An Interview With Fiction Editor Lee BoudreauxBy Jared Rowan
May 12, 2010
Lee Boudreaux is a fiction editor in New York. In 15 years she has climbed the publishing ladder, from being an unpaid intern at Longstreet Press, to being an assistant editor, to being a senior director at Random House, one of the largest publishing houses in the world.
She currently works for the HarperCollins imprint Ecco Publishing as its editorial director. An imprint is a smaller division of a larger publishing firm. It is usually a smaller publishing house that is absorbed by a larger one.
Boudreaux has helped to publish novels by several noted authors such as Adriana Trigiani, Stephen King and David Wroblewski, author of the recent bestseller “The Story of Edgar Sawtelle.”
Here, Lee Boudreaux explains what got her into the publishing business, what that business consists of, and why you have to love the job in order to stay dedicated to it.
What follows is an edited selection of a questions and answers with Lee Boudreaux.
Q: When you graduated from William and Mary in 1990, did you know you wanted to enter into the publishing world?
Boudreaux: It…No. I didn’t. I was an English and government double major, and I thought I was majoring in English because that’s just what I loved, and the government was somehow going to be the more practical of the two, I guess I thought I might end up in Washington doing something, sort of…I don’t know what I thought it would be, really (laughs). I mean, publishing would have been a dream but I didn’t know anything about it, I didn’t know how you got a job in New York, I didn’t know how you just packed your bags an move up here and found a place to live and found a job, I didn’t know anyone who worked in publishing, I didn’t know anyone who had ever lived in New York, probably.
My mother happened to be old college roommates with somebody who was an author, I think I did write her a letter at one point and just ask a bunch of totally stupid questions and she very sweetly wrote me this eight page response trying to fill in what she knew as an author, and then it took me a couple years to figure out how to get to New York. I actually did this thing called the Radcliffe Publishing Course, now it’s called the Columbia Publishing Course, which was this six week program in book and magazine publishing, but I was out of school for probably, gosh, three or four years before I even discovered that.
Q: So, after you took the Columbia Publishing Course, that’s when it clicked for you?
Boudreaux: It did. I was working as a paralegal in Richmond, Va., right out of college, and then I moved to Atlanta and worked for a very small publishing company called Longstreet Press and worked at a bookstore, thinking I was getting my feet wet, and I didn’t know what it was going to turn into. Then I heard about the Radcliffe course, and I applied and I went, and I thought, well, I’ll go back to Longstreet, and they’ll hire me full time instead of, I think I was like an unpaid intern for the year I was down there, and then worked at the bookstore. I think I worked at Longstreet at 9 in the morning until noon every day for free, and then I worked at the bookstore from 2 o’clock in the afternoon till 11 p.m., and then in my spare time actually, because book stores certainly don’t pay too much money and the Longstreet work was free, I summarized medical records and depositions for the law firm that I had worked for when I first got out of school. Everyone who worked anywhere in the south, their dream was to end up in Algonquin, which was a terrific small publisher. But, obviously, jobs were not going to be opening up there all the time, so we were all going to be sitting there in Georgia waiting for somebody at Algonquin to drop (chuckles), so we could get the job of our dreams.
So, I went to the Radcliffe Course, thinking I was going back to Georgia, went back, and about a month later I said “You know, I have got to take a stab at New York. I now know these 90 other people who went to the Radcliffe Course, they’ve all got entry level jobs in publishing, I know these three people who are living in a house in Brooklyn, they say they’ve got an extra room if I want to move up there and give it a try, I’ve got to go for at least a year”. And I honestly thought I’d be here [New York] for a year or two. I got on the train with two suitcases, and I slept on the floor in this house in Brooklyn for six months (laughs), and I got somebody to sell my car for me, back in Virginia, and I finally got a job. And again, I thought I would be an editorial assistant and go back to Georgia, or maybe my dream job at Algonquin would open up at some point. And then, I just loved my boss and loved my job, and I moved with her from one publishing house to another, and stuck around for a couple years, and got promoted a couple times, and here it is 15 years later.
Q: And now you’re the editorial director for Ecco Publishing. Can you describe what you do as an editorial director?
