DBF Writing Series: “Industry Talk” with Senior Editor for Bloomsbury Publishing, Callie Garnett

By Sam Hann and Amanda Tigar

On a pleasantly bright and warm February afternoon, around thirty students and faculty gathered for the Spring semester’s second installment of the Dorothea Benton Frank Writing Series’s “Industry Talks.” Senior Editor for Bloomsbury Publishing, Callie Garnett, prepared to discuss her previous editing work which includes T Kira Madden’s memoir Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls, Rachel Louise Synder’s No Visible Bruises, and the New York Times bestseller Outlawed by Anna North. Garnett sat behind a sturdy gray table, laughed at the present circumstance, and said, “It’s so great to be here and so weird to be in a room with a mask at a microphone. Haven’t done that particular thing yet.”

The Director of the MFA Creative Writing Program, Prof. Emily Rosko, introduced Garnett. Rosko recalled how in a recent interview Garnett said, “Publishing runs on a sense of urgency. You want your submission to feel a little like a hot potato, not in the sense of something to get rid of, but something that will gather publishing colleagues around, get them interested, get them into a game of toss.” Rosko praised Garnett’s impressive resume as an editor.

Garnett began the talk stating she hoped “to demystify how publishing is set up to bring books out into the world.” Her interest in providing a clear explanation of the workings of the industry came from her own education where she learned little about how to apply her skills to publishing.

“I never thought about being an editor when I was young,” Garnett revealed. “I don’t think I knew what the job was. If I did picture it, I pictured a kind of well dressed man with nice shoes who sits at a desk with piles of paper and his red pencil.” She laughed at the fantasy of such an image because: “very little of that reading and editing actually happens during the day, like during working hours. That happens mostly after hours and on weekends.”

She described how most of her day revolves around communicating with her team, other departments–such as marketing, art, and sales–and the author via email, over Zoom, through a phone call, and even face to face. Garnett had not envisioned herself as a mediator, nor did she ever imagine herself enjoying the role, yet she said she loves acting as “the communicator back and forth between people who are being very blunt and sometimes upset” since she softens the potential blows by asking questions like, “Where can we go? What’s the best path forward?” She said, “I have to be positive and a cheerleader.”

Sifting through a pile topping seven hundred manuscripts high requires a careful eye and a text that stimulates and excites. Garnett described her process: “If the first page doesn’t keep me, I’m done. If you, the writer, haven’t earned my attention, I’m done.” For a work to grab her attention, it “needs to feel urgent because like anything that’s for sale, if it doesn’t feel urgent, it won’t sell.” The urgency of a work can be difficult to manage in an industry that has several moving parts.

Garnett illustrated how slow moving the industry is since she was currently working on manuscripts which will not be published until the winter of 2023. With a chuckle, Garnett mentioned how she recently acquired a book that would come out in 2025. “I like the slow pace, even though it can be infuriating, because it really does leave time for more considered thought,” said Garnett. The publishing industry has to battle the wealth of everyday language readily available; as Garnett acknowledged, “There’s so much writing. It’s so undervalued. There’s writing all over, every day text in your face. I really like the time that it takes to create a physical book.”

Due to the extended timeline required to get a manuscript from acquisition at the publishing house, to the shelves, and in a reader’s hand, publishing rejects trends. By the time a book has gone through the long process required, whatever was trendy has faded. Thus, as she claimed, “[the work] has to be more abiding.”

Garnett went into detail regarding her work on Rachel Lee Snyder’s No Visible Bruises and the tedious work of creating book covers. In the midst of designing a cover, there is often a split between the art department and the author, forcing the editor to be a spokesperson for the project. By putting the project first, says Garnett, you successfully “work at the intersection of art and commerce.”

She then transitioned to her own personal editing style. When considering a manuscript, “you have to always be asking yourself, what’s the big picture here? Does the structure work? Is there anything at stake if it’s a novel, and if it’s nonfiction, do I read this book and understand the content?” Garnett explained editing as an art, since too much editing may turn off a writer and not enough will hurt the book.

For instance, Garnett originally cut an em dash in T Kira Madden’s memoir in the sentence, “my hands–they are never not shaking.” Garnett’s reaction was to “cut the fat,” but Madden didn’t take the suggestion, “because she’s smart… as a writer, you have to know what the heart of your book is and what makes it pulse. And she knew.” When the New York Times wrote their rave review for Madden’s memoir, they pulled that exact line. Garnett laughed and admitted she “hoped she helped in other ways” with the manuscript.

Garnett concluded with valuable advice to everyone who may approach a manuscript as an editor: “The most useful thing I can bring to a manuscript is curiosity. That’s my number one role.”