Be forewarned: this is long and expository. Herein lies more information about me than you ever wanted to know. Well, that's what you get for visiting. I hope you make it out alive.
Interview with the Editor
1. What inspired you to write?
I have always been a reader. As a kid, I consumed books at an alarming rate. Over time, I became quite opinionated about what I read, and developed my own ideas about what was “good.” I fell into writing naturally—I came up with a story idea that I thought would be better than what I’d read, and began to put it on paper. If I recall correctly, my first completed manuscript was a historical romance, and absolutely the most horrifically written piece of drivel ever created (on foolscap, with a pencil). Still, the seed had been planted. I completed that manuscript when I was eleven years of age, and have never stopped trying to top it. And I still write with pencil.
2. How did you become an acquisitions editor with this small press?
This is a question I ask myself every day—usually while pinching my arm. It’s a dream come true for me.
I am quite active in my local writing community. I am a workshop, writing group, and conference frequenter—have been for years. I’ve had some luck with publishing over the past few years, having sold eight pieces of short fiction, four poems, one novel (and another that will release this spring), and was commissioned to pen the narrative portion of an online roleplaying game.
The house I published my first novel with has a closed forum for their signed authors. Publishing a book is exciting—everyone in that forum is enthusiastic and friendly, always helping one another to promote their work, and lending advice and so forth. One day, I started a thread in the author’s forum to connect further with the people whom I thought might one day become my freelance clients. Coincidently, a fellow author was there who had a good friend that owned a small press, and was in need of a new copy editor. Unbeknownst to me, the author told the publisher, and then the publisher contacted me via this website. A few days later, I had my interview, and the rest is history.
3. Can anyone become an acquisitions editor, or do they need specialized training?
Becoming a certified editor is an intense course of study at the university level, and the current editor is constantly participating in specialized workshops to keep their skills current. Our language is ever evolving, and it is important that an editor remains in the loop with popular trends.
I went to university for substantive, stylistic, and copy editing. Acquisitions editing is covered in these courses to a degree, but the Editors’ Association of Canada offers specialized training. There are frequent workshops for EAC members who want to update their skills in various kinds of editing. Acquisitions is one of the areas that can be added on to any editor’s education through their local EAC branch. So, to answer your question, yes, any editor can become an acquisitions editor, but acquisitions editing is a specialized field.
4. “Stories you want to sell shouldn't be accessible to the public via a website, online writing community, or blog." What is the reason for this?
Once a piece has been made available for the public to read, in publishing jargon, it is considered “published.” Many literary magazines and publishers want to purchase first publication rights. So, if the piece is already published, you cannot sell the first publication rights—you no longer have them.
You would be surprised by the number of great submissions we have to reject because the author has already posted the story on Wattpad or their personal blog or the like. While some places will accept previously published material, the vast majority will not. To be on the safe side, restrict your publicly viewable pieces to a specific readership, and be very, very leery of putting them up on Wattpad, ReadWave and similar.
5. You mentioned the desire to produce "excellent books" and "books that sell well." What percentage of books are rejected based on marketability?
At its core, the business of publishing is all about making money, and making money is all about marketability. Sure, there is much to be said for the art of literature, but books need to “earn their keep.” A manuscript will not be acquired if a house does not believe in its potential to appeal to the masses, and earn back the money that was spent producing it. That’s business.
Consider the number of people that must be paid with the sale of each book. At the minimum, there are the following: the author, the author’s agent, the acquisitions editor, the substantive editor, the stylistic editor, the copy editor, the proofreader, the design manager, and the cover artist. If a book is retailing for $10, I’m sure you can see how that breakdown is not conducive to paying anyone’s mortgage when sales are poor.
I’ma go out on a limb here, and say that 100% of the manuscripts that are rejected are rejected because the acquisitions editor did not believe the finished product would be marketable. (Poor writing, clichéd or overdone plot, dull or impersonal characters—all these things will effect a book’s marketability and doom it to failure. If a book sucks, people won’t buy it. Thems the breaks.)
