Interview with a Gatekeeper: Grove Atlantic’s Elisabeth Schmitz
On Teamwork, Dedication, and Taking Risks
Elisabeth Schmitz, Grove Atlantic’s VP and Editorial Director, has worked in almost every aspect of publishing. Meeting her in Grove’s 12th-floor New York office is a pleasure—it is a space filled with books: lining the walls, spilling on the floor, sitting atop chairs and desks, seemingly pouring out of sheetrock and carpet and subsuming every space not occupied by a friendly human or a piece of office furniture. Books and people, this office says, are what matters. Schmitz couldn’t agree more.
Kerri Arsenault: How did you come to editing?
Elisabeth Schmitz: I came to it through international book scouting. While working for Maria B. Campbell, I covered Grove Atlantic, and when publisher Morgan Entrekin offered me the rights director job at Grove I accepted. We had an understanding that if I came across a manuscript I loved I could try editing. For two years I learned the rights trade and learned how books get made. [Ed. note. Morgan Entrekin is one of the founders of this website.]
KA: Tell me more about book scouting.
ES: There’s an agent named Mary Evans, who has a great quote: “Scouts are the unsung heroes of the publishing industry.” Our job (I keep saying “our” because I did it for five years) is the best education for people trying to decide what aspect of publishing they want to get into. When you are scouting you do a little bit of everything. You learn about agenting, subsidiary rights, the movie business, editing, and you’re also reading constantly and quickly. Scouting is like boot camp for publishing. I always tell people there are other ways of getting into editorial than starting as an editorial assistant and working your way up.
The job itself is to look for what’s happening in the American publishing industry and report on those happenings to your publishers abroad. When an agent sells a book to a publisher, you look at who now has the rights: did they keep the foreign rights, or did they sell them? You get hold of the manuscript as soon as possible, read it quickly, write a report, and get the report to your clients. You try to help them find the next great thing. Scouts are the ones who really know what’s going on across the book business. The great thing for me was that when I came to Grove, I knew many agents already. They knew my taste, what I loved, and they started sending me things, even though I was a rights director.
KA: So you were allowed to review manuscripts?
ES: Well yes, we all do. And Morgan always says: At Grove, everybody gets a chance to acquire a book, and if it works out, you get another one. At that time, whenever I read a manuscript I loved, I would pass it to an editor and then shadow edit the project. I learned from the editors how to take a book through the system, not just [scribbles on a piece of paper pretending to edit], but how you sell it, how you present it, and how you go forward into the marketplace with a book. I was happy doing that, when a partial first novel came in from agent Leigh Feldman, and she said, “I don’t want you to pass this one on. I want you to do it.” So I came to acquire my first book—Cold Mountain. It’s an outrageous beginner’s luck story, but from there came more books: Leif Enger’s Peace Like A River, Michael Thomas’s Man Gone Down, Jeanette Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal, Rabih Alameddine’s An Unnecessary Woman, Lily King’s Euphoria, Helen Macdonald’s H Is For Hawk. And 20 years later, I’m still here.
KA: That was thoughtful of Feldman.
ES: Yes, we had grown up in the business together and she knew my taste and vision.
KA: And you’ve stayed at Grove Atlantic all this time. Why?
ES: The short answer is people: the authors and my colleagues. Since the very early years I couldn’t fathom leaving. Morgan, who hates it when I call him my boss, is our brilliant maverick chief without whose loyalty, generosity, and flexibility I’d never be standing here. He and the amazing Joan Bingham have worked together since the merging of Grove Press and Atlantic Monthly Press 25 years ago. Judy Hottensen (Associate Publisher), Deb Seager (Publicity Director), Amy Hundley (Rights Director and Senior Editor), and Charles Rue Woods (Art Director) are among the old guard. Most of us have been here for many, many years. Senior Editors Jamison Stoltz, Corinna Barsan, and Peter Blackstock are becoming long timers themselves, and there have been critical newcomers to the team, too. Associate editor Katie Raissian—who works with me while also taking ownership of younger authors such as Colin Barrett, Anna Noyes, and Bethany Ball, and who is starting to acquire herself—makes my job possible. I could not do any of what I do without the help of this entire team.
