A conversation with authors Piper Kerman, Jessica Queller, and Ta-Nehisi Coates

March 1, 2008

1. The three of you are memoirists whose books will be published by Spiegel & Grau. When did it occur to you that your life experiences would make an interesting, worthy book? Was there a signal moment when you realized you had a story to tell?

Piper Kerman: Well, it might have been the moment when my fiancé turned to me in the prison waiting room, where he had escorted me to begin serving my fifteen-month sentence, and said, “Well, I bet you’re the first Seven Sisters graduate to eat a foie gras sandwich washed down with Coca-Cola for your last meal as a free woman.”

In fact, when I learned that I would serve prison time for a drug offense committed many years in the past, I became an immediate oddity among my friends and family. I suddenly became a person who would experience something almost unimaginable in their world, like going to the moon. Yet I quickly learned just how much prison is a part of American life—we lock up more of our people than any other country in the world, with deeply questionable results.

So while guilt and innocence and personal responsibility and forgiveness play a part in everyone’s life, imprisonment is only typical for “certain people,” and that I was one of them was astonishing to all. The people I met in prison were so different from what popular culture and the media depict, and my story is about reconciling these disconnects—between the person I am and the prisoner I became, and between the system of justice Americans want, need, and deserve, and the one we currently have.

Jessica Queller: I wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times about being a single woman grappling with the information that I had inherited the breast cancer gene from my mother. The response to the article was overwhelming, and the piece sparked passionate debate. In the article I posed the age-old question: Is knowledge power or is ignorance bliss? By choosing to seek my genetic information I took the stand that knowledge was power, whereas my sister chose not to take the gene test and be free of the burden of such knowledge. It seemed everyone who read the article took this dilemma personally—they imagined themselves in the situation—and each person fell vehemently into one camp or the other. It became apparent that this was a modern, ethical dilemma that had touched a collective nerve. The week after the article came out I realized the subject was worthy of a book.

Ta-Nehisi Coates: Hmmm, only after I got my contract. Of course, I wasn’t originally at S&G. Back when I was at Crown, the book was supposed to focus on my father’s life, using my life only as commentary. But my father—and my editor, Chris Jackson—felt that the writing was a lot stronger when I was closely connected to the story. Once it became clear that it was smarter to focus on my time, I tried to give the story a definite beginning, middle, and end. Originally, this thing was going to span from my father’s time right up to the present--roughly sixty years. That would have been a mess. Once it occurred to me to tell a singular coming-of-age story with my father and my older brother as central characters, everything became easier. So yeah, it took some time for me to get focused and clear.

2. Ta-Nehisi, you’re a journalist. Jessica, you are a TV writer. Piper, you’ve been involved in corporate and public-interest communications. What kind of adjustments did you have to make to write in the first person and about an intimate, personal subject?

PK: When I first began writing I found that I was very good at describing what I saw, and what happened, in vivid detail. Yet I struggled to express how I was affected by what I witnessed and what I did. It took an enormous amount of work to reorient my writing from reporting on what took place to trying to make it possible for the reader to know “what it feels like to be me.”

JQ: Writing a book was an enormous adjustment for me. TV writing has trained me to work on deadline—I’m used to writing around the clock for five or six days in order to produce a sixty-page script. I only gave myself six months off from TV commitments to complete a draft of the memoir. I found myself cramming like I usually do—except this time it was not a sprint, it was a marathon. There were months in which I thought I would never possibly make it to the end. Also, writing about my mother’s illness and death was so emotionally draining—I wept while writing for weeks. I’d certainly never had that experience while writing for Felicity or The Gilmore Girls!

TC: I didn’t come to journalism in the usual way. When I was fourteen or fifteen, my Dad gave me a copy of Greg Tate’s Flyboy in the Buttermilk. I didn’t know what the hell Greg was talking about—but on some visceral level I knew the book was ambitious and beautiful. A few years later, when I was around twenty two, I started my career at Washington City Paper, under the ambitious eye of David Carr. In those days, and even today, City Paper was much more interested in a mix of literary nonfiction and investigative reportage than most papers. The ideal writer there had to be bold and tenacious in his/her reporting, and equally bold and adventurous in his/her writing. We used to have whole sessions in which Carr would import writers from other alternative papers or magazines to critique our work. Also, he’d clip stuff from Esquire, GQ, and Vanity Fair and make us read it. Half the time the stories were told in such a weird way that I had no idea what the hell I was looking at. This was in the last days of really great literary magazine writing—like the mid to late nineties. The approach was very novelistic, but at the same time there was a strong stigma attached to any sort of inaccuracy. We didn’t have people there cooking shit.

