Talent is Like a Container

“Talent is like a container. You can work as hard as you want, but the size will never change. It’ll only hold so much water and no more.”

Haruki Murakami, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

The Art of Artifice

“Fiction is, above all others, the art of artifice: it demands the conjuring, from mere marks on paper, of entire felt worlds, of things and of people, of their spoken exchanges and interior emotions and thoughts. Ideally, it is, paradoxically, the deployment of artifice in the service of truth, aiming to reveal as accurately as possible the profound and complex experience of being human and alive on this planet.” — Claire Messud, in her introduction to the Everyman’s Library edition of Atonement.

A priest has written to Knopf objecting to the jacket art on J.D. McClatchy’s Plundered Hearts.

The priest writes: “I just took a look at the upcoming JD McClatchy book. I know the cover is based on an artist’s photographic work.

Still, there’s the guy in the top middle on his back, legs open, with an erection. Is this really sensible? I don’t think even the TV premium stations such as HBO and their more explicit depictions of naked people go that far. Lars van Trier’s newest movie has, I understand, Shia LaBouef with a hard on….and it is exceptional enough to be mentioned in the press.

Is Knopf really that interested in testing/stretching social norms with a book cover for poetry?

I’m baffled.”

I suppose if Where’s Waldo is a thing, this can be too.


A priest has written to Knopf objecting to the jacket art on J.D. McClatchy’s Plundered Hearts.

The priest writes: “I just took a look at the upcoming JD McClatchy book. I know the cover is based on an artist’s photographic work.

Still, there’s the guy in the top middle on his back, legs open, with an erection. Is this really sensible? I don’t think even the TV premium stations such as HBO and their more explicit depictions of naked people go that far. Lars van Trier’s newest movie has, I understand, Shia LaBouef with a hard on….and it is exceptional enough to be mentioned in the press.

Is Knopf really that interested in testing/stretching social norms with a book cover for poetry?

I’m baffled.”

I suppose if Where’s Waldo is a thing, this can be too.



Weekend Activities You May Want to Consider That Do Not Require Bandwidth, Connectivity, or a Mobile

  • Sleeping
  • Making coffee (Rule of thumb is 2 tablespoons ground for six ounces of water, not 2 teaspoons. Also, don’t grind the beans into dust, for chrissake. A coarse grind of a matte bean is better. Your brew should be almost black – not brown – and slightly viscous with a deep, earthy aroma. Most of you think you’re drinking coffee but really it’s WEAK TEA.)
  • Walking (You’ll need to do something after a cup of that brew.)
  • Eating (This is important.)
  • Reading
  • Writing a letter (In longhand. To a former lover. Tell her you regret everything that happened. Say something nice about one of her moles or birthmarks and mention that you often think of the times you used to fuck in her apartment entryway and how you sometimes imagine her walking into a conference room when you’re in a long meeting discussing Bowker “consumer insights” which is really just mind-numbing answers to dumb fucking survey questions and, BTW, if Sonny knew they were asking consumers about jacket art he’d shut the entire enterprise down in a minute. Then ask her about that lawnmower guy on “True Detective” and write back to me with her response.)
  • Rehab
  • Petting (Never in the office, even on the weekend.)
  • Praying
  • Thinking about all the potential outcomes for an airliner that flew on for seven hours after going off the grid (Though not if you are traveling.)
  • More reading
  • Contemplating the big questions (What happened to my life? Why are my friends dying? Where is the joy in all of this? When did Bumble Bee shrink their tuna tins from 6 ounces to 5 ounces and is this even legal?)
  • Vivisection
  • Talking to your children (Though texting will be required to find them, and when they finally arrive you will undoubtedly reach for your mobile due to the awkward pauses in conversation.)
  • Kissing (Softly. On the lips. Possibly with a stranger. Though be careful here. Politely inquire where they work first, if they have health insurance, and if they answer “Yes, Anthem Blue Cross” have them make a line list of their complaints about the provider and write back to me with their responses as I am putting together a long dossier and sending it to the President.)
  • Masturbating (See above parenthetical though drop the insurance query and ask them when they had their last physical and if they belong to a gym and if so do they shower at the facility and if they respond “Yes” ask them to remove their shoes and socks and take a good look at their feet.)
  • Screaming at the Whole Foods fishmonger (Suggest doing so in a Korean accent: “You cawl dat frah fih! Dat not frah! Wook at fih eye. Cwoudy. Smell offel. And so expensah!”)
  • Gardening
  • Touching
  • Licking (Though not bus windows, office colleagues or strangers because people have done this around and to me and it’s gross.)
  • Sautéing (1 pound flounder fillets. 1/4 cup lemon juice. Fresh parsley. Dust fillets with flour. Add dab of butter and splash of olive oil to hot sauté pan. Cook fillets for two minutes per side. Remove. Tent. Add lemon juice to pan. Stir up brown bits. Add splash of white wine and white wine vinegar. Take off heat and stir in two tablespoons butter and chopped parsley. Pour over fillets. Voila!)
  • Bathing
  • Bird watching (Franzen is not the only guy in America who does this, btw.)
  • Drinking (Recommending Hudson Malone.)
  • Golfing (Though never with a woman. OK. Here come the emails. “You fucking sexist bastard blah blah blah. Didn’t you learn anything from LEAN IN?” Yes I did. A LOT. But I still prefer the company of men when I’m playing golf. Kim Yorio, however, is a good striker of the ball. And she looks fantastic in her light blue skirt thing. So maybe with Kim again. OK, I suppose if a woman has course grit and a soft pair of hands. Revising opinion here, though will not tell my male friends.)
  • Fucking (HELLO!)
  • Fucking (The second mention is for married couples, for whom added emphasis is essential.)