Perhaps the more apt question is, why would I leave? There’s never been a moment when I felt I was done learning at Grove. I’ve evolved from Rights Director to Editor to Editorial Director without ever completely abandoning any of my previous roles. While acquiring and editing, I still travel to the Frankfurt and London Book Fairs and to BEA, sales conferences, and regional fairs like Miami Book Fair and AWP, as well as indie summits like the Winter Institute. Editors at independent houses have to be entrepreneurial mini-publishers themselves; nobody knows the books as well as we do, so why wouldn’t we support our publicists, sales directors, and field reps however we can?
KA: Would you ever be tempted to leave?
ES: Maybe to experience the muscle of a big house to push the books into the marketplace. Maybe for deeper pockets. I would love sometimes simply to win a book auction by being the highest bidder! No matter how fervently I believe in the argument that Grove Atlantic is the best house—the individual attention we give, the collaborative and inclusive nature of our work together—sometimes the persuading can be exhausting. However, truth be told, I can count on one hand the books I have been devastated to lose due to not having the money. I’m more chagrined by the books I lost because I lost my nerve or was talked out of it by someone. Those are the ones that chafe, and no, I can’t tell you which ones they are because it hurts too much!
KA: What do you think about today’s publishing model, especially since you’ve seen it in the long view?
ES: Many say it’s broken. We ship too many books because we have to meet bookseller demand, and we’re thrilled to do so. But if the books don’t sell, and sell quickly—within three months, if that—they are returned for a full refund. It’s an expensive and sometimes wasteful model, but the industry hasn’t figured out a good alternative. At Grove we try to print close to the projected order and go back to print quickly and frequently as demand requires. Some books that don’t necessarily sell well get more than a three-month shelf life if a bookseller is really passionate about the book, but they also have to move onto the next new books eventually.
KA: How do you decide between hardcover and paperback?
ES: There are many reasons we publish hardcovers; one is that libraries want them. If you’re publishing literary books, like we are, the library markets are really important. Also, it’s great to have a second opportunity to publish the book in paperback, which hardcover as the initial format allows for. After the hardcover publishes and all of the reviews have come in, as well as the prizes, the reading group guides, and anything else that’s come along, we can include that material in and on the paperback. Look at H is for Hawk [points to the paperback]. It has been gathering medallions for months! Ones that didn’t make the hardcover in time are now on this new format. It’s simply another surge, another chance for a book.
But there is this other argument that if the book doesn’t sell in hardcover, it won’t sell in paperback. People also say you won’t get serious reviews if you don’t print a book in hardcover. We have proven that wrong with our paperback original line, Black Cat, which gets very well reviewed. Several of our Black Cats have been reviewed on the cover of the New York Times Book Review. When we think a paperback original could possibly be the best format for a particular book, I will say to the author and agent, can we not make the decision now and discuss it closer to publication? As we get closer, we talk to our sales force and ask them for hard numbers: how much would you ship if it were hardcover, and how much would you ship in paperback original? If they tell us they would ship twice as many copies in paperback, then we have to take that very, very seriously. We have to take into consideration whether or not it is a first-time author, or if it’s a short story collection, a work in translation, or poetry.
KA: If you were living in a perfect publishing world, say the Willy Wonka of bookmaking, what would that look like?
ES: It’s really tricky to say. The easy answer would be selling books as non-returnable. Ha!
KA: There’s no easy answer then?
KA: Has it always been such a struggle to sell books?
ES: I think so. I believe since the Depression, when booksellers didn’t have the funds to buy the books up front. Publishers said, we’ll give you the books, and you can pay us as you sell them. Some people have tried different models recently. It’s just tough to get the traction.
KA: Editor Lee Boudreaux mentioned that diversity in authors begins with diversity in the publishing houses. I’m thinking also about the PEN American round table article about equity in publishing where editors and authors discussed this topic and the Publisher’s Weekly survey that indicated a lack of diversity in publishing.
