Monday, October 31, 2011

1/2 Dozen for Emily Heckman (Editor Q and A)

An Insider's Look
at the Publishing World....
Here's a 1/2 Dozen
with editor Emily Heckman
who's worked as an editor
for major publishing companies,
including Grove Press, Macmillan, Random House and Simon & Schuster
with writers ranging from

Wendell Berry to Stephen King.

Here goes:

How much freedom did you have in choosing books? And how did the potential success of a book play into your decisions versus a more personal response?

Now that I’m freelance, I have a wide array of books I work on: rush editing jobs for publishers; proposal drafting for authors & agents. When I choose a novel to edit, I choose it just as I did when I was in-house. If there’s something electric there, within the first 25 pages, I’m in. And I become as devoted to the story as I ever did while still in-house.

Walk us through the process of a book being acquired by an editor?

Being an acquisitions editor is largely the business of saying no. You have to get buy-in from a huge wing of the house to make a play for something: editorial, sales, marketing, publicity have to see potential in a project before you’re authorized to make an offer. Though it begins with personal passion, acquiring a book for a major publisher is not, in the end, a passion play: it’s a p&l decision. So you spend a lot of time shoveling submissions off your desk so that it’s clear for when one gets to land.

Criticism. It’s part of the territory. How do you handle it? Is this the way you’ve always handled it?

Invite the criticism you receive from people of substance and wisdom and love. Welcome and receive their influence, always. From the rest, throw it away.

What do you think would most surprise aspiring novelists about the process of a novel being chosen for publication?

I think they’d be surprised by how subjective the process is. I remember when the manuscript for The Bridges of Madison County was making the rounds. I was at Bantam then, and I remember the buzz in the hall was that it was awful. Warner Books editors (now Grand Central) disagreed and laughed all the way to the bank on that one.

Also, and I know this just makes me sound old, but editors don’t really get to edit anymore. If a book has potential, but needs lots of work, then it’s an automatic no, where in the old days, you could buy a few of these, spend lots of time behind the scenes nurturing them, then, eventually, publish them well.

Most writers (even those currently being published) benefit now from working with freelancers who have had a tour of duty in-house. We can edit to the level of expectation of a publisher—the writer is game.

Writing Tip #17 for Aspiring Writers – or #47 or #2. Your pick.

Anne Lamott sort of said it all, didn’t she: “Bird by bird, buddy, bird by bird.” Writing is not glamorous. It’s pretty blue-collar in a certain way, like working for a moving company. You just have to tighten your belt and lift all that heavy stuff. It will break your back if you’re not careful, and you’ll definitely get bruised up, but you gotta get the stuff off the truck and into the house.

I sometimes liken it to knitting a giant sweater. In the end, it’s gotta hold together beautifully, but it is, in reality, one stitch (or word) latched onto the next. Word by word by word.

Tell us a tale from the publishing world – something, ANYthing about that process from your perspective.

There were a couple of times when the stars aligned in ways that just made me so glad to be in publishing. For me, as a publisher (though I wasn’t her publisher) the first time was when Anne Proulx’s The Shipping News (one of my top 5 novels of all-time) made the (best-seller) lists, won the Pulitzer, and was just so damn good. (Though the movie kind of sucked. Alas.) I remember thinking, “There you go. There’s a moment when “we” did it perfectly. It was the publishing equivalent of a no-hitter.

Pep talk (or bootie-kicking) for the downhearted writer. Let fly.

This is an easy one. Forget about finding an agent or a publisher. Forget Oprah (or whatever the next “Oprah” will be) or getting a snazzy ebook publishing deal with Amazon. Become slavishly devoted to your story. This is the only way. If you can’t do that, then don’t write. Period.

This is a vast question. Interpret it at will. What’s the future of publishing?

Wow. This is a good one—and a question that fascinates and excites me. When I left Simon & Schuster (where I was an Executive Editor) I worked as the VP of Business Development for one of the first “Self-Publishing” companies. It was a bold/controversial move for an editor with a literary press pedigree, but I was drawn to the idea of helping empower writers/authors. This was ten years ago. (Which, in post- Guttenberg time, is really about 500 years ago). I liked seeing the development of ebooks 1.0 (remember the sony ereader?) up close, of being part of the core group of people who were creating the lexicon and trying out new ways of doing things in a pretty fearless way. People in publishing were excited and reaching out into the future back then. I wish there was more of that going on in NYC offices now but it seems that the techonology companies (Apple, Amazon) got there first and are the ones having all the fun with books, at the moment.

I’m certain that at some point in the near future we’ll be reading, exclusively, digitial words (some gurus say the generation of kids who are under 5 now will be the first fully digital one).

What I don’t think will be lost (or what I hope isn’t lost) is the art of selection, of making a discerning choice (this is what publishers do on a macro level, editors on a micro level). This is where the passion, the art of publishing comes into play and if it were lost (and everything written were published, without the benefit of editing (revision is the high-art of writing) or a meaningful imprimatur (a publishing imprint, a blog blessing? A writers community?), then we’re all sunk.

Good books—regardless of what format they’re published in (digital, audio, print) are passed around hand by hand, by word of mouth. This won’t change. So they’ve gotta be good or no one will recommend them.

What’s your reading life like? Do you have any current favorites or sleepers that may have flown under our radar?

