A DAY IN THE LIFE OF A BOOK EDITOR
FOR AN EDITOR LIKE CAROLINE BLEEKE OF FLATIRON BOOKS, THERE’S A LOT MORE TO THE JOB THAN SIMPLY READING AND EDITING MANUSCRIPTS.
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around the job market, working first at Nordstrom, then in an accounting office, while filling his hard drive with unpublished novels and stories.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).