Power Punk: Sean McDonald

Riverhead Books’ big man from Laguna Beach edits James Frey, Wu-Tang Clan, takes up a lot of space

Big, quiet, slightly rough-hewn Sean McDonald, the senior editor and online creative director of Riverhead Books, has become the Zen master of the publishing world. He inspires utter confidence among his peers, exuding a kind of quintessential American self-assurance, understated and direct, large-scale but devoid of grandiosity.

Mr. McDonald’s first job out of Yale was at Arcade, the quirky, Europhile literary boutique where he did everything from edit and design books to assist in production. In 1998, Nan Talese called: The publishing grande dame wanted a young editor for the Doubleday imprint she’s run since 1990. “I still have no idea how she knew who I was,” the 31-year-old said. “I was not the logical choice.” But after a half-hour interview, Ms. Talese decided, she said, that the fit “was perfect”; she was knocked out by his “really good literary taste.”

Mr. McDonald persuaded Ms. Talese to take a big risk on A Million Little Pieces, James Frey’s profanity-strewn memoir about kicking crack, a book in which the author describes his own vomit in graphic detail at least a dozen times. “I brought it to Nan with some trepidation,” Mr. McDonald said. Ms. Talese gave him the go-ahead after reading 100 pages. While at Nan Talese/Doubleday, Mr. McDonald signed other challenging works whose literary excellence would easily have been missed by more conventional editors, including The Bug, computer programmer Ellen Ullman’s first novel, and The Question of Bruno by Sarajevan author Aleksandar Hemon.

Then, in full stride, Mr. McDonald left. In a slow-moving business where many editors hang around houses for decades, hoping against hope that they’ll have a shot at power before they cash in their puny 401(k)’s, Mr. McDonald understood that it’s better to leave when the party’s in full swing. He said it was “really hard” to leave Nan Talese-he liked her so much, and some of his books hadn’t even come out yet-but that, even with “as much freedom” as Ms. Talese gave him, “it was kind of limiting defining yourself against something more than just defining yourself.”

Mr. McDonald seems a little like a camera-shy coach who speaks reluctantly to the press out of devotion to his team. An editor, Mr. McDonald said, is a “friend and advocate …. Getting a book back from the printer is amazing,” he added, cupping his sizable hands as if holding a precious object. “That’s the best part.”

Mr. McDonald is aggressive with the red pen, and he likes to keep his hand in designing book jackets. At Riverhead, the Penguin imprint that Phyllis Grann founded in 1994, Mr. McDonald works with publisher Susan Petersen Kennedy and co–editorial director Julie Grau. His books under contract include The Wu-Tang Manual by RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan; The Sound and Fury, Alex Abramovich’s history of rock ‘n’ roll; and Hector Tobar’s Translation Nation, about Spanish-speaking America. “Basically, I felt there was more room for me” at Riverhead, Mr. McDonald said.

He grew up in Laguna Beach, Calif., where his father teaches drama at U.C. Irvine; his mother is a high-school counselor. Mr. McDonald lives in Chelsea with his girlfriend since college, Emily Dougherty, a beauty director at Elle. And although he doesn’t like the bad Frank Stella in the lobby, Mr. McDonald is glad to spend his workdays at Riverhead’s offices in the Saatchi Building on Hudson Street. “Anything to get out of midtown,” he said. What about lunching? “Oh, I like lunch fine,” he said. “If the food is delicious.” And with a peaceful smile, he tucked his hands into the pockets of his too-thin winter coat and went back to the office.

-Rachel Donadio