6. When you write, what is your writing process?
Personally, I am a “pantser.” I often come up with an opening sentence that I think is great, and after giving it some time to “simmer,” the rest of the story simply falls out. I write feverishly. It is rare that the first draft of a novel will take me longer than two months to complete, even though I tend to edit as I go. I will write a short story in an evening. Mind you, the stories are not always good. However, that is my process. (In short, I have none.)
7. What part of your job is the hardest, and what part do you enjoy the most?
The hardest part for me, by far, is having to reject great stories. Sometimes, the timing is just not right. Sometimes, a great story comes in, but we already have a story with the same theme on the docket set to release within the next year. Sometimes, I will opt to take on a manuscript, and in the editorial meeting, my colleagues will vote against it (or vice versa). This happened recently to a manuscript I absolutely LOVED, but unfortunately, we already had a story in the same genre set to release, so the majority of the team vetoed it. We are a small house and can only take on a small number of titles per year. If we put out more than one book in the same genre, it may push away our readers who like to read books of a different sort.
The best part of my job is winning an author over. Fiction writers are freakishly protective of their words, and are often very skeptical about having an editor tamper with them. The last book I did, the author needed to know the reasons behind EVERY SINGLE suggestion I made (yes, this included explaining even minor things, such as comma placement). While this may seem annoying, I enjoyed it. This constant grilling gave me the opportunity to explain the rules, dissect the sentence with the author, and gain her full trust. While, at the outset of our work together, this author was a bit abrasive, by the end of it, she was asking me to look over her unrelated work on a freelance basis. That made me feel great—like I’d proven that I am worth my salt, even to an author who really didn’t think so at the beginning of the project.
8. What is your most valuable piece of advice for beginning authors?
Hmm…I’m not sure if you mean with regards to working with an editor, or for writing, so I’ll say something brief about both.
First, when working with an editor, TRUST HER. If she is accredited, not only will she know the ins and outs of the language, but she will also know what is selling, and what needs to be done with your manuscript to make it the best it can be. She is not out to get you; her reputation is on the line, just as yours is. Remember, while an author’s credentials are built upon the success of the books they’ve written, an editor’s is based on the books they have, well, edited. Your editor wants you to succeed. Trust me.
As for writers, I say persevere. If your novel is rejected and there is the option to ask why, do so. There are tons of reasons why a manuscript will be rejected—many of them not at all related to the book itself, or your skill as a writer. The house I work for always gives personalized feedback when it rejects a manuscript, though very few others do this unless prodded. If you receive a form rejection, maintain your professionalism, and remain polite. No good will come from a nasty note to an editor, sent out of spite—certainly not an offer to retract the rejection. Editors are fairly close knit. A lot of us know each other, and the tradition of "mentorship" is quite strong (making the network far-reaching). Don’t screw your reputation by getting mad at a rejection and acting like a three-year-old in full tantrum mode. We know it’s tough to be rejected, and trust me, we do not do it with glee. It’s all business, baby.
9. What is the most important thing that catches your attention and makes you want to grab a manuscript for your company?
This is different for everyone, but for me, a really killer or unique writer’s “voice” is the number one consideration. Of course, a great story is a close second. This is not related to personal tastes; I have recommended manuscripts with stories that were not within my personal areas of interest. However, if a manuscript is very well written, unique, and in a genre that is selling well, I will definitely consider it, even if I don't particularly like the genre myself. Something that I’ve never heard of or thought of before is sure to catch my interest, as are characters that are immediately relatable.
