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Elisabeth Schmitz: Editing Under The Radar

February 18, 2014

The vice president and editorial director of Grove Atlantic on the art of literary editing, why publishers shouldn’t turn their backs on risk-taking writing, and how the first novel she ever bought went on to transform her career.

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Photo by Jessica Monahan

In 1995, Elisabeth Schmitz’s publishing career was still in its infancy. She was working in subsidiary rights at Grove Atlantic, and shadowing a couple of fiction editors as a way to gain experience in that side of the business. Then, just before Christmas, a young agent she knew—Leigh Feldman—sent her a partial manuscript penned by a new author she’d taken on. No-one in the publishing industry is particularly fond of receiving partial novels—there are enough uncertainties to the business as it is—but Schmitz started reading the book that night. It turned out it was pretty good. Really good, in fact; page by page she was falling in love. She started to think about which of the editors at Grove Atlantic she should share it with, but Feldman had a different idea. “I don’t want another editor,” she told Schmitz. “I want you to do it. That’s why I sent it to you.”

The book was Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, and besides launching Elisabeth Schmitz’s career in spectacular fashion, it won the National Book Award, was made into a blockbuster movie by Anthony Minghella, and at last count has sold over 3 million copies in the U.S. alone. It is one of the most successful literary debuts of all time, and gave a significant financial boost to an independent publishing house that, as Schmitz explains to me in the interview which follows, has always needed to take risks in order to survive. “It’s built into who we are,” she says. “Most of the time, we can’t afford to go to auction against all the big houses and pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for the sure things… I’ve grown up in the publishing industry looking for books which are somehow very often under the radar.”

In the history of Atlantic Monthly Press and Grove Press, which merged to form Grove / Atlantic, Inc in 1993 and has subsequently lost its forward slash, risky books do indeed abound. Under the direction of Barney Rossett, Jr., Grove Press gave voice to many of the Beats—Burroughs, Kerouac and Ginsberg included—and became the preeminent publisher of twentieth-century dramatists such as Samuel Beckett, David Mamet, and Harold Pinter. It has also offered an English language home to numerous authors in translation, including several eventual Nobel Prize winners. Along the way, Rossett’s victories for free expression in the courtroom—he breached obscenity laws by publishing the work of D.H. Lawrence and Henry Miller—changed the cultural landscape in America forever.

Grove Atlantic is now presided over by the charismatic Morgan Entrekin, and it’s clear that Schmitz, working with him and a team of up-and-coming editors, continues to get a thrill out of discovering new, unusual, and sometimes subversive literary talent. Bucking the industry’s cautious streak, she’s the editor who has introduced us, in the last year, to debut authors like Jamie Quatro. She’s also the editor set to bring the radically funny Irish writer Colin Barrett to a U.S. audience.

In Grove Atlantic’s shiny new Manhattan offices I talked to Schmitz, who exudes an aura of calm intelligence and casual precision, about the high and low points of her career, publishing literary fiction in the age of Amazon, and why “the most important thing for a young writer right now is often the most overlooked.”

Jonathan Lee for Guernica

Guernica: How did you start out in the publishing industry, and find your way to Grove?

Elisabeth Schmitz: My first job in New York was working at Warner Brothers, in their story department. I was looking for manuscripts and books they could make into movies. But all the real work was done in Hollywood; I was part of a team that was finding and filtering material, and sending it out of New York. That was sometimes a frustrating experience—you got interested in something, and then had to hand it over to the LA office to go the next step. The one book I read while at Warner Brothers that got made into a movie was Tobias Wolff’s wonderful memoir This Boy’s Life. That ended up being published by Atlantic Monthly Press.

While I was book scouting for Warner Brothers I learned about foreign publisher scouting, and I thought that was fascinating. The idea that there were these book scouts covering the New York publishing beat on behalf of publishers from all over the world. I grew up in the foreign service and something about that international aspect appealed to me. So I went to work for Maria B. Campbell Associates as a scout, reading voraciously any manuscript I could get my hands on and recommending foreign publishers what they should buy and translate. One of the early manuscripts I fell in love with in that job was Jeanette Winterson’s Written On The Body. Another was Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides.

The international scouting job led me to a job at Grove Atlantic as Rights Director, and eventually, to editorial.

Guernica: The first book you bought as an editor was Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, an enormous critical and commercial success. Do you remember how that came about?

