At the office of Farrar, Straus and Giroux near Union Square, The Coffin Factory met with Jonathan Galassi (president and publisher) and Jeff Seroy (senior vice-president of marketing and publicity) to discuss today’s rapidly changing literary marketplace.
The Coffin Factory: Could you tell us about the origin of Farrar, Straus and Giroux?
Jeff Seroy: The house was founded in 1946 by Roger Straus after he got out of the Navy. He wanted to start a publishing house. Some of his first significant purchases were in Europe, because he didn’t feel he could compete with the agents over here for the bigger fish.
Jonathan Galassi: That was one of his first successes, publishing some Italian translations. He got John Farrar, who was a famous editor from an earlier era, to be his partner. They published whatever they could get their hands on. There’s a famous story that their first book was by James Gould Cozzens, who was also an author who had seen better days, and it was called There Came Two Pirates, and some reviewer actually said there were three pirates: it was James Gould Cozzens and Farrar and Straus for publishing this book. Let’s just say Farrar and Straus’ origins were a little more vernacular than we’ve turned out to be.
Roger had a whole series of partners in the early days, but the company came into shape, to definitive form, when he brought in Robert Giroux, whom he’d known in the Navy, and who had worked at Harcourt Brace, where he had a big editorial role. In the sixties he became a partner, and the company became Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Bob brought a lot of well-known literary authors with him, and that was really how the FSG that we know today took its shape.
I remember Phyllis Grann, who was once the head of Putnam, said that there was a certain time in the seventies when Farrar, Straus and Giroux was absolutely the hottest publisher in the country. Every book we published was news in a different way, and it was very sparky and cutting-edge, and I hope we still are, in our own ways. I came in in 1986, after I had been fired from Random House. Roger picked me up on the beach—he loved to hire people who were suddenly “available.” And then Jeff, you came in?
Jeff Seroy: You called me in 1995. I was working for Houghton Mifflin, and I was in one of my less expansive frames of mind about the publishing industry at that point. And I thought, well, the FSG brand has such a strong identity that no matter what happens, it has a very strong future. But I had never worked on fiction before. I never really worked at a literary publishing house, because I came out of academic publishing, so I was untested and insecure in certain ways.
The Coffin Factory: It’s interesting you mention the brand, because when people think of the most respectable authors in contemporary North American literary fiction—Lydia Davis, Jonathan Franzen, Jeffrey Eugenides—they think of FSG. Not only are you publishing these authors now, but you’ve been publishing them since their debut books. That’s establishing your brand. We’re wondering how FSG discovers such solid, heavyweight authors?
Jonathan Galassi: Well, a publishing house in some ways comes down to the taste of the editors. And we saw right away how good those authors were, and I think we have a good retention record with writers. Not always, but I think a lot of the best authors we’ve published have stayed, and we’ve been able to continue to work with them.
Jeff Seroy: One of Roger’s thoughts was, “We don’t publish books, we publish writers.”
Jonathan Galassi: It’s not necessarily what happens with an individual book that matters, but with a career. We certainly subscribe to that.
The Coffin Factory: That’s the feeling people get. It’s not only that Freedom is published by FSG, it’s that Jonathan Franzen is published by FSG.
Jonathan Galassi: We’ve published all his books, ever since The Twenty-Seventh City. I actually think publishing has changed a lot since we first published Jonathan, which was over twenty years ago. I think that when we bought his first book for twenty thousand dollars, it was already written, and it had been turned down by a few people. Today there’s a lot more competition for first novels, and we don’t always win those contests. I think that the game of publishing has changed, in the literary field as well.
The Coffin Factory: Changed how?
Jonathan Galassi: It’s more about money. And I think a lot of young agents have come along and realized that their best commercial shot with an author is with his or her first book. That there’s a lot of potential upside with an unknown author. That if they have already published one book that hasn’t worked, their options are much more limited. Agents aren’t always thinking of the long game; they want to make a killing now. But I think it’s very rare that an author actually publishes his or her best book on the first try. So the game is a little bit counter to the way we publish. We don’t always get the authors that we would like to publish. That’s always been the case, because we don’t pay as much as some houses.
Jeff Seroy: That’s always been a kind of philosophy of the place, where you have to plug into the DNA and the gestalt of it, as an employee and as an author. It’s a value ecosystem, in a way.
Jonathan Galassi: I always say that the only people it makes sense for us to publish are the ones who want to be published by us, who buy into our way of doing things. Because if they’re primarily looking for top dollar, they’re not going get that here. In the end, my belief is really good authors will make as much money anywhere, because they’ll earn it, because we’ll sell their books forever.
Jeff Seroy: It still surprises me, but I also love it…the other night at a dinner, Elaine Petrocelli of Book Passage said to me, “You guys are just different from everybody else, the way you think, the way you do things is different from everybody else.” I don’t necessarily think that’s true, but I loved to hear it, and I love the fact that people think it…and that the right people think it. And I’d like to think that on some level it’s true, that we have a very integrated and holistic approach to publishing that really has to do with our values from start to finish in every stage of the process—the intelligence, care, integrity, and partnership.
Jonathan Galassi: It really is about relations with the authors. I work with authors, as all the editors do, and then Jeff works with them very closely on the promotional and the review and marketing side. So we sort of hand them off to him at a certain point, and then we’re all in it together.
Jeff Seroy: The way we do it, the author is the biggest stakeholder in the process. It’s their book, their work, and we get them involved as much as possible. We listen to them as much as possible, and bring them in as early as possible. And to me, what you can reasonably expect as an author is that kind of full partnership with a publishing house, and then no matter what happens, whether you sell a million copies or ten copies, and whether you get reviews everywhere or you get a few reviews, no matter what happens, you all have done it together. They know the effort that’s been made, they’ve participated in it, and I think that works out. I think that’s why we maintained relations with them as well as we do on the publishing side, because they’re so involved in the whole process.
Jonathan Galassi: There are plenty of books that don’t work, where our best efforts don’t yield the fruit that we’d like, but we do try to give each book a real shot.
Jeff Seroy: And we treat the authors similarly, whether it’s a first author or long time house author, and whether it’s a small printing or large printing; the process is identical, really. The scale of what we do and the focus of what we do will change from book to book, but the actual framework, and the way the process works, is identical.
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