Amy Einhorn on the Mark of a Best Seller
by finn-olaf jones
“Growing up, I watched more TV than anything,” remembers Amy Einhorn. It’s a funny observation coming from the woman many hail as being one of the smartest book publishers of our time. But then again, in the era of the Internet, thousand-channel TV, and lots of other distractions, Einhorn, with her extraordinary “nose” for turning obscure, rejected, and startlingly original manuscripts into best sellers, is widely viewed as one of contemporary literature’s saviors.
Einhorn’s modern sensibilities can be discerned in her plucked-from-nowhere hits including The Postmistress, The Help, and The Weird Sisters, all titles she edited and re-edited. But then Einhorn is notorious for micromanaging her authors’ works. “I just spent an hour trying to find another word for ‘family’ on a jacket blurb,” she says with a laugh during an interview in her Soho office, where framed covers of her best sellers compete with packed bookshelves for wall space.
A yoga mat in the corner reveals one source of the high-octane energy waves that hit you when meeting Einhorn, who works out at 7:30 most mornings before sending her three young daughters off to school. She’s überfit and laughs easily, a hint of her New Jersey roots discernible in her machine-gun riffs as her hazel curls bounce with each profundity. This is truly a woman, who, at the age of 45, is at the top of her game. She’s even running her own imprint at G.P. Putnam’s Sons.
“I became passionate about books at a young age because that’s when I became very attracted to the notion of outsiders,” says Einhorn. “I think that’s why most people read; it’s a very solitary experience, but there’s a universal connection. I’m still always reading everywhere. I can even tell you all the ingredients in my conditioner.”
Einhorn has been pursuing her passion professionally for a quarter of a century. In 1989, after graduating from Stanford University with a degree in English and creative writing she took a “vow of poverty” with a series of low-paying publishing jobs in New York while surviving on her initial $13,000 salary by working weekends as an apartment cleaner. Her editing smarts and eye for talent eventually landed her at Simon & Schuster, where she met her husband, The Wall Street Journal sports writer Matthew Futterman, and found her first success with the autobiography of former QVC infomercial host Kathy Levine.
A 10-year stint with Warner Books followed, where she scored home runs with headier literary fare like Robert Hicks’s The Widow of the South and Susan Jane Gilman’s Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress. In 2007, Putnam’s offer to start her own imprint was “too good to turn down.” Amy Einhorn Books, which seeks to “hit the sweet spot between literary and commercial,” is the culmination of a career that has straddled both and is a natural fit for a woman who markets as assuredly as she edits. “I still write notes to bookstore owners and hound other authors for book blurbs,” she says.
Einhorn’s first acquisition for the new venture spread her renown well beyond the publishing world. It was a manuscript about Mississippi housemaids in the ’60s by an unknown writer named Kathryn Stockett; it landed on her desk after having been turned down by 60 agents. The Help subsequently sold 10 million copies and was turned into an Academy Award–winning movie. “When I called Kathryn to tell her I liked the book, she asked me if I’d really read all of it,” recalls Einhorn. “I didn’t know about all the rejections, but it really wouldn’t have mattered.”
But don’t expect Einhorn to be gloating over striking gold on books others pass on—especially as she admits to having herself passed on other hot properties. “Publishing is a narcissistic business,” she says. “The voice that reflects your own sparks the most passion. If the others had taken The Help, who knows if they would have had the passion to turn it into a best seller?”
Publishing is also a ruthless business—especially now when books often have shelf lives comparable to that of fresh fruit. But a vintage Royal typewriter on top of Einhorn’s credenza hints at promising projects on the horizon and, if her record still holds, what books will appear on The New York Times’ 2013 best-seller lists.
Einhorn has pinned much hope on the spring release of The Other Typist, a first novel by Rice University PhD student Suzanne Rindell about women who are typists for the New York City Police Department in the 1920s. “The opening line, ‘They said the typewriter would unsex,’ really grabbed me,” Einhorn admits. “Editors don’t have a lot of time to invest in reading a whole submission, so that first impression is vital. I once worked for an editor who chose whether to read a manuscript based solely on the first sentence.” (She says it was the first paragraph of The Help that caught her attention.)
Another promising novel, Freud’s Mistress, about Minna Bernays’s love affair with the father of psychoanalysis by the writing team of Karen Mack and Jennifer Kaufman (their Literacy and Longing in LA was a 2007 best seller) being released in summer is already generating positive buzz by reviewers. “Jennifer and Karen are huge scholars,” notes Einhorn. “They found all these obscure letters by Bernays, who hardly anyone has heard about, and turned them into this extraordinarily detailed, nuanced tale.”
While many are sounding the death knell for modern readership and serious contemporary literature, here is one publisher who obviously has no intention of slowing down. Einhorn has at least 10 other books slated to come out this year.
“We’re competing against other mediums that we didn’t have 100 years ago,” observes Einhorn. “My 6-year-old is hooked on electronics. But she’s also reading a lot both on paper and on screen. I’m either an optimist or I have my head in the sand, but I don’t care what medium you’re reading my stories on just as long as you continue reading them.”
photography by gregg delman
Cover shoot: May/June 2014 issue of Gotham magazine.