With every Red Sofa Chats, I am reminded (yet again) why so many of us love our jobs and why we seemingly work non-stop. We love books, we love the words that make the books, and there’s a willingness to consider new ideas and new stories. Hence, it’s my treat to have the opportunity to include Sarah Knight on the newest installment of the Red Sofa Chats. She is a perfect person for this series, as she not only loves books (and publishing), but I believe she likes Twitter even more than me. Additionally I now have more books on the “to read list,” as I want to read every book she has mentioned in the newest Red Sofa Chats.
So enjoy! And make sure to say “Hi!” to Sarah in the Twitterverse.
SARAH KNIGHT is a Senior Editor at Simon & Schuster where she edits books across a wide array of categories, including literary and commercial fiction—with a special emphasis on thrillers, crime, and suspense—as well as narrative nonfiction, memoir, travel and food writing, pop culture, and humor. She looks for strong voices and provocative points of view, stylish writing and page-turning narratives in both novels and nonfiction. Prior to coming to S&S in 2010, she held positions at Scribner, Henry Holt, and Random House. She can be found on Twitter @mcsnugz
1. Why did you choose to become an editor?
I’ll dispense with “I was always an avid reader” because everyone says that. It’s a prerequisite for choosing a career in book publishing! But I always had two loves: theater and books. By the time I graduated college—despite many achievements in prop and set design, including carving Greek columns out of blue foam for a Gilbert & Sullivan production and painting an LA cityscape twice (once in color, once in grayscale) for “City of Angels”—I didn’t feel like I could go toe-to-toe with the best designers in New York City, which was where I intended to move. Those folks were educated in tech and craft at places like Julliard and I was really just indulging a hobby at a liberal arts school with no formal theater major. So that’s how I chose publishing, and more specifically editing—it was in some ways a process of elimination among two careers that would enable me to work behind the scenes of two great institutions for which I had an abiding love and at least some small amount of talent to contribute.
2. Are there any projects you wish you could have edited?
Well, if we’re talking about the ones that got away, when I had just been promoted to my first full editor job at a new company, I desperately wanted to acquire The Thirteenth Tale. I thought it was the best book I’d read on submission in years, but I don’t think anyone wanted to trust the twenty-six-year-old with the million dollars necessary to take that off the table! (But let’s be fair, even armed with the cash, if I were Diane Setterfield, I would have chosen Emily Bestler over twenty-six-year-old me anyway.) At that same company I tried very hard to acquire a book that is almost thoroughly out of character for me: Dewey. I tend to go for edgy, provocative, often political or comedic nonfiction—but I just loved that cat.
Speaking of cats, I also totally loved this dark satirical Canadian novel from 2003 called Cat’s Crossing about a cat who goes missing and its owner offers a $2 million reward and the city descends into this rabid population of cat hunters, all while this kitty is calmly traversing the country (thinking like a person, in the manner of the dog in Garth Stein’s 2008 bestseller The Art of Racing in the Rain). Every page of the Canadian edition had a black cat silhouette on the corner so when you flipped the pages you got a little moving cat film. It was very sly. I wasn’t allowed to acquire it for US rights and it sold zero copies and I’m sure no one has ever heard of it but even if it was destined to be a tiny book, I would have loved to have that one on my shelf.
More recently, when I left Random House in 2010 I had just acquired Gillian Flynn’s third novel, Gone Girl on the basis of about 40-50 pages and an outline (I edited her previous book Dark Places, and she’d had a different editor who discovered her with Sharp Objects). Of course, I wish I had been able to edit Gone Girl when it finally came in! But in some ways, reading the finished book was a lot more fun because I got to experience the story as a fait accompli, instead of knowing how the sausage was made, so to speak. That’s always the problem editing thrillers—once you pass the virgin read, it gets less fun every time because you know what’s coming. Then a few months ago, a book that was not submitted to me caught my attention after trusted readers were discussing it on Twitter: Tampa by Alissa Nutting. So I got a galley and read it and promptly emailed the agent to say, “I wish you had sent this to me!” and proceeded to fawn all over the book’s editor the next time I saw her at a party. Brilliant, subversive, and risqué book. Wish it were mine.
