We’re posting transcripts of Working, Slate’s podcast about what people do all day, exclusively for Slate Plus members. What follows is the transcript for Season 3, Episode 6, in which Slate culture writer Aisha Harris talks to Jordan Pavlin, a book editor at Knopf, about how she identifies future best-sellers, works with talented but sometimes temperamental authors, and fights for her book within the publishing house. Plus, for the Slate Plus bonus segment, Pavlin explains to Harris about how she answers the most common question she’s asked: Will you read my novel? To learn more about Working, click here.
We’re a little delayed in posting this episode’s transcript—apologies. This is a lightly edited transcript and may differ slightly from the edited podcast.
Aisha Harris: Welcome to Working, Slate’s podcast about what people do all day. I’m Aisha Harris, a culture writer at Slate. On our final episode of the season, we chat with someone who reads for a living, and is always on the lookout for the next great novel.
What is your name, and what do you do?
Jordan Pavlin: My name is Jordan Pavlin, and I’m a book editor at Alfred A. Knopf.
Harris: And I admit that I’m not exactly a reader of books—at least fiction books. And is that what you do—you edit—
Pavlin: Predominantly novels.
Harris: What are some of the names of the authors that you’ve worked with?
Pavlin: Some of the writers with whom I work presently are Nathan Englander, Karen Russell, Tania James, Dinaw Mengestu, Julie Orringer, Maggie Shipstead, Jenny Offill, Ayana Mathis, Ethan Hawke, Diana Nyad, and Sheryl Sandberg.
Harris: I will say, we are currently in your office now, and there are tons of books. And you just named a ton of different writers. What does a typical day look like for you?
Pavlin: In the course of a typical day, I might speak to three or four writers who are at varying levels of joy and distress. I might hear pitches from half a dozen agents about novels and submissions they are planning to send me. I might talk to the art department about a jacket. I might lobby for more money for an advertising budget for a book. I might be writing a note to the publisher about an acquisition I’d like to make.
So, in the course of a typical day, I would wear many, many hats—basically interfacing among all the different departments at Knopf.
Harris: So, let’s go through some of those different routines that you talked about. When you’re working with a writer—depending on what level they’re at—what is that like for you? Are you going back and forth with them via email? Do you ever interact with them in person as well? Over the phone? Describe a little bit about what that’s like.
Pavlin: Well, when I first acquire a book, I usually have a conversation with the writer to make sure that we are on the same page editorially, because if we are going to be embarking on any kind of editorial revisions, it’s so important that we see the novel in the same way and have the same vision of it. So, that’s the starting point.
And then later in the process, if I’ve acquired the book, then I will return to the book with a pencil and reread it much more closely and more slowly, and make notes in the margins. Lots of times there’ll be queries and questions—tiny things, sentence by sentence, and larger things, in terms of character, and plot, and pacing.
And then I will sit down to write a long editorial letter in which the great challenge is to constructively criticize, offer possible solutions, raise questions that strike chords, that trigger responses. The challenge is to do all of this whilst simultaneously conveying enthusiasm, and excitement, and conviction, and certainty that all of these things can be brought to pass.
Harris: So, you explain to me how one becomes a book editor. How did you fall into this position?
Pavlin: I think that most people who are book editors become editors because they really are not fit for any other kind of work. You know, book editors tend to be people who were very escapist in their childhoods, who were smart misfits, who spent a lot of time in their local library, and spent a lot of time in imaginary worlds. And I was an English major at Vassar, and I had thought about possibly pursuing a career in academia. I was in love with Shakespeare. I just wanted to go on reading him.
But I felt that by going into publishing, I would be having—I felt that publishing was a way for me to make a life around something I loved—that would allow me not to retreat from the world. And it’s an incredibly rich, rewarding life. I mean, I can say, you know, the job of an editor is to acquire the best books, and publish them as successfully as possible, and to be a passionate advocate and champion.
But the truth of the matter is that for 25 years, I have been paid to read. That’s not my whole job. But that’s the first part of the job. The first part of the job, the first requirement is for me to fall in love. I mean, what a great job. That’s crazy.
Harris: So, can you describe—you don’t have to give us the name of the person, but, like, can you describe a recent kind of criticism that you had to make, and how you kind of phrased it and framed it, to make it encouraging for them?
Pavlin: Well, I can tell you a story about a writer who I won’t name, but who is really struggling with her second novel. And I have heard her read from it, and I know that it is brilliant and amazing, and will be an extraordinary book. But she is at a kind of impasse—and so much so that she is considering putting the book down—just stopping where she is, maybe embarking on something else or just walking away from it.
