“I recommend that it be buried under a stone for a thousand years.”
-Publisher passing on Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (quoted in Rotten Rejections by Andre Bernard)
Ruth Nanette, the most powerful book editor you’ve never heard of, had just sent back her poached halibut at Gramercy Tavern, the famed Manhattan eatery where we were meeting for lunch.
“I ultimately wasn’t drawn to the dish’s central character,” Nanette explained. “Let’s see if the papperdelle tells a more engaging story.”
As the waiter disappeared with the fish, I leaned back to study the 44-year-old tastemaker sitting across from me. At 29, she had become the youngest ever editorial director of a major publishing house imprint — Random House’s Blank Page Books — a feat made more impressive by her never having bid on, let alone published, a manuscript during her entire career.
Before I could make any observations about her appearance for this profile, Nanette flipped the script and delivered one of those witheringly honest appraisals that have made her renowned in literary circles.
“Despite its evident merit, your face isn’t resonating with me. It starts promisingly enough with your forehead, but then gets muddled in the middle with the introduction of that bulbous nose, before abruptly concluding with a weak chin. Also, your ear hairs indicate a general level of sloppiness.”
But surely those minor flaws could be overlooked given so noble a brow, I protested. And I could easily grow a beard that would hide my deficient jaw line…
She cut me off. “Your face just doesn’t meet my needs right now. And frankly, this is not a topic I’d like to pursue at the moment.”
I had resolved to pitch her my novel during the interview, but if she could be so blunt about my physiognomy, how brutal would she be about my prose?
I dropped the matter and asked her about her career trajectory.
“I started out rejecting genre fiction,” she told me. “However, I soon discovered that my real passion lay in turning down literary fiction. So I reached out to Marilynne Robinson, whom I heard was looking for a new editor, and got her to send me the manuscript for Gilead. In the end, it wasn’t for me, but rejecting such a legend really got my name out there.”
Nanette received a degree in Rhetoric from UC Berkeley, where she misread Roland Barthes’s essay, “The Death of the Author,” for the first time. “It’s continued to be a seminal text for me over the years, especially because I haven’t yet found a single living writer suitable for publication.”
I wondered whether she still thinks back on those heady Northern Californian days now that she’s an industry superstar. “Sometimes I do fantasize about moving back West,” she admitted, “but Manhattan is still the center of the publishing world, which will come in handy if I ever decide to put out a title.”
After graduating from Berkeley, Nanette enrolled in the Columbia Publishing Course, a mecca for aspiring editors. She then landed an internship at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, where she turned heads by clearing out their slush pile in a matter of weeks. “I’d rush to haul the manuscripts to the Fresh Kills landfill during my lunch breaks,” she fondly recalled. “It was like CrossFit avant la lettre.”
I hopped in a cab with Nanette back to her corner office, which I wasn’t entirely surprised to find unstaffed. (“Don’t get me started on vetting assistants.”) Framed above her desk was a letter from Ollendorff, one of the several publishing houses that rejected Marcel Proust. It read:
My dear fellow, I may be dead from the neck up, but rack my brains as I may I can’t see why a chap should need 30 pages to describe how he turns over in bed before going to sleep.
Noticing my gaze, she started to gush about the brave editor who wrote the encased missive: “He’s my hero! I’ve passed on the last eight National Book Award winners, but I’d gladly publish them all for one shot at telling Marcel that Remembrance of Things Past ‘wasn’t a great fit for us.’”
I asked Nanette about the new digital landscape — “I think it’s wonderful, so many new, fresh voices to tune out” — and if there were any publishing trends she’d noticed. “From what’s come across my desk, Drone POV novels are going to be big, but I try to stay away from anything too topical.”
The one area in which Nanette seems willing to relax her exacting standards is her love life. She is set to marry husband number seven later this summer, but she has no regrets, speaking of her collection of exes as a cherished “backlist” of sorts.
“I’ve looked at all the men in my life as editorial projects, mainly because I’ve never had an actual editorial project. And as with any book you’re endlessly tinkering with, sometimes you just have to let go.”
Pivoting away from her private affairs, I dug into her financials. How is Blank Page Books, which is gearing up to put out yet another content-less catalog, still around?
“I take our advertizing budget and invest it in the stock market, so we’re actually the best-performing imprint in the whole company,” Nanette said. “Bertelsmann is thrilled with us.”
As I watched her screen phone calls and print out form letters, I was struck by her seemingly endless reserve of energy. Indeed, apart from her editorial duties, she plans to return to the Columbia Publishing Course in the fall, this time as an instructor.
“I’ll be teaching a class on negotiating with literary agents. The trick is, always be willing to walk away.”
I asked one last question before closing my notebook, one to which every writer and agent is dying to know the answer: Will Nanette ever decide to publish a book?
“Call me a romantic, but I still think the right manuscript is out there waiting for me. I just hope I haven’t passed on it already.”
Image Credit” Flickr/Asim Saeed (Misa Khan)