At this moment, Sharon Bowers (Agent at The Miller Agency), Brenda Segel (SVP and Director of Rights at HarperCollins), Emma Sweeney (The Emma Sweeney Agency), and Jason Kaufman (Editor at DoubleDay) are likely pouring over nominations for the first ever Larry Ashmead Award, trying to decide which up-and-coming editor deserves to be recognized for his/her work and attend this year’s Yale Publishing Course. As part of our mentorship series, Trendsetter talked to the Award’s four founders about their relationships with the late and great Larry Ashmead, how they hope to continue his legacy, and what they’re looking for in an ideal candidate.
Trendsetter: What was your relationship to Larry Ashmead? How did he influence your careers?
Emma Sweeney: My relationship to Larry was initially agent to editor—we worked together on a couple of projects. We became friends the minute we met because we shared a love of two things: gardening and animals.
Jason Kaufman: Larry hired me as an assistant editor at HarperCollins in 1994, and basically taught me the ropes of editing and working with authors through examples, and an all-out, overwhelming dose of trial by fire. Editing twelve books at a time for Larry was sort of like the publishing equivalent of living through some kind of special forces training. But as a mentor, Larry was unparalleled. He loved his authors and his books, and I think he got equal pleasure from nurturing young editors and valuing their ideas and skills. It was a remarkable feeling, as a young person, to feel that this legendary publishing figure really valued you as a colleague, and young people throughout the company flocked to him. I worked for Larry for four years, but would call him for advice for years after that.
Sharon Bowers: In a world of publishing people who were all close friends of Larry’s, we three women were particularly close with him in relationships that continued strongly after his retirement. He was a mentor for me and Emma early in our publishing careers (Emma as an agent with whom he became friends; me first as an editorial assistant at HarperCollins whom Larry took under his wing, then later in my career as an agent. His advice was always invaluable). Jason worked for Larry and was one of his favorite sons, so to speak; he and is both a really nice man and an excellent editor; Larry was as proud of Jason’s success with The Da Vinci Code as if Dan Brown had been Larry’s own author. Brenda has been the SVP of foreign rights at HarperCollins for, literally, decades, and she and Larry have always been extremely close, and were well known for their riotous trips to Frankfurt.
The day that he died, Brenda and I left the hospital and went to a bank thinking to open a commercial account so that this fund could be started in his honor (I grant you we were tired and a little bewildered with grief and wanted to be doing something!). Brenda is our guiding spirit in this project, and Emma is our primary fundraiser and I push us all along as best I can—we work well together.
Brenda Segel (via Sharon Bowers): Larry was my mentor during my years at HarperCollins, and later my great friend, and neighbor upstate. So I saw him a lot in latter years, and he was very like a family member. My children have always thought he was related to us.
Trendsetter: Do you have any anecdotes about him that demonstrate why he was such a great mentor?
ES: I felt even as an agent—not an editor—he was a great mentor to me because he was so encouraging to me. When I was debating whether to go out on my own and form my own literary agency he could not have been more supportive. In large part, it was due to him that I found the courage to strike out on my own.
JK: I remember one morning Larry called me into his office and said he had read a thriller submission the night before. This was early in my time with him and I hadn’t bought many books at that point. Larry really liked this submission and described it to me, then asked if it sounded like something I’d like. I said yes. Larry said, “Good.” He handed me a two page memo he’d already written, that started with, “Jason I see why you love this book, and I think you’re absolutely right in wanting to acquire it.” Larry knew how hard it was to break in as a young editor and to buy those first books, and he helped a number of us get started that way.
BS: I think I may have been the only editorial assistant who ever bought a novel from the slush pile. I was so junior that I didn’t even realize how “not done” that was. But I found this terrific, moving novel from an elderly African-American man about his childhood in the Deep South, and I asked Larry to take a look. The next week I found myself being firmly prodded down the hall by Larry, headed to the acquisitions meeting, where he basically insisted that I be allowed to acquire it. And he did me the honor, several years later when I left HarperCollins, of taking over my author himself.
Another time, a UK publisher who didn’t know Larry came to see him. Larry was out of the office, so his assistant Eamon Dolan took the meeting, in Larry’s office. The publisher thought Eamon was Larry and thereafter when he got Larry on the phone, talked to him like he was Eamon’s assistant. Larry never corrected him.
For Larry, the author and the book came first. He was all about relationships, be it in-house from the newest editorial assistant to the sales rep in Boston to the company receptionist to the CEO. And outside the house from editors and agents in New York, LA, and San Francisco to Canada and London.
Trendsetter: The contest rules stipulate that “have approximately 4 years experience in publishing, but editors with more experience will be considered”. Why four years?
ES: Four years gives applicants enough time to get established in publishing, to think this is their career choice. It’s also often a turning point—you want to feel that 4-5 years into publishing you’ve got some momentum, and the push the winner of LPA Award will get could be just that extra bit of steam to help them into the next phase of their career, to really do for them what Larry would have done (and now that I think of it, I was about 5 years into being an agent when I met Larry, and he really helped me move forward from that point.
SB: We are hoping that the Ashmead Award can, in some small way, keep up Larry’s unstated mission of mentoring young editors. We’re thinking of the Award not as a reward to successful editors, but more as a spur to someone special who’s still on the cusp. Part of the award is access to a distinguished advisory board of editors who worked with Larry, so the winner will have lunches over the course of the year with editors such as Jason Kaufman at Doubleday and Megan Newman at Avery, with the opportunity to get some additional career advice and encouragement.
Trendsetter: What are the main qualities you’re looking for in an ideal candidate?
- Keen editorial eye for good projects, not necessarily the hot one but one that others might overlook.
- Collegiality—I think candidate recommended by colleagues shows his colleagues think well of him/her to recommend.
- Sense of humor! But how can we demand that? Just kidding… Larry would probably be very glad if our candidate has a great sense of humor!
SB: More that the editor is curious, and acquisitive, showing a flair for publishing and an understanding of the industry. For this award, I think having a NYT bestseller is perhaps not ideal, since Larry would consider that person fully fledged already and no longer in need of mentoring. He was always pushing young editors out of the nest and making them fly. He never forgot that this is an apprenticeship business, and that the only way to become an editor was to start aquiring and editing books,and he had a keen sense of when you were ready. He always made himself known to the new editorial assistans to see if they had a sense of humor and an interest in the business. And if you responded, or found time to read for him, he’d do anything in the world to help you. I’m amazed at the two generations of people in this industry who will freely admit to being mentored or helped or encouraged by Larry Ashmead. That’s quite a legacy.
Trendsetter: What do you think Larry would say about the award?
ES: I can tell you what he said to me when I suggested to him that we start this award in his name. He and I were have our usual Friday night dinner at Terry’s in Stuyvesant and it went kind of like this:
Me: Larry, there ought to be an award to an outstanding editor in your name. I think we should talk about that and figure out how we can do it.
Him: (Long silence.) Don’t I have to be dead first?
Me: (Laugh) No! We can imagine how it might go. What kind of award would make sense to you?
Him: I don’t think it should be an award to an editor who is established but an award to a lower-ranked person in a house who hasn’t yet done anything huge but deserves recognition. The people in the background, who make their bosses look good. I always had such terrific assistants who did so much work for me. I never could have done all I did without them.
Me: Great idea! That makes perfect sense.
JK: In all likelihood Larry would say, “Well, you flatter me! I never did nearly as much for all of you as you insist on giving me credit for.”
SB: He’d have been embarrassed but delighted! For all his widely known risque sense of humor and bravado, he was a very modest and sweet man, very kind.
Keep an eye out for a follow-up interview with the winner of the Ashmead Award!