Anyway, those are some options to consider. Whatever you decide, please be careful and considerate. And put away your mobile. IT’S THE WEEKEND.


Things publishers say on bound galleys, advance reading copies, and TI sheets, all sourced from actual copies. Parentheticals added.

  • National media appearances (boilerplate, speculative)
  • National print features (boilerplate, speculative)
  • Major review attention (wishful thinking)
  • National media appearances including NPR (“What about NPR?” has replaced “What about Oprah?” in the pantheon of dumb questions asked of publicists by publishing colleagues)
  • Video trailer (God help us all)
  • Targeted blogger outreach (with packs of Skittles)
  • Author events and interviews out of New York (publisher can’t afford a tour)
  • BEA breakfast speaker (They still do this? In the basement of the Javits Center? And authors agree to come? Ugh.)
  • Main Selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club (They still exist?)
  • Book club outreach (publisher will send books, hope something happens)
  • Satellite radio tour (filler)
  • Promote on team blogs and forums (even I have no idea what this means)
  • Comic Con promotion (men wearing spandex)
  • Social Media campaign (publisher will tweet about your book and post an excerpt on Scribd)
  • Facebook campaign (like me like me like me like me – publishing in the 21st century)
  • Skype chats (with Atlantans still trapped in the Piggly Wiggly. Or inmates)
  • Galley giveaways on Goodreads (Owned by Amazon. Tells you everything)
  • Motion picture rights sold to Fox (movie will never get made)
  • Foreign rights sold to 24 countries (doubtful)
  • Etc.

Things publishers should say on galleys and advance reading copies:

  • We paid this shaboo 750,000 dollars for a collection of fucking stories
  • I have no idea what we were thinking at the time
  • In retrospect, it was a mistake
  • Actual quote from acquiring editor: “Buying a book at auction is like buying a new car – it depreciates 50% the minute you drive it off the lot.”
  • Do. Not. Look. At. His. Track. On. Bookscan.
  • 16-city author tour featuring clandestine rendezvous with key media in the hope that “magic happens”
  • Author will call reviewers at national newspapers and reveal to them who their colleagues are sleeping with on the news desk
  • “After Midnight” Twitter Campaign via #drunkwriter
  • Instagram Selfie Campaign via #inbedwith?
  • Reading Group Guide including suite of angry e-mail exchanges between author and editor where author insists readers want “unfettered access to my innermost thoughts and not your shitty line edits.”
  • Slate of 5-star Amazon “Vine Reviews,” sourced via illegal software program from Mumbai (“So so good, reminded me of Franny and Zooey!”)
  • We are desperate, will try anything
  • Coded passages in the book reveal that Dan Brown actually coined the term “Lean In” while he was a student at Exeter
  • Author has a sex tape of Jonathan Franzen with…
  • Publicist assigned to the book still suffers from PTSD due to her last experience working with the author
  • Author would call publicist in the middle of the night complaining about the “hard sheets,” demand a room upgrade, and then apologize and inquire about her “soft skin”
  • High profile international arrest timed to publication
  • Author is friends with Arianna – “Dar-link!”— who will bail him out of jail
  • Leak of jail letters and photos to New York Post
  • TMZ exclusive: “I Fucked My Bombshell Italian Carceriere (and then read her excerpts from my forthcoming story collection.)”
  • They later marry
  • In the old days, guys like Sidney Sheldon would write a book, we’d slap some Paul Bacon type on the cover, send a copy to Merv Griffin, and call it a day
  • I am 53 years old. I have been doing this my entire life. I am more confused than ever.
  • I have searing regrets about not becoming an actor.
  • My Pilates instructor is mean to me
  • The “Men in Media” thing did not work out the way I imagined
  • Yesterday, in our marketing board meeting, Nihar told us a story about “the bear.” It frightened me.
  • Ham ham ham ham ham ham tuna
  • If you read this book and have an idea of how to sell it or who the reader is, please tweet us @savepublishing
  • Mostly, our business is about timing. And luck.
  • Still on the hunt for a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle (or any boutique bourbon). Use #bourbonforbogie if you can be of assistance. Send bottles to my attention at 1745 Broadway.
  • Enjoy the book

Robin Desser, last night, on being awarded the Maxwell E. Perkins prize by the Center for Fiction (abridged comments):

“So you don’t exactly have rules or a guidebook when you set out to become a fiction editor. You learn by just doing it. You start at the bottom and you teach yourself by reading, reading—reading the dead and the living. You read the dazzlingly good and the really stinkingly, hilariously bad stuff, and the stuff in between.  You make decisions about acquisitions and you comment on books by your authors and they correct you and help you—and they send back something that completely surprises and delights you and blows the hat right off your head.

You succeed and you fail in having books sell or not, win prizes or not, and you wonder what success & failure actually mean, including because the ultimate fate of the long, long-term readership of a work of fiction gets decided after you’re….dead.

Meanwhile, while you are alive, and if you are lucky enough to still have a job in book publishing, you also learn by observing the work of people whose work you admire.  And by this I mean not just the private, and hopefully invisible, work editors do with writers.

But you learn I think by observing what happens when all sorts of colleagues & competitors, all of whom soon enough become your friends, follow their passions.  When they take risks & stick their necks out for something they love. When they are loyal to authors and put them first. When they talk and write and schmooze for and sometimes seem to even sing about the books they are working on with such brilliance and charm and insight that it makes your own ears feel hot.  When they help with books published by somebody else. When they express their character and who they are through books.

So many of you, authors, editors & publishers, agents, and colleagues in this room have taught me so much about these things; and I am grateful to you…

I am so happy that my father is here tonight. Dad. You are the most insatiably curious person I know. You read everything and that has always inspired me.  You were the first feminist I knew; you let your wife take flight, and you encouraged both your daughters to do that, too. And you also taught us how to throw a perfect football spiral.

Dad, I wish Mom could be here tonight. We both know how strong she is. My mother is the fiercest and best role model I’ve ever had. It was her idea I enter this profession in the first place, this crazy profession that every year sings its imminent doom and every year goes on and on anyway.

I bounced around after college doing this and that. Publishing had never occurred to me; where I came from, it seemed to me that books were just sort of “there.” But maybe the DNA was lurking too—Dad was a teacher, Mom a librarian. One night, my mother gave me a piece of paper she’d torn out of Library Journal. “Listen, Robbie,” she said, “all you ever do is read. Why don’t you stop complaining and answer this ad?” 

I wasn’t always great at listening to my mom in those years, but thankfully that time I did, and I met Victoria Skurnick, who gave me my first publishing job, at St. Martin’s Press..

But it was my parents who were the first to show me that it was perfectly normal to be inside reading all the time, even when it was sunny out; that to lock myself in the bathroom to cry my eyes out over the ending of a novel was not insane but perfectly reasonable and even laudable; and that to argue over and to think long hours about people who didn’t exist in the real world—who were only a piece of someone’s imagination, who were entirely made up—that you could make a living doing this.

Maybe our love of fiction is a kind of collective madness, an insane cult.

