Get Real: The Woman Who Loves Writers

Get Real with Carla Stockton

Publishing maven Emily Bestler says that as far as she can see, her gender neither helped nor hindered her trajectory. And if it had, she’d never have known. Whatever would she compare it to?

In the world of publishing, Emily Bestler is a bastion of success, reaching, in 2011, a rarefied pinnacle at industry giant Simon & Schuster. Atria Books, the division of Simon & Schuster she already oversaw, promoted her to Senior Vice President, and made her Editor-in-Chief of her own imprint, Emily Bestler Books. Emily’s authors – fiction and nonfiction alike – include some of the leading names in American letters, names such as Jodi Picoult, Diane Setterfield, Sister Souljah, John Connolly, Vince Flynn, Brad Thor, Nicolle Wallace, Terry Hayes and Liza Marklund.

Emily Bestler is Editor in Chief of Emily Bestler Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster's Atria Books, and this year's Nonfiction judge of the Columbia Journal's 2015 Writing Contest! Photo courtesy of Emily Bestler.
Emily Bestler is Editor in Chief of Emily Bestler Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster’s Atria Books, and this year’s Nonfiction judge of the Columbia Journal‘s 2015 Writing Contest! Photo courtesy of Emily Bestler.

Unlike other southerners who have grown up in rural isolation, Emily Bestler never wanted to be a writer. But she did love to read. “I read incessantly,” she laughs now. “I lived in a tiny little town – Martinsville, VA – and I read hundreds of books. . . books from the town library, books from the checkout aisle at the grocery. I was never not reading.”

Literature led her to Barnard, where she naturally migrated toward a major in English and to writing about books; then, after she earned a Master’s in English from Columbia, her parents suggested she consider looking for a job. And it was then that Emily actually had to consider what her love for literature might offer her in the way of a career.

“I knew two things,” she says. “I didn’t want to teach, and I’m not a writer. So thinking about what I wanted to do led me back to books. They were my addiction, my passion. I knew I needed to work in books.”

Publishing was the natural place to turn, and she quickly landed a job with Chelsea House Publications (now defunct), where she became literary critic and Yale scholar Harold Bloom’s editor on a series of literary essay collections.

“I had no idea I wasn’t in the mainstream,” Emily admits. “I just knew I loved what I was doing.” But after a few years, it became clear—even to a starry-eyed idealist—that she needed to find something more economically substantive, and she landed a job at McMillan as an assistant to an assistant to the managing editor. “That job was so not for me. It was all about the details of budget, the details of scheduling, the details I just don’t juggle well.” So from there she was on to Random House, where she stayed for seven years until she was recruited to Simon & Schuster as a Senior Editor. And she is still there twenty years later.

“If there’s anything that gets you to dream big, it’s a book,” gushes the Editor-in-Chief of Emily Bestler Books. “There was nothing I didn’t read, and my dreams grew with every book I consumed. My dream was to one day publish great novels. I didn’t know if it was really possible until the day it happened—you can’t know that. But I did know that I understood the market, had a good sense of what was good, what would sell. Still, until it happens—there is that serendipity factor you can never predict—you just don’t know.”

Bestler was on the train, on the way home from her office the first time she heard that her author Jodi Picoult had hit the bestseller list. She  stopped in at a nearby market, did some shopping, and arrived home with a feast to prepare. “I told my husband, ‘It’s lobster tonight. We’re celebrating!’”

“As an editor,” Emily explains, “there is something so really good, so deeply satisfying about making someone else’s dream come true, especially a writer’s. You know, a writer just wants to be read. I can help make that happen.”

Nothing is absolute, however. Even Emily Bestler sometimes finds the marketplace disappointing. “Some books—no matter how good they are—just don’t get discovered. You do everything you can, and they still don’t click with reviewers, with readers. It’s a real phenomenon: the unread bestseller.”

But part of the thrill of being an Editor-in-Chief is knowing that there is that element of surprise in every great success. And for Bestler, there’s the addition of a sense of intimacy as well. “Thanks to my really wonderful boss, Simon & Schuster, I am the curator of a selective list for a very small house. Our website can be very homey, very personal, and we curry a special kind of devotion among our readers. So when we generate a best seller, it’s a special accomplishment, and we owe it to the warmth of our followers, who love us.”

"Now I ask you.  What could be better than spending the day on your bed with your dogs and Brad Thor’s next best seller?” Photo courtesy of  Emily Bestler.
“Now I ask you. What could be better than spending the day on your bed with your best friends and Brad Thor’s next best seller?” Photo courtesy of Emily Bestler.

Last winter, Emily was at home editing Brad Thor’s new book, and she took a photo of her dogs on the bed, cuddling with the manuscript.  She sent it to her assistant Matthew Rossiter, and the photo got picked up on the internet, where it went viral almost immediately.

Emily contemplates for just a moment. “Now I ask you.  What could be better than spending the day on your bed with your best friends and Brad Thor’s next best seller?”


Carla Stockton, Nonfiction Editor of Issue #53, is a lifelong on-and-off New Yorker, who, after living for 13 years in exile in the southwest desert, brings a returnee’s perspective to the city. As a fully licensed sightseeing guide, she has a particular intimacy with the area and is never reluctant to share it with others. Carla’s semi-weekly column will discuss people, places and events in and around Manhattan. Follow her here.

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