Happy Birthday, In Cold Ink!

It’s been just over a year since I started In Cold Ink. Like most anniversaries, this seems like a good time to reflect on the experience.  As you can see in my first post, I started out with some trepidation. I juggle a lot of jobs, and when I write I’m prone to obsession.  I worried that a blog, in my hands, would become just one more thing to neglect. And you can’t neglect a blog.  It’s like babysitting the neighbor’s kid, except that you can’t plop the blog down in front of the t.v. and expect it to amuse itself.

But I had things to say, as a writer but also as a longtime publishing professional. Before I gave it all up to write my own books,  I was an editor in a large New York publisher and a literary agent. My career path has given me a multifaceted perspective on the industry, and I wanted to share some of what I’ve learned and demystify an industry that from the outside can seem remote, strange in its ways and potentially hostile.  I also wanted to learn from others. Publishing is an industry in turmoil, on the cusp of profound change, and I wanted to explore that evolving world.

The results have exceeded my expectations. A surprising number of readers found their way to the blog: nearly 24,000 visitors last time I checked. Many left comments, and I’ve met some smart, interesting people through the blog. I’ve had the opportunity to interview some publishing pros, who’ve shared valuable insights and perspectives, including literary agent Gail Hochman,  Viking editor Tara Singh, and Editor-in-Chief of S&S, Marysue Rucci. Among the writers who’ve graced my doors are Diana Gabaldon, Tiffany Allee, Lorraine Bartlett and Mika Ashley-Hollinger.

dianagabaldonIt was interesting to see what posts attracted the most reads. The most popular by far is my two-part interview with bestselling author Diana Gabaldon, of Outlander fame…and I do mean fame. Her fans would follow her anywhere, and they followed her to my blog.  Second in popularity is my interview with literary agent Gail Hochman, also a two-parter, and very meaty in terms of how agents work, what they look for in new writers and what they avoid. Third is a post called “Ten Things Writers Should Expect from Literary Agents,” which I wrote because, while lots of writers are busy hunting for agents, few know what to expect once they nab one.

Looking over the list of posts also reminded me of some of my favorites, which I’ll mention just in case you missed them. “What if J.K. Rowling Had Self-Published?” is one. It’s my fullest answer to a question I hear frequently: “If I have a choice, am I better off seeking an agent who will then seek a publisher or self-publishing?”

Medicalert: The Scourge of Premature Submission” is a comical piece with a serious message. “Digging up Blurbs” shares some of the Dickensamazing blurbs my latest book received posthumously, from writers like Jane Austen, Hemingway, and Dickens. (I thought it was funny, anyway, even if one reader took it way too seriously and accused me of literary grave-robbing. )  “Too Much Body Language, She Said, Frowning” focues on the essential matter of craft in writing. Finally, this one has nothing to do with writing but is so worth reading: “A Former Slave Writes to His Master.

The last year has been a momentous one for me, with a new book on the way and five (five!!!) earlier books reissued. Happy events; but like other Happy Events, very time-consuming. If it weren’t for the support and engagement of this blog’s readers, I would never have been able to keep it going, but now the blog is a part of my life.  I look forward to an exciting year ahead, with lots more interviews with publishing insiders, writing advice, and reflections on our changing industry. I also look forward to sharing with you all the events surrounding the publication of my new novel, A DANGEROUS FICTION, coming out in less than a month with Viking Books… including all the fun stuff that goes on behind the scenes.

Thanks for reading.

Behind the Curtains: What Publishers Really Do

An awful lot of what publishers do for books, they do behind the scenes and prior to publication. Viking/Penguin  is going to publish A DANGEROUS FICTION in late July, and they are gearing up in all sorts of ways. I thought readers might be interested in a glimpse behind the curtain.

Editing: packaging is important, but you’ve got to deliver the goods. Good editing makes any book better and good books shine. Shortly after its acquisition by my delightful editor Tara Singh, A DANGEROUS FICTION underwent a series of first-class edits and emerged the better for it.

Cover: Positioning a book starts with a cover that conveys the message and ambience of the work. Because the cover is also a marketing tool, it exemplifies the approach of the publishers’ marketing plan. If the author and publisher are not on the same page, this is where the fissure usually appears first.

Viking’s cover, by London-based French artist Malika Favre was the most perfect face I could imagine for the book I wrote. If the tone of the book could be converted into a picture, that picture would be this cover. At this point in the process, I am feeling the love.

