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Inside the World of Publishing with Carole DeSanti

The Viking Penguin executive on what she’s learned over the course of a storied career

When it comes to book publishing, Carole DeSanti is one of the biggest, best and brightest. As Vice President and Executive Editor at Viking Penguin, a division of Penguin Random House, she has worked with a collection of groundbreaking writers, including Terry McMillan, Dorothy Allison, Ruth Ozeki, George Hodgman, Lan Cao and Deborah Harkness. She is also the author of the critically acclaimed novel The Unruly Passions of Eugénie R.

Here, she shares the nuances of her job, from old-school publishing rules to the digital takeover.

On diverse voices:

I have always moved mostly by instinct, attending to my own sense of what resonates with me and, I hope, with others. Like most editors considering submissions, I read for originality, integrity and beauty in a piece of writing; how fresh it is and the kinds of risks it takes, and if I stand behind the core message of the writing. I do often find those qualities in writers who stand somewhere outside the cultural mainstream, and yes, I do seek them out. I also love being surprised and having my own preconceptions challenged.

On books that stand the test of time:

Earlier in my career, editors were heavily encouraged toward the book that’s ‘easy to sell and pitch.’ Now, with so much more content in the world, much of it pretty mediocre, or perhaps I should say, less developed—there may be a balancing factor. Readers do appreciate the value of the better, more thoughtful, more original book, and publishers are responding to that. From my point of view, there’s always much more that can be done with a great writer, an author who is committed to the often really difficult process of writing, and will stop at nothing to make a book better. Really, a publisher needs both kinds of books, and to tackle both challenges; [they must] keep up writing standards and ensure that the more literary work is broadly accessible. That part hasn’t changed.

On an evolving industry:

We are diversifying more and more in terms of format, ensuring that our books are available in audio and e-book, as well as the traditional hardcover, paperback and large print. In terms of readers finding books, we are moving forward in taking advantage of social media, sampling, engaging multiple platforms, etc. My take on it is that if we stay on the forward edge in terms of innovative content, and offer formats and ‘discoverability’ that suits readers, our business will be healthy far into the future. I don’t see the desire for curated content dying out, and in fact our collaborative creative process may have something to offer the world that hasn’t quite been recognized.