Editors at Work: Harcourt

A long-time editor, publisher and writer, Jane Isay served for seven years as editor in chief of Harcourt, where she edited a number of best-sellers, including Buzz Bissinger’s “Friday Night Lights.” Isay is currently on the editorial board at The New Press.


What makes you good at editing?

I think it’s love that makes you good at this. I was the kind of girl who read while I was tying my shoelaces. Books have been my salvation. I fit right into publishing, and I knew this was going to be my lifetime work. I also knew what I thought. Being a person who comes to an opinion and trusts it—that’s the first thing about being a book editor. So when there’s a book or a manuscript, if I’m bored, I know it’s going to bore other people. And if I’m excited, I know it’s going to interest people.

Is there something special that makes a particular nonfiction manuscript stand out?

For me, there has to be something new that I’ve never thought or heard of before. Or there has to be, as in “Friday Night Lights,” a window into a world that people don’t know about. So the first is originality. The second is clarity of thought. Sometimes you read a manuscript and the author can’t seem to finish a thought in a paragraph. The writing is writing you could read anywhere. One time I was running a publishing company that was doing a lot of conservative books. And I thought, I’ll do one. They sell. I published a book about juvenile justice, written by a woman who has lately moved to the left politically. I hated everything she had to say. So how could I help her say it better? From that, I learned not to publish cynically. You have to have something in the manuscript that you like. You have to hear some language that resonates with you in order to make it better.

How do you approach authors when you see the need to make a substantial change to their writing?

First you tell the writer all the good things about the work. After all, as an editor, you would not have chosen to publish it if there weren’t good reasons. Then you launch in delicately and, as a colleague, not a judge, discuss some of the problems. Use the pronoun “we” instead of “you.” It’s a team effort.

When deciding to publish a book, do you always try to pick the next best-seller?

Nobody knows what a best-seller is, unless it is the fourth book of a best-selling writer, and even that can fail. A book can be a success without being a best-seller. It can change people’s minds. It can alter the public conversation. I am on the board of a publishing company called The New Press, and we published a book called “The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. The first printing was 3,500 copies, but it’s sold over a million by now, and it’s changed the world. We didn’t know it was gonna be a best-seller. We knew it was important.

What is your advice to young people pursuing a career in publishing?

Go to every website of every major publisher and see if they have an internship program. If you know anybody who’s ever written a book, use that contact. And if there’s a place that publishes a whole lot of books that you are crazy about, then make that part of your application. If you ever get to an interview phase, promise me that you will have studied that publishing company. Give them a sense that you are already engaged in what they’re doing. If you get any internship in a place that deals with words, especially on paper, do it. Because that will give you a leg up in whatever you want to do, especially as an editor.

 

Students interested in applying for editorial internships with The New Press should visit the company’s website for more information. Harcourt, now Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, also offers internships at its various offices throughout the United States.

—Abigail Gorman, ’17