The following interview with John Duff appeared in the the latest edition of the MEDIA CONNECT newsletter. To view our fall newsletter or to subscribe for future editions, click here.
John started his career in the book business in the basement of a W.H. Smith book store in Toronto, Canada. Following stints with a number of Canadian publishers, he came to New York to become Director of Special Interest Publishing at Doubleday. In 1992 He joined G.P. Putnam’s Sons as Publisher of Perigee Books.
He also acquires and edits a range of prescriptive non-fiction titles. Amongst the highlights over the past two decades: Joanna Lund’s Healthy Exchanges series, which sold more than a million copies and gained her the unofficial title of “Queen of QVC.” He acquired the national bestsellers The Book of Useless Information and its many follow ups, Daniel Solin’s The Smartest Investment Book You’ll Ever Read and subsequent titles in this series of personal financial guides, and Goldie Hawn’s 10 Mindful Minutes. He is the long-time editor of public television’s Christina Pirello, whose books include Cooking the Whole Foods Way and the original Deluxe eBook Christina Pirello’s Wellness 1000.
Recent publications and acquisitions include Art Markman’s Smart Change, Brian Martin’s Invincible: The 10 Lies You Learn Growing Up with Domestic Violence, and the Truths to Set You Free, Ron Friedman’s The Best Place to Work, and Swoosie Kurtz’s memoir, Part Swan, Part Goose.
MEDIA CONNECT: What inspired you to want to become an editor?
JOHN DUFF: I more or less backed into it — starting out in publicity in a number of small publishers, picking up rights work along the way that eventually led to producing and selling illustrated co-editions with international partners, which then brought me to NY to take on the “special interest” publishing group at Doubleday. I never really thought of myself as an “editor” but took on this role along the way.
MC: How has the editorial field changed during your career?
JD: Key difference is the emphasis on the editor’s role as “brand manager” for each other. The editing process is relatively unchanged (except for the technical aspects as everyone moves to electronic editing and, somewhat reluctantly, away from pen and pencil). But no editor’s work ends here since each is involved with every aspect of the publication — production, marketing, publicity, etc. Beginning at the time of acquisition, editors now have to consider not only the quality of the work but all the market factors that will go into its success. (See next question)
MC: As an acquiring editor do you look at the author’s work or platform first?
JD: Since I work primarily with prescriptive non-fiction, both the work (quality of writing, timeliness of content, comparative titles) and the author’s platform are neck and neck in my consideration. (I often look first at the author’s credentials and outreach before I get into the actual content of the work since I know it will be much harder to successfully publish an author with no obvious credentials or platform even with the best ideas superbly executed.)
MC: What are some of the favorite books you’ve edited over the years?
JD: I love all my children. But the following will stick with me long after I hang up my red pencil:
-JoAnna Lund’s HEALTHY EXCHANGES series of cookbooks: As much for the author’s big personality, knowledge of her market, and dedication as for the recipes themselves. Although millions of readers literally ate them up.
-Dan Solin’s THE SMARTEST INVESTMENT BOOK YOU’LL EVER READ and the follow up books: simple, no-nonsense advice that saved me during the financial crisis of 2008-09.
-Swoosie Kurtz’s memoir, PART SWAN, PART GOOSE: A really superb book, gorgeously crafted with collaborator Joni Rodgers, and a truly warm and wonderful author.
MC: What advice do you have for young writers today?
JD: For non-fiction writers, besides knowing the subject matter, a writer really has to understand the reader and the market. No book is for “everyone” (if I see this claim in a proposal I tend to discount the writer’s credibility). The success of a book often depends on the knowledge of the marketplace — competition, how to reach consumers, etc. Writers need to understand the value (and limitations) of the publisher and appreciate that their work is not the only one on the editor’s mind at any given time. So whatever the writer can do to make the editor’s job simpler — during the editorial process all the way through to marketing and publicity — will increase the author value in the eyes of the editor (and everyone involved in every aspect of the publishing process). The publisher is not only paying for the words on the page but expects a full partnership that goes well beyond the manuscript.
MC: How do you prefer literary agents approach you?
JD: Query by email (with or without a proposal attached). But agents really should look at what we are publishing and get a sense of the lists so nobody has to waste time. I appreciate that our list is somewhat eclectic and agents may feel that need to “toss something against the wall to see if it sticks”, which I don’t mind if the query is short and punchy and explains why the book might be good for Perigee.
MC: What is your favorite place to meet an agent or new author?
JD: In my office… I don’t “do lunch” a lot and feel that a meeting in house is much more valuable. An agent will get to see what I do since it’s literally on the shelves in the office and get a better feeling for Perigee. And if the author is new to the house, then it is also an opportunity for the author to meet the rest of our team.
MC: Is there a specific story line you’ve seen done too many times?
JD: “Story line” doesn’t really apply to me. But there are subject categories that I am backing away from because I feel a sense of overwhelm — diet and fitness is the one most currently from which I am shying away. I get two or three proposals a week (and that doesn’t count what the other editors in the group are seeing.) We are also pretty much out of the standard cookbook (recipe collections) market. Our food books will tend to have a distinctive focus that doesn’t rely on us having a lock on the cookbook market.
MC: If you could write your own book, what would it be?
JD: Thanks, but no thanks: I’ll stay on this side of the desk. Writing a book is far too much work, which is actually something that a lot of us on the publishing side forget. A blank page is scary. I much prefer to work with something — often really bad somethings — and shape it into a publishable work. I am just as happy to see my name in the acknowledgments as on the front cover.