David Ebershoff has had a good year. In April he achieved publishing history—or, at least carved out a footnote—joining elite company as an editor with two Pulitzer Prize–winning books on his list in the same year. (His winners, Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son and Fredrik Logevall’s Embers of War, won in fiction and history, respectively.) Then, in late May, he was promoted, bumped from his position as editor-at-large at Random House Publishing Group to v-p and executive editor. All of this has been underscored by the continued success of his own novel, The 19th Wife, which was published in 2008 and has gone on to become his most successful work to date.
Ebershoff, who got his undergraduate degree at Brown and then followed up with an M.F.A. at the University of Chicago, first envisioned himself as a writer. But he also never considered not having a full-time job. From his well-appointed if small office at Random House’s headquarters on Broadway, he explained that he has never taken to the schedule of a full-time author. “I’m not the kind of writer that can write eight hours a day.... I’m the kind of writer that the more time I have, the less efficient I am.” With that in mind, Ebershoff sought a job in publishing “because it was really the only thing I could see myself doing.”
After graduate school, Ebershoff, who grew up on the West Coast, arrived in New York and, in 1995, got an internship at Random House. He was working for Bruce Harris, then the president of marketing and sales. It was Harris who gave Ebershoff a crash course in the business. “I was like his shadow,” Ebershoff said. “He showed me sales and marketing, and introduced me to so many people.” A year later, Ebershoff was hired full-time in the marketing department at Modern Library. Passionate about high-minded literary fiction and nonfiction—which is his niche now, as an editor—Ebershoff was drawn to the division, which publishes updated editions of the classics.
In 1998, Ebershoff was pulled in several new directions. He was made publishing director of Modern Library and, in an attempt to energize the division, he launched a paperback program. Ebershoff spearheaded an effort to republish the classics in the cheaper format, often soliciting new introductions to titles from up-and-coming, as well as established, literary authors; he estimated that, in the seven years he ran Modern Library, the division published some 400 new paperback editions.
That same year, Ebershoff began taking on editing projects shuttled to him by Random House colleagues. His first major job as an editor was passed along by Jason Epstein, then overseeing Anchor Books: to edit Jane Jacobs’s The Nature of Economies.
While his workload as an editor was picking up, so was Ebershoff’s career as a novelist. In 1998 he also sold his first book, The Danish Girl, to Penguin. For the next few years he continued writing, overseeing Modern Library, and taking on the occasional editing project. By 2005, when he was working on what would become The 19th Wife, he stepped away from Modern Library for a more flexible schedule at RH, and to focus on his own novel.
The effort paid off. The 19th Wife, which Random House published, has gone on to sell more than 50,000 copies in hardcover, and over 300,000 in trade paper, according to Nielsen BookScan. Meanwhile, Ebershoff was building his list as an editor through relationships he had built with various young novelists at Modern Library. Although loathe to point to any single book as a career high, Ebershoff did admit that one of the works he is most proud of is David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. He said he knew, from the moment he got the manuscript, that the novel, published in 2004, “would have a lot of influence.” The trick, though, was finding an audience for Mitchell, who, at the time, had found critical success in the States, but sold far better in his native Britain. The book has gone on to sell nearly 500,000 copies (in the U.S., across all formats, according to Nielsen BookScan) and was adapted into a film of the same name in 2012.
Pointing to a growing list of critically respected literary authors, like Gary Shteyngart, Teju Cole, and Adam Johnson, Ebershoff said, as an editor, he looks for “that kind of voice that’s its own; that kind of literary fiction that can make a splash; that kind of writer who you really can’t anticipate what they’re going to do next because their mind is so original.”
Ebershoff is working on a new novel, but he refused to discuss what it’s about. Instead, he talked more about his forthcoming list, highlighting a number of big books in the fall and beyond. Among them is David Gilbert’s & Sons, which is scheduled for July 23. After a big BEA push, the novel, which Ebershoff said was the first piece of fiction he acquired after buying The Orphan Master’s Son—15 months earlier—is getting an announced first printing of 20,000 copies. Then, in January, Shteyngart’s first memoir, From the Diaries of Pussy Cake, is set to drop. And, pointing to what Ebershoff hopes will be another breakout, is Cartwheel, the sophomore novel from Jennifer DuBois, scheduled for October. DuBois won acclaim with her debut, A Partial History of Lost Causes, but Ebershoff is confident she will find a bigger audience with Cartwheel, which is about an American foreign exchange student in Buenos Aires, who is accused of murdering her roommate. “It’s a very smart, very serious approach to a story that you may have heard of before,” he said. “It’s really good, and the kind of book that, when you start, you don’t want to stop.”