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Book Business March/April 2013 : Page 19

Cover Story The Insider Interview By Lynn Rosen SuSan ISaacS: The bestselling author talks candidly about changes in the industry, and how she thinks publishers and authors can better work together. A fter 35 years of writing novels—not just novels, mind you: bestsellers—Susan Isaacs has a very clear understanding of how the book publishing industry works. Her take on the business from the perspective of a prolific author (13 novels and one book of nonfiction) offers unique insight into how and why things are changing. Isaacs loves to tell the story of how her first book came to be published in the late 1970s. A former editor of Seventeen magazine and a freelance political speech-writer, she was home with young children and living in Long Island. “I wrote a mystery. It was the usual [situation of] reading too many mysteries and then saying, ‘I think I can do this.’” A school acquaintance of her husband’s was man-aging editor of Simon & Schuster and offered to read the book. He liked it, and told Isaacs, “You don’t expect friends to write a good book!” This contact introduced Isaacs to her first agent, “a wonderful woman named Gloria Safier,” who told her, “I really like this book. Go home to your typewriter where you belong and I’ll sell it.” Although Isaacs did not learn the next part of the story until much later, the book was turned down by a number of houses citing reasons along the lines of: “Not even Long Island housewives want to read about Long Island housewives.” How wrong they were! Times Books, which was then still owned by The New York Times , bought the manuscript, although at the time they did not seem like a particularly natu-ral fit. According to Isaacs,“They hadn’t published fiction before. They were BookBusinessMag.com | APRIL 2013 ▲ 19

Susan Isaacs: The Insider Interview

Lynn Rosen

The bestselling author talks candidly about changes in the industry, and how she thinks publishers and authors can better work together.

After 35 years of writing novels—not just novels, mind you: bestsellers—Susan Isaacs has a very clear understanding of how the book publishing industry works. Her take on the business from the perspective of a prolific author (13 novels and one book of nonfiction) offers unique insight into how and why things are changing.

Isaacs loves to tell the story of how her first book came to be published in the late 1970s. A former editor of Seventeen magazine and a freelance political speechwriter, she was home with young children and living in Long Island. “I wrote a mystery. It was the usual [situation of] reading too many mysteries and then saying, ‘I think I can do this.’” A school acquaintance of her husband’s was managing editor of Simon & Schuster and offered to read the book. He liked it, and told Isaacs, “You don’t expect friends to write a good book!”

This contact introduced Isaacs to her first agent, “a wonderful woman named Gloria Safier,” who told her, “I really like this book. Go home to your typewriter where you belong and I’ll sell it.” Although Isaacs did not learn the next part of the story until much later, the book was turned down by a number of houses citing reasons along the lines of: “Not even Long Island housewives want to read about Long Island housewives.” How wrong they were!

Times Books, which was then still owned by The New York Times, bought the manuscript, although at the time they did not seem like a particularly natural fit. According to Isaacs,“They hadn’t published fiction before. They were known for boring books. They did books on Lithuanian saints—stuff like that.”

But Times Books was looking to change that, recalls Isaacs: “They hired a fiction editor who really was enthusiastic about my book. She and the subsidiary rights editor said, ‘Let’s go to town!’ They took it to the Book of the Month Club and said ‘You really have to pay attention.’” Timing was good, it seemed, as BOMC was seeking a book to pair with their other selection, the fourth novel by the then-little-known John Irving, The World According to Garp. They chose Isaac’s book, Compromising Positions, looking to package “a dark comedy and bright comedy.”

“John Irving and I were made for each other,” says Isaacs. “I have enormous fondness for him based on the fact that we came out at the same time.”

Debuting as a BOMC dual main selection garnered a lot of interest for Compromising Positions. “I had a paperback sale and the movie sale within a month [still pre-publication] and lots of foreign editions. Suddenly I went from high hopes to having a career.” The book was published in 1978, and Isaacs has been busy writing ever since.

Book Business caught up with Isaacs at her Manhattan apartment in February to pick her brain about the future of publishing from the author’s perspective.

After your first book became a hit, what came next for you?

For my second novel I decided not to do a sequel … I didn’t want to be writing 50 years down the road Compromising Positions Goes for Botox … I didn’t want to be typecast.

Did you go back to the same publisher? ? After that first book my editor sensed that that place wasn’t for her. She switched to another house and very generously said to me, ‘Feel free to go elsewhere,’ and I did. I went to Lippincott, which was assumed immediately by Harper & Row, which was eaten up by HarperCollins. But I stayed there for about 20 years with the same editor, Larry Ashmead, who was fabulous. Then I switched over to Scribner.

How has the process of working with a publisher changed over the course of 13 books?

Everyone is running around shrieking “ebooks, ebooks, ebooks!” I say it’s long before ebooks that it started changing.

My first editor, ultimately not long after she moved out from Times Books, within a few years she was out of publishing. She said, ‘It’s not the industry it was.’ The boys with elbow patches were still in command, but the publishing houses were being taken over by conglomerates. The conglomerates first of all expected bigger returns on their money than a good novel will get them, plus they had a lack of romanticism that would allow them to say, ‘I know we said only $200,000 but…’ A bottom line was a bottom line. [Isaacs is referring to publishers who’d set ceilings for what they’d pay at auctions, and then exceed them because of passion for a particular book.]

