Today I have a huge treat for you: an interview with Ms. Tara Singh, an editor with Viking/Penguin who, I’m delighted to say, is now my editor, having acquired my latest novel for publication in 2013. If you’ve ever wondered what editors are really looking for, what motivates them and how they choose their books, read on. Tara’s intelligence and passion for her work shine through her words.
Tara would like to point out that the opinions expressed below are her own and don’t represent Viking/Penguin.
And so, with no further ado, meet Tara Singh!
Tara, would you tell us a little about yourself, your interests, and how you achieved what many people would consider a dream job? What were the steps along the way?
I grew up outside of Chicago, the middle child to an Indian, Sikh father and an Italian/German, Catholic mother. They always stressed that education was the most important thing an individual could get, but they also envisioned my using that education in a very traditional way, i.e. to become a doctor or a lawyer. After a brief stint as an intern at a legal aid society during college, I quickly realized that career wasn’t for me. I thought long and hard about what I loved enough to actually build my life around. The obvious answer was books. I was actually first drawn to being a literary agent, which I thought was the perfect job.
I interned at the Curtis Brown, Ltd. in New York the summer between my junior and senior years in college. After my senior year, I knew I wanted more life experience and so I moved to Edinburgh, Scotland where I was a bartender and tour guide. Before moving though, I contacted several publishing professionals through my college’s career network to discuss this step and whether it would take me “off course”. I was advised to keep my toe in the literary world and so I found an internship at Jenny Brown Associates, a literary agency in Edinburgh.
I returned to New York a year later, and year wiser. An internship at Sanford J. Greenburger Associates quickly turned into a full-time job, but after a year I couldn’t stop wondering what happened to our books after we sold them. I mean, what happened really. So I began looking for, and was lucky enough to land an editorial job working for Kathryn Court, President & Publisher of Penguin Books, and an excellent mentor. From my first week on the job, she had me edit behind her on books until I began acquiring my own. The rest is history.
What drew you to publishing? (I’m guessing it’s not the big bucks.)
As I said, books, I decided, were what I wanted to build my life around. I must have read the Anne of Green Gables series five times throughout my childhood and I still try to reread them every five years or so. Anne Shirley, a fictional character, may have been one of the biggest influences on my young life. I know it may sound trite, but I believe that books change people’s lives, even if only for the short while they are reading them. Books can be an escape and a refuge and I believe in the mission of Penguin and of other publishers: to publish the best books that we can, to entertain and to educate.
What do you like best about your job?
My absolute favorite part of my job is that moment, when reading a submission, that I realize that I have something good. And then, the moment after I’ve finished that submission and it delivered. It feels like a gift. A close second are the people. Publishing attracts intelligent and interesting people and editorial is by necessity a social job. Consequently I have been lucky enough to meet many fascinating people, many of whom have become friends.
What do you find most frustrating?
The work can sometimes feel never ending. You have to keep reading or else you might miss the next big thing. You have to keep editing because you have to get out your books for the next list, and then the next list, and then the next list. The cyclical nature of publishing can be a comfort because the type of work that you do doesn’t necessarily change that much, but it can also make it feel as though you are constantly racing ahead.
What qualities does a good editor need?
A good editor must be decisive, discerning and a fast reader. He or she must be able to articulate what it is that he loves about a book and to get other people excited about it. Even if you are the best line-by-line editor in the world, it won’t necessarily do you much good unless you can convince sales and marketing and the big bosses that your book is unique and exciting and worth the time and energy that would otherwise be spent on other books.
Have you ever had a writer disagree fundamentally with your edit, or agree with it but be unable to execute? How would you deal with such situations?
I’ve never had a writer disagree fundamentally with my edit. I have, however, had writers disagree with some of my specific situations. When that happens I like to have a conversation with the author to discuss my reasons for suggesting the edit and her reasons for rejecting the edit. Depending on each of our reasons I will either concede the point because it is very important to the author or we will find a compromise. Rarely have I had an author take all of my edits wholesale; there is a lot of give and take.
In the rare cases when a writer really can’t execute what he or she has promised or needs to do, then a book contract can be cancelled. But that is very rare and I think is likely more common with non-fiction, which is bought based on just a proposal. This is why editors dislike when agents submit only partial manuscripts. It is impossible to know, no matter how promising the partial manuscript is, whether or not it will deliver in the end. This is also why editors prefer for the option language in a contract to provide for an entire manuscript. It is very difficult to acquire a book without reading it first!
