Poets and Writers - - Contents - By michael bourne

For an ed­i­tor like Caro­line Bleeke of Flat­iron Books, there is a lot more to the job than sim­ply read­ing and edit­ing manuscripts.

BE­FORE he got the call from Flat­iron Books ed­i­tor Caro­line Bleeke, Neel Patel had spent thir­teen years strug­gling to find suc­cess as a writer. Like many as­pir­ing writ­ers, Patel, an In­dian Amer­i­can doc­tor’s son from Champaign, Illi­nois, had bounced around the job mar­ket, work­ing first at Nord­strom, then in an ac­count­ing of­fice, while fill­ing his hard drive with un­pub­lished nov­els and sto­ries. Fi­nally, in early 2017, Patel fin­ished a col­lec­tion of sto­ries, If You See Me, Don’t Say Hi, and landed a New York lit­er­ary agent, Jenni Fer­rari-Adler at Union Lit­er­ary. Not long after he signed with Fer­rari-Adler, Patel’s col­lec­tion, along with fifty pages of a novel-in-progress, landed on Bleeke’s desk. A sec­ond, more es­tab­lished ed­i­tor at an­other house was also in­ter­ested in Patel’s work, but when he spoke to Bleeke on the tele­phone, Patel felt an in­stant con­nec­tion. “She’s young,” he says. “She just gets it. We had a great con­ver­sa­tion. We have sim­i­lar tastes. It felt like talk­ing to a friend.”

All as­pir­ing writ­ers dream of one day pick­ing up the phone and find­ing them­selves talk­ing to an ed­i­tor at a New York pub­lish­ing house who shares their vi­sion and wants to pub­lish their work. What many writ­ers may not know,

how­ever, are the myr­iad de­ci­sions an ed­i­tor has to make be­fore plac­ing that call and all the tasks, large and small, the ed­i­tor has to ac­com­plish to shep­herd a writer’s work to­ward pub­li­ca­tion.

So that we might shed light on the work ed­i­tors do—much of it in­vis­i­ble to writ­ers and the read­ing pub­lic— Bleeke agreed to let me fol­low her around for a day this spring, sit­ting in on staff meet­ings, lis­ten­ing to her han­dle queries from col­leagues, and look­ing over her shoul­der as she scrolled through an Ex­cel spread­sheet of sub­mit­ted manuscripts.

At thirty, Bleeke (pro­nounced BLAKE-ee) was pro­moted last year from the as­so­ciate ranks to be­come a full-fledged ed­i­tor, pub­lish­ing five to six books a year at Flat­iron, an im­print of Macmil­lan, one of the so-called Big Five pub­lish­ing con­glom­er­ates. Named for the iconic wedge-shaped Flat­iron Build­ing in Man­hat­tan, where it has its of­fices, Flat­iron Books is it­self quite new, hav­ing launched five years ago with eight em­ploy­ees, pro­duc­ing two books a month. Since then the im­print has tripled its staff and now pro­duces about fifty books a year.

OUR day be­gins so­cially, with a meet­ing in Bleeke’s sun­filled of­fice over­look­ing Madi­son Square Park with Ca­role Saude­jaud, a rights di­rec­tor at the French pub­lish­ing house Édi­tions Fa­yard. For a half hour the two women en­gage in a del­i­cate dance, mix­ing talk of sales fig­ures and pub­lish­ing in­dus­try re­al­i­ties with more in­for­mal asides about fa­vorite books and au­thors. The vibe is re­laxed, but this is a busi­ness meet­ing: Saude­jaud is here to gauge Flat­iron’s in­ter­est in pub­lish­ing English-lan­guage edi­tions of Fa­yard’s books, and Bleeke wants to know if Fa­yard has any books that might fit her list.

After po­litely pass­ing on a pair of non­fic­tion ti­tles, Bleeke bright­ens when Saude­jaud men­tions two French nov­els, one of which, Au pe­tit bon­heur la chance! (“Leave It Up to Chance!”) by Aurélie Valognes, has sold 120,000 copies in France since it was pub­lished in March. “I would love to take a look at that,” Bleeke says en­thu­si­as­ti­cally.

