Oct. 28, the Bowers Writers House hosted a lecture entitled “Book or Bust: Make it or Break it in the Publishing World.” The lecture featured Charles “Chuck” F. Adams, Executive Editor at Algonquin Books. Previously, Adams worked at other publishing firms, including Simon & Schuster, Dell/Delacorte, Macmillan, Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
During his career, Adams has mainly worked on narrative fiction and nonfiction, since he has a preference for creative works. He has worked with a variety of authors, including Sandra Brown, James Lee Burke, Mary Higgins Clark, Brock Clarke, Jackie Collins, Barbara Delinsky, Jonathan Evison, Scott Eyman, Kinky Friedman, Ellen Gilchrist, Robert Goolrick, Sara Gruen, Joseph Heller, Joe McGinniss, Charles Portis and Alan Shapiro.
In addition, he has edited books by many celebrities and public figures, including Cher, Kitty Dukakis, Faye Dunaway, Sarah Ferguson, Charlton Heston, Tab Hunter, Maureen O’Hara, Ronald Reagan, Neil Simon and Esther Williams.
Adams began by introducing how he got into the publishing field. Initially, it was not something he had considered for a career. His father originally encouraged him to attend law school, which he did. Adams got a job on Wall Street, but he was miserable. He realized he could not make that his life’s work and decided to look into other fields. When he was in college, his professors encouraged him to write, and he considered writing as a career before realizing he had trouble developing creative ideas.
However, he had a knack for editing other students’ papers. This led Adams to pursue a job in publishing. He began working at Holt Publishing in the production department and found that he loved it. Eventually, Adams worked his way into the editing department and has been doing that ever since.
Adams is an especially hands-on editor. He is very involved when he is the editor for a book in a way that is becoming more and more unusual. For this reason, before Adams agrees to work with authors, he likes to either meet with them in person or have a phone call. This way he can get a sense of whether they will get along well, or if the author would be better served with a different editor.
Adams admits he is very easy to get along with, since the angrier anyone else gets, the calmer he gets in response. He believes it is important that authors are willing to cooperate with him, so he tells them up front what he believes the two of them will work on together if they do end up partnering on a book.
Adams shared with the group some things he believed were less commonly known about the publishing industry. For example, all books can be returned to the publisher by booksellers if copies do not sell. This is a large problem and requires the publisher and booksellers to be able to predict sales on books and make plans according to the predictions. Otherwise, there can be a large loss of money.
Already, the margin of profit on publishing is narrow, and there are many more opportunities for financial loss if publishers are not cautious. One more problem is that often publishers give large advances to authors that end up not paying off, or bid too high for a book at an auction.
When books go to bid, first an author’s agent sends out a manuscript. Editors must read the script virtually overnight and send in an offer quickly, often within 24 hours. An editor can then decide to either make an up-front offer to buy the rights to the book for a higher price, or can let the book go to auction.
At an auction, all the interested editors put in a bid. Then, the person who puts in the lowest bid is told what the highest bid is, and decides whether or not they want to bid higher. In this way, a book’s price can rapidly increase.
Unfortunately, there are no guarantees when it comes to publishing.
“Sometimes you think you have a sure thing, then something happens,” Adams said.
For example, since November, less fiction has been selling because more people are tuning into the news on television instead. Another time, Adams was publishing a book with an author he had worked with before. The author had written another wonderful novel and published it, but it ended up not selling because the title was wordy and off-putting to readers.
At the end of the day, the readers are the most important. Adams encouraged authors not to write in ways that cater to the editor. Instead, he said authors should write what they enjoy and keep readers in mind. Hooking and engaging readers is the number one priority, since without readers, both author and publishers are out of a job.
“[I am] not the guardian of the gate. [I am] trying to help [new authors] through the door,” Adams said.
However, he knows what will and will not work in a book, and will react accordingly. The future of publishing is yet to be seen, but editors like Adams are ready and eager to face it.