Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Six Questions for Adam O'Connor Rodriguez, Senior Editor, Hawthorne Books

From the website:

"Hawthorne Books publishes American literary fiction and narrative nonfiction with a commitment to offering international titles as well." Learn more here.

SQF: According to a report by Foner Books (, “[g]rowth stagnated for booksellers in 2008, and overall book sales barely moved according to the government.” In addition, I’ve read a number of articles concerning the difficulty authors are having securing book deals. In your opinion, what is the current state of the print book market?

AOR: I work on the editorial end, so my sense of the business is different, but I know that while overall book sales may be down across the industry, Hawthorne Books had a great year—we sold the 2009 Barnes and Noble Discover New Writer Award-winning novel The Well and The Mine by Gin Phillips, to Riverhead Books, signed Lidia Yuknavitch to a two-book deal, bought an exciting novel by David Rocklin, hired a new editor, Liz Crain, and released Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead, which has the makings of a big hit.

A larger point is that it feels like, as the large houses struggle to adapt to what the contemporary reader is looking for, small presses have become more vital. And I think that’s for three major reasons: one, we’re readers first, not executives. Of course market potential matters to us, but it’s not the primary concern, because it’s impossible to tell what’s going to be a hit. We would never publish a book we didn’t like, or that we didn’t feel we could hand-sell to a friend, or by extension to a sales rep. Two, new media has leveled the playing field somewhat between us and the large houses—anyone can make a Facebook page. Anyone can write to a blogger or meet one at a conference. Spending thousands of dollars for an ad in The Atlantic may or may not expose your book to more interested eyes than a mention on HTML Giant or a YouTube video. Three, small presses are a vital part of the nationwide literary community, whereas large houses are an entertainment industry based in and concerned primarily with New York City, as much as the film industry is based in Los Angeles. A great example is the energy of the primary industry conference for large presses, BEA (BookExpo America), compared to the primary conference for small presses and literary magazines, AWP (The Association of Writers & Writing Programs). At BEA, you’ll see a lot of older men in expensive business suits, walking fast, talking loudly into Bluetooth earpieces about sales figures, not looking up at any booths. These large presses, almost exclusively from New York, spend up to a million dollars on gigantic, store-sized booths in the arena, seemingly locked in an endless outspending game. At AWP, you’ll see writers, readers, and editors of all ages standing in front of the table of a press they’ve never heard of before that day, remarking on the interesting design or a great new writer they’d read in a literary magazine, thrilled they’d discovered a new press with a fresh idea. That press may have started a month before or in the 1800s, they may be from New York or northern Mississippi or Portland, Oregon, or from a tiny college in Australia, but regardless, they paid $450 for the space and have equal access to meet with and intrigue new readers and writers. The whole model is just concerned with something different. And I’m not knocking the big houses—while their models are antiquated, they still champion many fine books and support many great authors—but it feels like the industry has barely changed for them in 100 years, whereas smaller presses must adapt constantly or fail.

SQF: What are the top three things you look for in a manuscript?

AOR: What I look for in a manuscript might be a little different than what Hawthorne Books looks for, so I’ll try to answer wearing my Hawthorne Books hat. This question is always hard for me. I mean, the real answer is the standard answer: we’re looking for something great that will sell. It’s little help to a writer to look at our catalogue—you’ll find more experimental work like Core and Seaview; edgy memoir and personal essay like Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead and the Poe Ballantine essays. A traditional historical novel like Madison House and a non-traditional one, that also happens to be a translation from Danish, The Tsar’s Dwarf. Non-traditional coming of age stories like Little Green and to a certain extent, Clown Girl, also a comic novel. I guess my point is that what we’re looking for is exactly what other presses look for: great writing, interesting characters, and something unique that will sell the book, both to us and to the reading public.

SQF: What major mistakes do authors make when pitching their books?

