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The Einhorn Touch

With a run of bestsellers, a publisher finds the spot where storytelling turns a profit.

Photo: Alexander Blaise

A SINGULAR SENSATION: Einhorn (the name is German for "unicorn") has a remarkable track record as editor and publisher.

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By Constance Casey

In 2007, after 20 years in publishing, Amy Einhorn was given her own imprint at G.P. Putnam's Sons. Getting an imprint—a sort of book boutique—is a publishing plum, given to no more than a handful of editors. It gives the editor exceptional freedom to publish the books she loves—perhaps a dozen a year—with all the resources of a major publishing house behind her.

The manuscripts Einhorn, '89, picks are not obvious winners: She doesn't chase established authors whose names guarantee sales, or celebrities who want to extend their brands. Many of her books are by first-time authors, including Siobhan Fallon, whose story collection, You Know When the Men Are Gone, won major awards for first fiction. Fallon says, in an email, that Einhorn's instincts in today's risky publishing market are "remarkable; I'd love to take her to the racetrack."

Kathryn Stockett, to name another of Einhorn's debut authors, had her novel rejected, by her reckoning, by 60 agents over three years. A comment in the 40th rejection letter made her cry: "There is not a market for this kind of tiring writing." The book was a long shot—451 pages set in 1960s Mississippi, with a white author writing in the voices of African-American servants.

The Help, which has sold more than 10 million copies so far, was on bestseller lists for longer than any other hardcover fiction since The Da Vinci Code. It's been published in 41 countries. The movie version became a $211 million blockbuster that won four Oscar nominations, including best picture. It was, to put it mildly, an auspicious beginning for Einhorn's eponymous imprint.

Einhorn often has said in print (the success of The Help was so phenomenal,she has often been asked) that her goal is "to hit the sweet spot between literary and commercial—intelligent writing with a strong narrative and great storytelling." But asked in her Penguin Group office recently what makes an Einhorn book, her answer is more subtle. "The theme in common is outsiders. All of the major characters in The Help are outsiders. In The Postmistress, it's the town spinster. In You Know When the Men Are Gone, the men are in the Army and the women are excluded."

"Reading itself," she adds after a pause, "is an isolating experience."

What an Amy Einhorn imprint book is not: fantasy, erotica, science fiction. "No robots." Her fiction selections often feature historical settings, although "I don't think of myself as someone who likes historical fiction, actually. I'm much more interested in characters and strong voice." (Among the Einhorn titles for 2013 are The Fever Tree, a novel set in British colonial South Africa, and Above All Things, a fictional account of the life of the British mountaineer George Mallory, who died on Mount Everest.) She likes to hook readers early. Reaching for a copy of Eleanor Brown's The Weird Sisters, she reads the opening line with pleasure: "We came home because we were failures."

In addition to that sweet spot, she's looking for a book she can describe in three minutes. A brief and compelling pitch to the firm's sales staff is a necessity. "If you can't get them on board immediately, the book won't work." The pitch also is needed for the outreach she does to booksellers. With a dwindling number of newspaper book-review sections, sales are increasingly dependent on word-of-mouth enthusiasm.

It's not only the initial good judgment and aggressive follow-up that make so many of her books successful. She's willing to work sentence by sentence with her authors, demonstrating a kind of patience many believe is rare in publishing today. Authors' acknowledgments use the words "brilliant," "generous," "inspired," "insightful" and "kind" about her.

Einhorn is even willing to second-guess herself. In the case of The Postmistress, Sarah Blake's page-turner about two women in 1940—one a single woman running the post office in a small Cape Cod town and the other reporting from London—Einhorn at first turned the book down. She wrote a long rejection letter telling Blake she was a wonderful writer but, frankly, the story line was a mess. A month later, haunted by the "wonderful writer" part, Einhorn called Blake's agent. Blake then received a 17-page letter of necessary changes from Einhorn, and together they did four major revisions. The Postmistress continues to be a popular book-club choice.

Einhorn's publishing career began as an editorial assistant at Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Roger Straus, she remembers, was given to pulling her ponytail and saying, "Hey, baby." (Word was, he called many low-level employees "baby" because he couldn't remember their names.) Her salary was $13,000; on weekends she cleaned apartments.

Einhorn moved on to a series of editing jobs at both literary and commercial publishing houses—eventually acquiring and editing the hits I Like You by Amy Sedaris, Good Grief by Lolly Winston and The Widow of the South by Robert Hicks. Her mentor was Ann Patty, who ran Poseidon Books, an imprint within Simon & Schuster. (Patty discovered V.C. Andrews, author of the string of Gothic bestsellers that started with Flowers in the Attic, and published English novelist Graham Swift.) Poseidon was shut down in 1993. The lesson: Imprints are vulnerable, even with a history of success.

Though she spends plenty of time in the isolating activity of reading, editing rather than writing suits her warm, encouraging nature. Asked about what constitutes a bad day, she replies, "I hesitate to even speak of a bad day—because, in the grand scheme, I'm so incredibly lucky."

She does have a lot of tiring days, though. On the day she spoke with Stanford, her 6-year-old daughter had awoken at 5 a.m., and her husband, Matthew Futterman, a senior sports reporter for the Wall Street Journal, was on a business trip. They have three daughters ages 13, 11 and 6 at, Einhorn says with emphasis, three different schools.

At work one of her few regrets is the inordinate amount of time she spends getting quotes for a book's back cover—the blurbs that are surprisingly key to successful marketing. In Fallon's case, Einhorn approached an extremely famous author she thought would appreciate the book only to be told that Extremely Famous Author gives quotes solely to people who were EFA's students. "It's a wonderful creative industry," she says, "but still maddening."

It's a creative industry characterized more and more by big fish swallowing little fish. Amy Einhorn Books is a small part of Putnam, which was acquired by the Penguin Group (USA) in 1996. At the end of 2012, Penguin and Random House announced that they plan to merge. The deal would combine the two publishers' parent companies, British-owned Pearson and German-owned Bertelsmann. If it goes through, the resulting conglomerate will be the largest trade-book publisher in the world.

What the consolidation means for editors, writers and readers is not clear. For now what is certain is that manuscripts will keep pouring into Einhorn's office, from agents with authors seeking an usually painstaking editor who knows how to fix a book and how to sell it. Not looking glum at all, Einhorn offered this take on her own future, "I'll get fired, or retire, whichever comes first."

Constance Casey, a former San Jose Mercury News book editor, is a frequent contributor to Landscape Architecture Magazine and Slate

Comments (1)

  • Mr. James Canton

    Not surprising to read that Amy Einhorn's attention to her authors (even potential authors) is extensive and genuine.  She offers the same intensity of focus and care to her family and friends. She has consistently enriched my life for the past 25 years.  Bravo, Amy.  So nice to see you getting a much deserved moment that sings your praises.  Jimmy Canton, Class of '89

    Posted by Mr. James Canton on Mar 8, 2013 9:35 AM


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