DangerousFictionHC_jacket2

 

Blurbs: Many months before publication, copies of the manuscript were sent to writers who expressed a willingness to read and possibly write blurbs for the book. For me, this marked the first time this book had been read by anyone outside my agent, editors, and immediate family. One by one, reactions began to come in. I’m very grateful to the writers who took time from their own work to read A DANGEROUS FICTION, and I’m proud to share their comments with you now.

“A terrific read! A thriller with a psychological heart of mystery, a double-ended love story, and a fascinating look at the world of high-stakes publishing.”-Diana Gabaldon, New York Times bestselling author of Outlander and An Echo in the Bone

“Clearly, the most dangerous fictions are the ones we tell ourselves.” JA Jance, author of DEADLY STAKES and many other bestsellers

A Dangerous Fiction reads like a tell-all, inviting readers into the sleek, hallowed inner circle of literary Manhattan, then blowing that world apart with harrowing intrigue and a gripping mystery. Finally, as a bonus, Rogan offers a surprisingly sweet redemptive thread with which to stitch it all back together. A Dangerous Fiction blends deft prose with a pitch-perfect voice, and Barbara Rogan is a storyteller at the top of her game.”-Vicki Pettersson, author of Cheat the Grave and The Scent of Shadows

“Barbara Rogan knows the world of writers, agents, and editors, and in A Dangerous Fiction she offers a vivid inside look at both the glittering successes and the failures that breed feuds and obsession. As a stalker resorts to murder to destroy literary agent Jo Donovan’s life, readers will cast suspicious glances at everybody from a disgruntled former employee to a rejected writer to Jo’s most trusted friends. A Dangerous Fiction is great entertainment!”–Sandra Parshall, Agatha Award-winning author of the Rachel Goddard mysteries

“The backstabbing and cutthroat competition we imagine going on behind the scenes in publishing make it the perfect setting for murder, and Barbara Rogan has done it justice in A Dangerous Fiction. I loved every wickedly delicious page.”-Hallie Ephron, author of There Was an Old Woman

“Barbara Rogan’s A Dangerous Fiction positively drips with intrigue and delicious suspense.  I couldn’t put it down—and you won’t want to, either.”—Lorraine  Bartlett, author of the Victoria Square Mysteries.

“Rogan brings an insider’s keen view, pulling the reader into the New York publishing milieu with all of its jealousies, intrigue, excitement and larger-than-life personalities. At the heart of the story is a woman’s need to uncover the truths about her own life, even as she’s the target of malevolent foes she can’t identify. Danger, suspense, romance and the deep bonds of friendship–A Dangerous Fiction has it all. I couldn’t put it down!”-Darlene Marshall, author of Castaway Dreams

 

DickensI received a few other blurbs as well, from some Very Illustrious Writers, but for some reason my editor doesn’t want me to post them along with what she insists on calling “the real blurbs.” But you can read them anyway, right here.

Review Copies: Five months before publication, bound galleys are already out to long-lead reviewers. In a few months, the prepublication reviews – PW, Library Journal, Kirkus – will appear. I’m not thinking about that. Not a bit. Never read reviews. And if you believe that, I have a bridge that may interest you…

Brooklyn_Bridge

Sales and Marketing: I believe that the books are being sold into bookstores nationwide by the Viking’s terrific sales force even as I write this; so, being a somewhat superstitious person, I will say no more.

Online Marketing: Viking’s online marketing mavens have worked with me to help me improve my websites and FB author page, and to ease me onto Twitter, where I am known as @RoganBarbara–do look me up and say hi!   They’re patiently training an old dog new tricks, and I’m relieved to say they employ purely positive training techniques; not a whip in sight, no authors hurt in the production of this book.

Bookstore appearances, Book and Author Luncheons, conferences, etc.: These are already being scheduled, starting in July, for the New York area. I’m infinitely corruptible and shamefully approachable. If you have any offers, please direct them to Ben Petrone, Associate Director of Publicity at Viking.

The Readers’ Guide to A DANGEROUS FICTION has just gone live for use by book clubs and library reading groups. I think it’s terrific; it even taught me a few things about the book I didn’t know. Do have a look. I’m open to participating by phone or Skype in book club discussions of A DANGEROUS FICTION; just contact me at Barbara Rogan at Gmail dot COM.

So much of what publishers do is invisible and goes uncredited. I’d like to take this opportunity for a shout-out to the dedicated folks at Viking for their hard work and support. And next time someone asks, “What do publishers really do for writers?”, point them here.

 

A DANGEROUS FICTION is now available for pre-order;  and most vendors are offering early buyers  a 35% discount on the hardcover edition. While you’re waiting for that to arrive, my last three books, SUSPICION, HINDSIGHT, and ROWING IN EDEN,  have been reissued in ebook and paperback.

