A Conversation with Tina Pohlman

A few months back, Richard Nash of Soft Skull Press told me I'd probably enjoy talking with Tina Pohlman, editorial director of Harvest Books (the paperback imprint of Harcourt), because she had just acquired the paperback rights to three of my favorite books of 2005: Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link, Oh Pure and Radiant Heart by Lydia Millet, and The People of Paper by Salvador Plascencia. Indeed, this sounded like an extraordinary person, and so I contacted Tina and asked if she was willing to be interviewed. She was.

Where did you begin in publishing, and how did you get to where you are now?

I started as an editorial assistant at Houghton Mifflin in 1993. Then I went to Anchor Books/Doubleday in 1995 where I was promoted a couple times. Then Anchor was moved from Doubleday to the Knopf Publishing Group to join forces with Vintage Books and become Vintage-Anchor. I was with Vintage-Anchor for about a year and a half I guess. All told, I was with Anchor for about 5 1/2 years. And I learned from some of the best people in the business how to publish paperback reprints, Martha Levin in particular. Though even then, as now, I always had a few hardcovers going on, as well as paperback originals.

Then I went to Carroll & Graf in 2001, where I stayed until 2004. I only published originals at C&G, though I did look after the paperbacks of my own hardcovers. But there really wasn't a paperback publishing program there. Then, in 2004 I came to Harcourt/Harvest.

I am currently the editorial director of Harvest Books, which is the paperback imprint of Harcourt. So I oversee that list and acquire reprints and some originals for it. I do this because I love paperbacks and paperback publishing. The reprint side is a very different kind of thing from acquiring originals, but of course it's related.

What is it about paperbacks and paperback publishing that you particularly love?

I love paperbacks, the physical objects because they’re portable, flexible, fit nicely in your hand. Obviously, they’re cheaper too. I just personally prefer sitting down with a paperback in my hand than with a hardcover.

I love paperback publishing for several reasons. First of all, you get to cover a bunch of houses, see what other people are doing, and you have a great excuse to read a wide variety of books. If I am somewhat specialized in the kinds of originals I do (almost all new fiction and occasionally a memoir), I can cast my net much wider and indulge other interests while performing the paperback reprint part of my job.

Another great thing about paperback reprint publishing is that in the process you learn a lot about the business of publishing. Because when you’re considering the acquisition of a paperback reprint, you have to look at the entire publishing picture: How many copies have sold? What kind of publicity is the book/author getting? How else is the house promoting the books? Advertising? Is the author working on another book? Is the hardcover house setting up this book in a way that will help us publish it successfully in paperback? Are they doing things wrong that we think we could do right? Etc.

Finally, one thing you have to remember about paperbacks is that this is the format in which a book spends most of its life. The hardcover’s only out for a year, usually, and then there’s the paperback, where the book lives on. So you have a this-is-the-first-day-of-the-rest-of-your-life feeling when you’re preparing a book’s paperback publication. Like you’re sending it off into its adult life or something.

After acquiring the paperback rights for a book published in hardcover, what is the role of the editor? We tend to think of editors as people who slave over manuscripts with authors, but if a book has been published once already, what, then, is left for the editor to do?

Basically as a paperback editor your job is mostly about positioning and packaging -- marketing, really. You have the benefit of hindsight when you look at how the hardcover did, and you try to figure out what you can do differently that might be better. Or you figure out that you should leave well enough -- or great -- alone. Sometimes merely changing a package can do wonders for a book that performed poorly in hardcover.

Then you try to figure out what the author can do to continue promoting the book in paperback. This usually involves reaching out to book clubs, or reading groups, who like to buy their books in paperback. And then you hope that you catch their attention. Our publicity and marketing departments do a lot of this work. Sometimes we hire freelancers to write up a reading group guide, and sometimes the editor works with the author, and they write one together. These reading group guides are usually posted on line. Some houses print them inside the book or print them separately.

Another market you try to reach in paperback is the classroom. You try to get course adoptions. You attend academic conferences and feature books you think might get picked up. This is very difficult, but it happens, and when it does, it often means a nice long life of steady sales for a book. There is actually a bestseller list for the National Association of College Stores, and this is a very interesting list to look at.

Aside from the marketing stuff, sometimes you do a little editorial work, but that usually just amounts to little line edits and/or corrections. Sometimes you might work with the author on an afterword, or maybe an index -- to give the paperback a little of that good old "added value."

How is your approach different when you are working on a hardcover versus working on a paperback original?

My approach, editorially, with paperback originals and hardcovers isn’t really any different. Our sales, marketing, and publicity goals are the same too. We often choose to do something as a paperback original because we feel we can get out more copies in that format. This tends to be the case, most often, with new fiction, because people are generally more hesitant to take a chance on a new fiction writer if they have to shell out twenty-something bucks.

