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The Fiction Editor, the Novel, and the Novelist

Insights from Thomas McCormack


The Fiction Editor, the Novel, and the Novelist

The Fiction Editor, the Novel, and the Novelist

Use by permission of Thomas McCormack.
In 1988 Thomas McCormack, then CEO and editorial director of St. Martin's Press, published a book designed to help editors more effectively edit the novels under their care. To his surprise, the biggest response to The Fiction Editor, the Novel, and the Novelist was not from its intended audience, but from novelists themselves, who rightly saw the book as a valuable guide to writing a novel.

Since then, McCormack has retired from publishing and begun a second career as a playwright; when Paul Dry Books approached him about a second edition, he happily incorporated the lessons he had since learned. In the interview below, McCormack expands on the material in his book, sharing more stories from his twenty-eight years in publishing and offering clear-cut instructions to help novelists ensure that their books end up in the right hands.

About.com: What are some of the major ways the publishing industry has changed since you began your career? What do these changes mean for writers?

Thomas McCormack: I used to be asked this question at the beginning of each decade when I was working. The people asking were the media, in particular the New York Times. If one can hear a frown over the telephone, I'd hear it again and again because, again and again, I'd say, “It hasn't changed much.” I knew they wanted something dramatic, and, preferably, something apocalyptic -- “The sky of publishing is falling!”

But it wasn't. I left publishing ten years ago, so I can't speak about changes since then (though my old house, St. Martin's Press, looks very much the same except it's bigger and stronger). When I left, I wrote a column for Publishers Weekly reporting these five facts: That year I did research that showed there were more independent bookstores than ever before, more independent publishers, more books published, more fiction published, and more books sold. That was contrary to all the predictions we'd been hearing for a generation -- and, perhaps more startling, contrary to what almost everyone in the media and the industry as a whole believed.

The biggest single change during my time was the rise of the computer. Its impact, however, was in the “backroom” -- publishing's management and operations. It certainly was a convenience and accelerator in the writer's work, but it didn't at all change the kind or quality of the books written and published.

AC: Looking back, what books are you most proud to have worked on?

TM: An approvable source of pride to a publisher is the discovery and coronation of a great writer who would otherwise have lived in obscurity. I had that chance with James Herriot, the Yorkshire veterinarian whose warm and joyful memoirs -- beginning with All Creatures Great and Small -- eventually made him perhaps the most widely read memoirist of the twentieth century. His first book had been published in England, and it had sold 1,200 copies. He had been rejected by every American house his work was submitted to -- and there were many. My wife Sandra, the greatest reader I ever knew, was evidently the first person over here to see his worth. It was she who called Herriot to my attention.

There's also gratification in publishing a writer and raising his readership far beyond what he'd ever found with his previous books, which were just as good. We did this with Tom Harris when we issued his The Silence of the Lambs.

In terms of a class of books, all of us at St. Martin's were proud of what we did with gay books, especially books about AIDS. Our editor Michael Denneny shepherded the first book anyone published about the affliction, The AIDS Epidemic by Dr. Kevin Cahill. Michael also did the biggest book about AIDS -- And the Band Played On by Randy Shilts. Michael then went on to create our flagship imprint for gay writing, Stonewall Books.

Personally I'm proud to have published years earlier the ground-breaking book by the man who coined the term "homophobia," Society and the Healthy Homosexual by Dr. George Weinberg.

AC: As an editor, what did you look for in both manuscripts and authors?

TM: In a sense, the most gratifying moments as an editor come when you're not actively looking for some particular thing, and out of an anonymous pile of manuscripts something emerges that feels magnetized, radioactive, dancing with electricity. I had this opportunity often when I first went to St. Martin's because we were almost unknown as a publishing house, so no agent was sending us potential bestsellers by big-name authors.

I used to take trips to London to license the American rights of books originating in England. I'd race around with my beggar's basket to as many publishers and agents over there as I could find. They'd load me with heaps of manuscripts by beginning or obscure writers, and I'd go back to my hotel room and, every night and all weekend, read whatever they had given me. My own background had been steeped in “haute-lit,” classic stuff from Austen up through Bellow. I was deeply and happily startled to find that, if it was good of its kind, I could be seized by fiction in genres I'd never encountered, including such unlikely fare as ladies' Gothic novels. (The exception: I didn't have the breadth to appreciate science fiction and fantasy. My remedy was to go out and buy for St. Martin's the best S.F. publisher -- Tor Books.)

The same goes with authors: They come in every form and background imaginable, and the only way to judge them is by their writing. As I say in the book, the sole common denominator in great or successful writers is: none was born a congenital idiot.

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