Book Smart: Publisher of ‘The Help’ and Her Eye for Bestsellers

Meeting for an interview in her office at Penguin, with its framed copies of past bestseller lists on the wall and shelves full of various editions of The Help and other books from her imprint, Ms. Einhorn was as jovial and good-humored as her colleagues had described her. (“Her curls bounce!” said the literary agent Stephanie Cabot.) For Ms. Einhorn, involving herself in every aspect of the process is not just talk. She paused the interview to approve a new cover for a forthcoming novel, The Gods of Gotham, by a writer named Lyndsay Faye—Ms. Einhorn had requested a last-minute redesign to add an enthusiastic blurb from Michael Connelly. And while The Help is a publishing phenomenon, its success was not without coaxing: Ms. Einhorn carefully cultivated relationships with booksellers and, unusually for a hardcover release, book clubs. She points out that the book took six weeks to hit bestseller lists.

“We usually don’t have a relationship or even know who the heck the editor is,” said Jake Reiss, owner of The Alabama Booksmith in Birmingham, Ala., where Kathryn Stockett did her first reading of The Help. With Ms. Einhorn, he said, it was different.

Ms. Einhorn, who said she applies the publishing equivalent of Tip O’Neill’s aphorism that “all politics is local,” includes a special note to booksellers in galley editions of books with her phone number and e-mail address. She collects and circulates bookseller quotes (The Help amassed 40 of them). She is big on handwritten thank you notes and hounds her writers to send them. Booksellers, like New York publishing executives, have come to trust her taste, and at least one book blogger has issued a challenge to read all of the books her imprint publishes.

“She’s made a believer out of us,” said Mr. Reiss. “You don’t have to hold a hot pot very long to believe it’s hot.”

No publisher has a perfect track record — Ms. Einhorn calls her first two acquisitions for the imprint, both memoirs about family tragedies, “rookie mistakes”: good reads but tough sells.

“I need to be able to convince you in thirty seconds of speaking to make you want to read the book,” she said. She said she received around 1,000 submissions in her first year at the imprint, and does not spend much time on manuscripts that do not draw her in from the first page. “I’d worked at places where we’d published some incredibly beautiful line-by-line novels but there was this sort of MFA navel-gazing aspect to them and they didn’t sell, so I knew I didn’t want to do that.”

But The Help was also an unlikely pick. By her count, Kathryn Stockett had already been rejected by 60 agents over three years before she was picked up by Susan Ramer. Ms. Einhorn bought the book as a pre-empt, after being drawn in, she said, by a line in the first paragraph where one of the black maids, speaking in a dialect that has raised objections from some readers, says she is raising her seventeenth white child.

“Her first round of edits were so thorough and she wasn’t editing electronically,” said Ms. Stockett by phone from her home in Atlanta. “She said, ‘There will be some sticky notes attached.’ I got this manuscript back—I even thanked her in the acknowledgements—there were so many sticky notes! Four or five on a page, times 500. She was saving the sticky note business from bankruptcy.”

Ms. Einhorn is known for such extensive editing—and even for rejecting manuscripts that she later buys, including The Good American and the Times bestseller The Postmistress. To both authors she sent unusually detailed rejection letters with editing suggestions.

“Her rejection letter got me thinking of ways to cut and refigure,” said Sarah Blake, who wrote The Postmistress. Six weeks after turning Ms. Blake’s book down, Ms. Einhorn reconsidered and bought it. Alex George resubmitted his manuscript a year after his rejection, after following Ms. Einhorn’s suggestions.

So much for the lamentations that nobody in New York edits anymore. “I kind of get bummed when people say that,” she said. “I just think it’s an easy thing to say.”

Comments

  1. Amy Alkon says:

    This is publishing as dreamed of by authors.

  2. Jjohnson0399 says:

    Amy is one of the best in the business.