Boudreaux: Well, the imprint I work for, Ecco, does about, I’d say 45 new hard covers a year. I only do fiction; I’d say my list is about 90% fiction 10% non-fiction. So my job, in a managing capacity, it’s over a very small list. The imprint is still headed by the person who founded it 36 years ago, so I don’t do a great deal of managing. I would say my job here is like a highlighted collegial position, I will read other people’s submissions, be it fiction or nonfiction, and weigh in with my opinion but my opinion is no more than the opinion of somebody with 15 years experience. I would not put it on a higher pedestal than that. I don’t have veto power over anyone else’s acquisition, I don’t want to be voting with that strong of a voice, I like just weighing in on things. I will weigh in on cover designs, of other people’s books, I will weigh in on balancing a list…by being at a small publisher, which is what I like, there isn’t as much managing to do as just participating in the pool of about, six or eight of us that comprise the whole imprint.
Q: You had to work your way up to being the Editorial Director, all through the different levels of an editor, did you like any particular one better than the rest, or were they all different beasts.
Boudreaux: You mean the sort of ‘rungs on the ladder’? Well, yeah, it starts: editorial assistant, then you get to be an assistant editor, and then you’re an associate editor, and then you’re a full editor, and then they start adding things on like executive editor, senior editor or what have you. Every step up the ladder it gets more fun. I mean, you start out and you do a lot of Xeroxing, you answer phones, and you read along with your boss, and if you’re lucky you have similar tastes to your boss, and if you’re lucky there’s a lot you can learn from your boss even if you don’t have similar tastes. But, if you hated and knew nothing about science books, and you ended up working on science books, it could either be very educational experience for you or you could totally blow it. I probably would have been terrible if I ever had to work on sports books, for example, I don’t know if I ever would have gotten the knack, so I was very lucky that I worked for a fiction editor as my first job, and then got to be a fiction editor.
So you work your way up and you get to acquire your own books and that’s very exciting, but it’s also exciting when you’re a young pup when you inherit some book, and it’s yours to take care of for the first time. You know, if your boss gets busier and busier you take on a bigger share of managing the authors you have, that can be incredibly exciting, because you’re essentially doing the job, learning how to do it, and when you get to launch on your own as a full editor you have a lot of experience and you can handle anything that comes along. So, every step of the ladder, it’s like getting through college, your senior year is a lot better than your freshman year (laughs). And thus it is in the professional world also, it’s kind of fun being a senior editor instead of being an assistant, but there are things you learn at every step of the way
It’s a long…low paying apprenticeship, so there is a long period of time when you’re living in New York and you’re not making much money. The publishing industry is not the most robust right now. When I went to the Radcliffe Course, 90 kids graduated every summer; they all got jobs. Now it takes months and months and months of incredibly hard work on the director’s part to get people hooked up with jobs.
You have to be really committed to the job. We had an intern one summer at Random House who said to me at the end of the summer “It dawned on me; I could be making more money anywhere else”. And I said, “You are surrounded by people who would be making more money doing their job anywhere else”. Book publishing is not where you go to get rich, as an author, as an agent, as an editor, as a salesman, as a publicist, none of it. But that means it is staffed completely by people who are committed to the idea of books, and getting them out there in the world to be read, and making those books as good as they can be, and making them reach as many people as they can. So it’s a great world to be in, but it is not for somebody who would just as soon be a lawyer in Kansas City.
Q: I saw in the Boston Globe that you guys published the “The Story of Edgar Sawtelle”, and I wanted to know if you pulled for that book, to acquire the rights, or did you start working with it after Ecco acquired the rights?
Boudreaux: I acquired the rights. It was a humongous manuscript, and it came in right before Christmas, and I remember I got the flu and I had the manuscript at home with me and was able to read through like, all 900 pages, in a very short time. We were in an auction with four other houses, we all spoke to the author on the phone, and we won the auction and he also sort of chose to go with us because, I think, he liked the idea of being published by a very small imprint who would not make him feel like he was part of big corporate publishing, despite the fact we are part of HarperCollins, a very big and powerful entity in the publishing world.
We treated it as our lead fiction title from the moment it was acquired. It was always one that we shown the spotlight on and said ‘this can really do something’.
