George Witte is editor-in-chief of St. Martin’s Press, an imprint of Macmillan Publishers. He has worked at St. Martin’s since 1984. Over the years, George has acquired and edited books by notable literary novelists including Fred Chappell, Robert Clark, Claire Davis, Eric Kraft, Janet Peery, and Gregory David Roberts; thriller writers P. T. Deutermann and David Poyer; and a wide range of nonfiction authors including Ray Anderson, Francis Bok, Jason Elliot, P. M. Forni, Emmanuel Jal, Stephen P. Kiernan, David Kirby, Irshad Manji, Bill Reynolds, Mitt Romney, Matthew Scully, Gerry Spence, and Charles Sykes.
George is also an award winning poet whose poems have been published in (to name a few): The Atlantic, The Kenyon Review, Ploughshares, Poetry, Southwest Review, and The Virginia Quarterly Review. His most recent collection of poetry is: Deniability: Poems published by Orchises Press in 2009; his first book, The Apparitioners, was published in 2005, and also is available from Orchises.
Andy: George, thanks for coming to the blog today. I’d like to talk about how you make acquisition decisions. I’d just like to add that this blog has done some entries on publisher rejection. Most recently we composed: Publisher Rejection Letters From Plato to Hitler. Let’s hope that St. Martins would publish the former and reject the latter.
Andy: Can you tell us some of the books you have been working on lately? Maybe one by one, tell us what they are, why you are excited about them and what did you consider when you made the decision to acquire them?
George: This spring and summer I have continued to work on the publication of David Kirby’s Animal Factory, a book on factory farms and their enormous environmental impact, which becomes more relevant each day. (Last week’s massive egg recall is just one example.) Kirby is a terrific investigative reporter and writes with a sense of narrative urgency; he knows how to organize complex information and science into a story about people, and he has a nose for important subjects.
Andy: That sounds like a very interesting book. One of my clients is Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, who writes about animal rights and animal emotions. I’ll make sure he reads that book. What other book do you find exciting right now?
George: Another recent book is Stephen P. Kiernan’s Authentic Patriotism, which seeks to reclaim the word “patriotism” from the current “us vs. them” climate of hysteria, and defines it as many of the founding fathers did: as service by citizens to country. Stephen is a dynamic writer and speaker who inspires everyone he meets, and this book portrays a wide range of Americans who are doing remarkable, wide-ranging things that improve the lives of people in need…with no political agenda.
Andy: How many book proposals do you look at in a typical week? How do you sort through them?
George: I read 20-40 proposals and manuscripts each week, most of the proposals for nonfiction books, most of the manuscripts fiction. Nearly every project is represented by an agent, and the proposals are structured in roughly the same way: a descriptive overview of the book, a chapter outline (often with substantive text), at least one sample chapter, an assessment of competitive and/or similar books on the subject, and information about the author’s credentials. All these proposals reach a level of professionalism, and all are “publishable.”
Andy: So what are the things in the proposal that really grab your attention?
George: When I’m reading, I’m really listening…for a voice, a sense of urgency, a passion for the subject that excites me even if I have no previous knowledge of or interest in the subject at hand. Yes, other things are important: how many books on this subject have been published recently, how have they sold, and how is this proposed book different? Does the author have a “platform,” which can mean anything from he/she is a journalist who has published widely on the subject, or is an academic writing for a general audience, or is an expert for some other reason, or has contacts with individuals, groups, organizations, and media that can help the publisher sell, market, and publicize the book. But the key thing is the author’s voice, which no amount of proposal-laundering and packaging can supply. The best books have a distinctive sound and it’s audible from the very first encounter.
Andy: It sounds to me that you have pretty wide ranging interests. Do you have any special areas that might fit into the publishing program or are you just looking for good books that excite you and (hopefully) your readers?
George: St. Martin’s publishes all kinds of books for all kinds of readers. Different people want different things from books—some want pure entertainment, some want information about a specific subject that is important to them, some want to learn about a completely new subject, some want to be deeply moved, some want to change their lives and hope a book will show the way. We read a wide range of books and look for those that seem the best for their intended audience. These days, I’m looking for investigative journalism, current affairs/issues, a certain kind of memoir (usually those that connect with larger social questions), and narrative nonfiction. I am not publishing as much fiction as I once did, but am open to a special literary novel.
Andy: But even if you fall in love with a project, it doesn’t mean it will get published. Where is the final decision made and who makes it?
George: Final decisions are made at our weekly editorial meetings, with our two publishers having the last word.
Andy: Could you tell us a little more about how you work with books after the book gets acquired?
George: After acquisition, I’m in touch with the author along the way to delivery of the manuscript. Some authors like to submit sample chapters or sections, others prefer to finish the book and begin editing then. I work closely on editing—line to line as well as structural—and usually go through two drafts with the author before we have a final manuscript. Then I circulate the manuscript to the people in house who will have a hand in its publication: art, sales, marketing, publicity, subsidiary rights, and others. After it’s typeset, I seek out advance quotes to help support the efforts of the sales, marketing, and publicity departments, and I work with each department to provide information that will be useful in their respective efforts. I attend a range of meetings to discuss these efforts and follow up with each department. I work with the author throughout the publication and usually for at least three or four months after publication date, or longer if needed, to keep reaching out for readers.
Andy: George, we are always hearing that editors don’t edit any more. It sounds to me that you are still of the old school.
By the way, I’m the agent for a lead title at St. Martins in the spring. It is called The Jersey Sting. Most people remember the unforgettable picture of the Hassidic rabbis in handcuffs. The book is about the biggest corruption scandal in New Jersey history (and that’s saying a lot.) The authors are journalists with The New Jersey Star Ledger and were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for coverage of this story.