HOW TO GET ACCEPTED INTO HARPER: AN INTERVIEW WITH EMILY CUNNINGHAM

By Lauren E. Smith

 

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Emily Cunningham is a rising star in the highly competitive world of literary publishing. As an Associate Editor at Harper, she’s worked with an impressive slew of political heavyweights including Madeleine Albright and Colin Powell. Her focus is narrative nonfiction with an eye to biography, history and memoir. Most recently, she’s assisted with forthcoming titles “Terms of Service” by Jacob Silverman and “Forgotten” by Linda Hervieux. Both books will be released later this year.

 

Emily was kind enough to give us a peek into the New York Publishing world, along with what’s to come in her online “Book Proposal Workshop,” (7 Wk) starting March 3rd that will help you craft a book proposal that stands out and sells your book in the best possible light.

 

1) Tell us a little about your career path. How did you become an editor at Harper Collins and what drew you to this career?

 

I was a reader and lover of books and writing from an early age. I went on to major in English in college and always knew that my future career would involve literary pursuits in some way. I was interested in journalism but ultimately decided to give book publishing a try. I attended the Columbia Publishing Course (a summer program for college graduates looking to break into publishing) and got my first job at Grove/Atlantic, another excellent publishing house. An opportunity for advancement came along from Harper and I grabbed it!

 

2) The market is competitive. What makes a book stand out as something that is worth publishing?

 

A book’s viability comes down to some combination of: Is the idea behind the book new and does it reframe the discussion in some way? Is the author already well-known—does he have a built-in audience that we can count on to buy the book? And last but of course not least: What is the quality of the writing? All of these factors and more play into the acquisitions conversation.

 

3) What kinds of stories/books are hot on the market right now?

 

It’s always changing. In the past five years or so there have been a lot of pop science books about human behavior and how the brain works—books like Thinking Fast and Slow and titles by Dan Ariely. These are a sort of cousin of books like Freakonomics and The Tipping Point which have presented a new way to apply social science to everyday life or pursuits. All of these books, and many in the same vein, have been tremendously successful and well-received from a critical standpoint.

 

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4) Can you walk us through the decision process of a book that goes from a submitted manuscript to a best-selling memoir?

 

The first step is the editor falling in love with something she reads on submission. After she and her colleagues (led by her publisher) make a decision to acquire it, the editor and author work together to refine the manuscript into the best possible version. Sometimes this takes many months, even years! Once the manuscript is finished, though, the many other departments that make up a publishing house—marketing, publicity, sales, cover design, subsidiary rights, and production—all come together to push the book out into the world. Each person has their part to play: getting the cover design exactly right, pitching the book to booksellers (who hopefully fall in love with it), and building a publicity campaign. The editor is the liaison between the author and all of these efforts—really the in-house cheerleader for the book.

 

5) It seems you’ve primarily stuck to nonfiction, do you see yourself making the jump to another genre?

 

My list is actually split roughly down the middle between fiction and nonfiction. I love fiction and, like many other editors, thought when I got into publishing that that’s what I’d work on. But I have really gained an appreciation for nonfiction, both as an editor and as a reader outside of the office, since I’ve started my career.

 

6) How has the evolution of Amazon shopping and Kindle purchases affected the publishing world?

 

The answer is both “a lot” and “a little.” Obviously the advent of the e-book was a huge change for publishing. There was a lot of panic in the industry in the early days that the print book would be lost and everyone would stop reading. That panic has subsided as everyone has realized what an asset the e-book is for the publishing industry. Many readers love the ease and convenience of reading on a device, and they love that they can think of a book and start reading it a few minutes later after ordering the e-book. In truth, e-books have brought many people into, or back to, reading, and that can only be a good thing for publishing. Ultimately, it’s the editor’s job to help make the book the best it can be, and publish it the best way possible, and those goals are the same regardless of what format readers are using.

 

7) What makes a pitch perfect book proposal?

 

An excellent book proposal is clearly and engagingly written and includes a good amount of sample material (at least one chapter) so that readers can get a strong sense of the author’s writing style. A good proposal also explains the market for the book and how it compares to other, similar titles. (If an author discovers that there are already a lot of books on the exact topic he wants to explore, that can be a red flag.) It’s helpful when a book proposal includes a tentative table of contents, and perhaps chapter-by-chapter summaries, so that the editor can see how the structure of the book will unfold. Lastly, a good proposal includes the author’s credentials—both his background and his qualifications for writing the book.

 

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8) What new Harper Collins nonfiction titles can we look forward to getting our hands on in 2015?

 

I like the question! Two books I am particularly excited about are Jacob Silverman’s Terms of Service (on sale in March), a book about social media and digital culture. A completely different but no less exciting project is Linda Hervieux’s Forgotten (on sale in November), the story of the only all-black combat unit to serve at D-Day; it’s a powerful account of how the battles fought at home, against the deeply-engrained racism of the U.S. military, were equally intense as those fought in uniform on foreign soil.

 

9) What is the most important piece of advice that an editor will never give you?

 

Be nice to your editor! She is the one charged with rallying the troops at the publishing house in support of you and your book.

 

You don’t have to be a New York local to get schooled in publishing by Emily! Take advantage of her online “Book Proposal Workshop,” (7 Wk) starting March 3rd.