Ask a Vintage Expert: Editor Zack Wagman talks editing

Introducing a new, semi-regular series in which we interview writers and editors about what goes on behind the scenes.

First up, Vintage Editor Zack Wagman.

How long have you been an editor? What made you want to become an editor?
I’ve been an editor for 6 years now, though some of that was as an assistant.  Actually, I originally wanted to work in the film business (I’m a huge movie nerd), in “development,” though I don’t think I really understood what that meant.  All I knew was that I was an avid reader and preferred working behind the scenes.  The summer I graduated from college, I was working as a freelancer for a professor of mine who was publishing a book with Random House.  As I got to know more about the editorial process and the publishing world, I realized that in publishing, I’d be able to work in pop culture and help develop projects that I believed in.  Eventually, I got hired at Knopf and I’ve been here ever since.

What are the most important qualities in an editor as you see it?
Patience is a virtue!  You’ll need patience to read through the countless bad manuscripts to find that hidden gem; to problem-solve with an author to get the manuscript to where it needs to be; and to be an enthusiastic cheerleader for the book at the company.    I would also say an open mind, courage to take a risk, and a sense of fun.

What was the best advice you got at the beginning of your career?

My first boss in publishing, Vicky Wilson, told me to always trust my instincts.  I would have put that in my answer above, but I didn’t want to steal her line.  But it’s true!  I’ve read manuscripts that aren’t necessarily a natural fit for the Knopf Group, but I made a stink about anyway because either I couldn’t stop turning pages or it stuck with me well after I finished reading.

What’s the biggest cringe-worthy moment you’ve had in your career so far?
A few years ago, after corresponding with an LA-based author for months, I finally met her in person.  She made a strange comment when she first saw me: “Huh.  I always pictured you as a blonde.”  I was sort of caught off-guard and tried to recover with a joke: “Oh, because of Zack Morris?”  She just stared at me in total confusion for what felt like five full minutes and then walked away.  It was a meaningless moment and didn’t affect our working relationship at all, but it was damn awkward.

What advice would you give the Future Publishers of America?
Read what’s on the New York Times bestseller lists!  I’ve interviewed job applicants before—many of them right out of college.  And here’s a piece of advice: as much as we all love and respect Tolstoy, Dickens, and James Joyce, citing them as what you’ve read recently doesn’t do much for me.  I’d much rather hear your opinions on Dan Brown, Stieg Larsson, or Malcolm Gladwell.

Who are your greatest influences?
Pixar, comic books, my parents, Michael Chabon, Billy Wilder.  Not necessarily in that order.

Complete this sentence: if it weren’t for _____ I never would have gotten my foot in the door.
If it weren’t for persistence, I never would have gotten my foot in the door.  I sent my resume to Random House for about 6 months before anyone called me back!

How much do you read?
I typically read about 2-3 books a week.  Sometimes more, sometimes less.  I’m always reading on the train—usually work stuff in the morning and something lighter in the evening.  I read at my desk when I can, but I’m usually dealing with emails, factsheets, catalog and cover copy, reader reports, etc. so it’s not that often.  I read a lot of newsy/politics/pop culture blogs in the morning and at night.  And I try and read for pleasure so I can remember why I got into this business in the first place!

What surprised you most about the getting published process?
How hard it is!  Even if you know tons of people in the industry and have written a great book, there’s no guarantee.  It’s so subjective that you really need to get the book into the hands of the right reader, otherwise you’ll be told “It’s not right for me.”  That’s why I always tell aspiring writers to get an agent!  They know the landscape and will get the book into the right hands.

What is paperback editorial like? How does it differ from hard cover editorial?
The cool thing about paperbacks is that we have a precedent to work from.  At Vintage, when we prepare to publish a paperback, we look at how the hardcover did.  Sometimes it was such a success that we just keep the cover, plaster the back with tons of great quotes, and publish as is.  But a lot of times, something didn’t quite click in hardcover – timing, package, etc. and we need to rethink it.  And that’s the fun part.  We get a new cover, find some positive quotes, get a new afterword if appropriate, put it out in the summer instead of the fall, and try something new.  It doesn’t always work, but the new energy and creativity is invigorating.

5 thoughts on “Ask a Vintage Expert: Editor Zack Wagman talks editing

  1. Can you tell me anything about this book? The Adventurer Printed for J. Parsons, No 21, 1793

    What does Printed for J. Parsons mean? Was J. Parsons a publisher?


  2. Pingback: Immer die neuesten und besten Bücher im Überblick

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