Pluck any classic novel from a bookstore shelf and it will most likely feature an introduction by a contemporary writer: you might find Kate Chopin’s The Awakening introduced by Carmen Maria Machado; James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room introduced by Colm Tóibín; Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter introduced by Tom Perotta; or William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury introduced by Marilynne Robinson.

An especially inspired pairing of authors can imbue an old text with new relevance or highlight its enduring influence. A good introduction can even become a new selling point for a backlist title. “A new introduction is a glorious opportunity to revive a great book,” said Nan Graham, senior v-p and publisher of Scribner. “It can guide new readers to a backlist classic through the voice of a trusted contemporary writer, or seduce repeat readers.”

Elda Rotor, v-p and publisher of Penguin Classics, describes the process of selecting introducers as collaborative. For each book, editors do independent research and then brainstorm to discuss author-introducer pairings. Scholars are sometimes consulted as well. Ultimately, Rotor considers “what audiences the introducer would attract, what inspired perspectives they bring to the work, and what scholarly authority or creative lens they provide to enhance the reader’s experience.”

At New York Review Books, the in-house editor of a given classic is largely responsible for choosing its introducer, and many factors can influence that choice. “Sometimes a writer is on record as liking this book or author a lot,” said NYRB editor Edwin Frank. “Sometimes the writer is the person who has suggested the book to be reissued. Sometimes it’s a shot in the dark.” Frank chose Toni Morrison to introduce Camara Laye’s Radiance of the King, for instance, based on a “hunch” that she was deeply familiar with the text; he also chose Michael Cunningham to introduce Glenway Wescott’s Pilgrim Hawk, a book Cunningham had never read and therefore prefaced with “the excitement of first discovery.”

Diana Secker Tesdell, a senior editor at Vintage Classics and Everyman’s Library, tailors her approach to each imprint. At Vintage Classics, she usually chooses introducers herself, while at Everyman’s Library, which copublishes most of its titles with its U.K. counterpart, she consults U.K. publisher David Campbell. To inform her decisions, she frequently reads author interviews to see whether certain classics come up in conversation; for instance, when Tesdell saw that novelist Susan Choi had named Virginia Woolf as an influence, she invited her to introduce a forthcoming reissue of To the Lighthouse.

Tesdell considers herself fortunate that because Vintage Classics is part of Knopf Publishing Group, she has preexisting relationships with many writers, though she’s always looking for new voices as well. Graham also tries to assign introductions to writers who have already been published by Scribner, since the affiliation makes it easy to connect.

Invitations and stipulations

Once the ideal introducer has been selected, it’s time to extend the formal offer. At Everyman’s Library, Penguin Classics, Scribner, Union Square, and Vintage Classics, prospective introducers are queried and offered a flat fee.

Publishers, in their invitations to introducers, also specify whether they are expecting a foreword or an introduction. Rotor, Tesdell, and Graham agreed that forewords tend to be shorter, less substantive, and narrower in scope than introductions. For introductions, Rotor “prefers inviting scholars” who can provide historical or biographical context as well as critical assessment, while forewords, she said, can “lean more toward personal reflection.” Graham sees forewords “more like an endorsement” than a rigorous engagement. Tesdell also adheres to these distinctions, though she noted that “not all publishers follow them consistently.” (Indeed, Frank sees the two terms as “largely interchangeable.”)

Occasionally prospective introducers approach publishers first. “Sometimes we initiate the conversation with the writer,” Graham said, “and sometimes the writer comes to us with a proposition.” Graham invited Jennifer Egan and Colm Tóibín to introduce The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence, respectively, knowing their well-documented love for each book, while Brandon Taylor himself reached out to Scribner about introducing The Writing of Fiction and The Custom of the Country.

Some publishers detail what they’re looking for in a certain introduction, while others give introducers total freedom. Mika Kasuga, executive editor of classics at Union Square & Co., and previously managing editor at Modern Library, said she tells introducers to “contextualize the work for a contemporary reader and to be honest.” And to Kasuga, contextualizing doesn’t require lavishing praise. “I’ve had authors write to me and say, ‘I hate X thing that this author does,’ and I always encourage them to write towards that, rather than shove it under the rug,” she said. “The best introductions look a work’s complexities and flaws and accomplishments in the face, all at once.”

At Everyman’s Library and Vintage Classics, introducers are given a recommended word count. At NYRB,writers are free to ask for as much space as they want, though this open-endedness can have its limits: Frank recalled one writer who “sent me a hundred-page introduction, at which I drew the line. He withdrew the introduction in a huff. A couple of days later it came in at 1,500 words.”

Tesdell likes to give her introducers total freedom as to what they write about. While she asks that introductions be “aimed at a general reader,” she doesn’t “suggest what introducers should say.” Since she is always already familiar with the introducer’s work, she can “trust that they are going to say something helpful and interesting.”

At Scribner, Graham takes a similar approach. “The introducers are on their own as to what they write,” she said. “This is their chance to engage any way they want to.”

The ideal introduction

So what makes for a great introduction to a classic? Rotor said she looks for a certain “lively spirit” that “gets readers excited about delving into the work,” whether or not they have any prior familiarity with it, and draws attention to “how the classic is timely and timeless.”

For Graham, the perfect introducer “genuinely loves the work and wants to entice other readers to share that love”—and, in doing so, “brings new relevance to a work that may have lost its currency.”

Frank likes to think of introductions as “travelers’ tales,” he said: a great introducer will venture into a book and return with “things to say about what they saw there and what readers may need to know if they are to have a similarly memorable and telling experience.”

And for Kasuga, a strong introduction answers the question, Why read this book? Moreover, it “elucidates something vital and lets you in on the excitement,” she said, “in the same way that a great recommendation from a friend does.” She also knows quite clearly what she’s not looking for: “The worst kind of introduction is bland praise that gives you no sense of a particular work. Give me an intense, specific opinion any time.”