A young editor talks about the joys and the turmoil.
Everyone knows that the book is dead. Don’t tell Kirsten Reach ’08, who is busy discovering writers and bringing their work to readers. Reach is one of three editors at the Brooklyn-based publisher Melville House, known for introducing new talents as well as re-introducing the work of forgotten international writers. In an interview, she discussed her job, some of the hard realities in publishing, and the advice she’d offer young people who hunger for a career like hers. Here are some highlights.
Tell us about your job at Melville House.
I focus on frontlist fiction and nonfiction. I work with authors, translators, and a few agents, as well as our staff of twelve. I consider submissions, reach out to new writers, acquire new projects, negotiate contracts, edit those projects, and meet with the marketing, publicity, and art departments to find innovative ways to break out new books. I work with authors through all stages of the editorial, production, and publicity processes.
What do you like best about this career?
I love reading an article or story in a literary magazine and writing a letter to that writer encouraging her to expand the project. It’s exciting to begin a relationship with a writer you really admire . . . beginning a conversation that might evolve into her first book. We publish lots of work from the nineteenth century, which means a lot of white European men. I’d like to expand the kinds of voices we represent here, add more women to the list, and bring in more debuts.
What do you look for in a book?
A strong voice, a sense of narrative pull, compelling characters, the rhythm of the language. Is the author taking interesting risks? Is this the story of an unusual industry, something people will be curious about? Does the book feature a unique setting? Does the author have an audience already, or a media platform of some kind? Does it touch on a social issue? Does it add a new dimension to our list?
This is the part of publishing that can be especially heartbreaking. We have to ask: Have other titles like this one worked? Have they worked in the last two years? Have they worked for this publishing house?
The business of books is clearly in a period of turmoil.
Sure, this is a period of transition. We’re losing retail outlets. But 2012 was a strong year for independent bookstores. What happens to Barnes and Noble in the next few years will drive a lot of changes in the publishing world. (If it shuts down, we’re all in trouble.)
Amazon has driven prices down, which also drives down royalties; writers and publishers are very unhappy about that. In the world of fiction, e-books are cutting into trade paperback sales. It’s getting harder for serious nonfiction to be published in trade paperback at all.
But it’s a wonderful time to be a reader; you can easily follow your favorite writer and curate an RSS feed of publications you want to follow. There’s more accessible content than you can ever read. It’s easier to connect to online communities who care about the subjects your authors are talking about.
What’s your advice for young graduates hoping to make careers in publishing?
When I talk to new grads, I like to emphasize that the job you’re going to get isn’t going to be advertised. It’s best to cast a wide net, reaching out to the people you want to work for, and when you have a good interview, you’ve got to stay in touch with that company. In certain ways, publishing is an ideal job for a liberal arts graduate. You get to work in a myriad of fields all at once. If Kenyon presented you with a hundred different flavors, and you wanted to try a little bit of everything, this job is like an ice cream sundae.
Cristin Bishara ’94, Relativity
Science fiction and teenage realism compellingly merge in this fast-paced novel for young adults. Unhappily transplanted from San Francisco to small-town Ohio (where some names evoke Kenyon), Ruby finds a tree that takes her to parallel universes, alternative lives, and her dead mother.
Carl Djerassi ’43, How I Beat Coca-Cola and Other Tales of One-Upmanship
The famous chemist and prolific author brings together twelve irresistible short stories—comedies of manners, full of wit and unexpected turns, in realms including food, sex, art, word play, and, of course, science.
William Gass ’47, Middle C
The acclaimed author’s new novel moves from World War II Europe to postwar Ohio. It’s the story of Joseph Skizzen, musician, fraud, and creator of a private “Inhumanity Museum.” As one reviewer has written, “Gass’s sentences coax and seduce, writhe and bite and his aesthetic attention never wavers.”
Nicholas A. Hutchinson ’89, Barry’s Wild Ride: The Illustrated Adventures of Barry the Bear
Playful pictures help tell the story of a bear who sips tea, strums a birchwood guitar, does yoga, and finds some new friends riding the waves.
Ben Keene ’00, Camping New York: A Comprehensive Guide to Public Tent and RV Campgrounds
Keene provides vital information on more than a hundred campgrounds, as well as tips on enjoying (or avoiding) wildlife.
Janet E. Lord ’88, with Andrew Power and Allison S. deFranco, Active Citizenship and Disability: Implementing the Personalisation of Support
A human-rights lawyer, Lord and her co-authors explore how different countries have reformed their laws to ensure maximum choice and independence for people with disabilities.
Amy Waterman Mason '02, Lessons in Letting Go
Occasioned by the death of an unborn child, the poems in this chapbook evoke “the vulnerable heart within, / rife with the doom of ending”—but also life, which “clings to the deftest of fingers, / twisting and tangling them together.”
Wade Newman ’78, Final Terms and East and West
Newman delivers two books of poetry in one volume: just flip it over, upside-down, to switch. He writes, often with wit, about matters ranging from tango—dancers “hinged by our wrists”—to love and sex, to “Dame Poetry.”
Katherine H. Terrell ’95, co-editor with Mark P. Bruce, The Anglo-Scottish Border and the Shaping of Identity, 1300-1600
Literary scholars examine the construction of imagination and national consciousness in both Scotland and England. Terrell teaches English at Hamilton College.
Richard H. Timberlake ’46, Constitutional Money: A Review of the Supreme Court’s Monetary Decisions
A retired economics professor, Timberlake examines key court decisions to explain how money “became what it is,” with particular attention to three institutions: the gold standard, the Federal Reserve system, and the Supreme Court itself.
Helen Zoe Veit ’00, Modern Food, Moral Food: Self-Control, Science, and the Rise of Modern American Eating in the Early Twentieth Century
A history professor at Michigan State University, Veit weaves together cultural history and the history of science in this fascinating book about the Progressive Era and how an emphasis on science and self-control profoundly influenced American eating.
Allyson Whipple ’06, We’re Smaller Than We Think We Are
Whipple has described the poems in this chapbook as being “about both inner and outer journeys.” She explores traveling, sexuality, and Texas, “where neighbors read / your business / from your shadow.”