Elisabeth Schmitz: Well, yes. Our publisher, Morgan Entrekin, has a saying: anyone here can buy a book, and if it works you can buy another. So even among the junior employees there is and always has been this understanding that if someone on staff finds a manuscript they love, they can buy it. But you want to make sure you pick the right one, because if it doesn’t work out it’s going to be difficult to acquire a second. When I started at Grove, I was already receiving submissions from agents I’d met whilst in the scouting world, and, if I liked them, was passing these manuscripts on to Grove editors who I thought could be a good fit. And if these editors bought the books, I would watch and try to learn, “shadow edit” in a way, in the run-up to publication. I wanted learn how to be a good editor. I was happy doing that.

After a couple of years at Grove, I received a submission from a young agent—a partial manuscript. It’s never ideal to receive a partial–you’d always prefer to have the whole thing—but I fell in love with this one and rang up the agent and said, “This is great, let’s discuss which editor here at Grove would be the best for this book.” And she said, “I don’t want another editor. I want you to do it. That’s why I sent it to you.” And that was Cold Mountain. Ridiculous, unbelievable luck.

Guernica: Did you feel Cold Mountain was a risky proposition at that time?

Elisabeth Schmitz: There were big risks in buying that book. It was the first book I was the principal editor for, it wasn’t finished, and Grove paid more for it than we’d ever paid for a novel before—$100,000 for world rights. So for a couple of months, it was a little nerve-wracking, yes.

Within the first couple of months, though, I started to feel less stressed. We sold the translation rights to Cold Mountain fairly quickly in England, France, and Holland, and began to make back the money we’d spent on acquiring the book. In fact, we’d broken long before U.S. publication, which allowed us to relax a bit on the financial front and work hard and focus on making the book a success in the U.S.

That year, 1997, I worked on editing just one book: Cold Mountain. It was an amazing experience to devote myself to just one book in that way, and of course slowly after that I began to take on other books and edit them. I’ll never have that experience of working only on one book again.

At all stages of my career as an editor, my early subsidiary rights experience has been so useful. Often young people coming out of college who want to get into publishing are focused on getting a job in editorial, to the exclusion of everything else. But lots of today’s successful editors started in subsidiary rights, publicity, marketing, and even art departments. The skills you learn in any of those jobs can be vital. You learn to look at a book from all angles, including how it might be marketed and sold.

Guernica: People in the publishing industry are traditionally said to move around a lot. Why have you stayed at Grove so long, since that early break?

Elisabeth Schmitz: Good question! I guess there’s been mobility for me in the job, and that’s been important. Moving from rights to editorial to a managerial role has kept me on my toes. More than that, I’ve grown up at Grove, in a medium-sized independent publishing house. There aren’t many publishing houses like us out here any more. I like the culture here, and I like working with Morgan [Entrekin] and our loyal team. I like that we take risks in the books we publish.

Guernica: Tell me a bit about that. Is it easier to take on risky books— subject-matter, style—as a medium-sized indy publisher? Are there constraints you don’t have that you think the bigger conglomerates are bound by?

Elisabeth Schmitz: Well, at an independent publisher like Grove we simply have to take risks. It’s built into who we are. Most of the time, we can’t afford to go to auction against all the big houses and pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for the sure things. Sometimes we can, but not all the time. So I’ve grown up in the publishing industry looking for books which are somehow very often under the radar.

Being a little smaller, and independent, has its advantages. You’re forced to think creatively about books and you have the freedom to take risks on books that are a little odd or controversial, or not obvious bestsellers.

Guernica: What might an under-the-radar book look like?

Elisabeth Schmitz: Sometimes a debut has huge promise but needs some work, and you see that and are able to buy the manuscript with an eye for its potential, and work on it with the author over many months. Sometimes an author is mid-career at another publishing house and things aren’t going as well as they might do, and they’re under the radar in that sense. We can re-launch them, try something different to get them moving again.

We picked up Tom Drury mid-career and it was so gratifying to see his new novel, Pacific, longlisted for the 2013 National Book Award. And I’m publishing Rabih Alameddine’s new novel An Unnecessary Woman very soon. Nicole Aragi submitted it and I was thrilled; for whatever reason, Rabih’s previous publisher, Knopf, had passed on it. I love the book and I hope we publish Rabih forever more. Sometimes authors need a fresh start, that’s just the nature of the business. I think Nicole thought hard about who would be the best house for Rabih going forward, and we were delighted to have him.