 

“Too Much Body Language,” She Said, Frowning.

There’s a secret to getting a first novel published, and it has nothing to do with platform, connections, or the ebb and flow of publishing’s tides. Not that those things don’t matter. They do matter as secondary factors, but only if a prior condition is met: the novel itself needs to be irresistible.

I’ll give you an example from my years as a literary agent. I once received a manuscript that by every reasonable standard should have been rejected at first glance. Not only was the ms. full of handwritten corrections, it was actually printed on the back of previously used paper. Someone who couldn’t be bothered to submit a clean copy was unlikely to have written anything I could sell. I glanced at the first sentence, just to confirm my expectations. Then I read the next line, and the next. The voice was strong and authoritative, the voice of a writer who knows he’s got a story to tell and the chops to tell it.  I took the manuscript home with me and finished it that night. It was an extraordinarily entertaining Western about a Jewish peddler whose quest for the lost tribe of Israel takes him into Indian country: a sort of Jewish “Little Big Man.” It wasn’t perfect, but the story was like nothing I’d read before, the characters were fully realized and fascinating, and the scenes were wonderfully crafted. I called the writer the next day and offered representation.

In an industry that agrees on very little, there’s near unanimity on the best route to breaking into print. In a recent interview with Viking editor Tara Singh, I asked, “What’s the most important thing writers can do to help themselves get published?” This was her response:

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.”

So all I have to do is write an irresistible book, you may be thinking. Brilliant. And just how do I do that? But please note that I said irresistible, not perfect. No book ever emerges perfectly formed, like Athena from Zeus’s forehead. It’s a process, and good writers are grateful for the input of good editors. So you don’t have to write a perfect book, which I hope is reassuring, just an irresistible one. What makes a book irresistible is, for me, a combination of things: an original story; interesting characters who jump off the page; and the mastery of craft required to do that story justice.

Writers are expected to master that craft on their own dime, not the publisher’s. For that reason, I’m inaugurating an occasional series of craft tips for fiction writers, many drawn from the writing courses I teach online at Next Level Workshops. These are  not intended as proclamations from on high or any sort of writing orthodoxy, but rather as distillations of lessons I’ve learned over 30 years as a writer, literary agent and editor. I hope you find them useful.

LESSON ONE: BEATS VS. DEADBEATS

A beat, for the purpose of this discussion, is everything in a passage of dialogue except the spoken words and speaker attribution (he said, she asked, etc.) That would include bits of description, interior monologue, action,  and the nonverbal parts of conversations, aka body language.

Dialogue needs occasional beats for rhythm and to bring in other dimensions of the scene. How many beats a writer uses is a matter of personal style. Stretches of straight dialogue can be useful to allow readers to really hear the characters’ voices in their heads without constant interruption. But if you overdo it, you impoverish the scene, you take away its physicality.  The effect for the reader is like listening to a TV with no picture.

A deadbeat is a beat that brings nothing to the party, or at most a measly can of beer. If a beat doesn’t contribute something meaningful to the scene, beyond what the dialogue itself conveys,  find a beat that will.

It’s my contention that most—not all, but most—descriptions of body language fall into the category of deadbeats. They’re the fallback beat, the first ones most writers resort to. And to some extent they’re necessary; without them, we’d miss some nuances, especially when the characters’ expression or body language contradicts what they’re saying. The trouble arises when writers overuse or misuse them as a means of telling what the character feels in the guise of showing.  Like weeds, deadbeats tend to crowd out beats that would actually enhance the garden.

It’s easiest to show with an example. Here’s a short passage in three variations.

“I can’t do this anymore,” he said.

“Suit yourself,” she said.

The lines of dialogue are evocative, but it’s not clear how the speakers mean them or what’s going on underneath the words. Suppose you, as the writer, want to keep the dialogue but add to it. If you’ve fallen into the habit of reaching first for body language, your next version might read like this.

“I can’t do this anymore,” he said, frowning.

She waved an airy hand. “Suit yourself.”

More information is conveyed, to be sure, but at a price. You’re now basically telling the reader how the characters feel, instead of letting them feel it themselves.  And you’re not adding a lot. We already know the male speaker is unhappy, so “frowning” is a deadbeat. Her “airy wave” is a bit better, but her line itself is already dismissive. Another deadbeat, this one bearing a measly can of beer.

So you cross out those lines and reach further afield for an image that will illuminate, and you come up with a third variation.

“I can’t do this anymore,” he said.

