An interview with Bria Sandford

We are happy to feature this conversation with Bria Sandford, who is editorial director of Sentinel and an executive editor at Portfolio, imprints of Penguin Random House.

UB: Bria, we are so happy to have you with us. Maybe we should start off with a description of your imprints and the kinds of books they (and you) are looking for.

Thanks for having me! I appreciate the University Bookman’s thoughtful books coverage, and it’s an honor to get to talk to you about the work we’re doing at Portfolio and Sentinel.

One of my colleagues likes to say that Portfolio, which was initially founded as a “business” imprint, now publishes “nonfiction for ambitious people.” We’re always looking for “big idea books,” reported narratives, and smart personal development, as well as more prescriptive books.

Sentinel, the other imprint founded by our publisher, has traditionally published conservative books and continues to do so, though some of them have a twist now, as capitalism-skeptical books by friends on the left have started finding a home there.

These days I’m looking for books on two tracks: (1) big platform-driven books that address conservative “moods,” books for middle America, not about middle America, and (2) books creatively addressing the pain points centrists may have missed.

UB: We are now coming to the end of Donald Trump’s [first?] term as President. How have you seen conservative publishing change in those years?

It’s been a change to see conservative publishing not go through a dip under a Republican president. I haven’t been through that many presidential cycles as an editor, but the conventional wisdom says that books always do best when in opposition to the administration. Whether it’s because Trump is breaking up and reforming political coalitions (or is a symptom of that reforming) or because the liberal reaction to Trump has made conservatives feel increasingly embattled, or for some other reason, conservative publishing is doing just fine.

Thematically, I’m seeing fewer Ronald Reagan books, fewer supply-side economics books, and fewer foreign policy books. The free-speech books I thought were petering out, but those are having a comeback, though perhaps not from voices I’d call conservative. There’s also a rise in a kind of political book masquerading as self-help. I expect the elite-bashing (which is a bit odd for conservatives, when you think about it) is peaking.

UB: Where do you see promising trends in conservative publishing? For example, given the political climate, are conservative books being reviewed “more” in mainstream press?

I can’t say I’ve noticed books that at one time would have failed to get reviews being covered now, but I haven’t thought much about it. What is good news is that the breaking and reforming of ideological coalitions has provided a whisper’s breadth of more room for engaging with ideas on their merits. It’s less clear what’s a “conservative” or “liberal” position, so we’re able to slide some books that are neither Republican nor Democrat into spaces that wouldn’t have had them before. I’m encouraged by is growing interest everywhere in examining the limits of choice, though I’m also now a little bored with the liberalism-vs-illiberalism discourse.

UB: As an editor, take us through how you help an author shape her idea for a book as it develops.

This varies dramatically author to author, but the process usually starts with making sure the book has a definite and appealing and controversial promise to the reader. After that, we’ll hash out a rough outline, and I’ll encourage the author to begin writing rather than perfecting the outline, since almost invariably the writing process reveals something that needs to be reordered. Once we have a draft, we’ll spend a lot of time discussing whether the book’s structure and tone deliver on the promise, and I spend a lot of time thinking about whether something is missing.

UB: Conservative books seem divided between those questioning where we are (Dreher’s Benedict Option, Ted McAllister and Bruce Frohnen’s book on America’s conservative soul, or Richard Reinsch’s study of Orestes Brownson and American constitutionalism) and more “popular” books that set out political points on the question of the hour. Do you see a common audience there?

I see a commonality if not a common audience: both kinds of books tend either to turn inward, examining or extolling conservatism, or go on the attack, pointing out problems with the libs. What I’d love to see more of is political books that are not about “conservatism” or “liberals” but books that bring a particular point of view to specific visceral issues like birth, death, and sex. Fewer books about the working class and middle America and more books for ordinary people.

UB: George Will’s recent book on The Conservative Sensibility got a lot of criticism on social media for what some were arguing was a rather soulless portrayal of conservatism, and you noted on Twitter that yet his book was selling—was your point that conservatives miss their mark in reaching a popular audience and could take a lesson from Will?

One never likes to have to give an extended account of what one meant in a tweet! I don’t remember exactly what I was getting at, but I suspect I wanted to remind myself and my “Twitter friends” that conversations on that website are less influential than one might think. You can think your side is drowning out the other’s arguments, when in reality you’re just shouting to twenty or thirty people. That’s not to say that those small conversations aren’t valuable and can’t change the world, but it’s important to be realistic about where a movement is and to recognize that time and money and institutional backing do count for something.

UB: Books like Chris Arnade’s Dignity seemed really to strike a nerve—not conservative in any clear political sense, but a book that seemed to resonate more with conservative sentiment. Any hints at what might be coming up in 2020 that you are excited about?

In 2020 and beyond: I’m excited for Rod Dreher’s new book, which draws on the lives of counter-Soviet resisters for lessons on how to live with integrity in a world of lies. Patrick Deneen’s follow-up to Why Liberalism Failed will be wonderful, and I can’t wait for readers to get their hands on Helen Andrews’s Boomers and Grace Olmstead’s book on what we owe the past.

UB: Aside from work, what are you reading now?

I recently finished The Grammarians by Cathleen Schline, a truly delightful novel on the page, even if I had quibbles with the plotting. I’m making my way through Edith Stein’s Essays on Woman, Pretor-Pinney’s The Cloudspotter’s Guide, and Sarah E. Hill’s This Is Your Brain on Birth Control, and I just started Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights.