#78: A Sneak Peek at the Slice Literary Writers’ Conference: An Interview with Ballantine/Penguin Random House editor Sara Weiss, by Maria Gagliano
July 5, 2016
As writers, we spend so much time on our craft that it can be hard to imagine pitching our book as a product that will “sell” to thousands of consumers. But if we want to connect with an agent or publisher, that’s essentially what we need to do: convince them that readers will want to buy our book. It’s a difficult mind shift after spending months—often years—looking at our writing as art. In truth, we have to see it both ways: as a work of art, and as a product that will sell.
We chatted with Ballantine Senior Editor Sara Weiss about the fine line between art and sales when she’s considering a book for publication. Sara will talk more about this on our panel “But Will It Sell?” at the Slice Literary Writers’ Conference on Sunday, September 11.
You’re speaking on a panel called “But Will It Sell?,” which highlights the tricky balance between deciding to take on a book because you believe it will make money for the publisher, and also because you admire its artistic integrity. In a perfect world, a submission would check off both boxes. How do you consider each factor when deciding whether to pursue a project? Do they function independently, or does one tend to fuel the other?
To be honest, I often find that this is one of the hardest parts of the job. Sometimes I might love something, but I don’t see a way to publish it so that it will find a large audience. And other times, I receive a submission from someone with a terrific platform, but the book idea is not there yet or the voice isn’t coming through on the page. My job as an editor is to find the sweet spot between sale-ability and quality. I wouldn’t say that one drives the other — I’m always looking for both — and the best part of my job is when I find that project that I think has terrific sales potential and is a worthy and necessary piece of writing. If I’m passionate about a project due to its artistic merit, I then need to think about how to position it in the market. Are there comparable books that have sold well? Who is the readership for the book? Should we publish it in hardcover or trade paperback? What should the cover look like? If I don’t have good answers to these questions, that usually means I don’t have a strong vision for how to publish the book, and therefore should probably not pursue it.
How likely are you to consider a submission if you feel the manuscript still needs work? Do you ever work with the author to make it better before making an offer? Or does a project have to be absolutely perfect at the time it’s submitted?
I don’t think I’ve ever bought a project that was absolutely perfect. That said, I do think it’s become harder to buy fiction when the novel needs a lot of editorial work. That’s because most publishers are less willing to take big bets on novels that require a major leap of faith, editorially speaking. If the novel’s brilliance is not shining through strongly enough in the original submission, there is less willingness to move ahead with it. But again, it’s on the editor’s shoulders to convince their publishing house that they have a strong vision for a project and with the right editorial work, they’d be able to make it fly.
Nonfiction is usually a different story. Since you are most often buying a project on proposal, it’s easier to shape a project with an author even if the proposal is not quite where it needs to be. I will often have a meeting with the author prior to acquisition to discuss how I envision the project and what sort of direction I think an author might take once they start writing. Obviously, the author needs to be on board with that direction, but if they are, I think it’s easier to convince my bosses to take the risk than it is with fiction.
Let’s say you love a submission. Then what? How many other people do you need to convince that this is a book worth publishing?
If I love a submission, I will often ask for a few reads from my colleagues – perhaps some of the assistants or my editorial colleagues who I know are good readers for this type of project. If the reads are mostly positive, I will then take it to our editor-in-chief. If she’s in favor of the project, she will then talk to our publisher who will most likely read the submission, and if she is on board, then we go to the president of our group to ask for money with which to make an offer.
With certain projects, we also will ask for publicity and marketing reads. If a project is going to rely on a major publicity campaign, we always want our publicity director to weigh in and get her buy-in before we acquire a book.
Are there ways in which authors can help you help them? In other words, are you able to make a stronger case for a book to your colleagues if the author has already accomplished certain things?
Every project is different, and of course, fiction and nonfiction are very different animals. That said, I think the best advice I could give that applies to all writers is: be open to listening to an editor’s suggestions. Never agree to anything that you are uncomfortable with just to get a book deal, but do take seriously what an editor and the publishing team are suggesting and make it clear that you want to be a good partner in the publishing process. In a similar vein, if an author is in a meeting with a publishing team, the author should do their best to be prepared for hard questions and they should be willing to speak openly and articulately about their book. The meetings and phone calls with an author prior to publication count for a lot – it often becomes clear in a meeting that an author doesn’t have a strong vision for their book, or that they are unwilling to do a lot of editorial work, and that can often prevent the publisher from moving forward. Conversely, a good meeting or call can go a LONG way.
A lot of writers want to know if having a social media following or a few terrific blurbs will help them get a book deal. Obviously, these things never hurt, but if an editor isn’t in love with the material, these things won’t move the needle. It’s the editor’s reaction to what’s on the page that counts the most. Everything else is ancillary.
Do you have any especially memorable stories when it comes to acquiring a book?
I had been chasing an author (for a cookbook project) for a long time. Finally the proposal came in and it was terrific. My whole team loved it, but my publisher was less convinced. We entered the auction but when it came down to our final bid, she didn’t want to spend as much money as I knew we would need to win the day. So I wrote her an impassioned email about why I wanted to buy the book and why it would be good for our list. She heard my passion and let me increase my offer. It ultimately came down to us and one other publisher, and I had to take a call with the author over the weekend to make my case. When the agent called me an hour after my call to tell me we’d won the book, I was thrilled and felt a great sense of accomplishment. Passion can go a long way in this business — that’s what makes it fun!
Sara Weiss is a Senior Editor at Ballantine Books/Random House, where she edits a wide range of fiction and nonfiction titles. Previously, she was an Editor at Grand Central Publishing, an imprint of Hachette Book Group. Sara holds a BA in English Language and Literature with a minor in Art History from the University of Chicago. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Maria Gagliano is a writer, editor, and Business Director of Slice. Her writing has appeared in BUST magazine, the Huffington Post, and Salon, among other publications. You can learn more about her work at mariagagliano.com.