Naturally there are times when you wish that you were one of the huge publishers who could afford to pay a massive sum for a book, or had the muscle that some of the huge publishers have with the booksellers. But being a little smaller, and independent, has its advantages. You’re forced to think creatively about books and you have the freedom to take risks on books that are a little odd or controversial, or not obvious bestsellers. We rarely do formal P&Ls and there’s no board approval to get. It’s usually just a conversation between a couple of us: do we love this? If the answer’s yes, we try and make it work.

I think, contrary to some of the gloomy predictions for the book world, it’s a good time to be a medium-sized independent publisher like us. Some of the corporate publishers are forced to be commercial and sometimes ruthless about things, and they lose some great books and authors because of it. These are authors who we can then pick up and present to audiences in a different way. There’s a real place for places like us and Norton, McSweeney’s, Milkweed, and Graywolf now. There are readers who want to buy these books.

Guernica: Can you give me an example of a novel that wasn’t an obvious bestseller—one that other editors weren’t clambering to buy—that you’ve nonetheless done well with?

Elisabeth Schmitz: Right. Let me turn around and look at my shelves! Well …You’ll see over there Wash by Margaret Wrinkle. That novel just won the Center for Fiction’s Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize and I believe I was the only bidder on that book. I was surprised at that. I don’t know for sure, but I suspect the fact that the author was white, and was writing from the point of view of a black slave–and writing at times in an unflinching way about the relationship between the slave and the slave-owner—that all that was a little unnerving to some publishers.

Over the years, Morgan has published a number of books here that no-one else wanted to publish but which are important books that have gone on to great things. Books like Black Hawk Down, which, as you probably know, became a bestseller, National Book Award finalist and a film. And Charlie Wilson’s War, which was dropped by its original publisher. Matterhorn is a good recent example. That’s a manuscript the author couldn’t even find an agent for which was eventually picked up by a small publisher, El Leon Literary Arts. Then Sessalee Hensley (lead fiction buyer at Barnes & Noble) read it and got excited, and had the thought that the book was so good that it deserved a wider audience than this small publisher would be able to get it out to. So Sessalee sent it to Morgan, and we ended up publishing the book in collaboration with El Leon, after spending a whole year editing it.

Also: short stories. There are plenty of publishing houses out there right now that really don’t want to publish short stories, because it’s traditionally tougher to find a market for them. So I’ve been lucky to publish some great and unusual collections, for instance Josh Weil’s The New Valley and Jamie Quatro’s I Want To Show You More. For that collection I believe I was one of two bidders. And we’ve just bought two other debut collections of stories: one by the young Irish writer Colin Barrett, a tremendous discovery who is making waves in the UK and Ireland, and another by Lauren Acampora. I look for language in a book and both of these collections are packed full of wonderful sentences. Colin’s in particular is so inventive with language, which is one of the things about his work that grabbed us immediately. Sometimes an agent rings me and starts pitching the plot of a novel to me. I’m not interested. I just want to read a few sentences, and then I’ll know if it’s worth reading on.

We also publish quite a lot of literature in translation here, which many publishers get nervous about.

Guernica: What are the difficulties of publishing books in translation? The so-called “three per cent” issue—the fact that only around three per cent of all books published in the United States are works in translation—crops up again and again, without an apparent solution.

Elisabeth Schmitz: It’s hard. This is a tough time, economically, for publishers. There’s a perception that the public are more reluctant to read works in translation and another problem is that many editors—me included—unfortunately don’t read well enough in another language, and therefore it’s difficult to assess with sufficient clarity whether a book in another language is great. You’re relying on freelance readers, or friends abroad, which immediately puts you at a distance from the manuscript.

Finding those voices from other countries is undoubtedly important. We continue to publish, between Black Cat and Grove, more work in translation than most publishing houses in America. And we continue to publish many books that Barney Rosset might have championed—controversial, often erotic works in translation that deserve to be read: the German writer Charlotte Roche’s debut novel, Wetlands, or Catherine Millet’s The Sexual Life Of Catherine M. Pascale Mercier’s Night Train To Lisbon did very well for us. Saša Stanišić’s How The Soldier Repairs The Gramophone did well too. These books suggest that there are readers out there in America for translated fiction.