AOR: These are more pet peeves of mine than “major mistakes” I guess, because anything in a pitch can be forgiven if the work is good enough, but okay: my biggest pet peeve is when authors contact the press for updates or put pressure on us to make a quick decision. It must be in some writer’s guide somewhere that getting your name in front of an editor as much as possible is a good thing no matter the context, which isn’t at all true. The process of deciding what to publish, for us anyway, is a process of trying to decide why not to publish a book. Even a book that one of us is passionate about won’t get published if there’s a good reason not to publish it. Authors asking for constant status updates is bad behavior—as if we wouldn’t contact the author if we decided to publish the book—and a great editor once taught me that to maintain sanity and professionalism as an editor, never reward bad behavior. Another pet peeve of mine is when an amateur writer doesn’t bother to read books, and by that I mean that they submit a book exactly like a million books published every year. Another is as simple as using non-standard margins or small font or other minor violations of the submission guidelines.

SQF: Of the books your company publishes each year, how many are by previously unpublished authors?

AOR: About 50% of our authors are previously unpublished. We love and seek to publish the rawness inherent in first novels, for example. First memoirs also.

SQF: What is your advice to new, unpublished authors looking for a publisher or agent?

AOR: Make sure your book is finished, and by that I mean make sure it’s as good as you can possibly make it, rewrite it a dozen times, then let it sit for a while and try again, then have some friends or a writers’ group read it and try again, then hire a professional editor and do another rewrite, then a proofreader, then let it sit. Once the only thing you feel like you can do to it is agonize over cutting a comma on page 256 or leaving it, then it’s probably ready to submit. I know this sounds extreme, but here’s something I say in every talk I give about the submission process: your pretty good book will never get published. Your great idea for a book that isn’t quite there yet probably won’t get published either. Because of MFA programs and expanded cultural opportunities for writing, there are a lot of great books out there every year not getting published because the writer isn’t willing to do everything possible to make their book great, to make it the book that I can’t find a reason not to publish.

Another point: many new writers seem to think that getting a book published with a small press is easier, but it’s harder—a large house can hit and miss with titles, lose money, recoup it on the next blockbuster. A small press can’t. We must hit breakeven or better with essentially every title or shutter the shop. So be sure that unless you’re submitting to one of the very few wealthy small presses, the entire organization’s existence depends on your book selling at least X number of copies. Small presses aren’t literary charities. But publishing with a small press can be more lucrative to many writers than a big house contract, though, because of the stakes involved. A professor of mine in grad school used to tell a story about a writer he knew well who published a book that, according the the professor, should have been a classic book of the late 1970s, should still be read and taught. Basically what happened was the book didn’t get a review in the New York Times, so the publisher, a top five New York house, pulled the entire advertising and promotional budget and the book was dead on arrival and sold less than 1,000 copies. That story could literally never happen to an author published at a small press.

As far as looking for a publisher or agent, look for an agent, even if you plan to shop your book to small presses. Agents send to us all the time. Having an agent lets the publisher know you’re serious (in that someone else with a critical eye who makes a living judging manuscripts has already accepted your work) and grants a kind of access that cold submissions just can’t. That’s not to say unsolicited submissions don’t get the same read that agented submissions do, but having an agent can sometimes skip your manuscript closer to the front of the line.

SQF: What question do you wish I’d asked that I didn’t? And how would you answer it?

AOR: No answer; good questions.

Thank you, Adam. We all appreciate you taking time from your busy schedule to participate in this project.

NEXT POST: 7/30--Six Questions for Johanna Ingalls, Managing Editor, Akashic Books

1 comment:

  1. My Sci/Fi series, "America's Galactic Foreign Legion" is enjoying sustained daily multiple book sales, mostly in Kindle format.

    Although offered in paperback, bacause I published through a small press, my books are locked out of the Brick and Mortar Book Store Market because POD (print on demand) books cannot be returned.

    Even with demonstrated sales, Barnes and Noble won't talk to me. It is very frustrating.