1st BOOKS: STORIES OF HOW WRITERS GET STARTED
Novelist Elizabeth Rosner and Editor Dan Smetanka on Publishing The Speed of Light
September 24th, 2008 by Meg Waite Clayton
I’m so delighted this week to welcome an author-editor duo: bestselling novelist, poet, and essayist Elizabeth Rosner, and Dan Smetanka, former Executive Editor at Ballantine/Random House, whose list of award winning debut books includes Rosner’s wonderful THE SPEED OF LIGHT – a prize-winner that’s been translated into nine foreign languages and optioned by actress Gillian Anderson for her directorial film debut. If you’re looking for a great read, do pick up any of Liz’s! If you’re looking for some serious feedback on your manuscript, Dan - who is editing on a freelance basis these days - can be reached at dansmetanka AT aol DOT com. But first, read about their experience of coming together for the acquisition and publication of THE SPEED OF LIGHT. - Meg Waite Clayton
ER: I should start out by saying that THE SPEED OF LIGHT took me ten years to write. I was teaching full-time at a community college, and immersing myself in the novel each summer. That decade was all about perseverance, to say the least. But after a sabbatical year in which I finally finished the book, I proceeded to search for an interested and motivated agent. I had some names and contacts to pursue, but it turned out that the most important element was to follow up on even the most unlikely-seeming leads.
A colleague mentioned that one of her cousins was “just starting out as an agent.” Although I had my doubts, I soon learned that her previous twenty years’ experience as an editor made her much more than a beginner in the business. When she fell in love with my book, and then came up with a strategy for showing the manuscript to a selected group of editors in hopes of stirring up excitement, I had no idea what to expect. All I knew was that I’d written a book I felt I was meant to write, and that I was truly proud of completing. The rest was out of my hands.
DS: After joining Ballantine Books, I had the task of creating a new list of literary fiction. I knew I wanted the list to support new voices – certain works that felt fresh, or offered a new perspective on certain themes, or provided a thrilling reading experience by their use of structure and language. People often ask what editors are looking for as if that community is one big indistinct mass. Different editors respond to different things, and we present those tastes and affinities to the agent community as we go about creating and publishing our lists. It was during that type of conversation that an agent mentioned she had a particularly special new writer whose book could add something original to the continuing conversation about the legacy of the Holocaust. My ears pricked up.
I read the manuscript for THE SPEED OF LIGHT and was immediately taken with its language, its gentle structure, its darker themes balanced by the beauty given to ordinary events. Editors read a lot of books, obviously, but it remains true that the ones that capture us do so quickly and overwhelmingly. I knew immediately that I wanted it for our list, and went about getting the support of colleagues whose enthusiasm would help in the acquisition. I also wanted to have a conversation with the author to make sure my editorial suggestions kept in tune with her vision of the book. Both editors and authors need to make sure they share a similar idea of where they want their work together to take them.
ER: When Dan and I had our first phone conversation—which was actually before he made the formal offer on the book!—it became immediately apparent that we were going to work well together. He was so specific and articulate about what he loved about my novel, as well as clear and insightful about what he thought still needed some tweaking. In addition to my pure exhilaration about a publishing deal, I also felt deeply reassured that I would have a close ally in the entire process of bringing my book into the world. By the time we met in person a month later, I felt an amazing sense of trust between us. I believed that we both genuinely wanted to make this the best book possible.
DS: After a publishing deal had been negotiated, I wanted our first meeting to be as collaborative and thorough as possible. We needed to talk about the big picture –the general ideas that needed addressing –before entering into specifics. I can remember just the two of us sequestered in a large conference room for most of the afternoon talking about the novel, how Liz came to write it, the lingering effect certain moments in the book had on me and, most importantly, how certain changes could impact what the reader would eventually take away from the book. It was an intense meeting – but one that, as an editor, I felt necessary to begin our relationship with a good amount of trust and safekeeping. I wanted my author to feel comfortable with all the changes we were about to implement.
I’ve never been a fan of big, long editorial letters. I prefer to move through a manuscript together, making changes at our own pace, breaking down the narrative into key sections and letting our editorial work inform what decisions we make next as we go along. The months that followed found us editing and refining groups of chapters at a time, balancing more minor revisions like language, scene structure and dialogue with larger concerns geared toward illuminating the big themes of the book. The structure of any piece of literary fiction can be tricky. One must tread carefully.
