciously be aware of. If Ronit is not available to respond, what are your thoughts, Chris? Thanks so much for your time and help. You’re blog has been invaluable to me!

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