Interview With a Gatekeeper: Algonquin’s Elisabeth Scharlatt
On Predicting Bestsellers, Inclusivity, and Hefty Advances
The sky opened up and a mean rain flung itself across Manhattan as I made my way to meet Elisabeth Scharlatt, Editor and Publisher of Algonquin Books. I arrived late and drenched, the hem of my pants flopping across the shiny wood floors. What did Scharlatt do? She hugged me, then apologized as if it were her fault I got soaked. Scharlatt’s natural tendency to shelter a rain-forsaken interviewer is consistent with the way she safeguards the tenets of Algonquin Books, the place she’s worked for the last 27 years—with generous and kind regard. She’s also buffered herself against the public eye of the Internet because she believes Algonquin’s books and authors should be the luminaries, not her. “Not only do I not want to be found on the Internet, I don’t want anyone in here to see these piles [of books],” she says as she fans her hand across a book-stacked room. I reassure her every editor’s den looks the same, with hardcover and paperback towers swallowing every inch of available space.
Kerri Arsenault: You’ve been at Algonquin for 27 years. Not a lot of people can claim such longevity in publishing. How did you get here?
Elisabeth Scharlatt: Let’s go backwards instead. Let’s start with, “Why do you like your job as a publisher at Algonquin?”
KA: We can start anywhere you want. So I’ll ask, why do you like your job as a publisher at Algonquin?
ES: At a large house with a large list, only a handful of books can rise to the top. As a young editor early in my working life, I thought all of my books should be rising to the top. I thought they all had a chance at a successful publication and a long life, but of course that was sort of delusional. At Algonquin, I have the opportunity to try to make every book find its way because we publish only 20 new adult titles a year.
KA: So you think Algonquin books have a better chance at being successful because of its size?
ES: Yes, it’s more likely because we have a small list that’s focused, curated. We have a fantastic group of people working here who can pay attention to every book. I also think, from my perch, having had the experience of being a grumpy young editor saying, why doesn’t my book have a marketing plan? Or why are we accepting all those returns so soon after publication? Not that you have any choice when returns come, but if a book is getting a slow start, we’re small enough to be able to go back to our reps and say, what else can we do? Or, how can we help ward off the pessimism, the giving up on a book?
KA: That’s a great place to be.
ES: Also with a small staff everyone has a hearing or gets to air their grievances. So everybody’s got a voice. However, as much as I like to say that, this is not a democracy. Even though everyone has a voice, it’s impossible to get a consensus—ever. If you have three people in a room, you have four opinions.
KA: That speaks to the title of this column, “Interview with a Gatekeeper.” There has to be a gatekeeper somewhere. If there wasn’t, we’d see a freshet of books and books sales would perhaps be watered down.
ES: There’s always somebody frustrated of course, but it’s pretty great for me to see how invested everybody at Algonquin is at every step. Everybody’s an Art Director. Everybody’s a Marketer. Everybody’s an Editor.
KA: Do your work with or through Workman Publishing on book designs?
ES: We have our own terrific art director, Anne Winslow. We need our books to have a distinctive look and not look like Workman’s books. Algonquin became a division of Workman in 1989 and at that time it was a very good association. Peter Workman made a conscious decision to maintain Algonquin’s separation from and independence from Workman and at the same time, Algonquin benefits from having access to Workman’s mighty sales force and their institutional muscle. It’s a lucky coincidence that Workman and Algonquin—separately and now together—have the good will outside the company from booksellers and the media.
KA: A little bird told me you were one of the first people Workman hired?
ES: What little bird?
KA: A former employee. Of yours. He also said you were loyal and kind. I had to talk to a few people; you are a hard nugget to find on the Internet.
ES: I try to be un-Googleable. I don’t want to be a public person. I like my behind-the-scenes role. Maybe I learned this from Peter Workman who never wanted anything to be about him or the company, but rather about the books and the authors, and I feel the same way. I don’t think we need to be the stars. If we’re proud of the books we publish, which we are, then that’s what matters. I don’t give interviews. This is a real rarity.
KA: I think many editors feel the same way, but it’s also why people are interested in learning about what’s behind the gate, behind their beloved books.
ES: You have to like being a behind-the-scenes person to be doing what we are all doing.