3. What are you reading right now (for personal reading, for fun)?
With the caveat that it is almost impossible to keep up a healthy pleasure reading life as a book editor, because most of my spare time is spent reading (for the second, third, fourth, fifth time) the manuscripts I’m publishing, I do try to make time for other books both for fun and to keep abreast of what’s out there in the world. In the last year I’ve drawn most of my pleasure reads from recommendations on Twitter—I figure I follow these 1000 people for a reason and it’s because we generally share the same opinions and tastes, so when a bunch of them are buzzing about a book, I take it as a good sign. In the last few months I’ve read and really enjoyed Where’d You Go Bernadette, Ghost Man, The Other Typist, Red Moon, Lost Girls (technically this was for work since I now publish Andrew Pyper, but I wanted to read this old novel of his because it is legendary—and was originally published the year I graduated from college), and of course, Tampa. I started and didn’t finish a few bestselling literary novels, because I just didn’t get into them and pleasure reading time is too precious to waste.
4. How do you utilize Twitter? How do you believe it has changed the way we go about publishing books?
Given that I’ve already mentioned Twitter twice in this interview I guess it’s obvious that I’m a big fan! I love Twitter—it’s become such a great aggregator for me of entertainment, general news, and industry news. I use it myself for personal and professional reasons—I’m a bit of a show-off and I like to think I’m funny, so Twitter is a good platform for me to express myself, but it’s also a wonderful place to share news about my books and authors. I try to keep my feed about half-and-half so people don’t view me as a marketing shill, but it’s tempting to sit at my desk all day and link to great reviews of my books. I try to couch all my tweets in an engaging way and avoid using imperative language (a trick I learned from a travel writer author of mine); I don’t think people like to be told what to do (“Check this out!” or “Read this!”) so I try to make things mysterious or funny or link them to current events while plugging the book.
I love having conversations on Twitter but not engaging in debate, because the medium doesn’t support it. 140 characters is not long enough to have a substantive debate over, for example, whether you think @mikeshatzkin is wrong or right about the future of retail and its impact on book publishing (spoiler: I think he’s [mostly] right). While I wouldn’t make any grand claims about Twitter singlehandedly changing the way we publish books, it’s certainly become one more tool to get the word out, and we take it into consideration on every campaign now. But if an author isn’t a natural on Twitter, I don’t think you can (or should) force it. It’s just as painful to watch someone flail around in cyberspace as it is in person at a reading.
5. If you had a crystal ball, where do you think (or hope) publishing will be in 5 years?
This is a tough one for me to answer…I have so many thoughts! I’m a bit hesitant to lay out a one-sided case and have it live on the internet forever without the opportunity to engage in debate and/or refine my own thought process about something as complex as the future of publishing. For every sentence I start to write, I find myself needing five or six more to qualify the statement and respond to imagined arguments from the peanut gallery. I suppose in a nutshell, I think the world is changing faster than the publishing industry has historically, collectively, been willing to admit, and that concerns me. I believe there is a misguided and risky nostalgia for printed books that keeps people in our business blind to the realities of technological innovation and its effects on pricing and format and retail space and effective marketing strategies. Of course there will always be stories to tell and to read—like there’s music to record and listen to, and movies to film and watch. But how we find those stories, how we access and read them, and how much we are willing to pay for them is changing rapidly and I don’t think we’ve seen the half of it. When people scoff and say, “Of course there will always be print books! Most people want to read hard copies! Not everyone has a Kindle!” I say, “I bet everyone at Woodstock thought the same thing about records.”
The change that’s happening to consumer society isn’t limited to books, and books are not magically immune to the fate of other forms of media. I don’t go to the movies anymore because it’s annoying, and I have a big, flat screen, high-def TV with HBO on Demand and Netflix streaming video in my house. I am neither on the forefront of that revolution nor am I on the tail end. The more affordable that technology becomes, the more ubiquitous it will be—and the more movie theaters will close, and the more studios will have to factor in streaming royalties and direct-to-consumer marketing in their budgets for making films. When I bought a Kindle 2.0 in 2008, as I recall it cost me about $260. You can get a Kindle now for as little as $69.00 and that means more and more people will buy them—like they did CD players, and iPods. My husband, a devoted audiophile, now carries his entire (vast) music collection with him every day on his phone. He has three old, unused iPods at home, a gadget that he once claimed was “the best thing I have ever owned.” But he doesn’t need them anymore to listen to music. In the same way I don’t think people will need hard copy books to read. And if that is really coming down the pike, we as publishers should be preparing for it now, more than I think we currently are.
But I haven’t met a lot of people that want to entertain that line of thought. I guess we’ll see in five years!
Thanks again Sarah! To our readers, what has your experience been thus far in learning about new books on Twitter? Are there any questions you’d like Sarah to answer?