Exclusive Interview with Algonquin Books Executive Editor Chuck Adams

After attending the red carpet premiere of Water for Elephants in New York City, I was invited to attend the screening with the Algonquin Books family in Chapel Hill, North Carolina on April 21.

Chuck Adams, Executive Editor of Algonquin Books

I attended the private screening with my friend, Emm P., who lives nearby. We had a great time meeting the Algonquin bunch, especially Michael Taeckens, who has been our Algonquin liaison for the past year and provided our fan site with scores of books and autographed schwag from Sara Gruen to use as prizes and giveaways for our readers here.

On Friday, April 22, I met up with Algonquin’s Executive Editor, Chuck Adams, at an Indian restaurant. Chuck is the editor that “discovered” Water for Elephants when Sara Gruen’s agent mailed it out to various publishers to consider buying. Chuck is who we credit with getting Water for Elephants published so that one day it would be made into the beautiful motion picture that it turned out to be.

Over lunch that day, Chuck answered some questions I had for him that we thought our readers would be interested in. I was pretty nervous; Chuck is well known in his industry for being a straight shooter. I was unsure how he would react to answering my questions when I, admittedly, know little to nothing about the world of publishing. I was pleasantly surprised to find out how down-to-earth and patient he is. After just five minutes, I felt so comfortable, like if one day I wrote a story I could email Chuck and ask him to read it and he would give me advice.

I emailed Sara Gruen for her thoughts on Chuck. I was surprised and thrilled (and I squeed a lot!) when she responded to me. (Be jealous!) Sara wrote, “Chuck is a wonderful, wonderful editor, terrific friend, and a true gentleman.” I hope you enjoy reading my Q & A with Chuck, as I know I enjoyed conducting it. I pray Chuck does not red line this article and mail it back to me! It’s surely full of typos and bad grammar, and for that I am very sorry! (You’ve been warned!)

Jen: On the Algonquin blog “Ask the Editor” you said you found Water for Elephants when Sara’s agent brought it to you. You read it and you immediately loved it. How many works would you say that you review in an average week and how many pages are typical for each to decide if it is a treasure or trash?

Chuck: I get a lot of emails. Some emails come to me and say, “I read about you, I want you to be my editor, and I think my fantasy novel will be perfect for Algonquin.” Well, we don’t publish fantasy, so I hit delete. I don’t respond to emails that aren’t of interest. I’ve bought one project, in the years I’ve been with Algonquin, from an email submission. I read the cover of the email and asked for more and ended up with it. The submissions I get vary sometimes by season, but I get about 20 to 30 submissions per week, if not more. I can usually read, sometimes just one paragraph, to know. If someone has a style that I can connect to, I will definitely keep reading. If they don’t have a voice, and if I find grammatical mistakes, anything to give me a reason to say “stop,” I’ll stop.

It’s unfortunate, but it’s just the volume of things. I joke about how today was a bad day because I started reading three books and I like all three of them, so now I’ve got to finish. And sometimes it’s frustrating because I’ll read an entire book and realize, you know, it’s not going to be right, but I enjoyed reading it, but it’s not going to be right for us. I spend an awful amount of time reading, but I only publish about five books a year. I think it’s discouraging for writers to hear that, but that’s just the way it is. I wish I could do more. Right now I’m working with a guy, pro-bono, who emailed me the idea behind the book, so I just started working with him to see if we can develop it. If he does, I’ll try to buy it an publish it, and if he doesn’t he can go and try and sell it elsewhere.

I love working with writers and if they have a voice and a story and it feels good, I will pursue it. If I don’t like something I won’t read very much. I will just skim through something to see if maybe something happens a little later to change my mind, because I can speed read, and I’ll look to see how the story develops. I have gone back and said, “well, you need to get rid of the first fifty pages, because that does not work.” But mostly, if it does not work within the first 20-30 pages I will stop. If the writing is just not good, I’ll stop. Good writing is subjective. What I’ll respond to may not be what somebody else responds to. It’s a personal thing.

Jen: At what point did you know you had a hit on your hands with Water for Elephants?

