The Art of Commerce sits on the corner of literature & the marketplace, asking the age old question: Who's got the right of way?
We talk with writers, editors & entrepreneurs about, really, anything. All conversations are 'manuscript-first', meaning they were typed as you see them. Small edits have been made for structure.
Episode LIII: "If you truly LOVE a book, you figure out how to do it"
In this installment, I speak with Megan Lynch, the editorial director at Ecco. Topics include her path to where she is today, earning a reputation among agents, making a book work, advances, what ignites her & more.
Today I’m with Megan Lynch, the Editorial Director of Ecco Press, an imprint of HarperCollins that is known for, among other categories, its literary fiction (Joyce Carol Oates, Richard Ford), celebrity memoirs (Patti Smith, Steven Tyler), and culinary titles (Mario Batali, April Bloomfield). Megan is rounding the end of her second year at Ecco; her previous eleven had been spent as an editor at the prestigious, literary-focused Riverhead Books. Before she got to Ecco, her position had been occupied by Lee Boudreaux, who left to start her own imprint at Little, Brown. There’s too much I want to ask you—and I’m more than willing to forego it all to follow a particularly interesting tangent—so let’s knock down all those backwards-facing questions first: What brought you into the industry? How did your role change from your first day at Riverhead to your last? What brought you to Ecco and what, exactly, does an Editorial Director do?
I got into the industry intending to eventually apply to graduate school, but I was lucky enough that in my first year out of college I got to meet and work with Sean McDonald, who is now at FSG, then at Doubleday. Watching him do the job of an editor successfully and with so much integrity and commitment made me realize that staying in publishing was a possible avenue for doing the kind of meaningful work I wanted to do.
After a couple of years at other houses, I landed at Riverhead and really got to grow up there, which I'm so grateful for. I started as an Editorial Assistant there and ended my time as a Senior Editor, and I just constantly felt like I was learning and being challenged to do more. I never thought I would leave, but when the Ecco opportunity came up, it seemed like the perfect chance to take everything I'd learned at Riverhead and apply it in a different role at a place that is similarly committed to literary fiction.
What is the day-to-day difference between what you did at Riverhead, and what you're doing at Ecco?
I'm doing a lot of the same things: reading submissions, editing manuscripts, working with in-house colleagues, but I am responsible for a very slightly larger list personally and then am informally involved with pretty much all of the editorial goings-on at Ecco rather than just with my own books. So what it comes out to is that I have to attend a few more meetings!
Dan Halpern, the Publisher at Ecco, referenced your “sterling reputation in the agent community” as one of the reasons he “can’t imagine anyone more suited to taking over the fiction reins at Ecco.” How does an editor earn such a reputation with agents?
Dan is very kind! I believe when possible in including agents in the publishing process, listening to their ideas and being very transparent with information. I also really try to be thoughtful and responsive with submissions, even when they're not right for my list, because it's a matter of respecting the work that people have put in to everything that comes across my desk.
In your opinion, how much of the agent-editor relationship/reputation-building is based on past work, and how much of it is on the more social end?
It's always a little bit of both! But the quality of the work has to be there. Even if a book doesn't meet with the result we all hope for, you want to be able to take stock of the situation and say that everyone put in their best effort and did everything that could feasibly be done on the book's behalf.
What defines the Ecco “voice” (or “brand”, or “type of book”, if any of those words are less obtuse than the others) on the (limited) landscape of major publishers willing to take on ambitious literary fiction?
One of the exciting things about coming here into this role is actually getting to be a part of answering that question in an evolving way. So many Ecco successes over the years—from The Story of Edgar Sawtelle to Just Kids—have run counter to conventional industry wisdom of what a "big" literary book looks like, and that's appealing. I think it comes from the imprint's roots as an independent press.
In discussing a potential buy with the team, is there ever a discussion of "Is this out of our wheelhouse?" or "We love this, but it's not right for us"?
