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Vice president and executive editor at Harper's visits UI

BY DI STAFF | MARCH 22, 2012 6:30 AM

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The Daily Iowan spoke with Tim Duggan, vice president and executive editor at HarperCollins Publishing, to talk about his visit to Iowa City today. He plans to present a lecture at 11 a.m. in the Dey House Frank Conroy Reading Room about the current state of book publishing.

Daily Iowan: When people ask what you do, how do you respond?  

Tim Duggan: I'm a book editor, so my job is to sign up new books and work with the authors on editing and revising them to make them the best they can be. It's essentially a 19th-century skill — I still edit printed manuscripts by pencil — even if the finished product is something people now read on their phones. 

DI: Can you tell me a little about the current state of book publishing, and why you're traveling across the country to talk about it? 

Duggan: The book business is going through a huge paradigm shift right now, from print to digital, and we still don't know where it will end up and what things will look like when it's done. But I don't think that print books are going away anytime soon, and in a weird way, they're actually becoming more important and more influential, because they now signify quality, longevity, and expertise.

I'm thrilled to be making my first pilgrimage to the Iowa Writers' Workshop, because it's such a hotbed of literary talent, and it's one of the few places where you can see the future of fiction as it's being developed. And it's a two-way street — I'm here to talk to the students about the publishing world, but I'm hoping to learn from them, too, about what they're working on and what will make a great book.

DI: How long have you been in the business? 

Duggan: Fifteen years. 

DI: How has the business changed in that time?

Duggan: It's a business that's always changing, but never more so than in the last three years. The pace and the rate of turnover is always high, but right now, we're going through something that's much bigger and more fundamental. 

DI: Why has it changed? 

Duggan: The business has changed as a direct result of new technologies, which is a story as old as Gutenberg.

DI: Has the innovation of online books and e-readers affected the process? 

Duggan: Definitely. E-books have eliminated some of the inefficiencies of traditional publishing, particularly when it comes to production and distribution. They're instantaneous. But they haven't made it any easier to promote or sell a book. For a book to succeed, it still has to make it on its own merits. There's no shortcut, and if you don't write a good book, it won't matter how many Twitter followers you have.

DI: Does the cliché "it's not what you know, but who you know" ring true when a writer is trying to publish a book?  

Duggan: To some extent. Getting a good agent definitely helps. But when it comes to fiction, particularly first fiction, it really is much more meritocratic than other genres. You still have to write a beautiful and original novel to be successful. With certain kinds of nonfiction, you can write a three-page proposal and get a half-million dollar advance, depending on what the idea is and how well-connected you are. That doesn't happen with new fiction.

— by Jordan Montgomery


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