New York editors and publishers tend to speak of Amy Einhorn’s success as the product of an almost mystical editorial instinct. Colleagues cite Ms. Einhorn’s “good taste;” her nose, her eye, and her gut; her unique ability to pinpoint the kinds of books that thousands of people want to read. Most editors separate their mass market books from their more literary enterprises (“I almost had two brains,” explained one editor), which is why Ms. Einhorn’s peers marvel so at her expertise in the sometimes amorphous middle ground of smart, commercial fiction.
There’s good cause for the admiration: hired in 2007 to start an eponymous imprint at Putnam, Ms. Einhorn’s first fiction acquisition, published in early 2009, was a debut novel by an unknown writer about maids and housewives in Jackson, Miss. The Help, by Kathryn Stockett, is still at the top of the bestseller lists. Across all formats it has sold 10 million copies in the United States. And following this auspicious start, Ms. Einhorn has launched a bestselling novel every February. In 2010 it was Sarah Blake’s The Postmistress. In 2011 it was Eleanor Brown’s The Weird Sisters. Her release for this year, Alex George’s The Good American, has already been named the top February pick by Indie Bound, the organization of independent booksellers.
“She has such a good sense of a book that a lot of people will like,” said Claire Zion, editorial director at NAL, who hired Ms. Einhorn as her assistant at the Simon & Schuster imprint Pocket Books in the 1990s. “She came with that—it’s like her curly hair and hazel eyes—it arrived with the package.”
To attribute all of Ms. Einhorn’s success to her uncanny good taste, however, is to overlook the ways in which her business strategies as a publisher have been shaped by coming of age in the publishing industry at a time of great change: her avoidance of big names for debut or little-known writers belies her commitment to starting small and growing big; her conservative approach to growing her list in a way that might result in a loss of control or excessive overhead shows a wariness about an industry that is as quick to kill new imprints as start them. All this focus on the ephemeral quality “good taste” also undermines those of Ms. Einhorn’s talents that have always been essential to successful publishing: a commitment to thorough editing and a lot of exuberant salesmanship.
Like the books she publishes, Ms. Einhorn’s career has spanned both the commercial and the literary. After graduating from Stanford, she moved to New York in 1990 to start her first job in the industry, as Elisabeth Dyssegaard’s assistant at Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Remembering it today, Ms. Einhorn does not have a particularly nostalgic view of her publishing past: on the day of her interview, she was dismayed to find there was no toilet paper in the office bathroom. Roger Straus, not in the habit of learning assistants’ names, would tug Ms. Einhorn’s ponytail to get her attention. To supplement her salary of $13,000 a year, she cleaned apartments on weekends, including that of FSG’s subsidiary rights director Judy Klein.
“If you needed a new pencil you’d have to go down to the supply room and there was this little woman Rose who was like four feet tall and you’d say you needed a new pencil,” Ms. Einhorn remembered. “She’d say, ‘Come show me your pencil.’ You’d show her and she’d say, ‘You still have two inches left. You can’t get a new one.’”
But Ms. Einhorn, who had majored in creative writing, still found some glamor in the industry. Jonathan Franzen was “the tall guy on the softball team,” Rick Moody was an associate editor and Jonathan Galassi was just publishing Michael Cunningham.
“You had a bunch of trust fund kids and then you had these other people who just sort of drank the Kool-Aid and worked at FSG,” she said.
After FSG, Ms. Einhorn ascended to positions at Villard and then Poseidon, the imprint Simon & Schuster had started for Ann Patty, the editor who had discovered V.C. Andrews.
“She was very bright and had just the most lovely manners,” said Ms. Patty, who now has her own business as an editorial consultant and book doctor. “She was bubbly without being obnoxious, she was energetic and she was clearly very bright without being snobby.” Ms. Einhorn also had what Ms. Patty called a “roll up your sleeves and do what you need to do” quality.
Poseidon’s list was a mix of commercial and literary titles, including books by writers like Siri Hustvedt, Mary Gaitskill and Steven Millhauser. Typing up Ms. Patty’s editorial notes, which the publisher recorded on a Dictaphone to save her assistants the task of deciphering her handwriting, proved to be Ms. Einhorn’s first education in editing. Then came her first lesson in corporate fickleness.
“I came home from vacation and my dad was in the hospital with complications from open heart surgery and Ann left me a message saying ‘I’m not going to be at work because I was fired, call me,’” said Ms. Einhorn.
In 1993, Simon & Schuster shuttered Poseidon.
“Everyone was fired except for me,” said Ms. Einhorn. “Not because I was great, but because they forgot I existed, literally.”
A spare wheel in the midst of a company-wide hiring freeze, she survived to transfer to another S&S imprint, Pocket Books. There, under the tutelage of Claire Zion, her indoctrination into the commercial side of the business began in earnest.
“The first time I was in Claire’s office, she explained to me the difference between a romance novel and a shopping-and-fucking novel…and then she started talking about Regency romances,” Ms. Einhorn said. While she had worked on commercial books before, her reading preferences still tended towards the literary—both Simon & Schuster publisher Jonathan Karp and Ms. Einhorn’s husband, Matthew Futterman, recalled that when they first met Ms. Einhorn, she was, as Mr. Karp put it, “under the spell of Norman Rush’s Mating.”
“It was really good to go to Pocket but it was really weird because it was crazy commercial and I just didn’t know anything about it,” Ms. Einhorn said.
She quickly adapted. Her first ever acquisition was the autobiography of QVC infomercial host Kathy Levine. The project was Ms. Einhorn’s idea. The book, It’s Better to Laugh… Life, Good Luck, Bad Hair Days and QVC, sold 150,000 copies. She was soon promoted to editorial director of another S&S imprint, Washington Square Press.
In 1997, Ms. Einhorn, still just 29, moved to then-Warner Books to assume the position of executive editor of its trade paperback program. She soon began acquiring hardcover titles—and bestsellers—including Amy Sedaris’s I Like You, Robert Hicks’s The Widow of the South, Lolly Winston’s Good Grief and Susan Jane Gilman’s Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress—and rose to the position of hardcover editor-in-chief at Grand Central Publishing (the company changed names after Warner Books was acquired by the Hachette Livre in 2006). But in 2007, when Putnam president Ivan Held approached her about the possibility of starting an imprint, Ms. Einhorn was ready to go.
“I’d been there ten years, I love the people there, I still have many friends and I learned a lot but this was just a great opportunity to do something new and to have something where I could be more in control and have my hand in every aspect on the process in the way I couldn’t overseeing such a huge list,” she said.
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.”