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Editor and literary agent offer a primer on publishing for faculty authors

“Publishing runs on enthusiasm,” said Eric Schwartz, editorial director at Columbia University Press. And for the mostly faculty audience in the Jones Room of Woodruff Library last week, that enthusiasm was infectious, giving rise to visions of handsome books bearing their names.

Schwartz was one half of the lively talk “Meet the Editor and Agent,” which also featured Jessica Papin, literary agent with Dystel and Goderich Literary Management, and was sponsored by the Center for Faculty Development and Excellence. Papin and Schwartz ably, and entertainingly, covered the waterfront like the longtime insiders to publishing that they are.

Shining a light on the industry

Schwartz led off the April 18 talk, walking the audience through the types of university presses, which he described as “American private” (e.g., Columbia University Press); “American public,” whose lists often focus on their states (e.g., University of Georgia Press); and “global,” which includes titans such as Oxford or Cambridge.

Given the number of offices that Oxford and Cambridge have dotting the globe, said Schwartz, “the sun never sets on these publishers.” Moreover, he noted that there is almost no subject area that they don’t cover, saying that “their lists are very diverse.”

Schwartz talked through some of the changes that have swept the publishing world — namely, that libraries no longer buy hardcover books. (They buy paperbacks and simply replace them as they get damaged.)

There are fewer independent bookstores, and that behemoth Amazon “is incredibly unpredictable,” said Schwartz. Ironically, one thing remains the same. Despite this digital age, the various media outlets that review books still demand bound copies.

When he reviews manuscripts, Schwartz emphasized that he “looks for an innovative take on an important topic.” It is his job, to ensure longevity for his list in sociology, to find the right mix of junior, midlevel and senior scholars.

He defined good writing as “not journal writing and certainly not dissertation writing.” The reference to the latter drew a chuckle from everyone who remembered surviving that earlier gauntlet.

Every author must craft a pitch, he explained. It can’t be more than one sentence and it needs to be drop-dead gorgeous. It should be the first thing that the editor reads upon opening the author’s envelope, and it also deeply informs the subsequent work of design and marketing. Indeed, one should imagine it going as far, said Schwartz, as literary royalty — perhaps even to Robert Silvers, the editor of the New York Times Book Review.

Not every book will reach that summit, of course. Ultimately, a university press must balance commercial and scholarly considerations as it looks for titles, Schwartz said. As he summarized, “We are not for profit, but we are not for loss.” The average cost to produce a scholarly monograph, incidentally, is $40,000.

The not-so-secret agent

Papin had the audience laughing as she described telling her son’s class about the work of being an agent. One young man asked her, “Are your missions dangerous?”

Clifton Crais, a professor of history at Emory, used Papin to represent his remarkable memoir, "History Lessons: A Memoir of Madness, Memory, and the Brain." Indeed, says Papin, there is an important takeaway in what Crais achieved: Memoirs often don’t sell, so Crais’ use of neuroscience gave his work originality and interest in readers’ eyes.

Papin also worked with Michael VanRooyen, whose book "The World’s Emergency Room" is both memoir and meditation on the increasing dangers for medical humanitarians. These titles, both speakers agreed, certainly fit the bill of “innovative takes on important topics.”

If an author wants to storm the gates of a trade house, he or she will need an agent to negotiate the advance and contract. Papin, who works by referral and gets to pick who hires her, defines her first responsibility as editorial. She is looking for “projects that wear their theory lightly, that lead with story and character.”

As she assesses a work’s viability, she referred to herself as “the first captive audience and idiot reader.” When she is satisfied with the writing and structure of the work, she shifts gears to the proposal.

Okay, here’s the heavy lifting

Papin’s charge is to make the proposal — which is both existential argument for the work and a marketing document — “bullet-proof.” The proposal, she emphasized, has to be written in the voice of the book.

Many authors sound too formal or, unforgivably, write in the passive voice. Instead, Papin urged, “You can ‘I’ all the time” — and should. Do not, she warned, use scholarly clichés such as the words “trope” or “problematic”; they will sink you like a stone.

With the proposal complete, Papin becomes a matchmaker, finding the best publisher for the work, which essentially means finding the right in-house editor, someone who will share the author’s vision for the book but also not be afraid to push for meaningful change.

Both Schwartz and Papin emphasized that authors should not go too far down the road before approaching a handful of publishers. For authors who send a couple of brilliant sample chapters, a perfect pitch, and a bullet-proof proposal, expect enthusiasm in spades from publishers. Nothing hard about that, right? 

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