I love walking around the tall Random House building and overhearing the conversations of people who are pretty much talking only about some book that they love or are even obsessed with. More often than not, it’s a work of fiction.  

What is it with us people who want to read novels all the time? Don’t all your friends ask you, when you go on vacation—if you have to read so much at work, why do you say, when you’re going on holiday, all I want to do is read?

Well I hope to be a card-carrying member of this insane cult, this madhouse, until they tell me I can’t do it any more. 

And I am reasonably sure all of you here feel the same way too.

Thank you very much.” 



KARP: What about Mattingly? Something along the lines of a history of hitting. Or maybe a how-to guide to hitting?


KARP: Why not?              

JETER: Doesn’t feel right.

KARP: Too close to home?

JETER: Yankee thing.

KARP: Right, right. I see that.


KARP: What about Lee?

JETER: Cliff?

KARP: Yes.

JETER: Still doesn’t feel right.


JETER: Baseball thing.

KARP: Baseball?


KARP: How do you mean?

JETER: Too obvious.

KARP: Obvious?


KARP: In what sense?

JETER: For the list I’m trying to build here.


KARP: Do I need to remind you that the first book we have under contract is “Derek Jeter’s Guide to Baseball.”

JETER: I know.

KARP: And?

JETER: I’m thinking it’s a mistake.

KARP: A mistake?

JETER: But I’m willing honor that commitment because I don’t want to disappoint the kids.

KARP: Well that’s a relief.


JETER: Did you hear about that book by Hallberg?

KARP: Hallberg?


KARP: Garth Risk Hallberg?


KARP: I was in that auction, Derek.

JETER: Well. See. Right there. That’s disappointing.

KARP: Disappointing in what sense?

JETER: You didn’t come to me.

KARP: Come to you?


KARP: Why would I come to you?



KARP: Yes.

JETER: The ambition of the book is what I’m talking about. That’s what people see in me. That’s what my list needs to be.

KARP: It’s a 900 page novel for chrissake.

JETER: I read it.

KARP: You read it?

JETER: Lamb sent me the manuscript on the QT. He knows how much I loved Harbach’s novel.


KARP (MOSTLY TO HIMSELF): I can’t believe we’re having this fucking conversation.

JETER: ’77 was a special year for me, Jon. I was 3. My mother took me into the city for the first time that summer and I remember the grit and the smell and the life of it. People came here to escape their circumstances, not to make a killing. It was before New York became a bright shining Bloombergian object. Hallberg captures that vitality better than any other novelist in memory.

KARP: I read the proposal, Derek.

JETER: And then there’s the symmetry of it all. Do you know how good we were in ’77? Guidry. Hunter. Munson. Dent. Rivers. Piniella. Chambliss. The World Series in six against the Dodgers.

KARP: We never had a conversation about fiction, Derek. We talked about sports books, lifestyle books, business books.

JETER: Jon. (PAUSE) I say this with a great deal of respect. (PAUSE) But that is a failure of your imagination. (PAUSE) Baseball is about narrative. Baseball is about story. And novels are what I want to publish. Forget the lifestyle and business crap. That’s for Workman and Portfolio. I want to produce a list that rivals Knopf and FSG.


JETER (LOOKING AROUND): Nice office, Jon.


JETER: Here’s another one.

KARP: Another what?

JETER: Writer I’d like to publish.

KARP: Susan has a two-book contract with me.

JETER: I had dinner with her agent last night.

KARP: Pine?


KARP: How do you know Richard?

JETER: We do colonic cleanses with Dr. Weil every year.

KARP: Fan-fucking-tastic.

JETER: No need for that tone, Jon.

KARP: I’m not sure this is going to fly with Carolyn.

JETER: I’ll handle Carolyn.

KARP: And how do you aim to do that?

JETER: We’re going to discuss it tomorrow evening.

KARP: I don’t think so, Derek. (PAUSE. KARP SMILES) She’s attending the National Book Awards.

JETER: I know. I’m her date.


Tonight. Shaken, not stirred.

Tonight. Shaken, not stirred.

Just this.

Just this.



"If you get up every morning and write, then you’re a writer. Publishing doesn’t make you a writer. That’s just commerce."

— Joanna Rakoff Smith, “My Salinger Year” (fabulous book about publishing, due out in 2014)