That approach informed everything I did after that. I was—and am—always looking for a way to tell a story that is unique to that particular story, because I believe every story is different and deserving of that respect. I usually fail in my attempts, but I think the intent, the desire to say something original, is important, and it certainly informed the style of this memoir. I spent a good three months searching for the voice of the book. In fact, if anyone wants a good laugh they should see the “sample chapter” I used for my proposal and compare it with the voice I ultimately found.

3. What are your thoughts about publication—the moment your story goes out into the world, into the public domain, to be read by (we hope!) the masses? It must be strange to anticipate reviewers responding critically to your life story. Do you look forward to it, or is the excitement also accompanied by some anxiety?

PK: I am terrified, and hopeful. I broke the law and committed a serious crime, and I know that I will be reproached for this, and for having the nerve to open my mouth about the nature of the “corrections” meted out by our government. Some people will question whether I can be trusted. Many may feel that the shame of imprisonment should keep me silent. It is hard to put myself out there.

It would be disingenuous to say I don’t care what people think of me. I am writing on some controversial and emotional topics within the framework of prison: transgression, guilt, revenge, redemption, forgiveness, justice, race, and class. So I expect to take some hard knocks on a number of fronts.

But I am very hopeful that I can tell an engrossing and yes, entertaining story that will reveal something new and truthful about who is in prison and why they are there. My hope for the book is that it helps spur a more honest and productive public debate about the role of prisons in America. And I feel very lucky to have the chance to tell my own personal story.

JQ: I cannot imagine what it will be like once the book is actually in bookstores and being read by the public. Already I’ve had the surreal experience of talking to a stranger who had read the galleys and having her say, “How’s Danielle?” (my sister). And, “How’s Bruce?” (my brother-in-law). “What a great guy!” In the same conversation, I mentioned that I’d been staying in an apartment on 57th Street, and the woman said, “Your grandmother Harriette’s apartment?” (Indeed it was.) Later, I referred to having been an actress when I was young and she said, “Yes, I know . . .” It’s eerie to meet someone who knows intimate details of your life and has read your most personal, interior monologues and yet knows nothing about them. I’m a bit anxious about how this will feel on a large scale!

TC: Good Lord, I can’t wait. I am obsessed with the whole thing. It ain’t pretty. But I feel like much of my life has really led up to this. This all started when I was around twelve, fell in love with Rakim, and decided I wanted to be an MC Then I fell in love with djembe and wanted to be a drummer. Then I fell for Larry Neal and Carolyn Forché and wanted to be a poet. Through it all I desperately wanted to tell the story of my generation. That sounds pretentious, but it’s what I wanted. Stylistically, I sought to bring all my past disciplines to bear on this project. I wanted to try to echo the detail and the lovely word economy of, say, vintage Nas. I wanted the random, beautiful chaos of a djembe solo. And I wanted to emulate the surreal imagery of Yusef Komunyakaa. I don’t know how close I came to any of that. And if I completely and utterly failed, it’s OK. But I really, really enjoyed trying to get it done.

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A conversation with Director of Marketing, Meghan Walker, Executive Director of Marketing, Suzanne Herz, and Marketing Associate, Kelsey Nencheck

February 1, 2008

1. “Marketing” is a term that covers a very broad spectrum of activities in your work at Spiegel & Grau. For people not familiar with what marketing departments at book publishing companies do, can you describe your role in the publication process?

Meghan Walker: To me, marketing is a two-pronged process: one internally focused and one external. First, we play an integral role in shaping the message of a book in-house. On the most basic and obvious level, we head up the creation of sales tools like title information sheets, catalog copy, and sell sheets that help with the process of selling books to accounts. We try to ensure that all the key players working on a title are clear on our approach and that our reps know exactly what they are selling and have what they need to do it. When all goes well, marketing can be the grease that keeps all the moving parts in smooth operation, making sure essential information from editorial is communicated to sales, that advertising and promotion are timed well with publicity, and that we are able to respond when a book starts to take off or provide extra ammunition when the opposite occurs. The second prong is focused on the sell-through and communicating our message to the outside world. Closer to publication we raise consumer awareness through print materials such as postcards, bookmarks, posters, and displays that are mailed directly to consumers and/or distributed or displayed by bookstores. We create promotions and contests that can run online as well as on radio and TV. Increasingly we are focusing efforts on the online world: video trailers, e-cards and e-newsletters, blog advertising, and helping authors to create a presence for themselves on blogs and social networking sites. At Spiegel & Grau we are also aiming to use our website to build an online community by posting new and original content from our authors each month.