KA: It’s different with writers; we can find out about them by reading their work. That said, I’m glad you’ve come out from behind the gate. Thank you.
ES: I won’t say you’re welcome just yet [laughs]. A friend of mine—a writer—resisted and refused to give interviews. He said, the thing speaks for itself. He did not want to be a celebrity. He said, why do I have to submit to all of this? I said, the publishing world has changed.
KA: That was my next question. What have you seen change in the publishing industry in your long career?
ES: It fascinates me the extent to which we are still, in many instances, publishing books the way we published books in the 19th century. That is remarkable. It’s probably one of the only industries where that’s still true. On the other hand, it’s changed tremendously. For one thing, the digital world is changing it. Maybe a decade ago we thought it was going to happen much faster with eBooks, that it was the end of the physical book. It’s clearly not, but publishers had to get into the eBook business. Algonquin was slower to come to digital technology than other publishers, but now we are doing very well. Also, five years ago we realized Algonquin needed to grow. Rather than enlarge our adult list, we started up Algonquin Young Readers, which is mainly fiction. That’s pretty exciting because we were able to maintain what has been manageable to us on the adult list (we have always been publishing the same number of titles). Now with Algonquin Young Readers that’s where we’re looking for our growth.
KA: It sounds like a terrific reader feeder program.
ES: I like to think of it that way. We’re growing our readers for our adult books. To come back to digital, I’m encouraged to see that the eBook sales for young readers’ books is not as strong as it is for adult books. Either there’s not the same kind of interest in it or parents are slow to give their kids eReaders.
KA: Parents still want to sit in bed with children at night and read a book, not an iPad?
ES: Yes. When my stepson’s young daughter started reading and I said to him, I’m thinking of giving Alice a Kindle. He said, no, no, too soon. I thought that was great. I thought I’d ask because maybe it was the answer to getting her to read more. Kids are so accustomed to looking at everything on a screen, I thought, why should they care about a physical book the way I do? Also I was trying to bring myself into the 21st century [laughs]. Maybe the 20th century.
KA: Any other changes in publishing besides eReaders or the interviews authors must endure?
ES: My friend who didn’t want to do interviews was an aberration.
KA: But the way authors and books are marketed certainly has changed over the years.
ES: One of our authors showed me a whole series from a photo shoot yesterday, where she trying to get the right attitude. I was looking at her pictures thinking, this is too smiley. This is too dour. This is too unapproachable. This is too approachable! I didn’t want to have seen all of this. But authors send us a bunch of pictures and we are supposed to pick the one we like for publicity or for the jacket. Frankly, I think it is often the case that a striking author photo will draw someone to the book. Don’t you think?
KA: I do. But I’m not sure that’s positive progress.
ES: It isn’t.
KA: Is that Lewis Nordan poster? [Points to poster behind the door].
ES: Yes, why?
KA: I’m reading Nordan’s Wolf Whistle, about the murder of Emmitt Till and the subject of that poster.
ES: Really? How did you come to the book?
KA: Wait, I’m interviewing you! But I’ll tell you only because I want to talk about Nordan, particularly because the anniversary of Emmett Till’s death was just recently, on August 28th. I found Nordan by reading an article, “The House of Crossed Logs,” in the Oxford American.” It’s largely an essay about finding the real Lewis Nordan and was written by a former Algonquin intern.
ES: Buddy, we called Nordan. He’s one of my favorite authors.
KA: His books are still in print, right?
ES: That’s the other thing that excites me, to go back to your very first question—why do I like my job. The second part of that is to be able to keep a book in print for as long as we possibly can. If the sales are slow, we are able to sit here and think, what can we do? I’m going to tell you a story about Lewis Nordan, which is completely off topic here.
KA: It’s not. Please do.
ES: He was a true original. He was promoting one of his books, the one before Wolf Whistle, maybe it was Music of the Swamp. He was giving a reading and somebody in the audience asked him, what is your next book going to be? And he said, I’m going to write about the murder of Emmett Till. Then there was sort of a hush in the room. Afterward he told me that he had not thought about that at all. It just came out as if he had been thinking about it for 50 years.
KA: I think he might have.
