The Invisible Editor

An interview with editor and publisher
Michael Pietsch


Nicholas Underhill

Future Perfect
Issue 1, Winter 2014
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When I first contacted Michael Pietsch I told him that I wanted to introduce him to people who mightn’t know of his incredible work. I wanted to give him recognition outside the small literary and publishing circles that already knew his name. In reply I received a gentle ribbing: “Editors and publishers are supposed to work behind the scenes. I don’t feel any lack of recognition in the world.”

Regardless, Pietsch is one of the industry’s most respected editors for a reason. He’s been in the New York publishing industry for decades, working his way up from junior editor of nobody interesting in 1979 to become a publisher of one of the most successful houses of recent times, Little, Brown and Company, before finally becoming top dog—CEO of parent Hachette Book Group, one of the “big five” of US publishing.

While Pietsch has been involved with a wide array of writing—from Stephanie Meyer’s hormonal undead, to the never ending list of thrillers from James Patterson—Pietsch is most renowned on the literary radar for his relationship with one author: David Foster Wallace.

It’s hard to have a conversation about his career without discussing Wallace, arguably one of the most important writers of our generation. And it goes without saying that the writer would not have reached the heights of success without the pragmatism, support and nous of Michael Pietsch.

However, if you aren’t familiar with Wallace, don’t be surprised. Despite his Infinite Jest (1996) being one of the longest and most acclaimed books in recent history, he doesn’t feature prominently in many Australians’ reading lists. Many criticise his work as being unnecessarily technical, postmodern—my favourite goes as far to call it “narcissistic, cerebral masturbation”. Yet, the way he forces us to consider the deep, existential abyss within ourselves through a variety of subject matters—life, responsibility, growing old, and of course, death—continues to resonate with readers across the globe. He is renowned for hitting right at the emotional core by making readers aware of the gravity of their entirely temporary and fleeting existence. Uplifting stuff.

Wallace took his own life in 2008 after enduring many years of clinical depression. He left behind a sprawling unfinished work The Pale King, which Pietsch edited and published in 2011.

So what does it take to turn such dense, challenging works into financial success? And is the publishing industry on its last legs? Here’s what Pietsch had to say about his time working with Wallace and as the head of Hatchette.

For many people your name will always be linked, in some way, to the works and memory of David Foster Wallace. Is it ever frustrating being in a position where people want to talk to you, not only about you but about your relationship with Wallace?

This is never an issue. Editors’ work is invisible work and you never expect people to want to talk about you. Anytime anyone wants to talk about David’s work, I’m thrilled to do so.

What was he like to work with? Was it ever intimidating to work with an intellect as sharp as his?

Engaging with David in Infinite Jest was some of the greatest fun I’ve ever had. Imagine being trusted by someone as brilliant as David to read his work before the world sees it and talk about what’s working best and what might be improved. It’s an exhilarating honour and I was just naive enough not to be intimidated by it. I think if I were offered the same challenge now I might not dare.

Wallace was known for his incredible lexicon; do you think we should aim for capacious vocabularies? Or should we ameliorate communication by promulgating in ways that are more widely cognised?

David loved words and grammar. Those were his tools and he took great pride in using them. Some writers use their vocabulary to intimidate; my feeling was that David took joy in deploying the language he possessed, and that he was pretty gentle about it—aware when he was using a word that a lot of readers might not know and careful to make it intelligible by context.

What did you think when you picked up the first drafts of Infinite Jest?

The first submission of Infinite Jest, the basis for our signing a publishing contract, made it clear that it was an amazing book—funny, human, complex, sad, and dealing with complex moral and philosophical issues through the lives of deeply flawed modern characters.

How do you market someone like David Foster Wallace? He’s a cult figure now, but before his critical acclaim did you wonder if a tome like Infinite Jest would gain any traction?

I did wonder, because it’s a jagged narrative, more than a thousand pages long, and I’d noticed a couple other really long literary novels go almost unnoticed in the years before it was published. I could show you the tree I was passing on my nightly walk home where I had the “aha!” that the way to market Infinite Jest was to use its length as a strength and make the implicit challenge: “are you reader enough for Infinite Jest?”

Before Infinite Jest, David was already greatly admired by other writers. His first novel and story collection had gotten a lot of attention but very few sales. I thought we could get other writers to rally around and solicited a few to read the manuscript early. We [then] made up two-volume Reduced Bound Manuscripts—it was too long to fit the binding for one—and sent them very early to writers we admired.

They responded with huge enthusiasm, and the buzz began to grow. We then made traditional Advance Reading Copies, with the cover art, just one volume now, and sent them to more writers, booksellers, reviewers and such. We spread the news with a series of postcards to influential booksellers proclaiming it the literary event of the year, and then a brochure with more details about David and the book.