That whole charming, cultivated, literary way of doing business started to disappear, and at the same time, other media developed. You had not only the comput- er—which started out as a tool and then a kids’ thing and then somewhere where people can obsessively follow the lives of their tenth-grade boyfriends—but it became a social community. That took time.

How have readers changed since you started? ?

You had VHS and DVDs and so film became much more accessible. There was no streaming or anything like that, but you could watch a movie on your TV, on your computer. And as all this is happening, cable happens, so you have 24-houra- day news and analysis which makes your need to read books about politics not as strong.

And starting on network [TV], like with Hill Street Blues, but really flourishing on cable, you had narrative that came very close to the novel. If you look at The Sopranos and The Wire and Battlestar Gallactica … they’re very much like novels and they offer the same pleasures in terms of subplots and interesting characters and incident … So week after week you had these wonderful stories with highly developed characters that were far more accessible to the average smart person—or the average not so smart person.

What about the ebook reading experience? ?

The reading experience is not so different across platforms. It’s different in convenience in ebook in terms of being able to change the font … It’s also nice to be able to define a word. And when you’re reading a complicated book— [Hilary Mantel’s] Wolf Hall is complicated in the way Russian fiction is in that the characters have many names—you can search for a name.

What it lacks is the physical appeal of a paper book, the smell of the paper, the feel of it. In a way it’s boring because even though you do have the picture of the jacket, you’re always picking up the same ‘book,’ and that’s a loss. Given those differences, there’s the pleasure of being able to go out and buy a book instantly.

But it’s very tough and what’s particularly sad about the ebook tome is that the people who made the book business the booksellers—not the ones who just stand behind a register and scan a barcode but people who know about books and will call you and say, ‘A book came in and I think you’re going to love this,” or ‘Did you know that besides Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies Hilary Mantel wrote some memoirs?'

That’s gone—people knowing your taste—and it’s been replaced by algorithms. So it’s a great loss. But I think it’s gotten people reading again.

Tell us about your readers, how you get to know them, how you interact with them? ?

This book [her latest, Goldberg Variations] came out October. In November I did Jewish book fairs. It was women my age and younger—fewer older. I used to be getting: ‘My mother told me about you and I didn’t want to read it but I did and I love you and you’re wonderful.’ Now I’m getting: ‘My grandmother told me…’ I’m getting many more women than men. I’m used to women and some gay men [as fans], but now I’m getting younger men because they’re not afraid to read a novel with a woman’s name on it, and they used to be. Two male authors whom I cannot name both said to me basically the same thing: ‘I read you even though you’re a girl.’

But I think what men don’t expect from women—and what other women don’t expect from women—in terms of fiction is humor. It’s only been the last 10 to 15 years that it’s become acceptable for women to be funny without being kind of homey—being funny about the little daily things of life. Wit is acceptable.

Are the big six publishers in danger of becoming obsolete? ?

Not obsolete, but they’re in danger of becoming the big three. I think they’ll figure something out but I think sooner or later they’re going to get competition. Just as they missed the boat so far with ebooks. So you have people who are visionary [she mentions Open Road’s Jane Friedman], but I can see a bunch of writers getting together and creating a United Artists, publishing themselves and not splitting 50-50 with an Open Road or whatever the percentages are for other companies. Publishers have downsized so much that they can’t sell their frontlist. How the hell are they going to sell the backlist?

I think we have not only fewer readers but fewer greedy readers who want to read two to three books a week. Some of it has to do with women going to work—there ain’t no time!

Do you have any advice for publishers on how to foster good relationships with their authors? ?

Honesty and directness are always a plus. … There should be weekly reports including sales figures. … They don’t want to hurt the author or get the author angry but essentially they’re still dealing with authors as if we’re children, and very sensitive children. I think we all have to grow up and if there’s good news, let’s celebrate, and if there’s bad news … the point is there should be more contact.

The question that hasn’t been asked yet is where does the agent fit into all this, and the answer is, I don’t know, because the agents are just as much at sea as the publishers are. They’re getting a lot of material … but publishers aren’t buying because the author isn’t telegenic. One of the reasons people become writers is that they’re dorks. They may be a lot of other things—some of them are delightful and charming and even good-looking—but a lot of them are not…

There’s really very little told to the author [along the lines] of “this is what you should do—this is what we need you to do.” Someone should check out the author at a reading and see if he happens to scratch his crotch and drool as he’s doing it. [If so,] then it should be suggested to him that he keep his hands in his belt loops and try to control his saliva, or whatever it is. When I had my first TV experience, which I think was in 1980, I asked the publicist “What do I do, what should I know for TV?” She thought and she thought and she said, “Don’t wear ruffles.”

Read the full article at http://digitaleditions.napco.com/article/Susan+Isaacs%3A+The+Insider+Interview/1342575/150209/article.html.

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