This re­ac­tion, I will come to see, is vin­tage Bleeke. Eight years out of Har­vard, where she made Phi Beta Kappa, Bleeke ex­udes the faintly wonk­ish lit­er­ary zeal of an eter­nal English ma­jor who has landed her dream job of talk­ing about books all day. A na­tive of St. Louis, she re­tains a slight Mid­west­ern re­serve, but one senses that be­hind this out­ward mod­esty there burns an abid­ing am­bi­tion, a quiet re­lent­less­ness that she chan­nels into her work on be­half of her au­thors.

The brief meet­ing with Saude­jaud il­lus­trates a cru­cial point about the life of a New York book ed­i­tor, which is how in­tensely so­cial the job is. Bleeke, like most ed­i­tors, does lit­tle edit­ing or read­ing of manuscripts in the of­fice. Nearly all that work—and there is a stag­ger­ing amount of it—gets done at night and on week­ends. “A lot of the day is re­spond­ing to e-mails,” she says. “It’s go­ing to meet­ings. It’s talk­ing to col­leagues about var­i­ous projects. It’s usu­ally not read­ing un­less I have a sub­mis­sion in that sounds ex­cit­ing and that I want to read right away.”

This is borne out even on a day when Bleeke and her col­leagues are bend­ing their sched­ules to ac­com­mo­date a re­porter in her of­fice ask­ing ques­tions. After the meet­ing with the French rights ed­i­tor, we troop over to the con­fer­ence area to sit in on a mar­ket­ing meet­ing for one of Bleeke’s ti­tles, British au­thor Anne Young­son’s de­but novel, Meet Me at the Mu­seum, due out in Au­gust, be­fore head­ing up­stairs to a larger con­fer­ence room for a get-to­know-you lunch with agents from the DeFiore and Com­pany lit­er­ary agency. Even late in the af­ter­noon, with her of­fice door shut, Bleeke has to pause fre­quently to an­swer knock­ing and check the caller ID on her ring­ing phone.

When I leave, she says, she’ll be head­ing to an in­dus­try cock­tail party. The fol­low­ing evening, she has two events, a cock­tail party and then a din­ner for an ed­i­tor vis­it­ing from Bri­tain. The next week, when the an­nual Book Expo Amer­ica takes over the Ja­cob Jav­its Cen­ter on the far west side of Man­hat­tan, Bleeke will at­tend workre­lated events ev­ery night of the week.

“That’s pretty stan­dard,” she says. “There are a lot of evening events re­lated to pub­lish­ing, whether it’s a read­ing by one of my au­thors or a

friend’s au­thor or var­i­ous par­ties and fundrais­ers.”

This cease­less stream of e-mails and tele­phone calls and cock­tail par­ties is not idle so­cial­iz­ing, though. It’s how busi­ness gets done in main­stream pub­lish­ing, which de­spite its lo­ca­tion amid the sky­scrapers of Man­hat­tan re­mains very much a small-town en­ter­prise in which peo­ple know one an­other and re­la­tion­ships are ev­ery­thing.

Take one of the most cen­tral tasks of an ed­i­tor’s work­ing life: read­ing sub­mis­sions. Each week, Bleeke es­ti­mates, she re­ceives between five and ten manuscripts from agents. (Flat­iron doesn’t ac­cept sub­mis­sions from writ­ers with­out lit­er­ary agents). That works out to between 260 and 520 manuscripts a year, from which Bleeke will pub­lish just a half dozen books.

Each sub­mis­sion ar­rives with a pitch, a brief de­scrip­tion of the book and its au­thor, typ­i­cally de­liv­ered first in a phone call from the au­thor’s agent and later fol­lowed up with a longer pitch e-mail ap­pended to the man­u­script. But if Bleeke is do­ing her job right, the man­u­script also ar­rives with an in­valu­able trove of so­cial in­for­ma­tion, built up through years of lunches and phone calls, about the agent’s rep­u­ta­tion for find­ing tal­ented au­thors and the depth of the agent’s un­der­stand­ing of the books Bleeke is seek­ing.

With Young­son’s Meet Me at the Mu­seum, for in­stance, the ini­tial pitch came from Sally Wof­ford-Gi­rand, also an agent at Union Lit­er­ary, whom Bleeke knows from her ap­pren­tice years in pub­lish­ing. In ad­di­tion, Young­son is rep­re­sented in Eng­land by an agent at the pres­ti­gious Lon­don lit­er­ary agency of Greene & Heaton, and the British edi­tion of the novel was ac­quired by an ed­i­tor Bleeke ad­mires at Dou­ble­day U.K.

