#54: Behind the Slice Literary Writers’ Conference: An Interview with Editor Matthew Daddona
July 18, 2014
In seven weeks, the book industry’s brightest editors, agents, and authors will take over Brooklyn for the Slice Literary Writers’ Conference on September 6 and 7. We’re featuring early chats with some of our panelists for a glimpse into life in their corner of the industry. This week, Plume/Penguin Random House editor Matthew Daddona offers his perspective on the acquisitions and editorial process, particularly when considering work from a debut author. You can hear more from Matthew on our How We Decide: What Really Happens Behind the Editorial Meeting Door panel on September 7. The full panel line-up can be found here.
How important is platform when considering a debut book? And how does your definition of platform change when considering fiction vs. nonfiction?
The subject of platform comes up a lot, but varies a bit when discussing debut fiction versus debut nonfiction. For debut fiction, platform certainly is considered, and in many ways may help an editor or publisher’s decision for taking on a book. For example, if an author has an indispensable amount of writer and editor friends, media allies, or comes from a supportive literary community, the marketing and publicity teams might have a better ability to pitch publications, receive blurbs, and set up events (especially for an unknown author). Platform for nonfiction is a bit more critical, especially considering what kind of subject matter the author is writing about. If it is a prescriptive book, we’d like the author to have come from a revered background, or to be daily engaged in the type of work he or she is espousing. This goes for histories, science, self-help, diet books, and so on. On the whole, platform is important, but so is the work. Is it new? Is it original? Maybe groundbreaking? Does it present new information that other books of its kind have not? These are questions we might ask before we look into the resume of a particular author.
What is the acquisitions process like at Plume? Once you like a submission, what has to happen before you’re able to make an offer?
The acquisition process at Plume is not very different from other imprints and publishers: manuscripts come in for editors, editors read them and, if worthy, bring them up at editorial meetings. Then, according to an editor-in-chief or publisher’s purview, the manuscript might be shepherded along to the next stage. What is so inspiring to me, especially where I am, is how collaborative my colleagues are. Never are they reticent to read alongside and offer their opinions and expertise. What is so important about this assistance is that, when given their support, I have more ammunition with which to bring the project up to my publisher. After all, a publisher has to give the okay in order for an offer to be made or an auction scenario to be entered. But the nitty-gritty is this: if I like a book and attain the necessary support, I will set up a call with the agent/author or have them come in for a meeting. Depending on interest from other publishers, I might have the marketing team run a sample marketing plan, and the publicity team propose a publicity plan in order to stay viable given the competing editors. After that, it’s up to how the agent would like to proceed, and how the author felt about our meeting. Sometimes this is the most anxious part!
How often do you find yourself passing on a submission you love because others in your department did not share your vision for the book?
Believe it or not, this happens often. And, I believe, for good measure. Of course there will be tastes and visions that will not always align, but I always say, if you cannot get at least your editorial team excited about a project, how can you get an entire sales force geared up? Or an entire readership? I am also under the persuasion that Sales is one of your best friends in publishing—they are the eyes and ears of the field. So, if I’m on the fence about a project, I might bring it to a sales representative who may see a viable market or readership that I had not originally seen. If I cannot make a strong argument for the book to my editorial team, to Sales, and to my publisher, then I am probably not the right editor for it.
How likely are you to acquire a book if you think it still needs a large amount of editorial work?
I tell agents and, subsequently, writers two things when I talk to them: a manuscript, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, has to have a salient (resounding!) voice and an author who is willing to at least hear proposed changes. One of the things I value most about the editor/author relationship is the give and take that is offered by both sides. Fiction is one of those precious arts where an author has worked so long, has sat with a project for so much time, that they are strangely connected to it, as if it were a younger sibling. I love and treasure this. That being said, I might have bigger structural changes I’d like to propose, line edits I’d like to discuss, or bigger conceptual quandaries to address. If an author is willing to have a conversation, the job becomes that much more constructive, and even fun. For both of us. But it always starts with voice. I ride on this. Have I answered this question thoroughly? Well, yes, I am willing to work on a book even if it requires some work because I believe in the voice, and I believe in the author’s willingness to create a dialogue.
How closely do you work with your authors on polishing their manuscript once they’ve submitted it to you?
Ah, this is the fun part, the time to sit down for the glorious meal. I would like to think I work very closely with authors, and make myself available by phone or email anytime they require. Most of the initial conversations I have are just that — conversations over the phone whereby we discuss our respective visions and enter a compromising dialogue and schedule in which we both feel comfortable with timing and expectation. Then, depending on the work needed, a few drafts are exchanged over the course of a couple of months, in which I sometimes even get hung up on the smallest (call it trivial) of details, whether it’s timeline, pacing, character traits, initial motivation. That is just my style. It is how I like to work. In the same way that I might have to defend my editorial tastes to my colleagues or publisher, I have to defend my edits to my author. It’s a vital trait—it keeps you tough and limber in this literary jungle.
Matthew Daddona is an assistant editor at Plume, an imprint of Penguin Random House. He is also a poet, fiction writer, reviewer, a founding member of FLASHPOINT, and editor of the Tottenville Review. His most recent writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Gigantic, Forklift: Ohio, and Tin House.
Maria Gagliano is a writer, editor, baker, and Business Director of Slice. Her writing has appeared in BUST magazine, the Huffington Post, and Salon, among other publications. You can find her on Twitter and at mariagagliano.com.