You know, I learned from Sean McDonald, who I mentioned earlier, that if you truly LOVE a book, you figure out how to do it. And Dan has very much that same approach. You can like something and feel it's not the right fit for you or your imprint, but if you truly love it, you reinvent yourself to become the right editor or publisher for it. There are some rare circumstances where you might have to step aside from offering on something you really love, but for the most part that holds true.
And when you say "you figure out how to do it" and "reinvent yourself", what do you tangibly mean? In what ways does an editor wrap themselves around a book, and change in the process of editing?
You think about how to talk about it to your sales team and your publicists. You figure out the right people to go to for blurbs. You get a sense of the audience and how they might come to discover the book, even if it's via channels that have never been key for a book you've published before.
That makes me think of The Girl on the Train, which came out from Riverhead in 2015. The novel was, in some ways, more 'commercial' than their normal catalogue—and it also was, by all measures, a complete and utter success. Was it surprising for a book like that coming from a press like Riverhead to be such a hit?
I think that's a great example of a wonderful editor, Sarah McGrath, and then a whole team really passionately connecting to a book that may not have seemed obvious for them at the outset and channeling that passion to be the perfect publisher for it.
And speaking of hits, or books bound to be hits. One of the rare times the general public gets keen on the business of publishing is when a debut author gets a big advance. In December of 2014, Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney signed with Ecco and landed seven figures for her first book, The Nest, which comes out in March. News of such a deal is usually met with some sort of brow movement. How do they know its worth that much? Why don’t all writers get that sort of deal? As if, a) that number isn’t the result of a multi-party auction, and b) it’s not a financial decision—that is, you’re betting the P is more than the L. What was it about Sweeney’s debut that raised your confidence to seven figures? More broadly, are we seeing more blockbuster deals today, or is that an illusion of the past?
You know, I'm really not able to comment on advances specifically in spite of what public speculation there may be. Just like I wouldn't be talking about any of my colleagues' salaries; it's private information that isn't mine to share. But I will say in the case of The Nest, it was a World English deal in which the enthusiasm of our sister companies in other English-speaking markets was a factor in our decisions.
And more generally, when we are thinking about advances, we are thinking about the question of where we put the books--to indies, to chain bookstores, or to other kinds of accounts outside of that.
That's fair, and understandable, and interesting regarding international markets. In film, foreign sales are playing a much greater part in which movies get blockbuster status and funding. Are you seeing a similar change in the book industry?
Not really, at least in the realm of literary fiction. I wonder if I might see it differently if I worked on the publishing equivalent of the superhero movie!
Do you think your personal road could have diverged in that direction, of ending up in the publishing equivalent of the superhero movie? Do you think you'd be as satisfied?
Ha! I think I was in no danger of that; no one would have hired me to do it. The thing about book publishing that I really didn't understand until I was in it is that no one I have met in the industry does their work cynically. Everyone is really passionate about the category of books that they work on and excited by the impact their projects have in the world, whether it's self-help or literary fiction or romance. And that passion is why they are good at it.
And what about the entire process, from manuscript queries to editing to marketing to pub day and beyond, gives you the most satisfaction? What continues to ignite your passion?
It's the relationships with authors, and, more and more the further along I get in my career, the relationships with colleagues. It's a privilege to get to know such smart, interesting and creative people and to work alongside them, whether it's in the editing of a manuscript or in devising a marketing plan.
Have you developed a sixth sense for book people? When you step into a room do they have little yellow halos invisible to the layman?
No, maybe we're just the people who look like we'd rather be home reading?
We're nearly out of time, so I'll ask you one more. Looking forward to your time at Ecco, and your impact on the book industry at large, what do you think could be changed, or needs to be?
I think any reasonable person would look at the industry and say that it needs to be more inclusive, both in what we publish and who we hire. And that means regionally, racially and culturally, in terms of class, of LGBT themes. One by one we may not feel we can make much of an impact, but as a group we really can.
Thanks for your time Megan, and your words.
Thank you for the opportunity! Nice to chat with you.