ES: Yes. It turned out he had been thinking about it but, because he was asked that question so directly, it came into the light. He grew up in Itta Bena, Mississippi, which is up the road from where Emmett Till was visiting his family at the time of his murder. Nordan was a teenager. He was around the same age as Emmett Till. The story he told was this: he was in his gym class, and the kids were talking about this incident, that this black boy was killed for whistling at a white woman. And the kids were all laughing about this incident, all the white Mississippi boys. One of the popular guys on the football team said, “That ain’t funny. He’s just like us.” Buddy said he himself would not have had the courage to say that but because this popular guy, this football star said, he’s just like you and me, they realized that’s no joke and everybody got quiet. Buddy said—I’m getting the chills just telling this story—that stayed with him all those years.
KA: A latent story in him.
ES: Yes, perhaps he was thinking, why wasn’t he the one to have said that? And what a thing to acknowledge. I always felt Wolf Whistle was spun out like a jazz improvisation.
KA: It reads like that.
ES: Yes, because of that energy and that eccentricity. I mean, it’s wacky. He wasn’t a big seller because he wasn’t that easy to promote. All these years later I think I could still quote the last line of his first book with us, Music of the Swamp. The last line is, “There is great pain in all love but we don’t care. It’s worth it.” This is a good example of what I was saying earlier; we still have his books in print.
KA: Why wasn’t it easy to promote him?
ES: This [points to Wolf Whistle] is not for everyone. It’s hard. To try to stick with writers who are not so immediately accessible you have to have real commitment and give real support. I think that’s one of the benefits of being part of an independent, family-owned company. Nobody has to report to stockholders every quarter so nobody’s saying, get rid of Buddy Nordan because he’s not selling enough. Some of the wonderful writers we have published have been dropped by their previous publisher or they left their previous publisher because their book didn’t earn out or didn’t measure up to the expectations. I understand that process if you have enough write-offs. But we don’t want to be in the write-off business. We want to have enough to support what we’re doing.
KA: Tell me about your list. What makes a book an Algonquin book?
ES: We’re looking for what everyone is looking for: a good story well told, as Mark Twain once said. We are not outright looking for the blockbuster. I think rather than that, our task is to find that unique story, that unique voice, and make it work, and find the big readership for it. We want to be on the bestseller list as much as the next person; sure we want to publish bestsellers. But for anyone to think they could make a bestseller or find a bestseller, no, you just have to find a book that you think other people will love the way you do. We also have a commitment to publishing debut novels, which sometimes works out great, and sometimes works out less great.
KA: We Love You, Charlie Freeman by Kaitlyn Greenidge, one of your debut novelists, seems to be working out.
ES: Yes, and we just found out today her book has just been shortlisted for the 2016 Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize. Kaitlyn’s book perfectly represents our ideal: smart, original, gorgeously written, and a writer with a platform that continues to grow. Can’t wait to see where her next book will take us.
KA: Are there any types of books you avoid acquiring?
ES: Anything that can be easily categorized. I love making rules so we can break them. For instance, we say we don’t do poetry, yet we have published Julia Alvarez’s poetry, The Woman I Kept to Myself.
KA: She’s been with Algonquin for a long time.
ES: How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents was her debut novel. It is still in print. Let’s see . . . It was first published in 1991 and we still sell it year after year. And her second book, In the Time of the Butterflies, is now taught in schools and continues to sell year after year.
KA: She was courted by larger publishers, but stayed with Algonquin, right?
ES: Yes, I think that’s true. A good friend of mine at a big house came to me and said her boss told her to go after “Author X” and she said to her boss, I can’t do that. The publisher at Algonquin is a good friend of mine. And the boss said, all’s fair. I think a number of our authors are attractive to other publishers, especially debut authors who clearly have a gorgeous career ahead of them. We launched Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, with Purple Hibiscus. She’s a superstar and we are happy for her—and we still have Purple Hibiscus in print and always have. Years ago Oprah selected two novels for the Oprah Book Club season by Kaye Gibbons: Ellen Foster and A Virtuous Woman. This was ten years after publication and we still had Kay’s two books in print, in hardcover, so when Oprah picked it, there was no problem. That’s the kind of thing that makes me happy.
KA: What are the other joys of publishing?
ES: The joy is really in seeing a book succeed and seeing our authors succeed. So much goes into it. The writer opens a vein and pours everything out and of course it’s sad if that disappears quickly, which can often be the case. I’m not saying we haven’t had our share of disappointments. I can’t imagine anyone hasn’t. The hopefulness that comes with this job is what makes it bearable.
