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Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Publishing* But Were Afraid to Ask

To writers, editors and agents are like unicorns, magical beasts that hold the key to the publishing kingdom. My writer friends and I spend so much time speculating about these supernatural creatures. The quest to land the mythical book deal hovers over the scribbler at all times like a cartoon thought bubble.

So I thought I would ask these unicorns a few questions. I approached the brilliant and amazing Monika Woods and Matthew Daddona. Monika is an agent at Curtis Brown and Matthew is an editor at Dey Street Books, and they both happen to be writers themselves. Without further ado, here is the lively and hopefully enlightening conversation that ensued.

Caroline Hagood: What is a book?

Matthew Daddona: I guess I’ll take this one first. It’s a collection of stories: ultimately, every book has the distinction of being about something, right? Maybe it’s the semiotician in me, but I think every book—every object, really—has the capacity to tell a story, or multiple stories. And what makes every book unique is how these stories are interpreted across space and time.

Monika Woods: Ha, for a second I thought you meant literally a short story collection, but I think you’re right. I think no matter what kind of book it is, that telling of the story is the most important aspect. To me, personally, books are fundamental.

CH: What is an editor?

MW: I think it’d be funny if Matt and I both described the way we see each other’s jobs first…

MD: Yes!

MW: Editors are a lot of things. The way I see it is they work for readers. Readers unknowingly hire them every time they buy a book. And that’s a kind of weird relationship, because editors are also usually pretty obscure. Most people don’t know who they are. But writers do. Editors, through their tastes, build a world of books populated by their writers and then they get to publish that world.

Is that too weird an answer?

MD: Nope!

CH: What is an agent?

MD: An agent is a writer’s confidant and personal advocate, one who doesn’t just help promote and support the writer’s work but who does everything in his/her power to get the writer to a more advantageous place; an agent may or may not be a writer’s personal friend, but an agent is certainly a writer’s most trusted peer as the writer is entering the tangled and sometimes obscure world of publishing a piece of art. Did we both use the word obscure? Maybe that says something, though I’m not sure what.

MW: A lovely thing to be.

CH: What is your favorite book?

MD: East of Eden. No questions asked.

MW: I am so jealous of your quick and absolute answer! Mine changes all the time. Random Family and Ada are up there, though.

CH: Who is your favorite writer?

MD: Writers, to me, are like growing up with favorite bands: there are those who will always be your favorite, and then there are the ones you may fall in and out of love with, and then there are those new appreciations. I’ll give you a bunch of names that fit these categories, but I won’t tell you which ones or why: Roberto Bolaño, Carson McCullers, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Carlos Williams, James Baldwin, Louise Glück, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Ron Chernow, Louise Erdrich, Sherman Alexie.

MW: Same answer, this changes for me all the time, too. I am terribly inconstant. Some of the people who have been the answer to this are Vladimir Nabokov, Sylvia Plath, Zadie Smith, Marilynne Robinson, David Foster Wallace, Karen Russell, Kazuo Ishiguro… In non-fiction Adrien Nicole Leblanc, Maggie Nelson…

CH: What book from any time period do you wish you could have worked on and why?

MW: Infinite Jest.

MD: Ohh, good one! Maybe Puzo’s The Godfather. I’m a big Puzo fan. I just think publishing a book that honest in the late ’60s would have been some ride.

MW: I love looking at old NYT bestseller lists…

CH: What kind of book do you go into the office every day hoping to find?

MW: I am looking for originality and passion.

MD: On the nonfiction side, one that I can say, “I bet you’ve never heard a story like this.”

CH: What makes a book brilliant?

MD: The writer’s ability to turn truth into fiction or fiction into truth.

MW: I find brilliance when I stumble across one sentence that feels like it can decode the entire book. I love it when writers write towards one sentence, the one they’ve been meaning the entire time.

CH: How can writers become brilliant?

MD: By trusting in their own styles, but by also being aware of what else is out there and how their book can exist on its own plane. Nothing exists in a vacuum, I believe.

MW: That trust is important and integral because to me, brilliance hinges on originality. That shining beacon of newness or surprise; I love to be surprised.

CH: You’re both writers yourselves. How does that influence the way you handle the work of other writers?

MD: I guess I’m not as harsh as I could be. But that’s not entirely true because I’m still very meticulous and discerning when it comes to edits. I always like to have a conversation with writers. As much as (I hope) they can learn from working with an editor, I hope to learn from them.

MW: I never thought I could even be a writer until I became a more confident agent. For me, the two are very interconnected. I literally never thought I could write a book until I was deep into a very intensive edit, collaborating with an author. I realized that the feeling of empowerment I strive to make my writers feel (literally my goal as an agent) would have to be something I gave to myself. So I try to be generous.

CH: Tell us a secret about the publishing industry.

MD: Tell me a secret about what you think you know about the publishing industry, and I’ll tell you if it’s true.

MW: There are a lot of emails.

CH: What do you wish you could tell writers?

MD: I’ll be trite: never give up, and heed successful writers’ advice. Regarding the first token, for every book you think never had a chance of getting published, there are a thousand exceptions. Same goes for every book you think should have been published. Regarding the second line of advice, listen to people who have successfully gone through the process. But, mostly, listen.

MW: My advice is to seek accountability and discipline.

CH: What kind of works do you think people are looking for in these complex times?

MD: We’ve seen political books especially work well, as is expected. But that will wane soon. I think people always need good fiction regardless of what’s going on in the world. I also think that great historical nonfiction can teach us sometimes more than contemporary books on politics can.

MW: The one thing I always say is I can’t predict the future. I can only trust that I know what I like. Which makes questions like these hard to answer. I happen to think books that do innovative things with language will be more important than ever. That playfulness, I think, will be important because it’s something young people really seek when they’re reading since it’s already a part of their day-to-day.

CH: What will books be like in the future?

MD: They will be like books are now: printed, beautiful, and disseminated widely.

MW: Yes, and I will add that I think and hope we’ll allow them to be less traditional—novellas, chapbooks, more collections, etc.

CH: Can books save the world?

MD: No, because books are written by people, and people are inherently flawed. That’s so pessimistic, huh? I mean, can books save the world in a way that’s distinct or more unique than any other way? Probably not. But they are a bold step forward in helping to shape culture, and, hopefully, showing the good side of humanity. I do believe that.

MW: I think that reading could save the world. Every time I see my two-year-old sitting there reading a book upside down, I feel so happy and hopeful.