Tin House Editor Tony Perez on the Editorial Process

Tony Perez, acquiring editor at Tin House, talks through his editorial process: from first acquiring a manuscript, to developing, editing, and eventually publishing it. Perez touches on the hardest parts of the editorial process, the not-so-glamorous takes of an editor—negotiating his daily tasks and tight deadlines, the late night panicked emails, and the back and forth. He likens it to putting out a series of small fires. But he also explains the moments that make it worth it, from his team at Tin House and his relationships with writers, to obtaining the right manuscript and seeing its potential realized.

What is your role at Tin House? What are the details of your position within Tin House?

Being that we are such a small company, everybody wears a lot of hats here. Generally, I’m an acquiring editor, one of two right now. My job is to read submissions (needle in a haystack) and find the ones we want to publish. At that point, it’s a matter of what we want once we acquire a book—going back and forth with a writer until the book is in the kind of shape we’d be proud to publish—then sort of hold their hand through the publishing process until it’s ready to go. That means working with the marketing team and working with the art department on the cover to position the book in the world.

How did you get into editing at Tin House?

I fell in love with short stories first and then literary magazines. That’s what attracted me to Tin House. I interned with the magazine first, and that’s when the book division was starting. When I finished my magazine internship, I interned for the book division back when there were only two employees. I carved out a space for myself doing fact-checking and proofreading. As they expanded, they needed another person, so I got hired on as an assistant editor. We were so new that it was a great and odd situation to be in.

Is working in editing and publishing something you’ve always wanted to do?

In college I studied literature and journalism, and I did an undergraduate creative writing program called The Kid Tutorial at the University of Oregon. I knew I wanted to work with books somehow. I had some aspirations to be a writer—a pretty lazy one.

There was a time when I thought I’d go to grad school, but the more I did this, the more I thought it was a good vocation for me.

What would a day in the office look like for you?

It really varies day to day, which is something I really like about the job. There was a time when a lot of my day was spent reading; unfortunately, nowadays it seems like I have less time for that in the office and it ends up getting done at home. I usually come in and spend time answering emails for the first couple of hours, and then it depends on what kind of project I’m working on at the moment.

It’s really all a matter of spinning plates. I usually try to carve out a couple of hours each day doing the developmental editing of whatever project I’m working on at the time, and then fitting writing copy, developing a big mouth list, or writing letters to potential blurbers. Hopefully, I can squeeze in some time to read submissions. It’s good if I can break the day up in blocks and get focused time for each of those activities instead of scrambling back and forth between them.

What’s your editorial process like, from acquiring a manuscript all the way to the finished, publishable form?

When we’re acquiring, I like to have a blunt conversation with the agent and author about what I think needs to happen, so by the time we jump in it’s not surprising to them when I send notes and marked up manuscripts.

The first step is the bigger, broader stroke edits—moving pieces around, looking at the structure, looking at various plot lines, characters and their motivations. It usually starts with a four to five page letter outlining what I think needs to happen. I take a crack at that before I’m operating on the line level.

Usually, I’ll send them those notes and they send me a revision. From there, we start going back and forth on line edits, depending on if I think the changes they made are satisfactory. There’s always some give and take. You pull one thread and another comes loose. It takes an average of four passes before the manuscript is ready for the copy editor, sometimes fewer, sometimes far more.

Once I’ve gone through the developmental edits and line edits, we hand it off to someone with a fresh set of eyes—a stable of copyeditors that we use. They go through and mark it up, and I look over those edits to see if I agree before I send it to the author.

Then we lay it out. The art department takes a crack at it and we hand it off to another freelancer, a proofreader. That’s when it comes down to the real nitty gritty—typos that are left, weird formatting, bad breaks, orphans, widows—the kinds of things that readers aren’t paying attention to but can throw them off while reading. At that point we already printed galleys (the non-proofread versions are what we send out as galleys). Then it’s a lot of fine tuning.

There’s usually about six months from galleys to when final books are ready, and because writers and editors are finicky, neurotic people, there are always moments when you wake up in the middle of the night, panicked, thinking ‘No, that sentence should read this way!’

It’s a lot of back and forth and second guessing until I finally rip the manuscript out of their hands, or Nanci and Sabrina [marketing and publicity] rip the manuscript out of my hands. Then we send it off to the printer.

I wanted to ask a little bit more about your acquiring process, if you read the manuscript and find one that fits Tin House and speaks to you, is there anyone you answer to, or anyone you ask ‘do you agree with this?’

Because we’re so small and operate as a team on everything, if I love something and I can’t get Nanci, Masie, Sabrina, Diane, and Jakob on board, chances are it’s not going to do well for us. Our business model is infectious enthusiasm. I have to be able to advocate for it in a way that makes sense to them. They have to be able to see the vision for it. I’m lucky to work with open-minded people that generally trust each other, and so while they don’t have to technically sign off on anything, I would never feel good about publishing a book if they don’t agree with it.

What’s your approach to giving constructive feedback to a writer?

It’s more just reading what the author needs. Some writers really appreciate blunt feedback and want to know what works and what doesn’t work, and sometimes it takes better bedside manners, which I think I have. I’ve certainly made the wrong call before, especially with the kind of work we publish; it’s very personal and intimate. There’s a bit of hand-holding that has to happen, but for the most part I’ve been really lucky with the people I work with. If you’re engaging with them and talking about what’s interesting about their work, what’s working, and why you think it’s working, then in my experience most authors are willing to hear feedback. Oftentimes when I point out a place that I don’t think is working and make a suggestion, it doesn’t matter to me if they take my suggestion or not—if they find their own way, then great. It needn’t be whatever I came up with.

Going back to trying to negotiate your day with some developmental editing, copywriting, and all the facets of editorial work, how do you personally balance the workload?

I’d say not particularly well. It’s easy to jump right into whatever seems the most urgent and fun at the moment, or whoever is breathing down your neck hardest, but I basically make a list at the beginning of the day of what my priorities are and try to work my way through it. It rarely happens that I get everything crossed off. A lot of the time it feels like putting out whatever fires need to be put out, which is difficult when the kind of editing that I’m interested in doing takes real focus and engagement with the text. When I get to that part of the job, I do really need to turn everything else off, which can be a challenge. I shut the door, turn off the computer, sit at my non-computer desk, and try to block everything else out.

What’s one of your most memorable moments as an editor?

There’s lot of small and exciting moments—like the first time our books were in The New York Times
or nominated for an award—but I remember reading Marlene van Niekerk’s manuscript and feeling like it was a masterpiece, like it was the kind of book that I should have studied in school. I thought, ‘this is an important writer.’

Is there anything that has surprised you about editing?

The fun part is being surprised manuscript to manuscript. I’m surprised by my capacity to be surprised by new writing; when it clicks and your mind starts to reel, it definitely makes it fun and worth it again. It tends to come in dark moments when you think you can’t take anymore.

Is there any advice you’d like to give others interested in entering the publishing field?

Being in the industry, the people that I know and respect are voracious readers, interested and curious about the world. They have a diversity of interests and are well-read in the classics and contemporary works.

Read diverse, international literature and translations and try to get a real sense of everything that’s going on in the literary world and the world at large.

As far as how to get a job, internships are good. I know that not everyone can afford to do it; I still think this industry is classist in that way.

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