ES: Yes, I wanted to talk to you about that! Did you also see this article in the February 29th issue of the New York Times, “The Faces of American Power: Nearly as White as the Oscar Nominees“ [Schmitz pulls out a clip]? It’s such a great graphic! They go through all of the industries and publishing is here [she points to the clip]. As many of us know, it’s not just an issue in publishing, it’s an issue in government, culture, education, business. It’s crisis. It’s a huge problem.
KA: How can you, as an editor, help foster inclusivity of writers in age, race, or gender?
ES: Grove has always worked to publish diverse authors. It’s been a part of our legacy since Barney Rosset fought the great censorship battles through the 1950s for the right to publish the “obscenities” of Samuel Beckett and Henry Miller, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, erotica like Emmanuelle and Story of O, among others. Grove published The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Frantz Fanon, and LeRoi Jones before he was Amiri Baraka, whose collected works we’ve just published in SOS: Poems. When Morgan acquired Grove Press, two of the first writers he signed were Francisco Goldman and Sherman Alexie. Amy Hundley edits Roxane Gay, Peter Blackstock edits Viet Thanh Nguyen, and Assistant Editor Allison Malecha works with the Nigerian writer Elnathan John. I’ve been lucky that some amazing writers from every culture and background have come my way through agents—Leila Aboulela, Pablo Medina, Ana Menendez, Patricia Engel, Rattawut Lapcharoensap, LaShonda Barnett, and Emily Raboteau, to name a few. And we just bought four books by Eileen Myles. There is no question that we editors have to and should work harder to actively seek out more authors who reflect our culture’s diversity. And many authors don’t have agents, so it’s lazy for us to wait for submissions. Good editors are on constant alert for a smart newspaper, magazine, website piece or column, radio show: anyone with a new and exciting voice.
KA: Boudreaux also illuminated the fact that the people who work in publishing don’t make a lot of money, so that only those who can afford to work in publishing in New York City will. It seems hard to break that fiscal cycle. What if people started working remotely outside of New York City; maybe then those who can’t afford to live here can actually work in publishing?
ES: I think that’s a great idea, but publishing is still one of those old fashioned businesses that requires a lot of face-to-face. People still do lunches, authors still come around and interview editors who are bidding on their books. So much of it is rapport, but, having said that, I think we should explore that idea. Also, let’s not forget that there are great publishing ventures elsewhere in this country! Graywolf Press, Milkweed, Tin House, and McSweeney’s to name a few. But if people are not seeking us out, we need to seek them out.
KA: Like scouting for employees?
ES: Yes, we need to do that. We have to think about what we can we do to bring people in. Can I just say here, with regards to our staff, that Grove’s diversity is growing. We still have a long way to go, but we’re getting there. We need to seek out diversity further.
KA: There’s a presumption that if you don’t have African-American editors you are not going to bring in African-American authors, which runs contrary to what other editors are telling me, that they seek out work outside their own personal experience. So if they are not African-American editors, then the logic follows that there should be more African-American books, no?
ES: I feel like half the books Grove publishes reflect more than one experience of the world. It’s Grove’s heritage and our mission to publish as such, and it always has been. I have to say that I really admire Chris Jackson and his profile in the New York Times magazine, “How Chris Jackson is Building a Black Literary Movement,” in which he says he’s just not going to sit around and wait for agents to send him their “black books.” He goes out and looks for authors. We are always on the lookout for diverse talent. We all need to work toward establishing scholarships, funds, and incentives to open doors for people. I love the “We Need More Diverse Books” initiative. They’re gaining recognition.
KA: Yes, and the more recent Simon & Schuster Muslim-themed imprint announced not long ago. I also wonder about diversity in age, both in working at publishing houses and in authors. As the Publisher’s Weekly survey indicated, people are not just white: they’re younger. It feels like there are fewer over-40 debut authors. In other words, “emerging” often equates with young(er). What are your thoughts on this age gap in publishing (if there is one)?