KA: I want to talk a little about diversity.
ES: That’s what I was going to bring up.
KA: Perfect. When I say diversity, I mean age, gender, class, skin color, sexual orientation, etc. Are there any specific ways Algonquin addresses bringing diversity to its list?
ES: Let’s use the word inclusiveness. I would say since beginning here, I don’t think we ever had a consciousness of looking for diversity per se. But looking back I can say that we have always had that. You asked before, how do I know what makes an Algonquin book? Well, I like to look at our list and make sure that we don’t have books that compete one with another. That alone helps us to have a list that’s varied in a such a small universe. In this universe we also try to keep it half fiction and half nonfiction. We are better known for our fiction, and we’re always on the lookout for narrative nonfiction, which I hope to do more of.
KA: That’s an interesting way to look at inclusiveness: by topic.
ES: Our list is also men, women, black, white, Asian, Latina, gay, straight—the gamut. And it’s encouraging that books in bookstores are not put in sections. There was a time there was a “gay” section in bookstores off in a corner somewhere.
KA: Another thing that has changed in publishing, no?
ES: Yes! I remember one of our books that was written by a gay author, his sexual orientation was mentioned in reviews. This was not a gay-themed novel, yet it was considered as such and it was put onto the shelf with gay books. What? Come on! By the same token Algonquin, in its startup stage, was considered a regional press, publishing Southern writers because many of the writers were from the Southeast. By the same token and for the same reasons I don’t want to put gay writers or black writers or latino writers into a ghetto. I don’t think you can call a writer regional just because he or she is from a certain part of the country. That was once upon a time a perception, but now I’m happy to see everything can be considered mainstream.
KA: I don’t recall noticing when that changed in bookstores, but now that you mention it . . .
ES: Don’t you remember the talk about all those dead, white writers?
KA: Yes, in college.
ES: In college there was black studies, Asian studies, women’s studies. My son took all those classes. Everything was so classified into these categories. It was just nuts. I don’t know what it’s like now but I’d like to think now we have finally seen the light.
KA: I think many authors fear being classified or regionalized in that very way.
ES: You have to be careful how you describe a book because if there’s a character in the book who has Alzheimer’s it just becomes an Alzheimer’s book. Or cancer. Oh, it’s a cancer book, as opposed to a book that is not necessarily only about that.
KA: Careful in the way you market the book?
ES: You just have to make sure you don’t mention that “thing” in the first paragraph of your copy [laughs].
KA: Are there any voices missing from your list?
ES: I hope so; then we’ll have something to look forward to. I actually love the feeling of reading something that doesn’t feel like anything I’ve read before. That is a big deal. To answer that question again, what makes an Algonquin book, I’m very attracted to books that only this or that writer could have written. If it’s nonfiction, it’s got to be a subject where only this writer has the perspective to tell the story.
KA: Last March, this article in the New York Times, “Moneyball for Book Publishers,” featured this theory that one could possibly predict bestsellers based on data. What do you think about that?
ES: I think it’s horrifying. Well, horrifying, but I’m wary of analytics because information is often very misleading. That’s why you can’t find me on the Internet [laughs]. But this also goes to my point that the Internet is scary, in that anybody can say anything and they do, about anybody or about themselves, and they do. If a publisher were to shape editorial decisions based on what analytics are telling them about people’s reading habits, I think we would lose a lot of originality, because it’s very easy to say, no one wants to read about this or this. One of our books is a perfect example; it’s called The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating. Whenever I try to give that book to anyone they say, Oh, do I want to read this? I say, Yeah, you do. They say, Really? I say, Yes, really; you want to read this. I’m recommending it. It’s a book that on the face of it really is about a snail eating, and yet it’s a book that’s doing well for us and one we’ll keep in print for a long time even though it’s unusual. It does not fit into a category or any data. We’ve sort of called it natural history, but some have called it a memoir because it’s about a woman’s relationship with a gastropod. In other words, I can only come up with examples in order to answer your question. Here’s another one, Educating Esmé by Esmé Raji Codell. I resisted reading the manuscript at first because I could see that it was a story of teacher’s first year teaching. I thought, haven’t we enough of those—and good ones? When I read this, however, I laughed, I cried. This is a case of a unique voice; this is the only person who could have told this particular story. It’s a book that has been selling since 1999. If you tried to get a focus group together and said, I have a book about a teacher’s first year teaching at an inner-city school in Chicago, how much excitement would there be about that? I don’t think very much. Yet, everyone we have given this book to loves it.
