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This week, the internet has (as it does) exploded with controversy over a quote. On May 2nd, Entertainment Weekly published Isabella Biedenharn’s article “Why Publishers Are Betting Big on Debut Novelists." As someone who hopes to be published traditionally one day, but who also works in publishing, I was interested to see what “betting big” actually meant.
Turns out, betting big, for these publishing houses, meant giving multi-million dollar advances.
This isn’t shocking or controversial. Celebrity debut authors have been getting multi-million dollar book deals left and right. But the novelists discussed in the EW article weren’t celebrities. Aside from one of the authors being able to maybe get Amy Poehler to blurb her book, these writers were picked from obscurity in and now wait to see how their debuts actually do. So what did play a part in their large advances? The writing.
This is where the EW article started to fall apart. In Biedenharn’s quest to help her readers to understand how these nobody’s got such large advances, the line of questioning took a turn. Telling readers – and the hopeful writers who hang on to every piece of advice as they navigate the publishing field — that brilliant writing is what got these authors recognized doesn’t get clicks. It doesn’t get talked about or shared via social media. It doesn’t add anything new to the conversation.
While most editors quoted in the article kept their reasons vanilla, sticking to lines about talent and great writing, Claudia Herr acknowledged that an author’s appearance can affect an advance but added that, “we would have paid [an author] the same money if [they] weighed 500 pounds and was really hard to look at.”
A lot of members of the publishing community were pissed when they read this. Mallory Ortberg of The Toast wrote a lengthy response focusing just on the part where Herr suggested that a human being would be difficult to look at. That Herr, from her position of assumed privilege, shouldn’t have said the line, even if it was a hyperbole.
The thing that is left out of the EW article and out of Ortberg’s response is that it’s not only editors like Herr make the decision on whether or not to sign these books. Herr is not the sole person who decided what size advance to give Stephanie Danler, author of Sweetbitter. I side with what Herr said about how appearances can affect outcomes. Appearance does play a part in everyday life from the way you get treated at a restaurant to (in this case) the way your book advance is handled. How you present yourself always comes into play. Appearance can’t be defined as just the physical attributes of a person, though. It’s the way they appear online, the way they handle themselves in person, the way they handle themselves in communicating, whether it’s over the phone or through e-mail.
If there is blame to go around, I put it on Biedenharn and her own line of questioning and for bringing physical appearance into the discussion in the first place. Her questions about appearance and their role in the publishing process wouldn’t even have been brought up if these debut novelists were men. That’s the real problem here. All the editors that took part in her EW article, including Herr, were focused on how important writing is to them and the publishing houses that they work for. It brings into question why, out of all the editors in this article, Herr was the only one quoted discussing anything non-writing related coming into play when determining acquiring books and giving out advances. So, much like those who only get judged based on their appearance, Herr is being judged by one quote in an article. A quote that acknowledges what we all know, that we all hate, that we all wish was different.
What the EW article doesn’t include is how Herr said that Danler’s writing, “captures the overwhelming sensation of being young and new to a big city — the enchantment of it, the terror of it, the brutality of it, the exquisite beauty of it.”
The EW article also doesn’t include how Herr thought that, “the food writing is knockout. It’s beautiful. And it makes you hungry.” But EW’s demographic isn’t the same as Publisher’s Weekly. If you’re reading Publisher’s Weekly, it’s assumed that you want to know how a book caught the attention of agents and publishers.
The article doesn’t include how Peter Gethers, Senior VP and Editor at Large at Penguin Random House, was the original editor who read Danler’s manuscript. It doesn’t include that he believes that Danler’s book is “generation defining,” such as he’s quoted saying in the Publisher’s Weekly piece. It also doesn’t include anything how Gethers is quoted in The New York Times as calling Danler’s book, “One doesn’t see a lot of first novels like this, or any novels like this.”
By its very essence, EW’s article made no room for the editors to comment on how important writing is when it comes to an author’s success. There was no effort to explain that the beauty of words is infinitely more important than what the author looks like. That the beauty of a story, how it captures a reader’s attention and makes them want to share the book with others, is what really matters.
Appearances do matter. We’re lying to ourselves if we think they don’t. But when it comes to selling fiction, to enjoying fiction, how beautiful (or devastating, tragic, thrilling, etc.) a book is will always be the most important thing.