Chuck Adams - Hard at Work!

Chuck:  I think, probably the first inkling that we had something really, really big… the marketing director, Craig Popelars, was the first one who said “bestseller” and Water for Elephants together in the same sentence. We started this campaign to get book stores behind the book, getting them to read it. And if they liked it, write an endorsement. We ended up getting 50 endorsements. We decided to take the book and Sara (Gruen) to Book Expo in New York and have her promote the book there. The American Booksellers Association, for independent bookstores – not chains Barnes and Noble or Borders – got behind the book in a big way and, to, kind of make a statement, “we can make a bestseller, too.” The chains had not embraced the book and they thought “Algonquin is not a big publisher, and the author had had a book before, yeah, but it wasn’t a big deal, so I believe…” Whereas the independent booksellers said, “we get this book.” When they came back from Book Expo (BEA) in New York and got excited about the book, I got excited about the book, too. I started to believe then.

When I first met Sara — although I had met Sara before about years ago with
selling her first book, but when I met her after working with her on Water for
Elephants was in Lexington, Kentucky. She and I went there to appear at a
book festival sponsored by the newspaper there and some bookstores
there, and we were on the panel together. And the enthusiasm that we saw
from the booksellers and from people in the audience who had already
started reading the book, because the book had just come out, that was
really exciting.

And it was then that I said — again, I said, okay, this is real. This is going to
work. I had no idea, I mean a lot of books can do okay and get on the Best
Sellers — not a lot, but some books and then they will go on to be huge, and
it wasn’t until probably a year later after the hardcover did real well, and so I
think an excess of around 300,000 copies which had been great.

But a year later when the paperback was coming out and one of our sales
rep said, Barnes & Noble said, “this is going to be the big book. This is going
to be THE book. Publish it.” So it has gone on from there. As I said, it takes a
life of its own.

Jen: Did you ever imagine it would be #1 for over a year the first time around,
and again for so many weeks on the New York Times bestseller list?

Chuck: No, you don’t really — you can’t —

Jen: You don’t do projections or stuff like that?

Chuck: No, you can’t. That’s why what I said about it’s a mistake for a company
of our size to try to buy big books. We have to just keep buying books we
really love and believe in, because you can’t — if you start projecting, well,
this is going to sell this number of copies for sure, then you would go crazy.

Jen: You think you get kind of jinxed?

Chuck: I am a little superstitious, so I probably will feel that way, yeah.

Jen: When you publish a movie tie-in edition, what happens behind the
scenes with the publishing house and the movie studio to make this

Chuck Adams

Chuck: Well, this was Algonquin’s first experience with publishing a movie tie-in. They had — some of their books had been published — had been movies
before, but they always sold the paperback rights and so they had never gone through it. And I started out in this business — my first job as an editor was as a movie tie-in editor, so I knew that part of it. And what happens is, it takes us probably a month to manufacture a book, which we have got to cover design to produce a book. It can be done more quickly than that, but on a normal schedule it would be about a month, and then you have got a cover design, you have got to get the book to the warehouse.

Then you need another month or whatever to make sure it’s fully distributed in the bookstores. So you need kind of a two month window between when you get your final cover and when you get it in the bookstores.

And the movie people, they can do things more quickly and they keep
changing their minds. And they will start off saying this is the artwork they
are going to go with, and then two weeks later, oh, no, no, no, we have
changed our mind, somebody didn’t like this, so we are going to do this, or
the star didn’t like the way he or she looks or whatever.

So it’s always like a juggling act, you are never sure when it’s going to come
in or whether you are going to drop something. But in the case of Water for
Elephants, Fox kept us abreast of what was going on, for the most part.

Fox worked very well with us and I wasn’t dealing with it. Michael (Taeckens) and Ina
(Stern) are the ones who dealt with it. And we had a cover art. We had three
different cover arts. There’s one point there were three covers but you
probably never saw those.

Jen: I didn’t. You have to tell me what they were.

Chuck: Well, one is the one you see. One was much more sophisticated.
It was her and that – they’re in the Speak Easy —

Jen: The red dress.

