Story Behind The Story With Flawless' Editor, Cassidy Sachs [#7]
A Q&A with my tireless editor, who dishes on her job, the process of making a deal and our in-person meeting before Penguin Random House — and the rest of America — locked down.
I’m psyched for today’s edition of the newsletter because it features Cassidy Sachs, my tireless editor at Dutton and its shepherd and champion from the beginning. Cassidy heard about FLAWLESS from my literary agent, Howard, before a proposal was even finished. So the book has been dancing around in her head since, oh god, 2019. So I called her up and we chatted about book editing, the FLAWLESS journey from her side of the relationship, and this liminal time we’re in before the book meets readers.
This conversation has been edited (natch) for clarity and length.
EH: How do you describe what you do?
CS: I think people are always interested to hear how social this job is. A big chunk of my work is getting to know book agents. My work as an editor is one half of the industry, but literary agents are the other half of the industry. They represent authors directly. You know that relationship very intimate. It's me presenting myself, my list, my interests, my imprint to an agent so that they know what types of books I'm looking for.
EH: How many conversations are you having with different agents over the course of, let's say, a year?
CS: I don't have the number. Agenting is slightly different than editing, and for a person to be a book editor, they have to be employed by a publishing house with salaried workers. Agents are very different. An independent person could maybe have some knowledge of media or contracts and they could represent an author, and I think that person would call themself an agent. Agents who are really in the industry who are talking to editors all the time, there's probably a couple hundred. Then my network is a bit smaller than that, because it's all about interest match. So I talk to maybe the 50 to 100 agents a year who share a lot of common interests.
EH: Cool. So you're talking a lot lots of lunches, lots of coffees, lots of emails. I'm sure you're fielding a lot of proposals all at the same time.
CS: There is the actual reading piece of it, right? We're reading submissions deciding the books we want to buy, and then editing piece of it, which is when you've already bought a book, you're reading that book over and over again. More than 50% of my work week is really more on the administrative and management side of things. We are the book’s guardian. We are the authors number one advocate, especially in a company like Penguin Random House that publishes so many books a year.
EH: So how much are you reading, would you say?
CS: I get in something like 4 to 500 submissions a year.
EH: Oh my gosh.
CS: Nonfiction comes in as proposals. So it's not 500 full books. But fiction, which I also do, comes in often as full manuscripts. I wouldn't say that I read all 500 submissions cover to cover, but I will read every proposal cover to cover because it's 60 pages and a well-constructed proposal has much so much to glean. And a novel I'll read at least 50 pages.
EH: What are you looking for, would you say?
CS: I look for nonfiction and I look for fiction, and then within those categories it's broad as well. So trying to define that common thread is something that I spend a lot of time doing in nonfiction. I'm looking for brave journalists and trailblazers, scholars who are disrupting conversations in some way, who are either entering into, on the journalist side, an important big conversation, maybe changing the way we think about those topics. And on the more academic side, I'm looking for scholars who are challenging their field, who are who are entering the academy with their own research or who are who are not afraid to stand against the status quo. And I think it's that quality of disruption that I love most of all.
In fiction, it's a bit different. I look for heartfelt books. Books have happy endings, but I try to put that kernel of disruption in those books as well as people who are up against the system. Often young women defining themselves in their values. Those are the books that I fall in love with. And I think that sort of a common identity has started to form in my list that showcases those qualities.
EH: Ok. We can talk about FLAWLESS! The reason why I feel like I really had to research and report and write FLAWLESS was because I had this sense of unfinished business. I had spent all this time in Seoul and I covered 27 missile provocations between North Korea and South Korea. And all the while, something really important was happening socially for women. I was also having to look at myself and interrogate some really calcified ideas about beauty, or ones I hadn't thought about it in a really long time. And I was raising three girls and I just felt like, gosh, this book doesn't exist. So I have to write it. I came together with Howard, who is my agent. He helped talk me through the process of writing a proposal. What's happening on your end at that time?
CS: It can really vary. In your case, with Howard, it was sort of two conversations. I had an in-person meeting with him in which we talked about everything that we had coming up. He, as a great agent, sort of planted the seed in my head like, “Oh, you're going to be excited about this one. This fits your interests.” That's what those lunches are for, to kind of build that rapport and understanding what's on each other's plate. The actual submission comes a bit later so that when he sends me sort of your finished proposal and that sparks a whole other chain of events to acquisition.
EH: Let's talk a little bit about making a book deal.
CS: Sure. So it starts with that submission. And among all of the submissions that I'm getting, a few will really catch my eye. You see the audience, you see the vision, especially in nonfiction. A proposal, like we said, is just 60 pages. So it's just the outline of the idea, the possibilities of the research. Let's just stick with yours. I took FLAWLESS to a few readers who I knew would have some reason to be interested in it. Do they agree that there's something new being said or important being said? Or is the writing just astonishingly good? And so once we sort of circled up as a team around an idea, that's when you and I first have our contact, have a meeting with the author. It's especially important in nonfiction since there's so much work ahead to the same page about what this book is going to look like, what me and my team see as the most exciting pieces to chase down and just making sure that everybody is aligned with the vision.
