Random House Editor Kate Medina Opens a Window on Publishing

Tuesday, February 8, 2005

In her talk "Editor to Writer: What Does a Book Editor Do All Day?" on February 1, Kate Medina, an editor at Random House and the Robert and Susan Ohrenschall Media Fellow, explained that "there's an ABC to editing."

The letters, she said, stand for acquisition, book, and commerce. Medina went on to explain each step using examples from her extensive experience in publishing. During her career at Random House, where she started just out of college, she has worked with several authors of note, including John Irving, Tom Brokaw, E. L. Doctorow, Sandra Day O'Connor, Anna Quindlen, and Nancy Reagan.

According to Medina, acquisition refers to the writer, not the book. She told of identifying one potential writer by how he spoke. At a party in 1988, she overheard Tom Brokaw, who recently stepped down as the evening news anchor at NBC, describing a book. He used a writer's phrase, she said, in a natural American cadence that caught her attention. When Medina asked him if he had ever considered writing, he looked at her and replied, "Sometimes." That initial conversation led to many more over the next few years as they discussed ideas for a book. Eventually, he came to her with the idea for what would become his best-selling book The Greatest Generation.

In developing a book she cited her experience working with Nancy Reagan on the former first lady's memoir My Turn. Some time after that book was published, Medina received a phone call from Mrs. Reagan asking her about the letters Mrs. Reagan had received from Ronald Reagan during their many years together. Medina quoted Mrs. Reagan as saying she "didn't want them hidden away in archives." The letters were very dear to Mrs. Reagan, and Medina collected them personally, flying from one coast to the other and back, carrying them on her lap. The collection of letters she shared with Medina led to the book I Love You, Ronnie.

Medina's last point, on commerce or how to sell the book, was how important the cover of the book is. Sandra Day O'Connor's book Lazy B shows the Supreme Court justice as a girl sitting astride a horse. The picture is successful, Medina said, in reflecting the content of the book, which is about O'Connor growing up on a working ranch. For E.L. Doctorow's Sweet Land Stories, Medina said she immediately thought of an Andrew Wyeth painting. The difficulty, she said, is that the Wyeth estate does not allow reproductions of his paintings to be used on book covers. Still, Medina showed a mockup of the cover (using the desired painting) to the overseers of the estate, and they agreed to let that painting be used. She pointed out that the cover of this book also made for an attractive display, which was helpful in promoting it.

Concluding her talk on editing, Medina quoted Doctorow: "It's like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way."