Chuck: Looking and kind of facing each other, maybe the dance. I think that maybe it was the dance. And the third was, what I thought we were going to go with initially was kind of misty. It was a circus tent and like a fog and them embracing inside and you could see an elephant back there. It looked kind of mystical and I thought that’s what it was going to be.

Jen: And they did that as the movie poster, in the international movie poster I believe. If it’s the same one I think that you’re talking about and then there’s like a trapeze person over on the left and —

Chuck: I think so. Yeah.

Jen: Yeah, I believe that it will be the international movie poster. So
they did use that image and I believe the other one was the official still that
was released with the press, packets and stuff so —

Chuck: And they ran that one tagline for a while, “Life is the greatest
show on earth,” and I guess they dropped that later because it’s not part of
the campaign now, at least I haven’t seen it. It looked romantic enough but
not like — I was worried that they’re going to go really, really romantic.

Jen: And you know, I was surprised with how much the movie is
toned down from the book because there’s a lot of sex in the book, and you
know, dirty old Kinko.

Chuck: When the movie was first optioned by a producer and Fox got
involved, they said they were going to make it a G-rated movie. I said to the
guy, “What? How can you do that? Is there no way you can take” —

Jen: There’s no way you can beat an elephant in a G-rated movie.

Chuck: And also, the wonderful part of the novel is the grit of it. It’s a very
real feeling and you couldn’t keep that feel and do a G-rated movie. They
will have to make — it would be Disney-fied all the way. So fortunately —

Jen: Like Dumbo.

Chuck: They fortunately backed off. Oh, indeed. They backed off and
made it at least a PG-13.

Jen: I wanted to just step away from Water for Elephants. I have two
questions and we already talked about eBooks and technology but I
wanted to find out what kind of effects do you think it’s going to have on the
independent publishers like Algonquin. Do you think that you guys are just
going to have to adapt your business to grow with that trend? Or do you
think that it might make Algonquin extinct?

Chuck: Well, hopefully not make us extinct. We hope to keep growing
with it. We have the capability of doing what the other publisher has with
this in terms of technology. We don’t have to do — we don’t do the eBooks.
There are companies who actually format our manuscripts that can go —
can fit whatever reader. So the different things and we are in a process now
of gradually going through our entire back books and turning everything
into eBooks. And in the future if books will be eBooks as well, so long as
the agents and authors will allow it. Some do not want their books available
as eBooks. I think that’s a mistake and I think it may characterize the
authors. But they’re worried about controlling. Sarah’s agents has been
very tenacious and wisely so in pursuing illegal downloads of ‘Water for
Elephants’ and we have someone who does nothing but get them taken
down. Usually when we find a site that’s put up and we just put one of our
books out for free download, you go to them and say please take it down
and they’ll take it down. Seldom do you have to get a lawyer at all. You just
have to say that the bad boy don’t do it. And we have to do it all the time.
Some agents and authors are worried that their material is going to get
disseminated and they’ll be devalued.

So that’s a fear, that’s perhaps the kind of fear that we all have. So long as
people play the game right — I have never downloaded something without
paying for it online just as I would not steal a book from a bookstore. I just
don’t believe in doing that and I hope, I have to trust people to be honest
about things because it’s how authors make a living and the way
publishers make a living. It’s not just a matter of “Oh good. I got something
from nothing.” You stole it from people… when you do that.

So it’s a fear that people have and it keeps some people from going into
that area but we’re going into it all the way. We talked about — we only talked
the possibility of starting… because Algonquin has become kind of branded
a little bit and people who like Algonquin books…. of trying to start an
eBook-only online publishing where we could bring in more experimental
books and try to develop writers and find them an audience through virtual
books and not have all the expense involved — actually warehousing
housing and transit are the greatest expense as we have. The paper and
everything cost money too, but it’s the warehouse and the shipping so
hopefully — and the fact that in the business, you may be aware of the way
people have books that are on consignment. If Neiman Marcus buys a
thousand scarves from a scarf manufacturer and they only sell 900, they
will then reduce the price of the other 100 and sell them that way. If a
bookstore buys a thousand copies of Water for Elephants, at the end of
six months or whatever and they’ve only sold 900, they return the 100 and
they get their money back.

