Writing & the odds of getting published: An interview with Random House’s Executive Editor

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By Karan Bajaj

Jake Morrissey, my editor at Penguin Random House’s Riverhead imprint, is a publishing legend. He discovered Calvin and Hobbes from the slush pile, edits only six books a year which includes authors like Marlon James (winner of the 2015 Man Booker prize) and Anne Lamott (Bird by Bird) among other thespians, and is a critically acclaimed author himself. For me, he’s been much more than an editor. He’s taught me how to write fiction. I came to him as a rookie with an unpolished manuscript and over seven drafts of patient editing, he gave me an equivalent of a fiction writing MFA and made THE YOGA OF MAX’S DISCONTENT, my first US release, a novel I’m mostly proud of. Here he answers questions I thought would be most helpful for debut novelists who visit my blog:

KB: I know you do very little fiction. What makes a novel stand out for you to consider it for your list?

JM: For a novel to appeal to me, it needs to do three things: Tell me a story I haven’t heard before. Tell it well. And surprise me.
I am an editor and a reader who’s interested in story: I want things to happen in the novels I publish and read. I know some very talented, very successful editors who are primarily interested in an author’s voice. While I agree that’s important, I doubt that 10,000 years ago our ancestors sat around the fire trying to come up with a witty turn of phrase or a cogent metaphor. They told stories to try to understand the world around them and to understand themselves a little better. Shakespeare’s language may be what we remember today, but things happen in his plays: People go insane; they fall in and out of love; they fight battles; they kill their enemies, their lovers, themselves. I want the fiction I publish to be about engaging reader in what happens next to the characters they read and (I hope) care about.

KB: I was incredibly impressed by and extremely thankful of how deeply you edited THE YOGA OF MAX’S DISCONTENT. The book is as much yours as mine. Is this kind of involvement usual? Is there any difference between the level of editing you do for debut authors versus more established authors?

JM: I’m glad you enjoyed the editorial process. Not everyone does. I have two thoughts about editing.

The first is that good editing is invisible. If you do it right, the reader can’t see the seams you helped the author stitch together, the sections you added or deleted, the tone you helped him/her adapt.

At the same time, my editing isn’t the same for every author I work with. It shouldn’t be, as each author has different needs. My job, as I see it, is to try to help the author write the best book he/she can, and I tailor my own approach to a manuscript to suit them.

For example, if an author needs me to read each chapter one at a time and offer feedback, I will do that (always with the proviso that I reserve the right to change my mind once I’ve seen the manuscript as a whole). If an author needs to give me the entire manuscript in one complete dose, that’s fine, too.

No matter how long or short a manuscript is, I read a manuscript twice before I send it to the author with my edits: I read it once as an interested reader,  where I try to approach it as someone who knows very little about the manuscript other than I’m eager to read it. In that read I try to let the manuscript envelope me as a reader, and I can see where the author succeeded and where he/she might need a little bit of help. It’s a little bit like walking into a sneak preview of a movie not knowing what the movie is really going to be about but knowing you’re interested in the people who made it. I mark up the manuscript as I read, noting what I like and have questions about. When I’m done with that read, I start again, this time setting aside any enthusiasm I have for it and intentionally try to find the flaws in it. It’s a bit like being an English teacher who has to grade a pile of essays: Where are the mistakes, the poor turns of phrase, the logical inconsistencies?

I don’t really approach the work of debut novelists any differently than I do authors I’ve worked with before, though with them I usually know what to look for. For example, an author whose work I know may overuse words or phrases, or rely too heavily on plot points or insights, or whose work sags in the middle of a manuscript. Those are the sorts of potholes that only someone who knows the author’s previous work might notice.

KB: Business strategist Benjamin Gilad writes, “There are 313.8 million potential writers out of 313.9 million Americans. (The others have real jobs.) Defying odds lower than winning Powerball, those starry-eyed hopefuls keep sending their manuscripts to publishers.…”

You can guess the rest! Even out of the filtered list of submissions that come to you via agents, out of every 100 manuscripts that cross your desk, how many would you make an offer to?

JM: I see hundreds of manuscripts and proposals every year and take on less than a half of 1% of them. I tell prospective authors that if they want to make it rich as an author, buy a lottery ticket. You have just as much of a chance of hitting it big as you do writing books.

You shouldn’t write because you want to be the next Stephen King or see yourself as next week’s literary sensation. If you do that, you will invariably disappoint yourself. In my opinion, your goal should be to write the truth as you see it, be it fiction or nonfiction, and dig as deep as you can within yourself to achieve that.

And to be clear: I do not claim to have all of the answers.  I can’t publish everything well. I know that there are very successful books and authors who are much better published in the hands of colleagues and at other publishing houses than they would have been in mine.

KB: Do you ever consider a writer’s platform when you make an offer to an author in fiction? Any advice you can give a debut author on building a meaningful platform that can get them noticed rather than a scattershot approach?

JM: An author’s platform is one avenue publishers use to attract readers to a book. For novelists, raising awareness about a new book varies widely depending on both the book’s focus – is it a thriller? Women’s fiction? Fantasy? – and how the publisher approaches it. For example, some houses rely on generating review attention, others on getting the word out via specific communities (science fiction, for example), while other use social media. Still others use a combination of all three.

I suppose the short answer is while a “platform” is helpful in the abstract, it’s important for an author and a publisher to work together before, during and post-publication to create ways for readers to learn about a new book.

KB: What’s your one advice to an aspiring writer who’s just about to embark on writing a manuscript and wants you to publish him/her?

JM: My advice to an aspiring writer interested in having me publish him/her is to ignore me entirely and to focus on the story he/she wants to tell. Because in the end, you, the author, must please yourself. You shouldn’t waste your time wondering whether I might like something enough to publish it. Write the book you want to read.

KB: Finally, I’m very curious. Would a Calvin and Hobbes cross your desk now? Your list seems so much different now.

JM: A Calvin & Hobbes wouldn’t come across my desk today, as the cartooning world now is very different than it was when Bill Watterson submitted it. As are print newspapers. Back in the 1980s,  the comics page was one of the few pages in  newspapers that every reader read: It had a wide readership. Today, with much of media migrating online, readers can avoid vast sections of traditional news to find what appeals to them. As a result, the impact of comics, I would argue, is less broad that it was then. Cartoonists can and do build their own devoted readerships online, though they tend to be much narrower in focus than Calvin & Hobbes, The Far Side and Peanuts were when they appeared regularly in newspapers.

You’ve heard it from Jake–focus on writing the story you want to write this year! And if you need a little push, don’t forget to sign up for my writing and publishing course here.

How To Write A Bestseller

I cover everything from idea to outline to writing structures to writing psychology and discipline and querying techniques to getting a top literary agent in the material . This is the first time I’ve offered a video course and the response has been delightful. Signing up is free!

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