In 1995, Elisabeth Schmitz’s publishing career was still in its infancy. She was working in subsidiary rights at Grove Atlantic, and shadowing a couple of fiction editors as a way to gain experience in that side of the business. Then, just before Christmas, a young agent she knew—Leigh Feldman—sent her a partial manuscript penned by a new author she’d taken on. No-one in the publishing industry is particularly fond of receiving partial novels—there are enough uncertainties to the business as it is—but Schmitz started reading the book that night. It turned out it was pretty good. Really good, in fact; page by page she was falling in love. She started to think about which of the editors at Grove Atlantic she should share it with, but Feldman had a different idea. “I don’t want another editor,” she told Schmitz. “I want you to do it. That’s why I sent it to you.”
The book was Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, and besides launching Elisabeth Schmitz’s career in spectacular fashion, it won the National Book Award, was made into a blockbuster movie by Anthony Minghella, and at last count has sold over 3 million copies in the U.S. alone. It is one of the most successful literary debuts of all time, and gave a significant financial boost to an independent publishing house that, as Schmitz explains to me in the interview which follows, has always needed to take risks in order to survive. “It’s built into who we are,” she says. “Most of the time, we can’t afford to go to auction against all the big houses and pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for the sure things… I’ve grown up in the publishing industry looking for books which are somehow very often under the radar.”
Elisabeth Schmitz: Editing Under The Radar – Guernica / A Magazine of Art & Politics.