Jen: Really?

Chuck: Yeah. So in virtual books, we don’t get returns. So that’s a big
advantage. But this was a practice established, I’m told, during the
Depression when bookstores we’re just having trouble staying alive and so
publishers said, “Okay, you could sell as many as you can and which you
can’t sell, send it back and we’ll give your money back.” And that tradition
and business model has been in place ever since and frankly I think a lot of
bookstores will be out of business if we didn’t keep it. So we have to keep it
going. It’s just a hardship for us because if we believe a book is going to
sell 50,000 copies and we print 50,000 and we only sell 10, then we’re stuck
with them.

Jen: Yeah, what do you do with those? Do you donate them?

Chuck: No, they usually — well I’ll remainder some and you’ll just find
them for like $1.99 or $2.99 or whatever, and they pulp the rest.

Jen: Are you serious?

Chuck: Serious, yeah.

Jen: Oh my God, what a huge loss.

Chuck: It is. So virtual books actually have that advantage too that the
return — because return rates are something that drives us crazy. Return
rate is usually – I am not sure, but let’s say between a quarter and a third of
what we ship. We expect to get returns to that number. So, not to have to
deal with that will be a great boom.

Jen: I have a number of friends that buy the eBooks on their Kindles
and I see them chatting with each other on Twitter and things like that and
they’ll say, “Oh, I just found this book” in either the free eBook or the 99
cent eBook, that sort of thing for an author that is either self-published or
like you said, like experimental kind of thing and they’ll discover a new
writer that way.

Chuck: I think that is a great for someone to put themselves out there. If
they have trouble getting a publisher to pay attention to them or to find the
right editor, or the right house to respond to their work, then that is an
option they have.

And it doesn’t mean that they’ll end up being successful but we’ll at least
get them out there and see if people respond to their writing, to their stories.
And then they can go their own way. They can do it themselves so they
couldn’t take this back to the publisher and say “See, I did this. My books
sell. Take me on.”

Jen: Okay. So, a number of our readers also indulge in fan fiction and
I wanted to ask your feelings about writers. We just talk about writers that
self-publish, but what is the impact on your opinion of a writer when an
agent brings you the work of someone that has self-published that has
written fan fiction, those types of things and now they’re trying to write real

Chuck: Well, it’s all real. I have been — all my career, I’ve been a big
defender of all kinds of books. Harlequin romances, I have never read one
but I am thrilled at people who read them or are reading them or are if they
still are but because they’re not great literature but they’re fun stories for
people who want that kind of thing. A lot of really good writers, Nora
Roberts, Sandra Brown, Robert Lewinsky, many, many writers have come
out of that. They started out writing category books and making $3,000 a
book and have now become very successful writers because they were
natural story tellers and they learned their craft through writing these. So I
think any kind of writing to somebody has done, is valid and it prepares
them and that hopefully they grow with each one because you write
something and you get a reaction to it. And you think, “Okay, they didn’t
like this but they did like this,” and you kind of start to learn what is good in
your writing and what is good in your story telling and what is not working
for people. If you’re using like a really hard-edged tone and you
find readers don’t respond to that then you can maybe try to soften it. There
are different things they can learn. More and more we’re seeing self-
published books being turned into or taken up by publishers who are
established. We have recently taken on a self-published novel. And I was
hoping for a huge, huge, huge sales the first year but I will say that so far in
three months we’ve sold as many copies as the author sold in a year, which
is – he sold over 40,000 copies in a year which is great for self-published.
But we’ve sold 40,000 copies in three months. So I was hoping that I would
be — to become actually a best seller because it’s a kind of a book that have
a huge mass appeal but it’s going to take time but I think it will sell itself off
in time.

Jen: Well those are all the questions that I had.

Chuck: Well, I am thrilled that you are doing this. I mean not my interview
but that you’re a fan of the book and that — you’ve been so supportive. This
has been a huge help for everybody.