Suzanne Herz: Marketing is a multi-layered process. Once a book is bought it is critical to begin the buzz. This is done by reaching out to booksellers and harnessing their enthusiasm. Additional excitement is created when editors garner early advance praise for a book and then the marketing team begins to share it with our retailers. One of our greatest marketing tools is the jacket. It is what the consumer responds to, and each jacket has to bring home the message of the book. With jacket and endorsements in hand, and of course advanced readers’ copies, we can seed the marketplace and build word of mouth through the Web, bookstore newsletters, and targeted mailings to niche markets.

Kelsey Nencheck: Marketing can also play a key role in reaching unique consumer markets. Brainstorming and identifying niche communities of any size can add yet another layer of buzz with a very targeted—and influential—audience. If such a loyal audience supports a book, its popularity can have a viral effect and translate into a wider audience. The increasing importance of online marketing also makes it imperative for marketing departments to be on constant watch for new technologies and marketing tools. Finding those tools and educating editorial, sales, and publicity on their effectiveness not only helps promote our books but also keep publishing ahead of the technology game.

2. Marketing departments are always trying to look for new ways to find audiences for their company’s books. What techniques have had exciting results in the first few months seasons of publishing Spiegel & Grau titles?

MW: The motivation is always the same: to reach as many people who you think will be interested in a particular title as you can. How you go about that depends on the type of book you are working on. For Spiegel & Grau’s first title, Suze Orman's Women & Money, we were blessed with a well-known author with an established platform, an endless list of contacts and connections, and a clear and targeted message. Suze is a tireless promoter who really believes in the message of her book. Working with Suze is akin to what I imagine working on a political campaign would be like. Our message was refined from very early on. And then we took it to the people. We hit up every single person, website, corporation—you name it—who had ever worked with Suze and enlisted their support. With that book it was more a matter of keeping up with the response than it was coming up with new and creative angles. Our second title, the historical thriller Ghostwalk, was all about getting people to read it early on. The amazing read coupled with the great package helped us garner a lot of early enthusiasm. Once we had the support from our accounts and blurbs from other writers, we were able to make a concerted effort to reach book clubs through direct mail and online outreach. We also had a lot of very interesting ancillary materials that enabled us to build a beautiful Web site. With Ellington Boulevard, we were lucky to have a novel that had a few great hooks: real estate, Manhattan, and musical theatre. So we crafted pitches and materials to reach each audience. With Lee Siegel's polemic on the Internet, Against the Machine, we are using the serious and thoughtful review coverage to spark an interest in the business and technology/Web 2.0 realms as well as stoke the flames our controversial author will undoubtedly set in the blogoshpere.

3. If money were no object, are there marketing strategies other industries use that you wish you could apply to Spiegel & Grau titles?

MW: If money were no object I would do a lot more online outreach, including prominent and repetitive banner ads on highly trafficked Web sites. I would also love to create video trailers for more titles, because many of our authors have interesting back stories and have traveled far and wide in order to craft their narratives. Video interviews with them and slideshows of their photographs and personal effects can really help to bring their stories to life for a reader. Of course, loads of television and radio advertising would also be quite nice, but they are a luxury reserved for only the biggest of the big titles.

SH: If money were no object I would start teaser campaigns for books months ahead of time.

KN: I would love to have the budget and audience reach of major film campaigns. From compelling theatrical teaser campaigns, polished and high-end TV trailers, billboards, and extensive online advertising, studios have the resources to make a big splash—immediately. Studios seem to use the Internet to its fullest potential from advertising to original online content (behind-the-scene specials, syndicated actor/director interviews, etc.) that can overtake the blogosphere and drive consumers to theatres. With that said, however, the publishing world is quite special in that a title’s popularity and bestseller potential can grow organically and exponentially via word-of-mouth and incredible reviews, whereas a film without a marketing budget rarely becomes a box office hit.

4. Do you foresee any changes in marketing as the digital age progresses?

MW: Oh my God, yes! To paraphrase Chevy Chase’s ball-bearings line in Fletch: It’s all online these days. The amount of time people spend online is increasing rapidly. So we need to reach our potential customers where they are. Creating book-specific Web sites seems to be a waste of money, as it is tough to build traffic. A better approach is to figure out ways to reach preexisting communities and we are always looking for ways to do this. Dwindling review space in traditional print media has led to the creation of many online communities for book lovers and we need to continue to look for ways to work with these sites to market our books. On a more basic level, it’s also worth noting that the digital age has made traditional marketing much easier. Researching special interest groups and creating mailing lists and can now be done with the click of the mouse.