When going after a book that you know you want to get the rights to, and you know other publishers are after it, what other than money will help you secure the deal?

That question's sort of hard to answer, because there are all sorts of things you can do, and every situation is different. You can fiddle around with payouts and give up first serial rights and perhaps territories if you’ve started out with an offer for world rights or something. You can throw in a performance bonus or a bestseller bonus. Or sometimes it just comes down to having a really great meeting or conversation with the author.

What attracted you to The People of Paper, Magic for Beginners, and Oh Pure and Radiant Heart? What other books have you acquired recently that excite you?

I bought The People of Paper, Magic for Beginners, and Oh Pure and Radiant Heart first and foremost because I read them and fell in love with them. I also realized that all three writers were clearly going to keep writing wonderful books, so I saw lots of publishing potential for the future, which just gave me another good reason to acquire them.

All three were published by small presses, who are often more likely to sell paperback reprint rights, so I knew that deals could probably be made. But at the same time, all three books garnered attention form other reprint houses, so I had to pursue them rather aggressively.

Two other books I recently bought reprint rights to, which are on the Fall/Winter 2006-2007 Harvest list, are Laila Lalami's Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits (from Algonquin) and Michelle Tea's Rose of No Man's Land (from MacAdam/Cage). They're both novels. Lalami's is a moving and elegantly constructed tale of Moroccans illegally crossing the Strait of Gibraltar for Spain. Tea's is a hilarious and wild lesbian coming-of-age story set in crappy suburban Massachusetts.

A couple other reprints I've bought for Harvest are Temple Grandin's bestselling Animals in Translation (from Scribner), a nonfiction book about autism and animal behavior, and two books by Christine Schutt: Florida (from Triquarterly/Northwestern University Press) and A Day, a Night, Another Day, Summer (also from Triquarterly).

I also acquire originals, both paperback (as I mentioned above) and hardcover. Most of the originals I acquire are fiction, and occasionally there's a memoir in there. I published Tim Guest's memoir, My Life in Orange -- a wonderful book about growing up around the world in the communes of the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh -- last year as a paperback original, and it did very well for us both critically and commercially. I also published a short story collection called The Task of This Translator by Todd Hasak-Lowy as a paperback original last year, and it was well reviewed (including a rave from Richard Eder in the daily New York Times) and sold nicely.

Right now I have a hardcover novel out (on the Harcourt list) that was just published in April and is getting one amazing review after another. AND it's selling! It's called Whiteman by Tony D'Souza. It was excerpted in the New Yorker, Playboy, and Tin House, has been reviewed everywhere, and we just went back to press for our second printing. It's a story about a guy who goes to the Ivory Coast post 9/11 to do relief work, just as the country is deteriorating into a bloody civil war between Christians and Muslims. It's very funny, very sexy, and very sad. I love it.

How do you know you want to invest the time and resources to acquire and work on a particular book?

This question is always harder to answer than it should be. As far as fiction goes, when I start reading something, what usually has to grab me first is voice, diction, tone, prose style. I also need a character, characters. Plot, of course, but I don't have a lot of requirements when it comes to plot.

I like dark psychological journeys much more than I like clever intellectual experiments. Though I love writers with a keen sense of the absurd, and I'm not against cleverness as long as there's substance underneath it.

Just look at The People of Paper. There is a book that could so easily have gone wrong. It's a testament to Plascencia's huge talent that not only does it work, it doesn't feel like something that's "working"; it feels like the story was meant to be told in exactly this way. To be honest, I was kind of amazed that I liked this book, let alone fell in love with it. When I did an initial drive-by of the book (you know, the way you pick up a book, read the cover copy, glance inside, thumb through it, smell it, etc, before you start reading it), I almost just threw it back on the pile. But I don't know, I always think I have this kind of sixth sense, and thanks to that sixth sense, I threw it in my bag instead. Took it home. Started reading it Sunday afternoon and finished it that night. Could not put it down.

This is why I love my job.

Will the paperback of People of Paper maintain the same interior design?

Yes, the interior design of People of Paper will be the same, with one exception: We will not be doing the die-cuts. The author has come up with an alternative that we both like, though. You’ll have to wait and see! The trim size will also be the same, which is very unusual. I like to stick with standard paperback trim, but it’s just impossible to do with this book. We have a great new cover design too, which is well suited to the paperback format.

How do you ever find time to do all the reading you do?

I don’t know how I find the time. Seriously, I don’t. I hate the idea of "time management," and I don’t really have any program or allotted reading time. I’m not a very disciplined person. I read when I need to, when I feel like it, which happens to be most of the time. Though I guess I have pretty much unconsciously reserved Sunday nights for reading -- except when I’m watching "Big Love".

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