Claire Wachtel, a longtime Harper editor, nabbed one of the buzzed-about books at this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair—Roert Karjel’s thriller, The Swede—and has had her name attached to a few big buys in recent years. Despite appearances, Wachtel said she’s quite conservative when it comes to the purse strings and feels she’s never “paid huge numbers for a novel.”
Growing up in Brooklyn’s Borough Park neighborhood, Wachtel said she was a reader early on. When asked about her childhood favorites, she cites popular titles like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn—“I’m sure that’s the answer everyone gives,” she joked—and Beverly Cleary’s YA novels.
Even though she always had a passion for reading, Wachtel initially thought she’d become a lawyer. After graduating from college and working as a paralegal, she decided to switch gears and went to Columbia for an M.A. in English. It was then, she said, that she realized she wanted to work in publishing.
Wachtel’s first job was at Crown (before it was part of Random House), and at her second gig, working for NAL, she met her mentor, Arnold Dolin. At the time, Dolin was publisher of NAL and had, Wachtel said, a “strong literary bent.” Dolin, who was working in reprints, taught her “how to evaluate a manuscript.” In some respects, her approach hasn’t changed much since then; the main thing, for her, is the writing; it’s the voice that needs to grab her. “When I start reading a manuscript, if the writing isn’t there, I don’t read past page 25 or 30.”
And how about those aforementioned big advances? Wachtel said she avoids them, especially in fiction, which is “too hard to sell.” Speaking about Knopf’s recent, highly publicized acquisition of Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire—the New York Times reported that the 900-page debut novel was sold for almost $2 million—Wachtel said that if she had purchased the book for that price, she would worry about having to sell nearly 500,000 copies to make back the advance. Wachtel—who didn’t read the manuscript— said she “heard [the novel] was thrilling,” but the numbers are frightening nonetheless. “I don’t know if I personally would have been comfortable going that high,” she said, adding that “actually, Harper did not go that high.”
Wachtel, somewhat uniquely, has built a career as an expert in both fiction and nonfiction. Speaking of some of her biggest authors and books—and the ones that changed her career—she cites novelist Dennis Lehane and the numbers-crunching Freakonomics, one of the biggest nonfiction sensations in the last decade.
While Freakonomics was a hit out of the gate, Lehane’s books took years to find a major audience. Wachtel acquired his first novel, A Drink Before the War, in the early 1990s, when she was working at what was then Harcourt Brace. (Wachtel paid the paltry sum of $8,000 for the book.) But it took five more novels and nearly a decade before the author really broke out, with 2001’s Mystic River. Freakonomics, on the other hand, was a quick burn. That book came to Wachtel because she edited coauthor Stephen J. Dubner’s previous nonfiction titles, and she thinks “most people saw the potential” of Freakonomics, even if no one knew just how big it would become. While Wachtel said she was known for editing Lehane prior to acquiring Freakonomics, that book changed her life, and her career. (Freakonomics was published in hardcover 2005 and has sold, according to Nielsen BookScan, 1.2 million copies to date in that format alone. Wachtel estimated that the book’s first printing was around 37,000 copies.)
When asked how she thinks the industry has changed over the last 30 years, Wachtel pointed to what she sees as the diminishing ability to “grow” an author. “I don’t know if that exists anymore. If you’re paying a $1 million advance for a writer and it doesn’t work, or it doesn’t work the way you think it should, then what?” When asked if higher advances are a detriment to the business, Wachtel responded: “The question is, is it good for the writer? What’s the second act going to be?”
Current title: Senior v-p and executive editor
Three favorite books: Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories; Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes; and Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady
Almost became: A lawyer
Higher education: B.A. from Brooklyn College; pursued (but did not complete) an M.A. in English at Columbia
Book that almost got away: When Lehane’s A Drink Before the War was submitted to Wachtel, her editor-in-chief, Cork Smith, found the book too commercial and told her to pass on it. Luckily for Wachtel, Smith went on vacation shortly after giving the command. Feeling she “just couldn’t let this one go,” she went over his head, to then-Harcourt publisher Rubin Pfeffer. Pfeffer said Wachtel could buy the book if she paid no more than the $8,000 advance she promised.