Monday, August 10, 2015

Reading Just One Imprint

Last fall, I applied for a job to work at Random House and I was a finalist. Then the decision-making process grew long, and longer and longer. In an effort both to be a better candidate if more interviews became necessary, and also to get a leg up on the position if the job came through, I read solely books from that division of Random House during the waiting process. Which took three months. I never imagined it would take that long (even though hiring processes always take longer than you expect) and while I didn't end up getting the job, the process of reading just one division of one publisher for so long was eye-opening.

I'd never done that before. Even when I worked at St. Martin's Press, a key component of the job of an editor is keeping abreast of what is being successfully published in the marketplace, so you have to keep reading a lot of books from different houses. So this was unique. I also was limited in that I wanted to be reading very recent books, from the current list and only going back at most a year (at best, I even went to my local independent bookstore, explained the situation, and they gave me a few galleys of books that weren't published yet). I felt lucky that the division was Knopf/Doubleday. After all, Knopf is one of the most revered, most respected imprints in all of book publishing. I figured this would be an enjoyable task, even if it was reading a long list of books I most likely wouldn't have otherwise read.

The week before the interview, I didn't even know what division it was, so I just read whatever I could get my hands on the fastest from 2014 from Random House, so at first I read Duel with the Devil by Paul Collins (Crown, paperback 6/14) because I happened to have it at home, and I asked my husband (who was hanging out at a B&N when I got the call) to buy Neil Patrick Harris: Choose Your Own Autobiography by Neil Patrick Harris (Crown Archetype, hardcover 10/14). The next day I went to the local independent and I bought The Martian by Andy Weir (Crown, paperback 10/14) and The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore (Knopf, hardcover 10/14). A friend loaned me Under Magnolia: A Southern Memoir by Frances Mayes (Crown hardcover 4/2014). Around this time is when I found out what the division was. So all the Crown books I'd been reading, while nice and all, weren't pertinent. Maybe I should have taken it as a sign that when I could choose among all of Random House, I was mostly choosing Crown books. Hindsight!

I shifted gears. I found Long Man by Amy Greene (Knopf hardcover 2/14) on my shelves at home but anything else I had was too old to be of use. I started to reserve a ton of books at the library, and basically whatever was available from the Knopf/Doubleday fall list was what I would be reading next. The first books I got from the library were Cut Me Loose: Sin and Salvation After My Ultra-Orthodox Girlhood by Leah Vincent (Knopf/Talese, hardcover 1/14), My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff (Knopf, hardcover 6/14), and Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead (Knopf, hardcover 1/14). Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson (Spiegel & Grau, hardcover 10/14) I checked out on audio (I'd heard him do a Fresh Air interview and knew he'd be terrific reading his own book which he was.) I knew that book wasn't in either imprint but I couldn't find any audios of the books I needed and I figured reading a NYT bestselling Random House book wouldn't hurt, and I needed to listen to something.

While these were all books I'd have happily read without my self-assigned restriction, I then started struggling to find more I would like to read (and could easily get at the library). But I found Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher (Doubleday, hardcover 8/14), The Lost Book of Mormon by Avi Steinberg (Knopf/Talese, hardcover 10/14), The Heathen School by John Putnam Demos (Knopf, hardcover 3/14), The Distance by Helen Giltrow (Doubleday, hardcover 9/14), and An Empire on the Edge: How Britain Came to Fight America by Nick Bunker (Knopf, hardcover 9/14). And other than the Doubleday books, I did see the quality start to suffer. I took a mini break by reading The Prince of Frogtown by Rick Bragg which is a Knopf book but from back in 2008 (which I had long owned so this was an excuse to get around to it). Next I read Love Me Back by Merritt Tierce (Doubleday, hardcover 9/14) and Wondrous Beauty: The Life and Adventures of Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte by Carol Berkin (Knopf, hardcover 1/14) which were both meh, and I was starting to dread my assignment. Thankfully, then things started to turn around a little. I enjoyed Police by Jo Nesbø (Knopf, hardcover 10/13) and All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid by Matt Bai (Knopf, hardcover 9/14) and I loved by Some Luck by Jane Smiley (Knopf, hardcover 10/14) which I never thought I'd get to as I was very far down the reserve list for this title, but books did keep coming in as the waiting got longer. I also had gotten a couple of ARCs from the bookstore for upcoming books and I liked The Job: True Tales from the Life of a New York City Cop by Steve Osborne (Doubleday, hardcover 4/15). And I lucked out that the last book I read in this exercise was In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette by Hampton Sides (Knopf, hardcover 8/14) as that was a really good one.

In the end, I had read 13 Knopf books, 4 Doubleday books, and 5 other Random House titles in three solid months. That's 22 books altogether in prep for this interview and job. I have never been so prepared! Or so immersed in a single division of a publishing house.

What I learned was interesting to me. I no longer put Knopf on a pedestal. They publish duds too, just like everyone. And on the reverse, three of the Doubleday books I really thought were great! I now am more critical of my nonfiction history. They really need to be well-written. And that doesn't mean vomiting up every single scrap of research the author did, nor does it mean pedantic repetition or dry recitation. Make it live. Make it sing. Make me care about these people (or at the very least, able to tell them apart.) I was thrilled to discover a couple of books I never would have read without this task, and really were great: Dear Committee Members and The Distance. I also don't know how many years it would have taken me to get to the Jane Smiley book (and instead, I am reading all three books in this series the minute they are released. Yes, book three is already on hold at the library.)

I do now feel like I can tell a Knopf book just by reading it. In fact, when pulling this list together, I only had to double-check the imprints but I knew which was which, just based on the book. If it's important, literary, or somehow has a deeper theme or import, it's Knopf. Doubleday books are lighter, more fun, and I really found myself looking forward to them. In the past, I'd never given Doubleday a second thought. It seemed like one of dozens of middle-of-the-road indistinguishable imprints that catch a lot of flotsam and randomness. But now, I will actually pay attention to them.

I wouldn't do this again by choice. But it was informative, and I learned a lot about this important division of Random House. And what it's like to have books that I must read for the first time really since school. I didn't especially like that part (book club books don't count as much because I do skip some if I really think I'll hate them) but I managed it. I do wish I'd been able to read more books that I wanted to during those three months, but the benefits were worth it in the end, even without the job. In fact, at the end, looking at how many, many Knopf books I'd have to read if I got the job, I wasn't too bummed to not get it. Bring on more Doubleday (and Crown)! But I'll be picky about my Knopf.

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