Jen: Thank you. I have had really good time. It just started out as a
little a good — there were three of us at first, Emm, we met last night. She was
in there — it was me, her, and another girl name Mel and we started it out and
then we added two more because Emm dropped out, we added two more and
they kind of really ran with it. And Deb one of the girls on our team and she
writes fan fiction. So that’s where that question came from because you
know, it’s not everyday you get to sit down with someone like you and pick
your brain.

Chuck: Well I believe in making myself accessible. As I have said, I love
this business. I love what I do. I believe in writers. And I just want to
encourage people to keep writing and reading because if you don’t write,
then I have nothing to do. And not every book is right for me or Algonquin
but their are readers for virtually everything out there.

Jen: What would you say is the perfect book for Algonquin?

Chuck: Well it was something like Water for Elephants to be honest. I
mean it is a really well written book that tells a really big wonderful story. It is
perfect for me and Algonquin, my whole — I’m much more commercial than
most of the editors about Algonquin. There are only four of us now but I
grew up reading writers that you probably never heard of that wrote these
kinds of epic books and the idea was that they took an intimate story, a love
story, like Sarah did.. a love triangle. And they set it against a big canvas, a
lot going on in the background like Edna Ferber wrote The Giant which
you probably didn’t see the movie The Giant with Elizabeth Taylor, Rock
Hudson, James Dean. It’s about family — it’s really a domestic drama but it’s
set against the growth of Texas and the oil industry. And it expands from
the teens up into the 60s. And she wrote Show Boat which is about a girl
race on a showboat who falls in love with the gambler. It’s a love story
between these two people.

Jen: Is it the one that was on Broadway?

Chuck: Yeah.

Jen: I saw that.

Chuck: But it set against the post civil war era and the racial things and
everything going on. So she took big themes and put them in the story and
that’s what Sarah did with Water for Elephants. So I really responded to
that book especially because these are the books that my mother had in
her library at home and I grew up reading those. So for me, this was the
perfect book.

There’s another editor I work with here who likes much more
literary books where the writing is paramount. It’s the style of the writing
more than the art of the story. Although she likes the story too but it’s — so
we just have different taste and that’s the idea with any publisher, within
any publishing house is that you want editors to have a different area of
interest and expertise but we all like to same book, we’d all be after the
same book. We bring different things to the table. But I think given what we
have done with Water for Elephants, I now know the kind of book that our
marketing and publishing people are comfortable with. And that it is a book
that has a bit of an edge to it, but has an upbeat feel at the same time. And
the marketing director, he literally walked in my office with a manuscript and
said, “Best seller! Best seller!” He said, “I could give this to my mother, I
could give it to my father, I could give it to my wife, I could give it to — all of it.
Everybody will love this book.” That’s the kind of book that he wants me to
be looking for. So that’s kind of what I look for although I don’t limit myself
to that.

Like I read a collection of short stories a weekend ago, they’re
interconnected, so the same characters keep appearing but the focus will
be one in story, one in another. So it reads kinds of a novel. It won’t sell
particularly well, but the writing is amazing. It’s just amazing. And I’m going
to try to pursue it because I’ve got to have a conversation with the author to
see what else she’s been working on. Because short stories don’t sell, and I
would want to buy a novel as well as… but it was the writing and the way she
gets into the hearts of the characters, I thought it was beautiful. So it will not
be perfect for Craig but it would be perfect for me. And the goal is to have
books that stay true to Algonquin fans because there are people who really
like Algonquin books. They say, “We buy all Algonquin books because
they’re all Algonquin books.” And we try not to kind of violate the trust I
guess these people have given us. So we look for certain standards of level
or writing as to have — if not necessarily the literary quality, it has to have a
good, solid, clean writing, and not be especially negative or anything like
that. We kind of censor ourselves a little bit. But it’s not so much a formula,
it’s just a kind of a feel that we have and we try to be true to it. And only
doing 20 books a year, you can usually find those. Like when I was at
Simon and Schuster I alone was doing 20 books a year and I was one of 120
editors. So I was kind of scrambling to fill my quota for this year. There was
no identity to that.