KN: The next generation to enter the workforce has grown up in the digital age—they regularly use text messages, RSS, and blogs. It will be interesting to see if their buying behavior changes the industry in the next few years and how we’ll adapt in the publishing world. Will e-readers take off and be the hot item for 2011? Will print advertising become less effective while people in their twenties and thirties spend more time on the Internet and watching television than reading a newspaper? The publishing world must rise to the challenge to stay viable in the digital age.

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A conversation with designers Jean Traina, Michael Windsor, Emily Mahon, and Rex Bonomelli

January 1, 2008

1. How did you get into book jacket design?

Jean Traina: Upon graduating from Parsons, I knew that I was interested in editorial design but leaned toward magazines, eventually landing a staff position with a publisher developing magazine prototypes. I soon realized that magazines, to my annoyance, were unending and repetitive. Book jackets, on the other hand, are a one-shot deal (maybe two with the paperback), each one like a little poster. There is endless possibility, so much freedom within a 6 x 9, two-dimensional space.

Rex Bonomelli: When I was in college, one of my teachers was Michael Ian Kaye, creative director at Little, Brown. He offered me an internship during my senior year and I became dazzled by the ins and outs of book publishing. After I graduated, I worked at design studios where I would occasionally get book jacket projects to work on. From there, I was hired at Random House.

Michael Windsor: I started as an illustrator—my first real artistic aspiration was to draw comic books. But as it turned out, I graduated and moved to the city right when the market crashed. There wasn’t much work out there, so I went back to school for design. I ended up having a knack for it, and enjoyed it a lot more than I expected. It was in my junior year that I decided that book covers were what I enjoyed the most and wanted a career in. The fact that you hold a book in your hands and turn it over and open it up appealed to me in an artistic sense. It’s not just a flat piece of art, it has dimensions. Every turn is a canvas to create something on.

Emily Mahon: I went to the graphic design program at Penn State, and felt inspired by the legacy of Chip Kidd (an alum) to go into book design when I graduated. I feel grateful that I started my career at Picador, which publishes a great list of literary books, and that I was given the opportunity to design covers within my first month there.

2. Can you tell us a little about the book jacket design process from start to finish?

RB: We start the process by having a discussion about the book with the publisher and editor. We talk about comparable titles, target audience, and possible visual ideas. If a manuscript is available, I read it. I take notes on things that would make interesting images. After I read it, I do image research and begin designing.

After I’m happy with the designs we have another meeting where a) a cover is approved or b) everything I was happy with is picked apart and reconfigured into a mess, and I start over.

MW: Presenting the cover comps to the editors and publishers in the jacket meeting is the brutal part of the job. If you don’t have a thick skin and you are unable to listen to someone tell you everything you’ve slaved over for the last three weeks is all wrong, then you will never last as an art director.

EM: With fiction I always read the book first. As I’m reading I usually sketch and take notes of visual ideas or passages in the book, which could inspire a cover. After I finish reading I usually take a week or two to digest the book and decide what is the best approach for designing, whether it be all type, illustration, photography, etc., and begin to come up with concepts that will reach the right audience and deliver the essence of the book. I’d say I usually end up in a much different place than where I start when designing. One idea will trigger another until I reach a point where I know I’ve found a good solution.

3. When you are designing a jacket, how do you strike a balance between the commercial and the aesthetic? Is your first impulse a beautiful design, or are you always thinking about the placement of the book in the bookstore and how it can best draw readers to it?

JT: Positioning of the book is definitely the jumping off point. It would be a waste of time to begin the process any other way but from there, an aesthetic solution is the ultimate goal.

RB: The most important thing for me when I design a jacket is to serve the book. Period. If that means creating the most beautiful cover because it’s the most beautiful book, super. If it means creating a very commercial cover because it’s a very commercial book, fantastic. Everyone involved in publishing has some kind of agenda that needs to be met, but my job is very clear-cut. I have to create a truthful visual interpretation of the book.

MW: The first design I do is always my own vision. Now, that’s not because I’m a design snob! I find that if I don’t get my first impression down on paper, it’s really hard to move forward with any other ideas. In a weird way it’s like letting the floodgates loose. Balancing the commercial and the aesthetic is tricky. Art is subjective. What speaks to one person may be completely overlooked by another. The key in my opinion is to make the jacket stand apart from everything else around it. My theory is that something beautiful or interesting will always be noticed.