ES: This is such an interesting question because when I look back on my career, I would say that a good number of my more successful debut books have been by authors who are not in their twenties, or even in their thirties. Leif Enger, Margaret Wrinkle, Alice LaPlante, Mary-Beth Hughes, France Itani, Helen Macdonald, Michael Thomas, Jamie Quatro, Charles Frazier, Rob Spillman, and Joanna Connors were all 40 or older when they published their first books. Others such as Lily King, Lauren Acampora, Josh Weil, Sheri Holman, Katherine Noel and the forthcoming Emily Fridlund were into their 30s. Still others I work with are in their 50s and even 60s when they first publish. I also look to relaunch mid-career authors who, for one reason or another, are in search of a change of publisher. Some have moved over from a bigger house, like Helen Dunmore, Rabih Alameddine, Tom Drury, Sabina Murray, Christine Schutt, Lily Tuck, and David Vann. Yes, there are many prizes for youthful debuts, but there are some for mature authors, too: The Saint Francis College Literary prize, won recently by Vann, is for mid-career authors. And there are grants like the Guggenheim and NEA awards that are geared to mid-career authors, as well as the NBA and NBCC awards, and the Pulitzer Prize. Still, there ought to be more.
KA: Is there also a deficit in more mature (older) people at publishing houses? I’ve been told by one editor at a large publishing house they “only hire younger people” for editorial assistants.
ES: Oh, I was looking at authors, not at jobs.
KA: Yes, but we are talking about hiring, too, in order to get more diverse books.
ES: Some publishers hire people away from magazine editing and other parts of the business who are grown ups [laughs]. I interviewed someone who was over fifty the other day; someone who was in publishing, left, and wants to get back in again.
KA: Speaking of earning a living, is there anything you can do to help authors make a living wage?
ES: I wish I had the time to make sure authors apply for every grant, fellowship, and prize out there. I write letters of recommendation for authors who are vigilant about tracking down these financial opportunities, but many writers don’t even know about them, or don’t have the time to scout Poets & Writers or other publications to learn about them. I’ve helped writers get teaching jobs, which are common alongside a career in writing. I hope that when their books are well reviewed or win prizes, they will be hired or promoted wherever they are. I think publishing them well is the best help I can give. It’s a huge problem that I live in fear of an author telling me they are going to quit their day job. Don’t do it! Yet.
KA: So what makes one manuscript shine over another?
ES: Language, voice, brevity, originality. We never know if it’s the worth the risk; we leap on instinct. Luck and timing can play a part, too. A good cover letter is critical to lure me into opening it in the first place.
KA: What’s a good cover letter consist of?
ES: Cover letters need to be thoughtful and enticing. I can also be completely turned on or off by a cover letter. If it’s nonfiction, the letter should be very clever about saying, I know that another book has been written on this subject, but mine is different because of this. Be thorough about what you’re presenting.
But if you really want the best opportunity at selling your first novel, finish it, and make it the strongest manuscript it can possibly be. You have one shot to make an indelible impression. There just shouldn’t be any typos in it. There can’t be anything sloppy. Cliché on the first page? I’ll put it down. If they make a mistake on the first page, chances are that this is what I’ll be battling throughout the book.
KA: What do you look for in nonfiction? Does the writer need to have finished the book before you’ll acquire it?
ES: It depends. I bought nonfiction by Joanna Connors and Helen Macdonald on superb proposals that proved their writing skills and laid out their vision for something unique. Memoir is my passion when it comes to nonfiction, but it needs to be launched by something specific. Not, “I was born and here is the story of my life.” Dani Shapiro wrote a memoir through the lens of her creative writing life. David Payne wrote his by examining his younger brother’s battle with bipolar disorder. Emily Raboteau’s Searching for Zion explores the concept of home in the African diaspora. Michael Thomas’s upcoming The Broken King is a memoir realized through the stories of four generations of men in his family. And publishing next month is Rob Spillman’s All Tomorrow’s Parties, which is about his search for the creative life in Berlin both before and after the wall came down. What these books all have in common is a discrete and specific frame through which to examine a life. Otherwise, it’s chaos.