She kept her eyes on her magazine, though she wasn’t turning any pages. The room was silent but for the faint, mournful whistle of a freight train.

“Suit yourself,” she said at last.

 

That mournful train whistle conveys a sense of melancholy, and the mention of a train suggests a crossroad. The woman’s pretense of reading shows the disconnect between two people who seem once to have been connected. Suddenly these spare lines of dialogue are imbued with a sense of parting and finality; and readers will feel it.

Capisce?

This piece was adapted from one of my online Next Level  workshop “Revising Fiction.” I will be offering “Revising Fiction”  starting August 13, 2015. Eight writers max, very intensive. (See testimonials) Applicants are asked to submit a writing sample. For more information, email me  at next.level.workshop@gmail.com

Book Jackets

Yesterday I saw Viking’s jacket for A DANGEROUS FICTION, and I am over the moon. I think it’s stunning visually, and it perfectly captures both the book and its protagonist in a single image. Kudos to Viking’s wonderful team: my editor, Tara Singh, in-house designer, Alison Forner, and the artist Malika Favre, whose website is a small marvel. The book won’t be out until July 2013, but it feels very real now. Here is the cover:

What do you think? Would you pick it up if you saw it in a bookstore?

In a way, I’m like my grandmother Pauline. Every time Pauline was presented with a new grandchild or great-grandchild, she would exclaim that this is the most beautiful baby ever born. I’ve loved nearly all the jackets to my books. But I really do think this one is the most beautiful of all.

In publishing, cover art is the purview of marketing, which means that publishers, not writers, have the final say. Agents write cover approval into contracts, but vetoing a cover is a big deal and can lead to postponement of publication, an even bigger deal. So that right is rarely exercised.

Fortunately for me, I had some wonderful artists and designers for my covers. Having little or no visual imagination myself, I was delighted to have professional help; the jackets usually came as very pleasant surprises. The only one I ever found for myself was this painting by Israeli artist, which graces the cover of my novel CAFÉ NEVO.

 

Only once did I have a problem with the cover art for a novel, and in fact that was sort of a proxy dispute over the marketing of the book. I saw SAVING GRACE as a novel about corruption and the intersection of politics and family. My publisher saw it as a “women’s fiction.” Here are the covers, hard and soft, that  they came up with.

 

Not bad looking, especially the paperback, but the main problem was that they didn’t fit my concept of the book. They looked girly to me, an impression solidified by a letter that I got from one male reader, who said that he enjoyed the book greatly but had to take the jacket off before reading it on the subway. Men, we can sigh, but they are what they are and I’ve always wanted to attract readers of both sexes.

Viking’s cover for A DANGEROUS FICTION may also skew to women readers, though maybe not; I’d love to hear your thoughts on that point. But apart from being a thing of beauty in itself, this cover suits the book perfectly, and that makes me very happy.

Have you ever thought about what attracts you to a book jacket? If you didn’t already know the writer, what makes you stop and pick up a book?

 

The Best Part of Publishing

The problem with living in the golden age of anything is that you never know it at the time. It is what it is, that’s all. Only much later, when it’s over, do you realize in retrospect what an extraordinary period it was.

I thought about this the other day when I came across a piece in the New Yorker, “Editors and Publisher” by John McPhee: an affectionate appreciation of his two great New Yorker editors, William Shawn and Bob Gottlieb, and his publisher, Roger Straus Jr. It occurred to me that I had known and worked with two of these men, Bob Gottlieb when he was editor-in-chief of Knopf, and Roger Straus Jr. during his long tenure at the helm Farrar, Straus and Giroux. I was, at the time, a young literary agent based in Tel Aviv, representing Israeli writers abroad and American and European writers in Israel. I had moved from New York to Tel Aviv at the age of 22, worked for an Israeli publisher for a year, saw a niche into which I might fit, and at the ripe old age of 23 launched the Barbara Rogan Literary Agency.

The need was there, and within a year or two I was selling rights for publishers like Random House, Morrow, Knopf, Doubleday, Bantam, and Farrar, Straus and Giroux, which is how I met Bob Gottlieb and Roger Straus Jr. To them, I must have looked like a kid who ought to be working in the mailroom. But they treated me with the utmost respect and collegiality, considered my submissions seriously, and talked up the books on their current lists. Knopf shared quarters with Random House and its sister imprints in a handsome, modern building on Third Avenue in midtown, and I would spend whole days meeting various people in those offices. At some point I would be ushered in to Mr. Gottlieb’s office. He was an august presence to me, head of one of the best imprints in the US, and editor of a long list of writers I greatly revered, including John LeCarre, John Cheever, V. S. Naipaul, and Edna O’Brien.  He never took me to lunch – he saw publishing lunches as a complete waste of time, and usually ate in his office – but he was unfailingly gracious and would spend an unhurried hour or so talking about books and publishing with a young agent. He never bought any of my Israeli writers, but I sold a great many of his in Israel, in part because they tended to be very good writers, but also because he spoke of them so compellingly that I was infused with a missionary-like zeal to go forth and find them a home in the Promised Land.