EH: I'll just insert my part of it here! Around this period, Howard is setting up meetings with a whole series of editors from various imprints who are interested, including ones that are actually within the same publisher. And they all have different takes depending on the individual editors point of view and the team's perspective. This is so crazy because I did my meetings with prospective editors on the very last day New York was open. It was the night that Broadway closed [for the coronavirus pandemic].
CS: I was going to say, we must be on our almost exactly three year anniversary.
EH: It's very timely. I also met with some other suitors, other people who put notes in my locker, and it was really fascinating to go through this part of it because every editor and team had ideas and they were rather different, and how they were going to sell the book, rather different. Some editors really wanted the book to be sold at like Anthropologie and Urban Outfitters and Forever 21, and be paired with lip balms themselves, and that is so different than how the book actually turned out, because the book ultimately is not that.
CS: I think it's just much deeper. It's not meant to be a product and it's not meant to be fluffy. This is a really serious look at an industry that is part of all of our daily lives that impacts that we feel about ourselves and each other. So you're right, this is not a fluffy book, though I would say as your editor, it is a very commercial one because I think everyone, everywhere can have a stake in this conversation.
EH: Like we said, our first meeting together was three years ago. There were some delays, of course, because of lockdown.
CS: It's more typical to see a two year schedule. But that's when we're doing all of our editorial work, getting the book in good shape. I might do two rounds of edits and then that's before the copy editors of the production team get their hands on it. So this manuscript is buffed and polished. That work is now behind us. This is lead up to publication. Anything from 4 to 6 months out, it's when publicity and marketing really get their hands on the book. They start building their plans. Once they have that finished manuscript, we start getting support from other authors, all with an eye on building a publicity and marketing campaign that will get this book in front of as many readers as possible that will find its biggest audience. We start seeing reviews run first, maybe in publishing trade magazines, then we start seeing reviews run in newspapers and online again, all building to this to this moment of publication, which we are now about two months from.
EH: FLAWLESS is about to go out the door. This means you're also buying things that are going to NOT going to go out the door for another two years from now?
CS: It's one of my favorite and least favorite parts of this job. At any time on any given day, I could be working on a book at any part of the process or in multiple books that different parts of the process. And it takes pretty rigid organizational skills.
EH: Good thing you’re a planner!
CS: That is a common personality trait of most editors. I work on 8 to 10 books a year. Which within the industry is actually a pretty low number. And so it all sort of overlays, 8 to 10 books at year. all at different stages in the process.
EH: And for any of your books, nonfiction or fiction, what does success look like?
CS: There can be a tendency in the industry to think immediately of the New York Times bestseller list as the marker of a successful book. Realistically, it's such a small, small piece of what success looks like, and I think that there are lots of other markers for success that to me are even more important than that. It's great reviews, it's great publicity coverage, interest for interviews, people who want to talk to you about your book. You can look at foreign rights deals. So are foreign publishers and international audiences interested in your book? Maybe it's book club picks. Those can be the national book clubs that you've heard of or clubs support from libraries and librarians, and support from indie booksellers. These are all things that can build a really successful campaign. And even though sales are a great standardized metric of success, it's also the one thing that we can't control. It's more important to me that the people who have bought the book are enjoying it.
EH: I would say for me personally, something that's really important to me is that so many of the Korean women that I got to meet, whether it's for the book or just in my time there, do get to read it and hopefully get something out of it. Because I really wanted to make sure that they were represented and their voices mattered. I also wanted to have a what I felt like was a really fruitful industry experience because this is not a muscle that I had ever really exercised before. I come from video and radio, and so I make a totally different kind of media. So thank you. This was my first foray into publishing, and so far it's just been a really rich experience. I've grown so much, I feel like I understand myself better. And then I've also had to stretch in a lot of ways that were not comfortable for me. And so I've had to grow a lot. And you all have taken such good care of me. So thank you.
CS: It means so much to hear you say all of that. So much of my goal as an editor is to be an empathetic ear, to be a partner. And I know that that's a sentiment that my entire team carries, too. You have been such a curious author. You ask such amazing questions so that curiosity, that drive to learn something through all of this, has been very apparent.
And that’s it for my love fest with Cassidy! I hope you got something out of it. Thank you for reading and thanks again to Cassidy for being game.
In the next edition, I’ll have updates on the various FLAWLESS events coming together in different cities, links to some early interviews I’ve done on the book, and ways for you to get involved.
As usual, I’d love to know what YOU want to see in this newsletter, so feel free to write with your questions and suggestions. I’m also looking for great examples of authors on social media, as I try to learn TikToking as an elder millennial before Biden bans it in America. So send me great book author toks you’ve seen, please?
Until next time,
Wow what a great conversation, and so timely for me. Just back from AWP and about to jump in the saddle for 2 months of writing and I really appreciate you pulling back the curtain a bit on the process. Very inspirational, thank you!