Design is really about relating different information together to form a solid unit. I like to use juxtapositions to achieve this. It could be two images that at first don’t make sense but that work together. Strange cropping, textures, a mixture of fonts, color, what have you. They all have to work together in the end. By staying away from the expected and obvious you can pique people’s interest more. Give them something they haven’t seen before and chances are they’ll pick it up. And if they do that, my job is done.

EM: The content of the book, whether literary or more commercial, dictates how the book needs to look. I first try to determine who the audience for the book is, and then figure out what the design calls for. I feel fortunate that I have been able to work on a wide range of books, so I have learned to determine how to make a book look “bigger” or “smaller” depending on the audience it is speaking to.

4. Of all the book jackets out there, which one do you admire most and why?

JT: I can’t resist gorgeous typography and illustrative hand lettering.

RB: I would rather tell you my favorite movie. A tie between West Side Story and Rosemary’s Baby.

MW: Wow, that’s a tough one. I go to the bookstore almost every week just to see the new releases and gauge where things are headed . . . trying to stay ahead of the curve. I do have favorite designers, though, whose work I have long admired. They include but aren’t limited to Rodrigo Corral, Peter Mendelsund, John Gall, Honi Werner, and others. They all have their own voices. I can pick their work out when I see it.

EM: I admire many that Paul Rand designed in the fifties and sixties. A few that stand out are Goodbye, Columbus and H. L. Mencken’s Prejudices. He was able to create covers with simple, strong, graphic iconography, and his solutions always seemed to work.

5. What does it feel like when you see a book you designed on the subway or on a friend’s shelf? Does it feel different when you see it out of the context of your workspace?

JT: I always think it could have been better!

RB: Whenever I’m at someone’s apartment, I can’t resist the urge to see if one of my books is on their shelf. When I see someone on the train reading one of my books, well, it’s like eating a cake made of rainbows.

MW: It’s always nice to see something you’ve worked on in someone’s hand or on a shelf. However, I am very critical when it comes to my own work. All I see is what I think is wrong with the design. This happens way more outside the office... “Oh, if I had just made that title 2 points bigger or that blue 5 percent lighter or put that image on the opposite side” . . . but I think this is because I’m always trying to be better at what I do.

EM: I won’t lie, it’s pretty exciting every time I see a book I designed displayed in the front of a bookstore, or anywhere outside of the publishing house. I’ve watched people in bookstores to see which books they are drawn to pick up, based on a first unbiased attraction to it. I like knowing that I had a part in the whole process of giving a book a personality and an identity outside of its words alone.

6. Tell us about the covers you designed for the Spring 2008 Spiegel & Grau list. How did you come up with these designs?

RB: I designed A Fraction of the Whole for the S&G Spring ’08 list. The covers I have the hardest time designing are usually the books I most enjoy reading. It’s kind of paralyzing to work on something you like so much because you’ve become emotionally invested in it and don’t want to do anything to screw it up. This was the case with A Fraction of the Whole.

For this book my direction was to create a bold design that was fun, clever, young, and original, with “ballsy and ambitious type.” Easy! Because this story is an epic journey I couldn’t just have one image. I decided to draw lots of little icons that were representative of points along the journey. I wanted the end result to be mysterious but compelling. I love it when I read a book and I don’t quite know what the cover means, but when I get to the part in the book that refers to the cover I get the “a-HA!” moment. I hope that’s what people will get.

EM: Ellington Boulevard was a fun read, I knew the cover had to feel very fresh, and it called for an illustration. The characters in the book were all unique, and I loved the way in which they were described by role, and not so much by name (i.e., the tenant and his dog). The illustrator I chose to work on this one, Juliette Borda, has an incredibly imaginative and quirky sensibility and I knew she could give the characters real personalities through small vignettes. I sketched a few ideas about how I felt the overall wraparound jacket should look, and I was thrilled with how the final art turned out.

Against the Machine was about coming up with a smart concept to differentiate the computer age from the world as we knew it before computers. It took a while to come to this solution, but I finally realized it was as simple as showing the disparity between the old and the new.

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A Conversation with Spiegel & Grau’s junior editorial members Kirk Reed, Mya Spalter, and Hana Landes

December 1, 2007

Getting your foot in the door to a job at a publishing company is a competitive, serious business these days, what with all the publishing certification and master’s programs that we are starting to see on candidates' résumés. What about your résumé do you think made a difference when you were applying to work as an editorial assistant at Spiegel & Grau?