Jen: They just crank them out, don’t they?

Chuck: They do. And I think they are learning, I think the big publishers —
I was skeptical when I came to Algonquin, I wasn’t sure that they knew what
they were doing but they showed me that I didn’t know what I was doing,
that I haven’t really worked for a publishing house before. They didn’t like
them so they taught me a whole new lesson.

Jen: If I were an author, I would want more of a boutique publisher than
someone massive because I feel like the smaller it is that they could
develop you more and that would be their main focus rather than just
another number.

Chuck: Well one of the great advantages of being a small house is that
we are all or so on top of each other. That when I get excited about
something about or another gets excited, we just start talking to each other
and you can’t help but overhear it. The art director will say, “That sounds
good. Send to me, I’d like to read it.” So also, you’ve got the whole people
around you advising you about this book. And you start to create
excitement just in this little building. And then we start spreading the word
out that, we were excited, we are excited about this. And so, it gets a little
contagious sometimes and it’s a great way to do it. Not every book excites
everybody the same way but every year three or four books do this. And we
had one point about two months ago where we had five books that were on
the bestseller list – and for a house that publishes 20 books year, not bad.

Jen: Yeah.

Chuck: Not bad.

Jen: That’s great, that’s great! So I saw that yeah Sarah is back at
number one again.

Chuck: Yup.

Jen: How long do you think — what do you think or I know you want it
to stay at number one forever but realistically?

Chuck: Realistically, I think at number one, I think The Help and they’re
going to go back and forth. I mean The Help has been a phenomenon also.
I would not be surprised that it if The Help to came back at number one
again after the movie’s kind of played out. It seems it kind of played out and
I think Water for Elephants will continue to be the bestsellers at some point
probably maybe for the duration of the summer. I don’t know if it’s a DVD
comes out in six months.

Ideally I would like to see it stay on through the DVD. Right now, we get a list on Wednesdays which is for the New York Times, it’s for the coming Sunday in a week. So this coming Sunday at the New York Times we hope to be at number one. And Water for Elephants will be number two the week after that Water for Elephants is number one,
The Help is number two. And Water for Elephants is number two on the
on the mass market list behind Norah Roberts. But it is number one on the
combined hardcover paperback list. It’s the number one eBook best sellers.
And it’s number one this week in USA Today which is for every book, it’s
not just said trade paper but it’s every book. That was every book that
we’ve published – doesn’t matter, so it’s the number one best selling book.
That wwon’t sustain. That level won’t sustain much beyond a week or two
but I think it would stay on the list and gradually, gradually, gradually, go
down. I don’t think it would like fall quickly, I’d be disappointed if it does.

Jen: I don’t think it will. I think more people will want it and I’m in a little
worried for you about letting the movie tie in cover run out before that DVD
comes out.

Chuck: Well it’s not my decision obviously.

Jen: Yeah I know right. You will probably see the ones with the movie
tie-in cover showing up on eBay a lot. Once they are off the market.

Chuck: Well that could be.

Chuck: And by the way even worst than getting returns of books that we
may end up pulping, in mass market they don’t return the books, they just
tear the cover off and just send you the cover back.

Jen: What?

Chuck: If they don’t sell it, they just tear then up. And there’s market
books to the hand shelve life of a bout a month. They recycle those that
very quickly and so it’s — you have to be careful to not overprint to that area
especially. And because we are not experienced with vast market I know
that they are being very cautious. It’s been great.

Thank you so much, Chuck!!

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8 Responses to Exclusive Interview with Algonquin Books Executive Editor Chuck Adams

  1. SmittenByaBrit says:

    Great interview Jen! Very interesting!

  2. Oh, Jen, this was wonderful. You asked great questions, and he was so forthcoming with his answers. I’m glad you got the fan fiction question in there, too. It was a fascinating look into a world most of us will never see, as well as providing valuable information to wannabe writers. Kudos!

  3. Pingback: Engine Books News » Blog Archive » The Trouble With Bookstore Returns

  4. shweta says:

    Very fabulous interview and very interesting Jen Congrats

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