Everyone would like to see the three per cent figure go up. But the statistic can also be a little misleading in that it doesn’t capture all the voices from other countries who are writing in English and being published in the United States. At Grove we publish many writers from Africa, Australia, Ireland, England, Canada, New Zealand, you name it, where English is their first language. They’re not being translated but they’re most certainly voices from outside the US. Non-American writers probably make up fifty per cent of our list.

Guernica: What are some of the disappointments you’ve encountered as a publisher?

Elisabeth Schmitz: There are always occasions when you publish a book you absolutely love and it doesn’t quite work to your expectations. That’s an inevitable part of publishing, especially publishing fiction. Sometimes you worry that the title wasn’t right, or that the time of year in which you published it wasn’t right, or that the cover wasn’t right. Sometimes a book will get terrific reviews, amazing coverage, and simply not sell. Sometimes the reviews come all at once and you’re onto a winner. At other times the good reviews are dispersed—one in one week and another two weeks later—and it’s difficult to get momentum behind a book. There is luck involved. But many of the good books that don’t immediately find an audience have an afterlife. Something happens—a film or an award or an important article–years after publication.

One of my biggest disappointments came after the thrill of publishing Cold Mountain. After seeing how extraordinary the reception was to that book, it was clear that the next book Charles Frazier wrote had the potential to be sold for a huge, huge amount of money. We couldn’t afford to pay the sum that it ended up being sold for. We bid very high, but we lost Charles to another publisher. Sometimes, because of our size, we have to let authors go. Paying a huge advance, for a publisher of our size, is a big risk to the business.

Guernica: How do you deal with that—a star author jumping ship?

Elisabeth Schmitz: It’s heartbreaking. But it’s also business. It’s tough to make a living as an author, and publishers have to respect that. Even a hundred thousand dollar advance doesn’t go far if you spend 10 years on a project, and deduct taxes and agent fees and lawyer’s fees. It’s not a question of greed.

And sometimes authors leave us and then come back. That’s nice. The grass isn’t always greener…

Guernica: Who has left Grove and then come back?

Elisabeth Schmitz: Will Self is an example.

Guernica: You published his most recent novel, Umbrella?

Elisabeth Schmitz: We did. We published his early books and then he left and was published by Bloomsbury for a while, and then he came back to us. Then there’s Jeanette Winterson. She left Grove Atlantic for a while and has now come back. Sherman Alexie is someone we published from the start of his career, but then he wrote a Young Adult book which became a huge bestseller and he was offered a “pornographic deal”, he said, by Little, Brown for his next adult book too. We understood why he had to leave, but the truth is he’s given us three more books since he sold one to Little, Brown, so it’s all worked out for the benefit of everyone.

Guernica: How have things changed in the publishing industry since you started your career?

Elisabeth Schmitz: Everything’s changed! When I started out, back in the Cold Mountain era, agents weren’t using email. They were messengering manuscripts to me. As a result, agents submitted to fewer editors at a time. Now they can press a button and submit to 27 people in one minute–and why wouldn’t they? Some editors will then read a manuscript on an e-reader and offer on it within a few hours, and you’re suddenly caught up in an auction for a book you haven’t had a chance to finish reading. That’s a development from the last few years.

The biggest change for us has probably been the shrinking of independent bookstores. Independent bookstores have always been vital to independent publishers like us—they are often the places where unusual or new literary books are championed. We don’t always publish the kinds of obvious bestsellers that Barnes & Noble will want to take 10,000 copies of, so we need these creative, risk-taking bookstores too. I do feel like there’s a resurgence of independent bookstores in some cities in America, New York included, and that’s good. But the number of independent bookstores across the country has definitely shrunk by half.

Guernica: How big a problem is Amazon for a publisher like Grove?

Elisabeth Schmitz: Well, in one sense they’re not a problem, because they’re selling our books. Lots of them, sometimes, in both print and electronic copies. We’re grateful for those sales. As physical booksellers go out of business or shrink their shelf space, they don’t often have room for an author’s backlist, for example. Amazon and other online booksellers provide a vital place where people can find those books and order them. It’s easier for us to keep all our books in print electronically. But the growth of that Amazon market provides difficulties too–prices are pushed down and the bookstores struggle to compete.

It’s also sad to see the extent to which book review space has shrunk in print publications over the years. We used to publish a literary novel, collect copies of all the reviews, and have 20 pages in our hands. Now it’s often just a few. That’s a huge change, and a damaging one a place like Grove which counts on traditional reviews. The only comfort is the way that online publications are starting to fill a bit of that space.