KA: Those examples defy the data the article presents.
ES: The article says “Fewer than half of the books were finished by a majority of the readers” that interested me, but so what? Not every book is for everyone.
KA: Reading is so subjective, but so is publishing . . .
ES: Yes: all those stories about the classics and how many people turned them down before they found a publisher—that’s compelling.
KA: What people read or what people publish seems almost random. Speaking of, I was talking to Matt Weiland earlier today at W.W. Norton and he published a book about the Battle of Waterloo as seen through the eyes of a rabbit, which is compelling to me.
ES: Not to me! [Laughs]. He’d have to make the same case to me as I made to you. There’s a famous story in publishing about a big cheese in a big house who held up a list of books in descending order of sales for the year or the season or something. He drew a line across the middle of the page and said, why don’t we just publish these at the top of the list and forget about these books down here? As if anyone knows going in what’s going to be a big seller. That’s what this thing is; this Moneyball survey thinks they can gauge what’s going to be a bestseller and what isn’t. Maybe you can a little bit, but there are always the big books that surprise us and don’t do well, and then there are the modest books that surprises us and win hearts. Not an Algonquin book, but The Hare with Amber Eyes is a book that I must have recommended to a hundred people, and it sold well through word of mouth, I’d say.
KA: So you’re saying nobody can predict bestsellers.
ES: When Water For Elephants by Sara Gruen went to the top of the New York Times bestseller list, I received a call from a reporter from the Times. In the course of the conversation she asked, did you know when you signed up Water For Elephants it was going to be a big bestseller? And I said, oh yes, I think every book we sign up is going to be a big bestseller. When we sign up a book, we always see a way for it to find its way. It amused me to say yes, I knew it would be a bestseller because I thought all the duds were, too.
KA: We talked about inclusiveness in your list; what about in publishing?
ES: It’s tragic. I used to think—and maybe it’s still the case—the lack of diversity is because publishing is traditionally a low paying business and so some people can’t go into the publishing business unless there is money coming from their parents when they start out.
KA: It still seems the case today. Or at least for publishing internships.
ES: We pay our interns, but it can’t be enough so they don’t have to have eleven roommates.
We don’t have enough applicants. I wish I had an answer. Maybe some of the brilliant books that are being published by writers of color will attract people to want to be in on that. I can only hope that the recent books by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Colson Whitehead find their way to people who think, I want to be in the place where that is made to happen. The best thing I can do, or any publisher can do, is publish these books. I think it’s great that there are more and more books—good books—by and about people different from us, any of us. We need to track down those writers who’ll bring us stories with diverse points of view. They’re out there!
KA: What do you think of writers receiving large advances?
ES: I get worried when our writers quit their day jobs. We can’t afford to pay those advances. The advances people read about or hear about are not common. That’s not what most people are getting. It skews the whole industry and misrepresents the reality of book publishing. Some books do earn them back but relative to the number of books published every year, that’s a teeny piece of it, those multimillion dollar deals. And the pressure on the writer and the pressure on the publisher and the pressure on everybody. It doesn’t make sense. It’s the reason publishers get mad at their authors for unearned monies. And I’m not just talking about the six figure deals.
The original notion of an advance in this industry, I believe, was paying what you expected the book to earn in its first season. Then the royalties come. If there is something of a partnership between the publisher and the writer, then together you want to get to that point where you reach that number. And how exciting if—and this happens a lot for us—years down the line you’re still getting a check.
KA: I’d love to talk about your editorial process. Are you still working directly with authors?
ES: I consider all the books my babies. My background is as an editor and I found that as my job as Publisher became more demanding, I pulled back except for working with some of the authors I had worked with previously. We just hired an Editorial Director. I have been acting Editorial Director for the last six years. I wanted to keep my hand in the editing because I missed it, but I did not want to be in a position where I would not be able to give full attention to a book that needed it, which is to say any book. Now I have somebody who is just starting and who I hope I will take on the role of helping guide the other editors and the list. If that goes well, and I expect it to, maybe I will be able to go back to doing some editing.