My reading life has been pretty unorthodox for the last twenty-five years. 90% of what I read is “under construction.” When I do get to put my pencil down (yup: I still edit on a printed manuscript—it’s the only way for me), I’m unbelievably picky. So I’ve read the first 50-100 pages of many best-selling books these past few years but felt that most of them didn’t merit more time than that. A book that surprised me? A client recently turned me on to the stories of Leonid Andreyev, a Russian writer working at the beginning of the twentieth century. His stories are shocking, gorgeous, perfect. They’re like a sharp slap in the face. Bracing and brilliant. They remind me why I got into publishing in the first place.

What project of yours was the easiest writing of your life? And, flip-side, which one was the most like wrestling bears? (And could you tell before you started or did they turn on you, for better or worse?)

Writing celebrity memoirs is not a happy occupation. As a writer, you give your all, working to craft something that’s not only beautiful, but that actually elevates the persona you’re presenting on the page. Most famous people have no appreciation for how difficult and subtle writing is and how devoted and talented ghost-writers are. It’s also undervalued by publishers (ie. Doesn’t pay well.) It’s a business I’m leaving behind, in favor of writing my own books.

On the flip-side, I’ve loved writing books by brilliant doctors and scientists who are on the cutting edge of making break-throughs that will benefit mankind I get to draft along with some pretty brilliant minds and it’s incredibly energizing and fun. Plus, I’m a bit of a research freak, so I’m up for anything that gets my brain going (neuroscience, unironically, is a current favorite topic).

What is your current job and how was it shaped by your earlier experiences?

That’s a funny question in a lot of ways as I’ve been working on essays and a memoir about betrayal—the gift that keeps on giving! It’s an extraordinarily knotty topic and one that, I think, the human mind doesn’t automatically get. I’ve done an incredible amount of reading (there are some great memoirs out there that brush the topic) and tons of research into the psychology behind betrayal and the trauma that ensues. It’s fascinating. (I just read that it’s only ever been effectively approached in literature by writers like Jane Austen who take the time to plot the complex web of relationships that betrayal shatters and twists). So that’s the heavy lifting. I’m balancing that with something much more fun. I was awarded a grant from my college (Vassar: I transferred there from the University of Delaware!) this year to make a documentary film. I’m excited to try narrative nonfiction in a different medium and I’m working with really fun people on this project. It’s scary, humbling and extremely exciting as I’m an absolute beginner. A total dofus who is going to give it a shot anyway.

But I still edit freelance, to keep the lights on. Big secret about me is that though I write nonfiction books, editing fiction is my secret talent.

Do you have advice for someone thinking about going into editorial work?

Yes. Do it! I got my first job in publishing when I drove across the country a week after graduating from college. I knocked on the door of North Point Press, the legendary literary press, in Berkeley. CA. I started as an unpaid intern and worked two other jobs to pay my rent. It was in a converted church and there were 12 people working there, surrounded by tall shelves of their gorgeous books (the offices were the warehouse). I learned the art & craft of editing and publishing there, then, after three years, I got a job offer at Grove Press in New York, moved to the city and never looked back. Editing is an honorable vocation, so different from writing in some crucial ways, yet so intimately sympathetic with it. Editing is a very noble profession, one that I’ve been proud to be part of. I would tell anyone who loves literature and books to go for it.


I joined the IEG after spending more than fifteen years working as an acquisitions editor for major publishing companies, including Grove Press, Macmillan, Random House and Simon & Schuster. I edit adult nonfiction and fiction in equal measure. Currently, I divide my time between co-authoring and editing, and I work selectively for writers, agents, and major publishing houses.

I’ve worked with many best-selling and award-winning authors including, Gary Snyder, Wendell Berry, Elizabeth Kelly, Stephen King, Mary Higgins Clark, Ann Rule, Jeffery Deaver, Bev Marshall, and James Swain.

Areas of particular interest for me include narrative nonfiction, women’s health, spirituality/religion, psychology, and current events. I edit many types of fiction, but specialize in commercial literary fiction, mysteries and thrillers. (Sorry: I don’t edit science fiction or fantasy).

Recent successes include editing Apologize! Apologize! By Elizabeth Kelly (Twelve, 2009), The Perfect Ten Diet by Dr. Michael Aziz (Cumberland House 2010), and co-authoringPlease Don’t Label My Child (Rodale, 2007), and Ask Me Again Tomorrowby Olympia Dukakis (HarperCollins, 2003), the best-selling memoir by the Academy Award-winning actress.

I’m available for developmental editing, line-editing, proposal development, and more general writing, editing and publishing consultation.



To read more 1/2 Dozens by novelists, essayists, poets,
short story writers, and agents, click on the below.

Laurie Foos

Susan Henderson

Chantel Acevedo

Caroline Leavitt

Danica Novgorodoff

Rebecca Rasmussen

Laurel Snyder

Tatjana Soli

Julie Buxbaum

Randy Susan Meyers

John McNally

Justin Manask (agent)

Melissa Senate

Steve Kistulentz

Christopher Schelling (agent)

Dani Shapiro

Jeff VanderMeer

Catherine McKenzie

Emily Rapp

Stephanie Cowell

Elizabeth Stuckey-French

Paul Elwork

William Lychack

Leah Stewart

Michelle Herman

Lise Haines

Benjamin Percy

Aimee Nezhukumatathil

Karen Salyer McElmurray

Kim MacQueen

Crystal Wilkinson

Michael Griffith

Laura Dave