Last year will be a tough one to top for Joshua Kendall, who was brought in to run Mulholland Books, the new Little, Brown imprint, in 2012. Under his direction, Mulholland published Cuckoo’s Calling, a mystery written by J.K. Rowling using the Robert Galbraith pseudonym, and S., the elaborate and beautifully produced puzzle book by Hollywood wonder J.J. Abrams and coauthor Doug Dorst.
Kendall grew up in Tacoma, Wash., a blue-collar town built around a big port and military bases, then headed to New York for college. While attending Sarah Lawrence in Westchester County, he began traveling into New York City for internships—first for a music magazine, then a small press, then Viking, and finally Scribner. He decided on a career in editing after interning for Nan Graham and Gillian Blake at Scribner, where Don DeLillo’s Underworld was then being edited (and Angela’s Ashes had just won the Pulitzer).
After graduating from college, Kendall worked at Picador, handling new titles by Andrew Sean Greer and Ron Carlson, as well as reprints of such authors as Jonathan Franzen, Michael Chabon, Richard Powers, and Jim Crace. After eight years at the company, Molly Stern hired him as the senior fiction editor at Viking, where, in addition to novelists like Stewart O’Nan and Adam Foulds, Kendall began to publish crime and suspense fiction authors like Tana French and Martha Grimes, as well as some nonfiction.
What ties all his publishing work together, Kendall said, “has been an inextinguishable interest in, and love for, character, and it’s one of the great things about making the transition to Mulholland and Little, Brown.” He added, “The suspense imprint is driven not only by a wish to innovate but also by this rather simple, noble interest in characters who feel singular, believable, yet are caught in impossible situations.”
Unsurprisingly, Kendall is reticent to go into much detail about Cuckoo’s Calling. When asked about its acquisition, and the concealment of the identity of its author until after the book had been out for several months, he joked that he would take those stories “to the grave.” As to a sequel, he would only confirm that one is due out this year. He’s more forthcoming about S. “Editing and publishing S. made me understand just how deep an editor can go into a book project,” Kendall said. He was a fan of Abrams’s TV shows and films before working on S., and that interest is now shared with his 12-year-old daughter, who recently began watching Alias, the writer/director’s intricate TV spy-thriller series. Despite access to the man behind Lost and the forthcoming Star Wars: Episode VII, Kendall was not tempted to indulge in posing fan-boy questions. “I’m too enamored of the presentation of a story, in my line of work, to wish for the tour of the chocolate factory.”
His approach to evaluating manuscripts is fairly conventional. “A book has to make you wish more than anything to get halfway through, and if the author has done good work, the second half will continue to seduce through craft and execution,” he explained. “One thing that doesn’t get said enough, however: reading a book on submission is fundamentally different than editing a manuscript. As editors, we will always be thinking editorially, but I believe strongly that it’s vital that our first reads are similar to those of a customer, which is to say, merciless, as if there are a 1,000 other books you could be reading instead.”
In his role as editorial director, Kendall’s been most surprised that Little, Brown allowed him to do the direct and intensive editorial work necessary to produce fine books, and “that Mulholland, which was created to respond to an evolving marketplace, with more ways to reach devoted, energetic, and engaged readers than ever before, really has been granted the opportunity to market and promote each of its titles in a unique and singular fashion.”
Kendall was not prepared to predict if any of his 2014 books will make as big a splash as Cuckoo’s Calling and S. did in 2013, but, he noted, “any acquisition, at any price, possesses the potential” to change a career. In the end, however, he brings it all back to his interest in people: “The better we can understand people and character, the more cannily we can introduce readers to terrific stories.”
Current title: Editorial director and executive editor of Mulholland Books
Higher education: B.A. from Sarah Lawrence College
Favorite books: Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee, Red Dragon by Thomas Harris, and In The Woods by Tana French
Book that almost got away: While at Viking, he tried to acquire a lost horror classic he’d learned about online, called The Watcher. “I was so enthralled and disturbed by this book that when I wasn’t permitted to offer, I angrily wrote an essay based on my notes. When Rob Spillman published the essay in Tin House, I walked back into the office of Stephen Morrison [then v-p of Penguin paperbacks], handed over the journal, and asked, ‘Now can I buy it?’ ”