So, in this case, she sent me a very long email, explaining why she felt it wasn’t working. And I know that it is working—and, however difficult the work is, that the book will be extraordinary. So, I just sent her back a one-line email, all caps, that simply said, “DO NOT ABANDON THESE PEOPLE.”
Harris: And what was her response—or has she responded yet?
Pavlin: I think she’s finding her way forward. I actually think this book is going to win many prizes. So, there will be a better story then.
Harris: Well, that makes me wonder, like, are there books where you—when you first approach them, and you think, Oh wow—like, right from the start, it seems like something that’s going to be great—and then there are other books where you see the potential, but it’s not quite as clear? Like, how do you—when you give that first note back to them, like, how do you—if it’s not clear to you, like, where it’s going, but you think it has potential, what do you tell them?
Pavlin: Well, I think the first thing is that if a book does need work, I try not to take it on unless I really have a vision for it—unless I really feel I can be of use to the writer.
Harris: Just to backtrack a little bit, how does your relationship with a writer work? Do people—I imagine writers have agents. And then are you working with their agents before you actually even get in contact with the writer—or are there writers who, like, reach out to you directly?
Pavlin: Sometimes I’m very fortunate in having writers I work with refer other writers to me. Very often they’re students, because many of them teach in MFA programs. But most often books come to me through literary agents. And most of the time, the books that come to me land on my desk because agents are familiar with what I’m publishing, and they think something might be a good fit for my list.
Harris: So, that’s the first part of your job. And so then is the second part more—is that more business-inclined? Because then, I imagine you have to get the book ready—once you’ve done the back-and-forth, get it ready for publishing. Can you break down exactly how that works once it’s ready to go?
Pavlin: Well, the first thing is that I need to be able to speak about these books with clarity, and intelligence, and excitement, so that our sales reps will know how to pitch them to booksellers—and so that booksellers, in turn, will want to present them to consumers.
So, the first part of my job is really about inspiring people in-house, at Knopf, in every department—but especially our sales reps—to read the book and to share my excitement about it. It’s my job to try to galvanize every department into seeing the same potential, and possibility, and importance in each of the books that I’m publishing and presenting. So, that means talking to people in the marketing department and the publicity department, and sort of just being a tireless advocate—you know, making sure that the jacket is right, that the jacket is setting the novel up in the most effective and telegraphic way.
Harris: With regards to the jacket—because the jacket is obviously kind of—aside from the words itself, the selling point—so do you—how much say do you have in what the jacket is, and how much say does the writer have, and how does that whole dynamic work between you and the illustrator—or the graphic designer?
Pavlin: I think Knopf is extraordinary in that, despite scheduling pressures, we work very, very hard and are very committed to not putting a jacket on a book that the author is unhappy with. You know, at the end of the day, it’s the author’s name on the book, and it’s critical that they feel good about it, and they’re happy with it.
And sometimes that means we go through 30 or 40 jackets—which is absurd and unheard-of. You know, that’s—it’s not great when that happens, but the art department is exceptional, and they will work, and work, and work, until we all feel that we have something that is right for the book.
Harris: Can you describe a bit what you’re looking for when you’re trying to bring the art to capture the words?
Pavlin: The thing about a jacket is that it is the book’s primary marketing tool. The book hopefully will be face-out, in a bookstore. And it’s the first message to the consumer about what the book is. And it’s the first—and sometimes the only—chance we have to connect directly with readers. So, then the question is, you know, is it more important that a jacket be beautiful, or is it more important that it be arresting? Is it more important that it be striking and evocative?
I think one goal we always have with jackets is to make them fresh, to make the book stand out so it doesn’t look like every other book on the table at the front of Barnes & Noble.
Harris: Tell me about a particularly stressful day for you. Like, what does that look like, when, like, everything doesn’t seem to be going right? If you have a specific example in mind—a recent example—you could describe that.
Pavlin: Well, I can tell you that the most stressful days of the year for me—there are two of them. We have something called a launch meeting. The launch meeting is the editor’s first opportunity to present a book that they have been living with for anywhere between, you know, nine months, 18 months, 10 years—you know. It’s the first opportunity the editor has to pitch the book directly to all of the departments in the publishing house.
And if you’re successful, you can really feel it. You can feel an electricity around it. And the impact you can have in that moment—you’re speaking for five or 10 minutes about each book, so it’s not a huge length of time. But if you are successful, you can often galvanize a house into publishing a book in a whole new way.
People who walk into that room seeing a book as small can leave the room seeing the book as a lead title, if you do it really well. So, the pressure is enormous. And, you know, the inverse is also true—that if you blow it, you feel you have fumbled something really important, and you have failed the writer in an essential way. And it’s very hard to recover from that.
