Ben Schrank is president and publisher of Penguin’s Razorbill imprint, as well as the author of three novels for adults. His most recent book, Love Is a Canoe, was just published by Sarah Crichton Books at FSG. The novel follows a Brooklyn couple with a shaky marriage, a young editor trying to bring new life to a beloved backlist title, and the author of that decades-old book, whose wife has recently died. Schrank spoke with PW about how he keeps the writer and publisher sides of his life separate, as well as the ways each perspective can benefit the other.
You run an imprint at Penguin, you have a wife and young son, and you still find time to turn out a novel. How does that work exactly?
I didn’t have the son when I finished the novel, so that was the real X factor. I would just wake up really early and work on my novel, work on it on the weekend, and then come to work during the week. That was a challenge, but the next time out will be the real challenge.
This is your third book for adults, arriving just over 10 years since your last one, Consent. Have you been working on this one for a while?
I wrote some other stuff in between under a pseudonym. I wrote some young adult under a pseudonym, and I wrote some mystery under a pseudonym. I feel like that freed me up, after writing some literary novels, in terms of the freedom to try different things. That’s what I wanted to do before going in and writing another literary novel. This one took me three or four years to do.
What led you to this particular story?
I started with an image of a girl in a canoe with her grandfather and I got caught on that, on how sentimental it was. Then I tried to imagine what they might talk about that would be interesting to adults and that’s how I got into the Marriage Is a Canoe sections, which is the memoir/advice book within my novel. Then the girl turned into a boy, who turned into the writer of the book, Peter Herman, and I kept building, circling that image with layers of life that I found funny and intriguing.
Since you have experience as both a publisher and an author, do those roles inform each other? Does being an author affect the way you deal with the writers you publish?
I think it is valuable to have had experience on both side of the fence, because it does help with empathy for everybody’s side of things. I can say I feel sympathy for the author’s side of publishing, the agent’s side of publishing, and the challenges of all of it and how hard it is to get anything done. I try to bring a good sense of empathy, not necessarily to the content side, but to the business side. I guess I can say I try to treat people the way I want to be treated as a writer, which makes things go more smoothly.
On the flip side, having perhaps seen both good and bad author behavior over the years as a publisher, does that factor into your interactions with, say, your editor or publicist?
I think I have a better idea of where the line is than somebody who’s never worked inside a house. I understand what their challenges are, so I’m more patient with them. FSG has treated me very well, and I hope we do as good a job with all of our writers.
Part of this book involves an editor trying to manufacture publicity and buzz around a backlist title. Is this a reflection of current publishing reality? Are we at the point where publishers have to make a new book an “event” for it to break out from the pack?
I think I just used that as a way into a story I wanted to tell. I don’t really know where the adult [publishing] world is. I’m sort of just a writer in that world. We do a lot of “event-izing” in kids’ books, though, and I think that’s legitimate and fun.
Is that sort of “event-izing” important on the kids’ side?
I do think it’s important, especially since we think a lot about backlist and other classic stuff. Speaking as a parent, there’s something great about sharing some of the books you had as a child with your child, like Make Way for Ducklings. So many of us want to keep those books alive, even as we publish new stuff. Hopefully the next Make Way for Ducklings.
Is it a different ballgame for publishers now, compared to the past, whether it’s the competition for coverage or the wide availability of e-books and self-published titles?
I think e-books is such a moving topic, it seems like that conversation changes every day. But I think that the conversation around books changes all the time, too. It’s not so much that there isn’t so much review coverage; it’s just different. I think what’s remarkable about publishing is that we do a classic thing and then adapt it to a changing world. We’re constantly readapting. You get to work on stories but the way you put them into the world is constantly changing, and I really like that.
Would you say you’re an optimist when it comes to the future of publishing?
Yes, you have to be. I’d say I’m all-in on publishing. And it feels like it’s going to be OK.
Part of the book takes place in Brooklyn, where you grew up and live now. Would you say you’re an optimist when it comes to the future of Brooklyn?
I’m probably more concerned about the future of Brooklyn than I am about the future of publishing. I love Brooklyn, but it’s developing awfully fast and without as much governance as I think it should have.
Given the partial Brooklyn setting and the publishing focus, was this a more personal story for you to write than your previous books?
I was more concerted in my attempt to “write what I know” in this novel, but it is a less indulgent story than what is found in my first two novels. The Brooklyn setting and publishing focus are there in support of the central image of the boy in the canoe, getting advice. So it is personal in that all novels are personal, but my hope for Love Is a Canoe is that it is a true piece of literary entertainment.
I hear your launch event at McNally Jackson Books was standing-room only. How did it go?
It was great. It was a pleasure. The store and FSG were amazing, and Sarah Crichton—to have a public conversation with her was a gift. She’s great at it. Part of the pleasure of writing the novel was giving it to her and have her write saying she loved it. That was almost the whole game right there.
Do you like doing book events?
I think they are as nerve-wracking for me as for any author. But I do like them and I like talking to people about books.
Does your publisher side give your author side any advice, as far as events go or in general?
Yes: don’t read [from your book] for too long. I know to do that. Also, it’s important to remember that you’re part of a bigger picture. It can be hard to do when you have a debut novel, when you’ve been working in private for so long. It’s hard to keep perspective.
Would you ever write YA, or is it easier to write for adults and keep your professional worlds separate?
Yes, it’s the latter. I felt pretty strongly that I didn’t want to be in the business of publishing balding guys from Brooklyn who write YA novels. I didn’t want to write novels that compete with the novels I publish here at Razorbill or Penguin Young Readers. It’s easier to keep everything straight if I’m writing about adults for adults.
On the Razorbill side of things, what are you looking forward to in the coming year?
There are a lot of things—one is The Ultra Violets [by Sophie Bell], which is a middle-grade book out in a couple of months that we think is hilarious. It’s about a group of girls who get some radioactive goo spilled on them and get superpowers.
It seems like the Razorbill list has been getting younger in recent years, dipping more into middle-grade. Is that something you’re actively concentrating on?
Yes, though we’ve always loved middle-grade. We’ve had books like I’m a Genius of Unspeakable Evil and I Want to Be Your Class President [by Josh Lieb] and Colin Fischer [by Ashley Edward Miller and Zach Stentz], which was YA, but just by a hair. And then this fall we have The Fantastic Family Whipple [by Matthew Ward], which is also middle-grade. We want to do more middle-grade, especially when we think we can really do something special with it.
Do you think your authors ever get jealous if, say, they see some great coverage of one of your books?
I would feel very lucky if they were jealous. They’ve all been very nice and supportive. I didn’t ask him to, but Jay Asher tweeted about my book. I feel like anyone getting Jay Asher to tweet about them is pretty lucky.
Love Is a Canoe by Ben Schrank. FSG/Crichton, $26 ISBN 978-0-374-19249-5