This kind of influence marketing is the way publishing has always worked. We just poured it on by putting ourselves aggressively behind the book, with lots of pre-publication hoopla. Once people read it, it sold itself—how could they not enthuse unreservedly?

It must have been quite emotional reading through Wallace’s writings and notes after his death. How did you feel picking up a chunk of The Pale King and being addressed by a protagonist also named David Wallace, in Wallace’s own characteristic style and voice?

When I first read those chapters narrated by a character named David Wallace I was able to forget for a spell the awful fact of his death. Reading through all the draft sections that made up The Pale King was sometimes exhilarating—seeing at last all the work he had done in the previous decade—and at the same time one of the saddest things I’ve ever done.

You’ve said before that a good editor works behind the scenes. Was it impossible to truly be behind the scenes in The Pale King?

Someone had to speak for the book, and it was necessary to talk about the decisions behind bringing an unfinished book out. So I was willing to give interviews about it.

Unlike most editors, you were thrust into the spotlight on the book's release, conducting interviews, appearing on television and attending book signings. Was it strange taking on that promotional role after working behind the scenes for so long?

It was strange work. I wanted the book to be taken seriously and received well, so I was happy to talk about it in public. But it was heartbreaking too. Every event was another acknowledgment of his absence. Sometimes there was a balm in seeing other grief-struck people who had gotten much out of David’s writing and felt alone in a way now that he was gone.

As CEO, I imagine your time must be split a million ways . Do you still edit novels?

I give myself the pleasure of editing a couple books a year. Last year I worked with James Patterson on his novel Cross My Heart and Donna Tartt on her novel The Goldfinch, and both were huge, rewarding fun. In 2014 I’m working on James Patterson’s Hope To Die and an anthology, The David Foster Wallace Reader. I’m working with another of my favourite writers, David James Duncan, author of The River Why and The Brothers K, on his first novel in a decade, Sun House. I’m having the time of my life!

Your position at Hachette would require you to find a balance between profitability and literary quality. David Foster Wallace is never going to sell as many copies as Twilight. Is there pressure as CEO to push for more Twilights and fewer Wallaces? Or does popular, widely-read fiction subsidise publishing quality literary works?

What a good question! I've always rejected the idea that there is a conflict between profitability and literary quality. The best-selling books throughout history are the ones we think of as literary, in that their intelligence and beauty makes them appeal to readers year after year.

Every publisher brings out some books that they know might not sell many copies, hoping that the author’s talent is strong enough that future books will sell well and bring profits. (It’s a big country, there are a lot of books, and it can sometimes take a long build to get people’s attention!) And those future books can bring readers to go back and find the writer’s earlier publications. So while we are always looking for books from every division that can appeal to millions of readers, all publishers also manage diverse portfolios of writers of many kinds.

How often do you read unique manuscripts that are not published because they appeal to an audience too niche? Does financial return determine what you print?

Financial return is what we’re always looking at. We are a business, not a non-profit cultural institution. I’ve read many books over the years that I enjoyed but felt would appeal to too small a readership to be profitable. Often I’m wrong—every editor has stories about books they passed on that went on to become bestsellers, just as they have books that they thought would be widely read that turned out not to be.

One wonderful aspect of modern publishing is that there are thousands of publishers and easy-to-use self-publishing options, so even books that mainstream publishers don’t easily see a market for can be brought out and build readerships.

How do you find public attitude towards literature? We are tending towards information that is accessible and digestible. Do you think there is a future for new works like Infinite Jest or The Pale King that demand not only time, but intense concentration and thoughtfulness?

While we’re living in a meme-y age, and short sharp messages can spread far fast, I’ve also found that the market for serious, challenging, original writing is strong. One beauty of the internet is that true enthusiasm travels faster and farther than ever before, so people who love particular writers or kinds of books can hear about them and share their own views with like-minded people more easily. It’s an exciting time to be publishing great writers, including ones who might be considered challenging.

Are people who love physical books, to hold and smell, underline and dog-ear, annotate and collect, a dying breed? What’s in store for the printed word?

In the US last year, three quarters of the books sold were print books, and one-quarter ebooks. I love ebooks for many purposes—their portability and the ease of purchase—but when I want to settle down with a book I still find ink on paper the best reading experience. Most readers have considered both options by now and it appears that most still prefer printed books, and I expect this to remain true for the foreseeable future.

Whatever format people buy them in, there will always be a huge market for books, the string of words that only a single individual could have created. There is no form like it for bringing one person close to another.