Guernica: In terms of who you receive submissions from, there must be some agents whose names pop up in your inbox and you think: “OK, I’ve got to cancel my dinner plans. I need to read this manuscript immediately.”

Elisabeth Schmitz: When I hear from one of the rock star agents, it’s exciting. You know who they all are. We hear from them a lot but sometimes the excitement is tinged with the thought “Am I going to be able to afford to buy this? Just how crazy is the auction going to be?”

The truth is that nowadays no publisher, or at least no independent publisher, can afford to be dismissive of any agent. There are junior agents you’ve never heard of before who sometimes send you the most amazing things. Be slow at opening the attachment and you could miss the next big thing. I would have missed Man Gone Done if I’d adopted a “I only deal with the big agents” policy, because at that time I didn’t know Eileen Cope–she was coming up. A new agent is exciting, too. It can be the start of a great relationship.

Guernica: I know it’s tough to narrow literature down like this, but I’ll ask anyway: what kinds of books do you love to publish, above all else?

Elisabeth Schmitz: I love fiction and memoir and I love books that blur the line between the two. I’ve been exploring that blurred line for my whole career. Actually, I wrote my thesis at college on the difference between first person fiction and memoir, to the extent there is a difference. Francisco Goldman’s Say Her Name is a book I loved and edited here that exists on that line between memoir and fiction. Frank had finally met the love of his life, married her, and she died in an accident on their long-postponed honeymoon in Mexico.

He wrote his book as a novel, but it uses his name and her name and it’s clearly autobiographical. In some countries in Europe, they’ll publish a book like this without specifying if it’s fiction or non-fiction–a book can be its own genre. But in America the media and book-buyers want everything categorized. I understand the reasoning, but the categories often don’t mean much. We published Frank’s book as a novel, but when I sent it to Deborah Treisman at The New Yorker, she called to inquire if the excerpt she had chosen was in fact non-fiction. I said yes, and so they published it as “personal narrative.” I find these types of sui generis, genre-crossing books really fascinating.

Guernica: What’s your advice to authors who might be working on their first book right now, and hoping to find a publisher for it?

Elisabeth Schmitz: The most important thing for a young writer right now is often the most overlooked thing: finish the manuscript. Make it the very best piece of writing it can be. There’s nothing more exciting for an editor that finding a finished, interesting, carefully-produced manuscript by a new author. I mean the book must be “finished” in the sense of being polished, with the language carefully attended to, but also simply complete—I receive so many partial manuscripts, with an outline for the rest of the book. Despite the fact I bought Cold Mountain on a partial, it’s always always better to send through a whole manuscript if you can. A publisher wants to limit their risks, and how are they supposed to know when you can finish your novel, or if you can finish your novel?

Your first submission to a publisher is critical, so you need to work on it. I receive lots of very polished work from agents. But I also still get sent work that’s littered with typos, and work with clichés on the first page, and all that suggests that the author hasn’t held up his or her end of the bargain, which is to take the book as far as he or she possibly can before sending it out for consideration by publishers.

A lot of people who want to be authors worry from the moment they start writing about the publishing process, and how to find an agent, and I understand all of that. But the first thing to worry about is your work. Once you have a book you’re proud of—that you’ve taken as far as you can—you can look at the “acknowledgements” section of books you love and find out which agents represent those authors. Then you can go onto the agent’s website and find out how they like to receive submissions. The first thing is to finish your book, and to make each sentence sing. I still believe that if you can do that, your book will find its way.

Jonathan Lee is a British writer. His novels Who Is Mr Satoshi? (2010) & Joy (2012) are published by Random House and have been translated into a dozen languages. He’s the recipient of a Society of Authors Award in the UK, has been nominated for various other prizes and awards & is a former Literature Adviser to the British Council in London. He now lives in Brooklyn.

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One comment for Elisabeth Schmitz: Editing Under The Radar

  1. Comment by Steven levy on February 21, 2014 at 11:41 am

    Very good observations, good advice and interesting thoughts. The book will always be here as will the reader. The challenge is to keep finding good content for the multiple platforms and celebrate the transmission of knowledge rather than lamenting the loss of some components (ie indies who will definitely survive as specialists) or moaning about Anazon and Costco. well done.

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