Harris: So, with the launch day, it sounds like if it goes really successfully, that means they’ll promote it perhaps higher than other books within the publishing house. So, are you, in a way, competing against other book editors here—or maybe competing’s a harsh word—but just—are you trying to get as many of your books on top when compared to your other colleagues here?
Pavlin: I don’t feel I’m competing. I mean, we’re all—this list—it’s our list. We are all fighting for all of the books. So, one of the interesting things about launch meetings is looking at them in retrospect—because in the moment, we don’t always know which books on the list will be most successful.
Sometimes we do. Sometimes we have, let’s say, John Grisham or a book like Lean In, which had a lot of energy behind it, and we really felt that we could reach a very wide readership. But it is often the case that there are sleeper successes—successes that no one saw coming; books that started out with a print run of 20,000 copies and went on to sell hundreds of thousands of copies.
Now how can this be? How can an industry full of seasoned professionals be continually surprised by both its successes and its failures—books for which we had enormous expectations which didn’t perform at all? And the fact is that publishing is a deeply unscientific business. We can make comparisons. We often do. We’re asked for comp titles.
So, I would say, for instance, you know, this is for fans of The Circle. And then we came to the end. We could say, this is like Wild, or this is like Wild meets Frozen. So, you’re always looking for a hook. But the truth is, each book is an entirely new experience. There is nothing quite like it. It is utterly singular. So, every time we publish a book—whether it’s a novel or a piece of nonfiction—even if you feel you know who the target readership is, it really can’t be compared to anything, except its own singular self.
And so every book is a first.
Harris: Can you name any in particular that really surprised you—any of those sleeper successes that just went on to become really big?
Pavlin: Well, let me say the opposite first. When I published Karen Russell’s first collection of stories, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, I was absolutely certain that it would be on the cover of the Times Book Review, and that it would be a runaway best-seller.
Now in retrospect, that looks ever so slightly insane. It was a short-story collection. Typically short-story collections do not have sales. Typically short-story collections do not perform at that level—nor do they need to, necessarily. But I was absolutely shocked that it wasn’t huge—that the numbers weren’t huge. However, it was a hugely successful debut, and her second book was on the cover of the TBR, and did become a bestseller.
So, as an editor, you have to be an optimist. You have to be almost lunatic in your passion. You have to believe that you can bring about the impossible season after season after season.
Harris: How do you deal with those—not failures—but how do you deal with those kind of disappointments, or do you—is there something you do in particular that just makes you feel better if something that you thought was going to be big was not big?
Pavlin: Well, the truth is—the sad truth is, most books do fail. Most books sell modestly. America is not truly a nation of readers. We are typically publishing to fairly modest audiences. And a lot of the business is heartbreak and disappointment. You know, for me, it’s so much about the novel. If you love something in the beginning, you love it just as much, regardless of what happens out there in the world—which you can’t control.
And if you’re committed to building a writer—I never take on a writer believing I will publish only one book. When I begin a relationship with a writer, I believe that I will publish many, many books in the years to come—hopefully all of their books in the years to come. So, if the beginning is difficult, I see that as building a foundation.
Harris: So, what do you look for in a writer when you are looking for a new writer to work with? And how does that relationship sort of flourish or not flourish?
Pavlin: When I begin any novel, I’m always looking for the same thing—to be swept away, to be transported, to be totally enthralled by a voice. I want to fall in love. I want to be utterly dazzled. And I think very often, that experience happens very, very quickly. You know, sometimes within a few sentences or pages, if you are in the presence of a huge talent. It’s a very intimate relationship.
Writers are essentially solitary people. They are people who spend an enormous amount of time alone in a room. Fiction writers not only are alone in a room, but they are alone in a room in a world of their own invention, hearing voices—which sounds a lot like craziness.
So, the first thing is that they are really, really vulnerable. And your first encounter with them as an editor is at a moment of the most extreme vulnerability—when they are most exposed—or exposed for the first time. So, it’s a relationship that begins in an extraordinary place, and has to begin with such care and gentleness.
So, when it works—when an editorial relationship is strong, it is, first of all, for the editor, this tremendous privilege to be in such proximity to someone’s artistic life. And when it doesn’t work, it’s very, very painful.
Harris: I’m sure a lot of our listeners are probably curious about Sheryl Sandberg and Lean In. And you talked a little bit about when reading fiction, you want to be dazzled and be taken away. What was it like—like, what drew you to Lean In, to Sheryl Sandberg? Can you describe that moment of reading it for the first time?
Pavlin: We bought that book on the basis of a proposal that had huge personal impact on me. So, it spoke to me very directly. And it was clear, not only to me but to everyone who read the material—and, of course, to anyone who has ever encountered Sheryl or watched her speak—it was clear that it had enormous relevance, and would ignite a national debate.