10. What is the one thing that will make you immediately reject a piece after reading the first one or two paragraphs?
Oh, terrible grammar. I recently read a submission that had three grammatical errors in the first sentence! Yes, it's true that a signed manuscript will go through gruelling editing before it ever sees the light of day, but if there are that many errors present in a submission, that tells me that the author has not taken the time to learn the craft of writing. In addition, immediate backstory is a major turn-off, descriptions of the characters or scenery rather than anything actually happening will have me turning away, and a lack of convincing “voice” are all things that will make me stop reading. The level of seriousness that these sins carry varies depending on the manuscript’s target audience and genre, but basically, I need to be hooked almost right away, ESPECIALLY in the middle grade genre, which is my main area of acquisition.
11. There was mention of strengths and weaknesses in submissions. What are they? What trends are there?
A recurring problem is that authors tend to start their stories in the wrong place. In addition to what I said above, consider the opening paragraph of your manuscript. I often tell my authors to start a story in the middle of the main action paragraph, and get out before the action’s completely over. For example, starting a story with, “And that’s when I saw the body” is a much stronger (and much less verbose) opening than, “I turned the corner on Broadway Street, and waved at Mr. Brown, who was pruning his prize-winning rosebush again. It had been a hot summer, and the plants had begun wilting prematurely, what a shame. I turned down the alleyway to the left, and noticed an oddly shaped lump. What could that be? I casually wandered over to it, hands in pockets, and that’s when I saw the body.”
Consider the import of the description in your opening paragraph. Does your reader care that the character waved at Mr. Brown? Do they care about the street's name? No. Not likely. They care about the dead guy. UNLESS you are a cozy mystery writer, and Mr. Brown is the one who just committed the crime (probably with his pruning sheers), and that street name is of vital importance to the plot. That is a different matter altogether, and the readers of this genre have come to expect such things as the norm.
Really great manuscripts hook right in the first sentence, and are merciless—they don’t let up on that tension, and demand the reader continues on.
12. Have you noticed a pattern of what you enjoy most in the things you read?
*Cough* Children’s horror *Cough* Okay, everyone has their preferences in literature. However, I am just one person. I would not reject a romance manuscript if it were really excellently written, unique, and immediately interesting. There are some genres that are difficult for me to like, but I would not reject a manuscript based on these personal preferences.
One of the good things about BookFish Books, is that all the editors’ preferences are different. That leads to varied titles on our list. We don’t specialize in one genre or theme. Sure, like any reader, there are things I personally like to see in a manuscript, but I try not to let my tastes effect my acquisitions vote.
13. What do you hate most about some of the things you read?
I can’t stand the recurrent tendency of authors to describe their characters’ eyes. Over and bloody over. Gah! Drives me mental. Leading questions also irk me endlessly. As I just said above, I have my preferences, but I do my best not to allow them to make my decisions. However, if an author has described what a character "sees" in another character’s eyes six times on one page, well that tells me that the author is not super imaginative, and that the manuscript is not likely a good fit anyway.
14. How do you feel reading different kinds of works?
I try to be as open-minded as possible with all the submissions we receive. As I said above, there are some genres my house does not accept, so I am not typically faced with things I don’t like (unless I take them on freelance). I admit that as soon as I read the words “vampire” or “werewolf” in a query, my brain generally shuts off. Fortunately, neither of those two trends are particularly popular right now, so we rarely get any of those stories anyway. There are very few things that I will not read, so I rarely come up against any trouble with that. If it's interesting, I'll read it!
15. Why did you choose the editing field, and when did you first realize your love for writing?
I halfway answered this question right at the very beginning of this interview, so I will just focus on the editing portion. Basically, I chose to become an editor because it has always really bothered me to find errors in otherwise good books. Also, I love the way the field is always changing and adapting in conjunction with the language. I love to learn, and there is always something new to be learned in the field of editing. My grandmother was a librarian, and books have always been an important part of my life. I am interested in all of the arts, as many of you may already know. Editing is one way I can use my creative side to make a living.
Thanks to Matt for conducting this interview, and for everyone who provided a question. If there is anything you'd like to know that was not asked here, please drop me a line. I do so love to talk about myself.