Navigating the ins and outs of the publishing industry can feel like a Sisyphean journey, filled with opaque directions and endless confusing routes to nowhere. How does a book get published? What do you do when you have a manuscript that you’re ready to move forward with? And do you really need a literary agent? To try to make some sense of the seemingly endless questions that come with the book publishing quest, MFA nonfiction candidate Elena Sheppard spoke with Sarah Cantin, an executive editor at St. Martin’s Press, about the publishing process. Prior to working at St. Martin’s Press, Cantin spent nine years at Atria Books where she worked as a senior editor and she has published authors like Jennifer Weiner, Lisa Jewell, Taylor Jenkins Reid, Sarah Pekkanen, Lucinda Riley, Karin Tanabe, and the Instagram poet Atticus. From her pulpit of experience, Cantin offered advice on manuscripts, agents, and what the job of a publisher really looks like.
What exactly are your responsibilities as an executive editor at St. Martin’s Press?
I am responsible for developing and publishing a list of books, primarily in the upmarket commercial fiction and narrative nonfiction categories.
What does a work day look like for you?
No day is the same, which is part of what makes this such a wonderful job! But an average day might go something like this: race to the office for a morning editorial meeting which the entire editorial staff, as well as associate publishers and representatives from the publicity, marketing, and subrights departments. Editors bring up projects that they’re excited about and pitch them to the group. Often, they will have had other people reading alongside them, so several members of the team will chime in with their opinions. These meetings are fascinating because you get to hear what your colleagues are working on, and you hear how other editors weigh the merits of a given project.
After the editorial meeting (which can be very long!), I inevitably return to an inbox full of emails and perhaps a missed phone call from an agent calling to pitch me a new project. I’ll get through as many responses as possible before I go out to lunch with an agent. A big part of my job is developing relationships with literary agents so that they know which kinds of projects to send me. Lunches like this are “work,” but they’re also fun—publishing is a small industry, and it’s important to establish human connection with the people you’re doing business with.
After lunch, I hustle back to the office to do answer more emails or take a scheduled phone call with an author before sitting in on an afternoon marketing meeting. Each week, a select number of titles that are about to go on sale or have just been published are chosen to be reviewed in detail with the publicity and marketing teams. As an editor, you are involved with and need to feel responsible for each aspect of the publishing process—your job doesn’t stop once a manuscript goes into copyediting. If one of my titles is on the agenda that week, I’ll be poring over the marketing plan, and asking whether we should be doing another Goodreads giveaway, whether we have click-through results from the last round of advertising, or whether we should switch out the review quote that we’re using in graphics promoting the book. I’ll study how many copies of the book we are shipping out to each of the major retailers and ask where we can do more to either up that number or support the sell-through of the stock that an account is taking. These are ongoing conversations between the editor, publisher, associate publisher, the sales team, and the marketing and publicity teams. It really takes a village to make a book successful, and this meeting is just one touchpoint where we all sit down and look at how things are going.
After that meeting, I’ll return to my desk and work on some specific book items—maybe that’s writing the flap copy for a novel that’s publishing in four months or emailing another editor to see if one of their authors will consider giving a blurb for a project I’m trying to build early in-house enthusiasm for. Maybe the copyedits on a novel have come back, and I’ll review them before sending them on to an author. I’ll definitely respond to more emails, return a phone call or two, and then I’m out the door again, possibly getting a drink with an agent or literary scout, or heading to a book event for one of my own authors or a colleague.
You’ll notice that almost nowhere in my day am I sitting and reading a submission or editing a manuscript—it’s extraordinarily rare that I’m able to do that at the office, and when I can, it’s because I’ve carved out a block of time, usually several hours, to shut my door and focus. Most of my reading and editing takes place at home, in coffee shops, and on the subway.
How do books for consideration wind up on your desk?
Ninety-five percent of the manuscripts I consider end up coming to me through literary agents. That remaining 5 percent are either projects that I’ve sought out myself—because I’ve read the author’s work elsewhere, because I’ve seen their social media presence and thought they have a bigger story to tell, etc.—or projects that have come to me through friends of friends of friends.
Do you look at proposals or only completed manuscripts?
I will look at detailed proposals for nonfiction but for fiction, it’s usually essential to read a full manuscript. If you are a first-time novelist, you should always, always be submitting a complete manuscript to an editor.
Does a writer need to work with an agent or do writers ever pitch you directly?
Writers will occasionally pitch me directly, but even with those whom I might want to work with, I always recommend that they get an agent. An agent is an author’s advocate—they should have the long tail of your career in mind, and they should be committed to working with you and developing your work and your audience over time. Agents should also be the editor’s publishing partner—good editor/agent relationships can make magic happen for books.
How do you choose which projects to work on and what do you like for in a manuscript?
It’s important for all writers to understand that publishing is inherently subjective, and that editors need to develop their own specific taste to grow their careers. I think of myself as the curator of a gallery that lives under the St. Martin’s Press umbrella, and as such, I’m looking for projects that share some common threads but are also diverse and varied. A unique voice, an inventive narrative structure, a tangible sense of atmosphere—these elements will hook me right away. A plot reveal that I can’t stop thinking about, or a character that feels so vividly alive that I’m half expecting to bump into them on the street—this is what will make me want to share a manuscript with my colleagues. And then a project that I can formulate a publishing vision for fairly readily—something that I recognize has commercial potential, and which I can compare to other titles that have found success (the classic: “it’s x meets y” pitch!)—that’s what will help bring a project to the finish line.
Is there anything—like a writer being previously unpublished, or not have a social media presence—that is a deal-breaker for you in terms of working with someone?
The only deal-breakers for me are whether an author truly wants to work with an editor, and whether they envision a writing career for themselves. This is especially important for novelists. I want to know that a writer wants to publish more novels, that they have more stories to tell, and that they will want to work with me to make that happen.
What kind of publishing goals do you have every year, is there a certain number of books you need to publish?
I am expected to publish around 12 “original” books a year—this means new releases and doesn’t include books that might be publishing in paperback after the hardcover edition has been on sale. Ultimately, I’m also expected to be contributing to the company’s bottom line. When I offer an advance to an author, I’m investing the company’s money. Publishing is still a business, and so we are always hoping to grow our investment.
What is your biggest piece of advice for writers looking to get published?
Take a long-range view of your career. First, become a good citizen of the literary community: read widely in your genre, connect with other writers whom you admire or with whom you have a shared sensibility, engage with social media to the extent that it feels useful to you, develop relationships at your neighborhood independent bookstore, and with your local literary groups or book festivals. Equally important: develop a voice and a perspective that extends beyond the pages of the project you’re trying to publish. Maybe you’re a runner or a yogi and you do some freelance writing on those topics. Maybe you’re a social justice activist and you have a growing platform in that space. Maybe you’ve developed a side hustle as a beauty blogger. Diversify your interests and your energy, and not only will you make connections that could prove useful down the line, you’ll also become an even more curious and nuanced observer of human nature—which is, after all, the most essential quality for a successful writer.