I had something closer to a friendship with Roger Straus Jr., one of publishing’s great characters. I saw him every time I came to New York, and once a year at Frankfurt. He was wonderful to look at, still handsome in his 60s, with a great mane of white hair swept back from his aristocratic forehead; but he was even better to listen to. When he talked about the latest book that had captured him, it was with the passionate enthusiasm of a boy, informed by decades of reading and publishing the best of world literature. I particularly remember him proselytizing about Nobel prize winner Elias Canetti, whose Crowds and Power Roger had published: one of the most important books ever written, he told me, which for once was not the usual publishing hype.

His language was famously profane. “Fucking” was his favorite adjective, which amused me no end. I wasn’t offended; this was the vernacular of my 20-something contemporaries, but it seemed wonderfully Bohemian coming from a man my grandfather’s age. His accent was unusual and reminded me of screwball comedies starring Cary Grant and Lauren Bacall. “Darling” he called everyone, but he pronounced it dahling; every new book on his list was mahvelous. As McPhee wrote, “his words wore spats.” It wasn’t an affectation; he’d been raised that way. His mother was a Guggenheim; his father’s family owned Macy’s. Playing superego to Roger’s id was his longtime assistant, the always elegant, always kind Peggy Miller. I loved going to their offices on Union Square, a warren-like space they’d outgrown long ago, crowded and dusty, with stacks of books everywhere. Random House’s offices were elegant, and I was always on my best behavior there, but visiting FSG felt like going home.

Roger was particularly loyal to his writers, whose backlists he kept in print regardless of economics. He liked to say he published writers, not books, and he must’ve said it often, because I remember hearing it, and so, in his memoir, does John McPhee. Roger meant it by way of contrast to his corporate competitors, bean-counters, he called them, and ruder names. He sought out great literature to translate, befriended the great publishers of Europe, and saw himself, I believe, as a leading citizen of the wider world of ideas. Certainly I saw him that way.

I was also a great admirer of Barney Rosset, head of Grove Press and the American publisher of T. H. Lawrence, Samuel Beckett and Henry Miller.  The first time we met was for lunch, not in one of the usual upscale publishing hangouts, but in a funky, blue-collar eatery near his office. Knowing of his epic court battles against censorship, which in the case of Henry Miller went all the way to the Supreme Court, I expected a fire-breathing dragon of a man; but Barney was a warm, bookish man with no interest in rehashing old battles. We started out talking enthusiastically about the Israeli writer whose rights he’d just acquired from me, and ended up commiserating with each other on the scarcity of translated fiction in the US and the provincialism of American publishing compared to European and Israeli.

Today there is, to put it delicately, a different publishing climate. Back when I was an agent, some important publishers, including FSG and Grove, were privately owned, and even those with corporate owners operated more or less autonomously. Now, after a generation of mergers, buyouts, and consolidations, we have the Big Six. I was representing Bantam in the ’70’s  when a marketing man was elevated to the post of publisher, instead of someone from the editorial side. The publishing world was shocked. “It’s the beginning of the end,” editors whispered. “It’s the writing on the wall,” others said. That sort of dichotomy hardly exists anymore, and to the extent that it does, the balance of power has shifted completely. In the past, publishers and editors like Roger Straus, Barney Rosset, and Bob Gottlieb decided what they wanted to publish and tasked their marketing departments with selling those books. Now, acquisitions are made by publishing boards that look hard at every prospect’s commercial viability.  There is less scope, it seems, for individuality and eccentricity, less loyalty to one’s writers, less time allowed for writers to find themselves and their markets.

And yet some things haven’t changed. I realized this over lunch some weeks ago with Tara Singh, my editor at Viking Penguin, who’s not much older than I was when I started my agency. She told me that what she loves most about her profession are the amazing people she works with. I always felt the same way. Though never been a particularly lucrative profession, publishing  has always drawn smart, well-read, intellectually curious people who are passionate about books. You can’t find much better company than that.

Interview with Viking Editor Tara Singh

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.

Thanks, Tara!

 

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.