As far as my editorial process, here’s a book I edited. I was thinking about how Buddy Nordan could write a funny story about the Emmett Till murder and this is a funny book about the Holocaust: A Blessing on the Moon by Joseph Skibell.
KA: Impossible. Impossible to make the Holocaust funny.
ES: As impossible making a funny book about Emmett Till, which Nordan did. I still work with Joseph Sikbell writer because I love him dearly.
KA: Tell me about your editorial process.
ES: I’m not sure I know how to talk about it.
KA: Let me put it this way, what do you see as your essential job as an editor?
ES: The thing that is essential is to not ever let the author—or the author’s voice—get lost in the editor’s vision. When I edit, I consider myself just the reader. If something isn’t compelling or doesn’t make sense or is slow or too fast, it’s my job to point that out. Do I prefer a better way of saying something? That’s a no-no. I might point out to an author that something might be stated in a different way, but the book is the author’s. And yet, I have fought a lot with authors.
KA: Because if you didn’t influence the work, a book might not ever get published. I’m sure no author has ever turned in their book to an editor and the editor said, perfect!
ES: Probably never. But I have fought authors to try to get them to give in to what I suggest and I ended up giving in to the author because, ultimately, it’s his or her book. I’ve been in a situation too, where an author will say, a year later, I should have listened to you. In one instance I said, I do not wish to hear that now. [Laughs]. It was an instance in which I said, this section should come out. The author said it should absolutely not. I finally had to capitulate.
KA: So you act more as beneficent guide?
ES: You know, hearing you say that, it just doesn’t make sense because every case, every situation, every book is different. There may be a character who doesn’t belong in the book, who feels like an appendage. Or there may be a section that should come later in the book. There may be a place where the story line is sagging. There may be an area that just feels redundant, unnecessary, and what you need to do as an editor is bring a fresh eye to the story. In most cases the writer has spent so much time with the book that they’re not seeing it anymore.
KA: Is there anything you see over and over in a manuscript that you want to excise?
ES: Many authors have personal tics in their writing. And it’s so obvious!
KA: To you, not them.
ES: One of my authors accused me of having said all the time, Fix this! I said, what do you mean? If I fix it the way I want to fix it, you would complain about that. The point I was trying to make to that author is that there’s something wrong here, on this page. Something not working and I want you to fix it and I will tell you if you have.
KA: Maybe that’s the whole of the editorial process boiled down into two words: Fix it.
ES: Yes! I had another instance where I scribbled something in the margin. As I was going over the manuscript with the author and I saw my squiggle and question mark and thought, oh my god, I don’t know what I meant here. She looked at it and said I know what you meant. After working together for so long she understood my hieroglyphics.
KA: How many manuscripts do you have to look at before you know it’s a book for Algonquin?
ES: I have three great editors plus our new editorial director. It’s a good ratio for twenty new titles a year, and because we’re not paying million dollar advances, the manuscripts may need work. We can see the promise that another house may overlook because they have a million dollars in their pocket, but we’re willing to do the work to help get the book in good shape. That’s very satisfying. That’s the fun of what we do. It’s such a collaboration, and it’s really rewarding to have seen the thing when it came in then to see it in its finished, beautiful package.
KA: Can I ask you how you came to editing.
ES: [Laughs] I don’t really know. I had such a checkered start trying to find my footing. If somebody had told me 30 years ago I’d be running this distinguished little publishing house, I would be surprised. I was happy as an editor at Random House and I thought, this is what I’ll be doing for the rest of my days. It didn’t occur to me to think, what is the next step? I liked what I was doing. One thing led to another, a lot of little startup things, like I worked at New York magazine when it was just beginning. At one point I thought I was going to be a photographer. I just tried things out. You could do that back in the day. There were a lot of jobs. It couldn’t happen now. Then, when Workman was buying Algonquin, they needed somebody who had hardcover experience. Peter Workman knew me, because when I was a kid I was working at the startup of Workman Publishing. Years passed and he came back to me. There was a lot of back-and-forthing, and with a lot of luck here I am 27 years later.
KA: Were you always such an avid reader?
ES: Aren’t we all?