Publishing: Editors Speak Out at the LA Times Festival of Books

Publishers at Festival of Books  I'm here at the Publishing: Editors Speak Out panel at the LA Times Festival of Books. All of us in the front row are laughing, because it feels like we're in an orchestra pit — the stage is that elevated in Broad 2160.

I'm a bit fearful because publishing panels can turn into zombie attacks — all the unpublished authors storm the gates and try to use their dull pitches to tear into the flesh of the poor defenseless publishers. I've already been accosted by several of the Desperate, as my media badge works like blood in the water. "This needs attention," one woman said, and handed me a piece of paper the size of a stamp. Great pitch, wow, I'll make sure to look up info on that book.

The panel is moderated by Sara Nelson, Books Director at Oprah magazine, and the publishers are Eli Horowitz of McSweeney's, Sarah Crichton of Sarah Crichton Books, an imprint of FSG, and Jack Shoemaker, editorial director at Counterpoint, where he's edited such authors as Wendell Berry.

The panel started with Nelson asking how many writers were in the audience, or people with a book. Virtually everyone raised their hands.

The discussion started with the responsibility of editors.

Jack Shoemaker: "The best editor can adopt the voices of the writers they edit."

Sarah Crichton: "The editor must be an advocate in-house — with the marketing department, especially."

Eli Horowitz: "Even if I know I'm going to accept something, I'm going to call the writer and pretend I'm indecisive to see how they''re going to work with me."

Eli Horowitz: "[Authors] do like being edited, but they don't like being caught in the machine. Editor should constantly be deflating their author's expectations."

Then the conversation turned to discussing the role of time in publishing.

Jack Shoemaker: "The publishing house is working too fast these days, publishing too many books."

Jack Shoemaker: "Books are getting fatter, and that's because editors don't have enough time to edit." 

Reminds me of the quote from Mark Twain: "I would have written you a shorter letter, but I didn't have the time." It always takes more time to write shorter things, and we often don't take that time.

Jack Shoemaker got interviewed by Narrative Magazine, and he complained they didn't edit it. He was expecting a draft, and instead they just published the whole thing verbatim, taking up lots of space on the internet. "Things can always be made better by shortening them."

On Technology:

Sara Nelson: "Nobody on this panel believes that technology is the end of publishing. But it is changing the way we publish."

Eli Horowitz, on why they haven't done e-books: They try to make an object that people want to own. "We don't want to make an uglier, more disposable version of [the book]."

Sarah Crichton: "In five years, 50% percent of our sales will be through Kindle, Nook." 

Jack Shoemaker disagreed: "Actually Random House thinks 20% will be electronic in 5 years."

Jack Shoemaker: "We used to think 28 minute attention spans would mean people would read more short stories. Now people can barely read jacket copy or captions for a photograph. The electronic book is like an item in the Sky Catalog, like the dog bed warmer. The relationship of a Kindle to good reading is like the relationship between an inflatable sex doll and good sex." He added, "But if I was buying graphic novels or comics right now, I would be enormously excited about the iPad."

Audience Question — How do I get a book published?

Eli Horowitz: "You have to send the manuscript to us." (laughter)

Sarah Chichton: "I've never signed someone who didn't have an agent or who wasn't referred by one of our existing authors or who I didn't know personally."

Jack Shoemaker on the odds for getting a book published: "We received 14,000 submissions, and we published 2 over-the-transom books."

Eli Horowitz: "For us it's about half — half agented, half un-agented."

Audience Question — How necessary is it to have a platform?

Sarah Crichton: "90% of people in New York say you need a platform. But I think the best platform is a great book."

Jack Shoemaker: "I like platforms better than 'brands.' Brands just makes me think of cows."

Eli Horowitz: "I would say that it's the most important thing."

Sara Nelson: "But there's no such thing as a platform in fiction. It's mostly for nonfiction."

Audience Question — How much do you pay attention to the cinematic marketplace?

Jack Shoemaker: "Whenever we publish a book we get about 12 queries from people optioning for the movies."

Sarah Crichton: "It only works for certain genres. YA works very well, like Gossip Girl."

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