None of this en­sured that Bleeke would love Young­son’s novel, but the im­pri­matur of these pub­lish­ing pro­fes­sion­als she knows and ad­mires no doubt shaped how she ap­proached the book. “These are peo­ple who have a proven track record, who I know, whose taste I trust, so yeah, it helps,” she says. “I’m def­i­nitely more likely to read a sub­mis­sion quickly from an agent I know, who I’ve had a lot of con­ver­sa­tions with, and who knows my taste, than from some­one who I haven’t worked with in the past or is rel­a­tively un­known to me.”

Of course Bleeke, who has been at Flat­iron since only 2014 and an ed­i­tor fo­cus­ing solely on her own list for less than a year, can’t pos­si­bly have deep pro­fes­sional re­la­tion­ships with ev­ery agent who sends her a man­u­script, so nearly ev­ery el­e­ment of her in­ter­ac­tions with agents, in­clud­ing the re­jec­tion let­ter it­self, is aimed at strength­en­ing those re­la­tion­ships.

In roughly half the sub­mis­sions she reads, Bleeke says she knows within the first five pages that a book isn’t for her. “But I don’t just read those five pages,” she says. “I would then read more be­cause I want to be able to ex­plain why this isn’t right for me. Ev­ery re­jec­tion is a way for the agent to get to know more about my taste. It’s an op­por­tu­nity for me to ex­plain what I’m look­ing for, and what I’m not look­ing for, so I want to have read enough to be able to ar­tic­u­late even if it’s in a very gen­eral way why this isn’t right for me.”

Oc­ca­sion­ally, when Bleeke thinks a writer is un­com­monly tal­ented or she wants to sig­nal that she would be open to a re­vised draft, she’ll of­fer the writer con­struc­tive crit­i­cism, but most of the time re­jec­tion let­ters are prin­ci­pally com­mu­ni­ca­tions between her­self and the agent, writ­ten with an eye to­ward mak­ing their next in­ter­ac­tion more pro­duc­tive.

Con­versely, when Bleeke likes a book, she knows that very quickly too. “I know prob­a­bly within the first few pages if I’m read­ing some­thing amaz­ing,” she says. “As I con­tinue read­ing, I’m think­ing about things like, ‘How orig­i­nal is this story?’ ‘How fresh are these char­ac­ters?’ ‘Is this au­thor lean­ing too hard on tropes, or does this feel au­then­tic and real and dif­fer­ent?’ I’m think­ing about how it would fit on our list.”

For Bleeke a novel’s fresh­ness en­com­passes more than just its plot and char­ac­ters. Who the au­thor is mat­ters to her too. Start­ing with her first ac­qui­si­tion at Flat­iron, Anuk Arud­pra­gasam’s The Story of a Brief Mar­riage (2016), set in war-rav­aged Sri Lanka, Bleeke has cham­pi­oned the work of writ­ers of color. This is in part a mat­ter of po­lit­i­cal con­vic­tion. Bleeke is acutely aware of the glar­ing lack of di­ver­sity in the pub­lish­ing in­dus­try—a 2016 Pub­lish­ers Weekly sur­vey found 87 per­cent of em­ploy­ees were white—and is pas­sion­ate in her be­lief that ed­i­tors need to ac­tively seek out un­der­rep­re­sented voices.

But, she says, she is also nat­u­rally drawn to char­ac­ters and au­thors from back­grounds dif­fer­ent from her own. “The books that I love, the books that move me, are books that ex­pand my world in some way, that make me more em­pa­thetic, that in­tro­duce me to worlds and char­ac­ters that I don’t know but that still have this deep emo­tional res­o­nance for me,” she says. “In a lot of cases, some of the most ex­cit­ing, fresh fic­tion is com­ing from these writ­ers be­cause they just hadn’t been pub­lished be­fore.”