KA: Ok, so you’ve bought a book. Tell me how you work with an author.
ES: Every experience is different. I’ve worked with writers over the telephone, via email, in the office, in their dining rooms, in cafés and hotel lobbies. There are stages. The first is the editing stage. Rounds of edits, sometimes three or four. I edit on paper—covering the pages with margin notes in pencil, squiggly lines under awkward sentences, waves down the sides for loose or vague or digressive prose, check marks over words and lines I love. Letters and conversations with the author will follow. I think of myself as the closest objective reader they will have, someone not a friend or family member. A professional reader, I guess. I will ask many questions, some seemingly mundane and rhetorical. I would never consciously impose myself on a book. On the contrary, what I try to do is immerse myself in the work so thoroughly that I start to see it from the authors view, deducing his or her intentions. I suggest alternative language only in order to clarify their vision and intent. I’d never try to interpose language myself, but I might say “how about something more like this?” and give an example, expecting them to re-write it in their own words.
There is so much more to the job though than the edits on the page. Editors must advocate energetically for their books from the very start. First to the team in-house who will be designing, producing, marketing and selling the book. Then to our reps, the booksellers, and the media. We’re involved with the author and the book from acquisition, through the paperback publication, and beyond. Others step in and out to do their crucial jobs along the way, but the editor is always there hovering, taking care.
KA: What risks are you willing to take?
ES: I am willing to risk a lot on a book because I work in an environment that encourages me to do so. At Grove, we have to reach for projects that others think are long shots. Books from overseas, books about tough disturbing subjects, or promising manuscripts that need hard work. We have to go where others don’t. When people thought I was crazy to fall for a proposal by an unknown Cambridge academic British poet mourning her father’s death by adopting a goshawk, Morgan said to go for it. Editors around town ask me how I got this risky project through my editorial board, or how I did a P&L for it. I say “Editorial board? We don’t have one. P&L? I’ve never done one.” I’m lucky. I know it.
KA: You don’t do Profit and Loss statements?
ES: I probably shouldn’t have said that. Morgan always does the P&Ls in his head. I’m a big fan of doing P&Ls after the fact because you can figure out how much money you earned on it. To do it beforehand makes no sense to me, because hope can manipulate the numbers. You can have no real idea how many copies you are going to sell, or how much it will to cost you to do it. Grove gives every book we buy a fair shot regardless of the advance paid. We are nimble. For instance, we may well end up touring an international author we hadn’t planned to initially. Those costs wouldn’t necessarily factor into an initial P&L for us. Things change along the way. You can throw out a figure and say, on average, we spend X amount publishing a book, but every book is different. You have no idea if the cover is going to come in perfect on the first round, or if you are going to spend three months working on it. Or how much is the paper going to cost, or how much money you’re going to spend on the tour: you have to just estimate.
KA: Mid-sized publishing houses like Grove Atlantic can offer more than money.
ES: Yes, we can. And we do. When we take on an author, we hope it’s for their career, and not just for one book. We’d like to be in partnership with them so we can make decisions together, such as what should be published next? What’s best for their career? Our authors are really involved with the entire process, from the covers to the interior design.
KA: What is your biggest joy as an editor?
ES: There’re so many joys. I am as gratified by a great review as I am by a sales number, potentially even more so. Also reading something that you fall in love with, editing something that makes you so excited that you’re on a high because you’re so in tandem with this author, and immersed in this world, and you’re making checkmarks and writing yes, yes, yes! That’s all a thrill. I love hearing first reactions from readers. To watch the build-up of enthusiasm. And the excitement and buzz for the author. Watching the birth of a book is incredibly exciting.
KA: What’s in your immediate future?
ES: The forthcoming memoir by Joanna Connors, I Will Find You, which publishes in April. Joanna Connors is a reporter who goes in search of the man who, 20 years previously, raped her. She finds out where he came from, tracks down his family, and pieces his history together. He came from a life of horrific abuse, poverty, and addiction. It’s a book about about race, culture, class, and environment. I am really excited to see this book find its readers.