It was an incredible experience. It’s amazing and special when a book triggers a cultural conversation.
Harris: So, if you can describe a little bit about, like, what your place is within the world of Knopf—like, what is the ecosystem like? Who are the people below you? Who are the people that you report to? Where do you fit in in all of that, and who are you interacting with?
Pavlin: Well, this is a fantastically weird and wonderful place. I believe there are 10 editors. We all report to Sonny Mehta, who is both chairman and publisher and editor-in-chief. And he is really, in every way, the heart of the house. It’s his sensibility that animates the house. It’s his judgment that determines, finally, what we publish and how we publish it. Sonny is a force of nature.
So, there are 10 editors here, all of whom publish essentially literary books. So, there is tremendous overlap. You know, it would be just as easy for an agent to submit something to me as almost any one of my colleagues. And I have a very small list, very carefully curated. So, a big part of that now is repeat authors.
So, I’m publishing, let’s say, a new book by Julie Orringer, or a new book by Maggie Shipstead, or a new book by Ayana Mathis. Of course, one of the best parts of the job—one of the most exciting aspects of the job—is that feeling of discovery when you read someone new, and when you find a voice that you know is alive and important—and so I take on, you know, new work whenever I can.
Harris: You’ve been working as a book editor for 25 years, you said? How has the publishing world changed in that time? And has it—has the change made it easier or more difficult for you to do your job?
Pavlin: It has changed, enormously, many times. The world has changed hugely. What has not changed, actually, in—never mind 25 years; I would go further. I would say what has not changed in the last 100 years is the core of an editor’s role. Then, as now, the editor’s first job was to acquire and edit the best books, and to talk about them with passion and purpose.
And that is the same. The landscape has changed. Bookselling has changed. The scale has certainly shifted dramatically, but the rudiments are remarkably unaltered.
Harris: So, I actually read a lot of my books on my iPad. And I know that the publishing world has been affected by the digital aspect. Like, how has that affected you directly in your position?
Pavlin: Well, first of all, I should say that I see the Internet, e-books—I see all of those things as enormous opportunities for publishers, and a chance for us to reach a much, much broader readership. And, frankly, although I personally love hardcover books—and also love paperback books so much—in the end, the important thing is that people are reading.
And I’m just as happy to have my writers reaching huge numbers of readers through digital sales as I am through physical sales.
Harris: What do you have coming up in the pipeline that you’re super excited about?
Pavlin: Most immediately, I have Diana Nyad’s memoir, Find a Way. It’s the story of her epic swim from Cuba to Florida at the age of 64. I have a new book coming from Ethan Hawke, called Rules for a Knight, which is written in the form of a knight in 14th-century Cornwall who is riding into a battle in which he knows he’s going to lose his life, and he writes a letter to his children about how to live—what gives life beauty and meaning.
I have a novel called The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota, which was just nominated for a Booker, and which is a contemporary Indian epic about a group of illegal immigrants living in the north of England. I have a brilliant first novel by a young woman called Yaa Gyasi—she’s just 25 years old—called Homegoing.
And this is a book that begins in the 1700s in Ghana, and stretches from the tribal wars there through slavery in America, the Great Migration, the Harlem Renaissance, all the way up to the present day. And it’s just astonishing.
And, of course, I have a brilliant debut novel from Jessica Winter, an editor at Slate, which is a blistering workplace satire, which I have very high hopes for.
Harris: Thanks for listening to this episode of Working, our last of the third season. Send us your feedback about the show to firstname.lastname@example.org. And there’s lots more where this came from. Explore our first two seasons at slate.com/working.
This episode was produced by Matt Collette. Joel Meyer is our managing producer, and our executive producer is Andy Bowers. I’m Aisha Harris, and thanks for listening to Working.
This podcast extra is part of your Slate Plus membership.
Harris: A lot of our listeners have actually wanted to talk to a book editor. Like, that was probably—we get—we sometimes use listener requests, and this was probably one of the ones where this role was very, very popular.
What do people ask you when you tell them you’re a book editor? Like, what’s one of the first things they might ask you?
Pavlin: They ask me if I’ll read their novel.
Harris: Then what do you say?
Pavlin: I say yes.
Harris: Is that just a matter of being polite, or have you actually, like, randomly met someone before, and then they’ve asked you to read their novel, and then you read it, and it went well?
Pavlin: It has never gone well, but it’s very hard to say no to someone in person when they ask you to read their novel.
Harris: When you read someone who you imagine will one day be—could really be great, but they’re not there yet, what advice, if any, do you give them?
Pavlin: Encouragement. I would simply urge them to keep writing.