The submissions you receive come through agents who think they might interest you. What portion of those submissions will result in an offer?
Figure that an editor receives between five and ten submissions a week, that’s somewhere between 250 and 500 submissions a year (not counting a couple of weeks for holidays) and most editors, I would think have between nine and twelve books a year, so that’s between one out of thirty or so submissions and one out of fifty or so submissions.
What makes a novel stand out for you?
A novel in which the author has created dynamic, three-dimensional characters and then makes them interact in interesting and often unexpected ways. Many of the novels that are turned down have great premises, but the characters are flat on the page, which really turns a reader off. I think it’s the characters more than anything that make a novel relatable.
What makes you stop reading?
Typos. If there are multiple typos within the first few pages of a submission, I am much less inclined to read further. Also rants. Thankfully material that comes from agent is usually devoid of these two things, but sometimes you would be surprised. Also as an editor I’m often reading the unagented manuscript of a relative’s friend or the friend of a friend and those are the first things that will make me put it down.
Are you ever swayed by cupcakes?
While I love cupcakes, no, they’ve never changed my mind about whether or not to take on a book. Unfortunately, when acquiring a book there is more at stake than cupcakes. That said, if an author sent me cupcakes after I had acquired his/her book that might make me want to work even harder for him/her. I think that authors may sometimes forget that their editor is also their number one advocate in the house and that we are on the same team. Being nice and cooperative can go a long way towards influencing your editor to go the extra mile for you.
How important to you in taking on a new fiction writer is the writer’s “platform?
A platform is always enormously helpful. If a writer has a platform, it also usually means that he or she has been honing his craft for years and submitting short stories places, networking with other writers and is often therefore producing better work. That isn’t always the case, but it is true enough that when reading the bio on a submission I will take it more seriously if the author has been published in a few small places and/or otherwise proven that he is working on his craft.
Are there particular genres or subgenres that you currently seek out or avoid?
I wouldn’t say that I am ever avoiding certain genres. If a book is good, I will always want to publish it. If it has an excellent plot and incredible characters, I’ll find a way to make the genre work. I do sometimes look for certain types of books. As a young editor I am trying to acquire across a broad range of genres rather than limiting myself. Right now I am really looking for some good narrative or prescriptive nonfiction.
If a writer self-published previous work and didn’t sell thousands of copies, would that factor into your decision about a new novel that you liked? What sort of sales figures would impress you?
If the new novel was really good, it wouldn’t matter that much to me. I think being self-published and not selling a lot of books matters less, actually, than being published by a publisher, particularly one of the big six, and then not selling a lot of books. I think if a self-published book had sold twenty thousand copies I would be impressed.
What are the most important things writers can do to help themselves get published?
I think the most important thing a writer can do is to write a really good book. This may not be a very helpful answer, but it really is the most important thing. Have others read your work, go to writers workshops, put it away and come back to it if you need to, but make it good.
Beyond that, I do think that publishers are paying much more attention to whether or not an author has an online presence. Is he or she active on facebook? Does he or she have thousands of twitter followers? That said, most writers won’t have that and I think that if you spend your time worrying about creating an amazing online presence rather than writing a really good book, you’d be spending your time poorly. Without a good book, the great online presence isn’t going to get you anywhere in terms of getting published. If an editor is on the fence about a book, however, and the author has five thousand twitter followers, that could really make a difference. Along the lines of getting a platform, I would also encourage writers to try and get published in literary journals and to get their writing chops, if they can.
So now, dear readers, you’ve heard it from the horse’s mouth. And I hope you’ve noticed that the horse in question is charming, modest and as great a book lover as anyone reading these pages. Next time some self-publishing zealot characterizes mainstream publishers as evil vampires intent on sucking the ink out of writers, send them over here for a corrective. In fact, I’d be pleased if you’d share this interview with all sorts of writers. Tara says she speaks only for herself, but in my experience she represents precisely the sort of person drawn to this industry.
Questions and comments welcome. Maybe Tara herself will jump in to respond to some—who knows? At worst you get me.
Coming up soon: interviews with bestselling author Diana Gabaldon and leading literary agent Gail Hochman. Sign up for email notification or the RSS feed so as not to miss these.