Kirk Reed: Before I got into publishing (my first job was at Riverhead, with Julie and Cindy) I thought I wanted to teach, and went to graduate school for a master’s in English. After getting that degree, though, I realized I wanted a career outside of academia and looked for opportunities in the media industry. I do think graduate school was enormously helpful in honing my critical skills and broadening my reading, but it’s certainly not mandatory for someone interested in breaking into publishing.

Mya Spalter: My degree is in creative writing and the bulk of my courses were workshops in which we focused on developing editing skills and revision techniques in a hands-on, collaborative way. Post grad, I started up a workshop series with some of my former classmates to help keep us on track with our writing. That developed into a reading series that resulted in a self-published collection of poetry and short fiction. I think it was that unconventional, homespun publishing experience (we actually bound the books ourselves!) that set me apart from the other candidates.

Hana Landes: Before joining Spiegel & Grau, I interned at Grove/Atlantic, which was an invaluable introduction to the publishing industry and made my job search a lot easier than it would have been otherwise. My academic background also helped. I majored in comparative literature in college and studied French, German, and Hebrew, so when I applied here, I think it was clear that I had a deep interest in literature, was comfortable talking and writing about books critically, and would be capable of reading some of the foreign submissions that come in. But having the right qualifications for a job in publishing is really only half the battle—you also need to ensure that your résumé gets into the right hands, which can be the most difficult part of breaking into this industry. It can often be a matter of luck and fortunate timing, as it was in my case: after a very trying period of being turned down for jobs I had been hoping to get, my résumé was forwarded to Cindy, my current boss, by a friend of hers whose son I was tutoring at the time. Lucky for me, Cindy happened to have an opening a few weeks later.

Spiegel & Grau enjoys the benefits of being a small, hands-on publisher within the larger corporate framework of Random House, Inc. As assistants and associates, have you been able to jump into big projects more quickly than friends who entered the job market (publishing or otherwise) at the same time you did?

KR: Because we’re a relatively small group, we have the luxury of being exposed to the full spectrum of the publishing process—from planning and production to publication and publicity. On the editorial side, we’re also privy to the submission process. We’re able to track the kinds of projects agents are submitting, read a fair share of submissions, and discuss them with our bosses. The exciting part of being on the editorial side of a boutique start-up is that you feel a tremendous sense of possibility for each title. You’re working with the understanding that every book we publish helps define our personality and sensibility as a house. And, with a leaner staff, you’re able to be extremely close to the whole operation.

HL: I definitely agree with Kirk about the benefits of being a part of a small group. Because we’re so few people, there’s always extra work to be done and exciting projects to help out with. It’s been very exciting to be able to take a stab at tasks I didn’t think I’d already be doing at this stage, like doing actual editing. I don’t think, though, that it’s merely Spiegel & Grau’s small size that encourages assistants and associates here to take an active role in the publishing process; it’s more a product of the unique, intensely creative, and collaborative work environment here. There’s a contagious enthusiasm in our offices that makes it easy to voice your opinion or share your own ideas, even as an assistant, without feeling intimidated.

What's a typical day at the office like for you?

KR: When I first started in publishing, I had glorious pipe dreams of spending entire work days reading. The reality is I still spend plenty of hours reading submissions, but that mainly happens at night. The day is spent doing a myriad of things I never knew existed before I got into publishing, which are all a part shepherding a book through to publication. Like most jobs, some of these tasks are stimulating (helping write copy, crafting selling points for a title, discussing the strength and appeal of a submission, interacting with authors) while some are tedious (filling out forms when a manuscript is transmitted to production for binding, placing book orders, routing various trial jackets for approval). But the culmination of all these daily e-mails, phone calls, faxes, mailings, and scribblings (not to mention the night reading!) is the satisfaction of seeing a book you love and have worked hard on in beautiful, tangible, compact form on a bookstore shelf!

MS: I had no idea what to expect when I started here. I had never worked in a corporate environment before. Like Kirk, I imagined I’d spend my days quietly reading in my cubicle like a monk in his cell, but in reality I end up spending an equal amount of time writing—coordinating our efforts with other departments, reporting on what I’ve read, declining submissions, writing copy, keeping in touch with our authors and contributing to Chris’s editorial notes.

HL: As Kirk mentioned, a large portion of our work gets done outside the office, once we’ve already left for the day or have gone home for the weekend. There’s so much to take care of during normal work hours that it’s almost impossible to get a serious chunk of reading done while in the office. But at the end of a long workday, there’s often nothing better than sitting down with a manuscript and immersing yourself in it. After spending so much time multitasking and thinking about the broader life cycle of a book, it’s nice to be able to block out all the distractions and absorb yourself completely in a text.

Has working in publishing changed your perspective on books and writers?

KR: In light of the ubiquitous and ever-expanding digital influence, I was relieved to find publishing to be a refreshingly old school business. Most editors still edit with a pencil and erasers. Copy editors flag queries for authors with Post-it notes. And a majority of the business is still based on personal relationships, all of which make publishing seem pretty genteel compared to other sectors of the media. So to answer the question, I guess I found publishing to be both much more expansive and intimate than I expected. And as for the authors, they keep things interesting. I’ve found that they usually set the tone for the editor/author dynamic—some relationships are incredibly close (I’ve been asked about the particulars of my wedding night by one author!) and others are strictly business (which is just fine too); some authors like LOTS of feedback, others like more focused, limited interaction. It’s a strange, challenging but ultimately wonderful symbiosis.

MS: What’s been most eye-opening for me is being privy to the marketing element of publishing. Prior to working at Spiegel & Grau I hadn’t realized how many people it takes to help a book to reach the widest possible audience. I guess I had previously, naively imagined that books were magically propelled into the hands of their intended readership by the sheer force of artistry. I was surprised to find out how many keen business minds it takes to get worthy titles the attention they deserve. I’ve found the authors, themselves, to be much as I expected: each their own oil and water mixture of gregarious extrovert and recluse. It seems to me that the author’s fundamental paradox is the impossible desire to be both observer and participant in any given scene-- a conflict with which I can certainly identify. They want to be renowned in their field, sought after and, like Greta Garbo, to be left alone.

HL: Like Kirk and Mya, before I started here, I had no sense of how collaborative the entire publishing process is. I’m still surprised by how many people it takes to transform a manuscript into a finished product. It also continues to shock—and excite and inspire—me to see how significantly a book can change from its original form with the help of a good editor. I’ve always been drawn to editing, but I don’t think I’d ever fully realized how important and creative a process it can be until witnessing firsthand how considerably it can transform an already very good manuscript into a cohesive, compelling, and multilayered book.

What advice might you give a recent college or graduate school grad who is trying to break into publishing?

KR: It’s important to get a sense of what each house publishes when trying to get a foot in the door. Does the house publish really commercial material or is it more literary? What kind of nonfiction do they publish? Who are their big authors? In practical terms, there’s a great site called publishers marketplace (www.publishersmarketplace.com) that’s a terrific resource about the publishing industry and keeps a running list of job opportunities. Additionally, there are some great publishing courses that seem to do a good job of teaching the basics of the business and help place graduates in entry-level positions. Finally, I’d also suggest trying to contact people who work in publishing—or closely related media such as magazines—to gain a more nuanced sense of their jobs, which will give you a better idea of where exactly you’d like to be.

MS: I agree—Publishers Marketplace is an amazing resource, not only for their job board but they also they post deal announcements that include a brief description of the project and the names and imprints/agencies of the parties involved in the deal, which is invaluable information for anyone who’d like to get an idea of the character of a house or a specific editor. But—I think it’s important to remember that publishing is a very social industry, so it’s a good idea to get off the Internet every so often and meet people! Attending talks and readings and being an active member of the literary community is a great way to get to know people who have the kind of job you want. There is no substitute for being in the right place at the right time!

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A Conversation with Spiegel & Grau editors Christopher Jackson and Mike Mezzo

November 1, 2007

What's it like to be at a start-up? What are the challenges, the benefits?

Chris: When I started my last job – at Crown, another corner of the Random House empire – I remember the terror of the empty desk, stepping into a large, bustling imprint with no books of my own, just me, a clean desk, and a depressingly sparse rolodex (this was back when people actually used rolodexes). I’d come to Crown from a small trade division of a scientific and technical publisher, and I had to figure out how to adapt my editorial style to fit in. This time around, it’s very different: my (and our) first days here were spent not just trying to buy new projects but also helping craft a mission statement, looking at drafts of logo designs, and having lots of meeting with agents and writers about what was going to distinguish us from other houses. So many editors (including me on my bad days) worry about how their impulses and interests and tastes conflict with those of the publisher they work for; the trick, I’ve found in the past, is to find as many points of intersection as possible between what you love and what the house does best (or, failing that, to subvert their mission with covert acts of editorial subterfuge, sneaking books onto the list while no one’s looking, which is sort of a doomed enterprise). But what’s exciting about joining S&G is that the books I bring in will help define the company, thereby building a house (or a room in Cindy and Julie’s house) ideally suited for the books I want to publish.