Q: Many people are surprised that this first novel by an unknown author is climbing best seller charts and selling so many copies. In your experience how rare is an event like that?
Boudreaux: It’s rare. Well (pauses), it’s rare when you look at the number of books that are published every year and how many good books get completely lost in the maelstrom. That happens every day of the year; great books that just don’t get notice and never reach the audience that they should. So, it is a real halleluiah moment when a good books starts getting the attention that you have believed in your heart it should and would get.
When “Edgar Sawtelle” was coming out, it had an effect on people. So as an editor, the first people you have to get excited about it are the people in your own publishing house: the people in your own sales team, your own publicity team, your own marketing team, the higher ups in the corporate suites who may or may not take a special interest what projects seem to be attracting the most heat in their companies.
We got the manuscript ready early so people could read it and talk about it amongst themselves. That is still the best thing to make a book into a success that there is. You can buy all the ads in the world, you can spend a lot of money making a bright shiny glossy cover, you can pay the stores—it’s called co-op money, it means the display space in front of the stores which the publisher does have to pay for—all these things have to happen, but nothing works like having people read the book, then tell the people sitting next to them “Oh my God, I read the best book there is.”
Q: How much does marketability come into play when publishing a book? You love a book, you think the author has a great sense of writing, a great voice, but there is no market for it.
Boudreaux: I am in the business of doing books for which there is no discernable market ever. You’re never going read a news story that’s like, “you know what they really need out there? They need a novel about a 14-year-old mute kid growing up in Wisconsin” (the plot of the best seller “Edgar Sawtelle”). When you do non-fiction there is a market for your book…you can identify why there would be a market for it. Now when “Edgar Sawtelle” came along, I can tell you it had these remarkable dogs as characters. This had [with dog enthusiasts] a certain type of audience. You do see fiction every now and then that you can identify why it will be found relevant or why it will be found particularly appealing by people… So, marketability with fiction is a much fuzzier concept. A book will come out that blows everybody’s minds…it didn’t work as a two sentence pitch but it works when you do a book that is a beautifully crafted piece of fiction that delivers on a very interesting premise.
Q: How much of your time is trying to market a book other people versus editing a book?
Boudreaux: All of the evaluating and the editing take place on your own time; you never have time to do any of that in the office. So when you are in the office, you are publishing books you already own, you are meeting with the marketing people on a book your thinking about doing an expanded e-book on, you’re having a meeting with publicity about a book that just came out…all those things happen all day long then you go home at the end of the day and there you sit until your poor little eyes close of their own volition, reading things to decide if you want to buy them or not. And then, you get to wake up on Saturday and Sunday, and you get to pull from your bag the 500 page manuscript that you have to trim down to a 400 page manuscript. And you do that all weekend long, with a pencil in your hand, line by line, editing, changing, suggesting, asking questions. You actually have two different jobs: one which takes place in the office all day and one of which takes place where other people are having their lives.
Q: When you’re doing this reading at home, do you still read for fun, or is it totally eclipsed by what you read for work?
Boudreaux: It gets very hard to read for fun. I find that, as you’re keeping up with your own submission pile and your own editing, it gets categorized like this: I should read other books by that author I just bought. Before I do the edit on his new manuscript, I should know these other three novels that I haven’t had a chance to read before. Or, you feel that you should read other books that relate to something you are going to do. And then you try and keep up with other things your colleagues are publishing that sound like they are going to be good, and then, after these layers of books, you get to “Huh, I always meant to read so and so when it came out five years ago, I think I’ll take it with me on vacation now”.
Q: Whenever you’re reading at home and you’re going line by line, is it hard to get a sense of the story as well?
Boudreaux: No, and I have to say, that line by line reading is my absolute favorite part of all of it, I LOVE that. I love reading submissions for the first time and falling in love with it, that is super fun. That is just reading a great book and knowing that you’re going to get to come to work the next day and tell everybody about it.
But I have to say, reading something for the third for fourth time, if you love it, it is just as enjoyable as it was the first time. The thing about editing is it’s a logic game. You get to a word and you just stay there with it for a second and you say “is that absolutely the right word to use?”... It’s fascinating, it’s fun, and it’s what every single editor loves to do more than anything else.