ER: The truth is, I always knew that there would be a point where I had become almost blind to the work in front of me, and that I would need a great editor to help with my vision. During that decade of working on and off and on again with my book, there were plenty of times where I’d patched fragments together in ways that felt purely intuitive; I had good instincts, but I also felt uncertain about some of my choices. In working with Dan, I saw that sometimes the most subtle changes were also the most profound.
DS: Once Liz had finished her final revisions, and we had a completed and edited manuscript in hand, the work of publishing the book could begin in earnest. The first step: in-house support. Finished manuscripts were shared with each department (marketing, publicity, sales, art and production) in hopes of generating enthusiasm and in-house buzz. Given the international scope of the novel, I knew we’d also have strong interest from the foreign markets, and our rights department reached out to our network of co-agents around the world in preparation for showcasing THE SPEED OF LIGHT at the annual Frankfurt Book Fair. Rights were sold in nine countries – ammunition that would be helpful in terms of capturing attention with our own sales force. Enthusiasm was so high that we decided to do something Ballantine had never done before: the creation of limited edition, hardcover advanced reading copies. This investment would show the bookselling community how committed we were to this project. Our sales force distributed these beautiful advance copies to booksellers around the country and the response was tremendous. Bookseller meetings and dinners with the author followed in preparation for our hardcover publication in early September, 2001.
ER: I can’t begin to describe the thrill of seeing that hardcover advanced reading copy! Dan had to explain how rare it was, of course, but really for me the entire experience was so new and so miraculous. And then, just as the foreign sales started happening, my mother passed away. It was absolutely devastating to feel so much loss colliding with all of my joy. It was just like Dickens: the best of times and the worst of times. That turned out to be a kind of foreshadowing.
DS: After over a year of heartfelt editing, planning and strategizing, THE SPEED OF LIGHT entered the San Francisco Chronicle’s bestseller list at #3 – on September 13, 2001. For a novel that so profoundly examined how great joy can exist right alongside great sadness, it seemed those lessons were being set out before us once again. The book tour was cancelled. The economy suffered. Book sales fell flat. No media, nothing. I knew this book had a now hauntingly topical lesson to offer, a shred of consolation to give, but we were caught in a vacuum of world events.
ER: I remember my agent actually said to me, “We’ve lost momentum and we’re never going to get it back.” Not what I wanted to hear anyone say out loud, even if it was true! But even though she really believed her prediction, she turned out to be wrong. Suddenly, in spite of everything, X-Files star Gillian Anderson decided to option the book for her feature film debut as writer/director, and with her public announcement, sales started reviving. Word of mouth kicked in more and more. And a few months later, I found out that I’d won two prizes: the Harold U. Ribalow Prize for a Jewish novel (judged by Elie Wiesel, N. Scott Momaday and Myla Goldberg) and also the Great Lakes Colleges New Writers Award. Those important acknowledgements helped to keep the book from disappearing. Needless to say, they also gave me a huge dose of encouragement and reassurance about my work and its ability to reach an appreciative audience.
DS: The general rule in publishing is that a trade paperback edition follows one year after the hardcover. However, we wanted to separate the book from the fall season and the first anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. We envisioned a spring 2003 publication for the paperback and I wanted a similar re-invention for the cover: something warm and sun-filled that could draw the reader in, but still conveyed a sense of weight and loss. That is how we came up with the idea of the empty chair and the yellow colors around it. It is still one of my favorite covers. We also included a reading group discussion guide bound within the book – an addition that helped us market to book clubs around the country. It is often said that books have long lives – and the trade format is where we experience that the most. It is the edition bookstores will keep on hand, the format new readers will most likely pick up, the soft cover most people will share with their friends and family. A new format and a new cover would allow us to present the book all over again.
ER: THE SPEED OF LIGHT really has continued to thrive, I’m grateful to say. It received very serious literary attention in France; the film adaptation is still “in development” with a promising future; and it was even recently mentioned in O Magazine this past July, which brought about yet another wave of reader attention and another printing of additional copies. I feel as though I’ve been given a prolonged lesson in the power of patience and faith, and steady reminders that words and truth still do matter, no matter how often it may seem otherwise. I’m still visiting with book groups, still giving presentations at libraries and schools; and I still believe in the redemptive power of storytelling to heal and transform our world.