Mike: It’s true, being part of a new company is a tremendous luxury and privilege—everything moves forward, anything feels possible, and every decision we all make will contribute to the evolving identity of what is such an exciting venture. Of course, I must admit to being a little intimidated at times. I basically grew up (so to speak) at Little, Brown and Company; I started as an intern and left as an associate editor, and was incredibly fortunate to see the books I published there enjoy great critical and commercial success. But as a younger editor at an established house, you tend to build your own list by playing to the house’s strengths. At a start-up, the house’s strengths reflect your own as a member of the team. So it is a little intimidating but mostly invigorating because I know that the passion I feel for the books I edit here will be compounded by the passion we all feel in creating this new publishing division.

You both are exposed to so many great new writers and books. What trends in literature or publishing are most exciting for you to be a part of/pursuing in your positions at Spiegel & Grau?

Mike: What’s more interesting to me than chasing trends is thinking about the topics readers might be interested to learn more about that aren’t represented well in the bookstore. When a book satisfies a public interest in a way that no other book can or does, there’s potential for a real breakout. I’ve noticed, in terms of fiction, increasingly readers want to be transported—I know I do. The books that really make an impact on me have stories that are surprising, eventful, and imaginative—the best novels are wild rides, they’re adventurous, and they’re challenging. It’s what I loved immediately about A Fraction of the Whole, the first novel I’m publishing on the S&G list. It isn’t enough, in my opinion, for a writer to be able to craft a perfectly lovely sentence; he or she also has to captivate. And it seems the more interesting narrative nonfiction I’ve seen recently endeavors to make a point or an observation about the world through first-hand experience. I think it’s natural that this form of storytelling is becoming more popular. It’s a way for a reader to truly live vicariously through the author—to climb a mountain, live in a different community, open a bakery, or whatever the case may be.

Chris: I agree about the continuing rise of first-person nonfiction narrative, but it’s a mixed blessing. One of the themes in Lee Siegel’s new book Against the Machine (which we’re also publishing in the spring!) is the trend toward packaging and performing acts that were previously in the realm of privacy – homemade youtube videos and reality tv are obvious cases, but the burgeoning sub-genre of experiential nonfiction can sometimes showcase the same exhibitionist impulse. I think first-person, immersive journalism can be great but, as Lee argues, the problem is when self-dramatization hides a lack of self-knowledge, or when the sensationalism of self-disclosure overwhelms honest exploration. This is the problem – as you noted – with trends. When Hunter S. Thompson (or Matt Taibbi or, you know, Michel Montaigne) writes from a subjective, first-person p.o.v., it’s brilliant because they’re brilliant. If a lesser writer does it, not so much. So it’s best to wait for the geniuses (or near-geniuses) to do whatever it is they want to do, even if it feels un-trendy, rather than trying to follow-up a genius’s innovation with a second-rate writer’s rip-off. Which seems sort of obvious, but every cultural form is littered with time-wasting rip-offs and some of the dumbest decisions of my publishing life have come when I’ve succumbed to the trend-chasing temptation, so it’s not like my hands are clean. But I will go and sin no more!

Speaking of your favorite writers, then, who would both of you loved to have edited, living or dead?

Mike: I would have loved to have been the editor to introduce a book like White Teeth to the world; it’s hilarious, smart, and endlessly entertaining, and I remember reading it for the first time and thinking: “This is the kind of writer I want to work with.” I could say the same for The Ice Storm by Rick Moody, The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber, As She Climbed Across the Table by Jonathan Lethem, anything at all by David Sedaris, The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides, The Verificationist by Donald Antrim, and a lot of other obvious books.

Chris: Since Mike mentioned some living writers, I’ll mention a dead one: I just finished the great Arnold Rampersad bio of Ralph Ellison, and I would’ve loved to have worked on Invisible Man, which was brilliant and sui generis and, as we all know, one of the most influential books in 20th-century American lit. It combined modernist technique and folk idiom and was full of ideas about politics and culture and identity, all held together by an incredibly entertaining picaresque – and that remains in my mind the model of the sort of book I love to work on, books that offer interesting technique and style and provocative ideas, bundled in great storytelling. And the Ellison that labored for years over Invisible Man is the kind of writer I’m always looking for: intellectually and artistically restless, someone who wants more than anything to create something different from anything that has ever been written before, whether it’s a novel or narrative journalism or history or humor. That’s what makes Ellison so special to me, for all his possible faults as a human (which Rampersad’s book also gets into): he was committed to creating something original and necessary. That may also be part of the reason he never finished a second novel, of course, but still, that first one was a doozy.

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