When she comes across a man­u­script she thinks she might want to take on, Bleeke passes it around to her col­leagues at Flat­iron, both to check her own first im­pres­sion and to gauge the in­sti­tu­tional en­thu­si­asm for the au­thor’s work. At the most prac­ti­cal level, she has to get the ap­proval of Amy Ein­horn, Flat­iron’s ex­ec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent and pub­lisher, who must sign off on any con­tract Bleeke of­fers to an au­thor. But Bleeke will also pass along manuscripts to col­leagues like pub­lic­ity man­ager Amelia Pos­sanza to get Pos­sanza’s an­swers, “from a pub­lic­ity stand­point,” to ques­tions like “Do you think this could get re­view at­ten­tion?” and “Do you think this au­thor would be in­ter­est­ing for pro­files?”

If a sub­mis­sion sur­vives this round of sec­ond reads, Bleeke will call up the au­thor, in part to dis­cuss the book and any ma­jor changes that might need to be made, but also just to get a feel for who the au­thor is and how well they might work to­gether.

“I think I have a ten­dency to fall in love with my au­thors on the phone,” Bleeke says. “Amy al­ways teases me about it. I’ll run into her of­fice after a phone call and I’ll be sort of grin­ning from ear to ear, and she’ll say, ‘You fell in love again, didn’t you?’”

If Bleeke and the au­thor do in­deed click, she’ll draw up a profit-and-loss state­ment, or P&L, to make a case for the book’s com­mer­cial vi­a­bil­ity. A P&L typ­i­cally lists a num­ber of re­cently pub­lished books sim­i­lar to the one an ed­i­tor wants to buy and uses the sales records of these “comp ti­tles” to pre­dict how well the un­pub­lished book might do. A well-crafted P&L can be use­ful for books in pre­dictable cat­e­gories like

cook­books or for an au­thor with a lengthy sales record, but be­cause Bleeke is still a young ed­i­tor and is there­fore pub­lish­ing mostly de­but nov­els by un­known writ­ers, the P&Ls she cre­ates are, by her own ad­mis­sion, far less pre­dic­tive.

“It’s guess­work,” she says. “Some­times it’s very op­ti­mistic guess­work, but you re­ally, re­ally be­lieve in the book, you re­ally want it, so you’re go­ing to take a flier, and who knows, maybe you’ll get the golden ticket and the book will work be­yond any­one’s ex­pec­ta­tion.”

Then, too, by sign­ing young, un­her­alded au­thors writ­ing their de­but nov­els, Bleeke is hop­ing to get in on the ground floor with a fu­ture best­selling writer who might bring profit and pres­tige to Flat­iron two or three books down the line.

If Bleeke can con­vince Ein­horn that the ac­qui­si­tion makes sense and best any of­fers the writer may have from other ed­i­tors, she’ll sign up the au­thor for Flat­iron. But while the writer is busy trad­ing party-pop­per emo­jis with her agent and post­ing pho­tos of her book con­tract on In­sta­gram, Bleeke’s real work as an ed­i­tor is only get­ting started.

It’s rare, she says, for her to take on a book she sees as se­ri­ously flawed, but she has no com­punc­tion about sug­gest­ing changes when they’re needed. With If You See Me, Don’t Say Hi, for in­stance, Bleeke urged Patel to cut one of the orig­i­nal sto­ries and edited the drafts of two new sto­ries he wrote to re­place it. These two sto­ries now close out the col­lec­tion and are among its most as­sured and am­bi­tious, a fact Patel cred­its to Bleeke’s ed­i­to­rial acu­men. “The dif­fer­ence between writ­ing on my own and writ­ing with an ed­i­tor now, it’s in­cred­i­ble,” he says. “I was like, where was she my whole life when I was try­ing to write sto­ries and it would take me a year to write some­thing?”

Even as she’s edit­ing the man­u­script and work­ing with Flat­iron’s art di­rec­tor, Keith Hayes, to de­sign an eye-catch­ing cover (see “The Aha! Mo­ment,” on page 80) Bleeke is rid­ing herd on Flat­iron’s mar­ket­ing and sales cam­paign, pitch­ing the book to Macmil­lan’s in­ter­nal sales force, and hunt­ing down blurbs from au­thors, li­brar­i­ans, and other lit­er­ary tastemak­ers. As an ed­i­tor, she ex­plains, “You’re the main sup­porter of this book. You’re the book’s per­son. There are a lot of peo­ple in­volved, but the first job of the ed­i­tor is to make your own en­thu­si­asm con­ta­gious. You want to get every­body just as ex­cited as you are.”

