The Book Business

Liese Mayer, interviewed by Stefan Merrill Block


Near the end of the workshop I lead at The Center for Fiction, "The Story Laboratory," I invite one or two publishing professionals to visit the classroom. Having spent months or years obsessing over electronic documents on their word processors, my students often tell me what a relief it is to speak with our visiting book editors and agents—a passionate, upbeat lot who can demystify the dream of turning a manuscript on a hard drive into an actual published book. Gearing up for the next edition of my workshop, I asked one of my regular guests to share some of her advice. Liese Mayer is an editor at Scribner, where she acquires both fiction and narrative non-fiction.


Like a lot of the writers I work with, I often have trouble finding the finish line. At what point is a manuscript ready to submit to publishers? Do you expect, when agents send a manuscript for you to consider, that every word will be perfectly in place, every comma polished to a shine? Or do you prefer a manuscript that leaves more room for your own suggestions?

 

If everything came to me perfectly formed, I’d be out of a job. That said, when looking at a manuscript, I read just like any other reader would. There isn’t a great science to it. And it’s true that sloppiness in the writing or storytelling can turn me away. But sloppiness is different than messiness. I actually like books that might seem just a bit messy, as if the writer has too much to say for it to fit into all neat shapes. I love all kinds of books—both literary and commercial—but for me to want to buy something it has to grab me and not let go. My advice to writers would be to fix every problem you can figure out how to fix, and then take the plunge and share it.

I know that when you receive a submission from an agent you look for a good tale, populated with memorable characters, written in a uniquely compelling voice. But I wonder if what excites you most about a manuscript is the story on the page or the originality of its writing?

 

For me, it really is more about the voice, at least at first. Eventually, the urgency of the story becomes just as crucial, but it’s the writer’s voice that pulls me in. Sometimes, when I read agents’ pitch letters, I can see that the story has all the right ingredients, but if I can’t get excited about the quality of the writing, I have to pass. As an editor, my job is to be the strongest advocate for the books I acquire, to project my passion to my colleagues, to the sales, marketing and publicity departments. And, for me, that excitement is like a spell that only a writer of original and heartfelt conviction can cast.

The list of books you publish is quite diverse, encompassing graphic novels, literary story collections, and fat Dickensian sagas. But I wonder if there is something that you feel that all your authors have in common?

 

I’ve been surprised to see how the books I love and want to publish do share a theme. They are all, in one way or another, explorations of the complex histories and relationships that form an individual. My favorite books always delve into the invisible forces that shape the present. A character’s family history, cultural history, romantic history. But for me to fall for a book it must also be written with a lot of heart and joy, even if the subject is sorrowful.

I know there are many reasons that a manuscript might not work for you, but I wonder if you’ve noticed any general trends in the work that almost (but not quite) makes it beyond your gates?

 

It’s pretty easy to sort out the manuscripts that might interest me from the ones that won’t. But it’s much harder to separate the great from the very good. I think that a lot of what makes a book irresistible to me has to do with what is at stake for the writer, the characters, and the world of the story.

The publishing world is a small one, and sometimes it can seem clubby and exclusive to an outsider. To land an agent and a publisher, do you think it’s important for writers to build a network of authors and publishing connections? Or is there reason to hope that book publishing really is a meritocracy, where good work finds a good home?

 

I think the latter. If a writer is talented and tells a great story, I really do believe that he or she will find a publisher. But the truth is that when it comes to drumming up excitement and publicity for a new book, it does make the publisher’s job a little easier if the author comes with a network of publishing-world connections. But for a debut writer, I think it is the job of the agent and the publisher to help the author build that sort of community. When I open a new submission, I pay attention to the author’s bio, but I don’t let it carry too much weight. I want to work with writers who have put their best energy into the writing itself and have not gotten too distracted by the networking aspects of a career.

 

 

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Liese Mayer joined Scribner as an editor in 2013, having previously worked at The Overlook Press, where she edited The Facades by Eric Lundgren, How to Disappear Completely by Kelsey Osgood, and Beautiful Fools by R. Clifton Spargo, and Little, Brown and Company, where she worked on the publication of books by bestselling authors such as Jonathan Safran Foer, Jake Tapper, Evan Thomas, James Bradley, and Mary Gabriel, among others. She acquires literary and upmarket commercial fiction, and narrative nonfiction in the areas of social and cultural history, memoir, and investigative journalism. Her forthcoming titles include War of the Encylopaedists by Chris Robinson and Gavin Kovite, Barefoot Dogs by Antonio Ruiz-Camacho, Flannery O’Connor and Rona Jaffe Award winner Lori Ostlund’s After the Parade.

     

 

Stefan Merrill Block grew up in Plano, Texas. His first book, The Story of Forgetting, was an international bestseller and the winner of Best First Fiction at the Rome International Festival of Literature, The Ovid Prize from the Romanian Writer's Union, the 2008 Merck Serono Literature Prize and the 2009 Fiction Award from The Writers’ League of Texas. The Story of Forgetting was also a finalist for the debut fiction awards from IndieBound, Salon du Livre and The Center for Fiction. Following the publication of his second novel, The Storm at the Door, Stefan was awarded The University of Texas Dobie-Paisano Fellowship, as well as residencies at The Santa Maddalena Foundation and Castello Malaspina di Fosdinovo in Italy. Stefan's stories and essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, NPR’s Radiolab, GRANTA, The Los Angeles Times, and many other publications. Stefan lives in Brooklyn. - See more at: http://www.centerforfiction.org/forwriters/nyc-writing-workshops/stefan-merrill-block/#sthash.dI3aGlBD.dpuf

Stefan Merrill Block grew up in Plano, Texas. His first book, The Story of Forgetting, was an international bestseller and the winner of Best First Fiction at the Rome International Festival of Literature, The Ovid Prize from the Romanian Writer's Union, the 2008 Merck Serono Literature Prize and the 2009 Fiction Award from The Writers’ League of Texas. The Story of Forgetting was also a finalist for the debut fiction awards from IndieBound, Salon du Livre and The Center for Fiction. Following the publication of his second novel, The Storm at the Door, Stefan was awarded The University of Texas Dobie-Paisano Fellowship, as well as residencies at The Santa Maddalena Foundation and Castello Malaspina di Fosdinovo in Italy. Stefan's stories and essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, NPR’s Radiolab, GRANTA, The Los Angeles Times, and many other publications. Stefan lives in Brooklyn.