The closer a book comes to pub­li­ca­tion, the more Bleeke re­lies on pub­lic­ity staffers like Pos­sanza. Meet Me at the Mu­seum, the sub­ject of the morn­ing mar­ket­ing meet­ing, would seem at first a daunt­ing pub­lic­ity task. For one thing, the novel’s au­thor, Anne Young­son, who is seventy and started writ­ing se­ri­ously after tak­ing early re­tire­ment from a ca­reer in the British auto busi­ness, is an un­known quan­tity to Amer­i­can read­ers. Then there’s the

book it­self, a deft but slow-build­ing epis­to­lary novel chron­i­cling a chaste love af­fair between a British farm wife and a Dan­ish mu­seum cu­ra­tor.

As Bleeke and Pos­sanza speak, it’s clear they plan to put these very el­e­ments at the cen­ter of their pub­lic­ity push. They seem gen­uinely charmed by Young­son’s un­con­ven­tional path to pub­li­ca­tion and have set up a se­ries of pri­vate events to give the au­thor a chance to in­tro­duce her­self and of­fer in­sights about her tran­si­tion from busi­ness ex­ec­u­tive to pub­lished nov­el­ist to a se­lect au­di­ence of jour­nal­ists and book­sell­ers.

Pos­sanza, mean­while, has been scour­ing the web for read­ers who might be drawn to the novel’s stylis­tic el­e­ments to help drum up pre­pub­li­ca­tion buzz. “Some peo­ple are re­ally ob­sessed with epis­to­lary nov­els, and we can go on the In­ter­net and see that, ‘Oh my God, this per­son has re­viewed three epis­to­lary nov­els,’ so maybe they want an­other one,” Pos­sanza says.

“Some peo­ple are re­ally ob­sessed with Sea­mus Heaney, whose poem plays a role in the book.”

To aug­ment this pub­lic­ity and mar­ket­ing push, Bleeke has sent, by her es­ti­ma­tion, fifty hand­writ­ten notes to li­brar­i­ans and book­sell­ers tout­ing Meet Me at the Mu­seum. (She did the same for Neel Patel’s story col­lec­tion, which came out in July, a month be­fore Meet Me at the Mu­seum.) This is a tremen­dous amount of work, with un­cer­tain re­turns, but Bleeke sees these notes as a way to talk up her ti­tles while build­ing yet an­other web of so­cial con­nec­tion, this time to the peo­ple who are ul­ti­mately re­spon­si­ble for putting the books she ed­its into the hands of read­ers.

“There is so much I do where I have no idea whether this is mak­ing any kind of dif­fer­ence, but this is a very con­crete thing I can do,” she says. “I can reach out to this per­son. I can open a line of com­mu­ni­ca­tion. I can in­tro­duce them to this book, and in the case of Meet Me at the Mu­seum, peo­ple re­ally re­sponded to it and loved it.”

Bleeke de­clines to dis­cuss the sub­ject of her an­nual pay, but the web­site Glass­door es­ti­mates that Macmil­lan pays ed­i­tors at her level an av­er­age of about $56,000 a year. Given Bleeke’s Ivy League de­gree, the hours she puts in at the of­fice and on nights and week­ends, and the fact that she lives in one of the world’s most ex­pen­sive cities, it’s fair to say she isn’t in it for the money.

“To sur­vive in this in­dus­try you have to be an eter­nal op­ti­mist,” she says. “You have to still feel the same rush from dis­cov­er­ing a great new voice that you felt when you were a twenty-three-year-old as­sis­tant. You need to some­how main­tain that pas­sion for what you’re do­ing and be will­ing to make it a huge part of your life and re­al­ize that you’re prob­a­bly go­ing to strug­gle with work-life bal­ance your en­tire ca­reer, but you’re do­ing what you love.”

MICHAEL BOURNE is a con­tribut­inged­i­tor of Po­ets & Writ­ers Mag­a­zine.

Flat­iron pub­lic­ity man­ager Amelia Pos­sanza (left) meets with ed­i­tor Caro­line Bleeke to dis­cuss sub­mis­sions.

Bleeke’s au­thors in­clude Anne Young­son (Meet Me at the Mu­seum) and Neel Patel (If You See Me, Don’t Say Hi).

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