The Editors, Part I

Hello, readers —

Today, I am switching gears, moving from the agents who are scheduled to be at this summer’s PNWA conference to the editors. (If you missed any or all of my posts on the agents, check out the archived blogs for April 26 to May 17.) Typically, all conference attendees are scheduled for one appointment with an agent and one with an editor, but all too often, aspiring writers make their preference choices for these appointments blindly, or based solely upon the blurbs that the agents and editors provide. My hope, in showing you how much other information is out there about these people, is to help my readers get in the habit of researching publishing industry professionals before meeting with or querying them. The more you know about them, the more likely you are to find a good fit for you.

Why is a good fit so important? I’ve said it before, and I shall say it again: there is no such thing as a universally good agent or editor, one who will be the perfect choice for every single marketable book on the planet.

Why? Well, I grew up in a winemaking family, so a food and wine metaphor strikes me as most apt. If you ate a delicately-flavored fish with a very heavy red wine, such as a Cabernet Franc, the fish would not appear to its best advantage: the taste of the wine would overwhelm it. Conversely, if you drank a light Sauvignon Blanc with a powerfully-flavored meat dish, such as a cassoulet or a juicy steak, the taste of the wine would be overpowered by the food. However, if you paired the fish with the Sauvignon Blanc, and the Cabernet Franc with the steak, the result would be two distinctly different combinations of partners of equal strength and complementary qualities. You would enjoy your meal more, because all of the aromas and flavors would be shown off to their full advantage.

See where I’m going with this?

As a writer, you want your book to be paired with the agent and editor best suited to bringing out your work’s many excellent qualities. Yet much of the time, writers become so intimidated by the array of choices or frustrated by the long road to signing with an agent that they will snatch at an agent or editor simply because s/he IS an agent or editor. The result, often, is like an exquisite white fish in beurre blanc absolutely drowned by a tannin-rich red wine: they just don’t merge well enough to produce an enjoyable experience for anyone concerned. And, since the writer is typically the person with the least power in the situation, it’s usually the writer who suffers.

However, hooking up with the right agent — instead of just any agent — and with the right editor — ditto — can make a book shine, and this is as true whether we’re talking about work intended for the rarified palate of the literary fiction reader or the meat-and-potatoes tastes of the mainstream reader or the exotic taste buds of the SF/Fantasy reader. An agent who does not understand a book can rarely sell it, no matter how marketable the concept is, and an editor who really wants a different kind of book than you want to write will push you toward a compromise volume that satisfies neither.

This is why I am so adamant that knowing merely the general genre preferences of an agent or editor is not enough: the prudent writer needs to learn what SPECIFIC kinds of prose appeal to them — and, in an industry as subject to fashion as publishing, what KINDS of prose appeal to them right now, as opposed to a decade ago. To that end, I have been passing along information about individual sales for the various agents. And now, insofar as I am able, I am going to share information about individual acquisitions that the editors have made recently, so you may judge for yourself who of these people is the right fit for you.

As usual, bear in mind that I have gleaned this information from the standard industry databases and resources, which are not always completely accurate or up-to-date. I am not making recommendations here, merely passing along data. And, also as usual, I’m going to start with what the editors say about themselves, if they have posted blurbs.

Alphabetically, the first editor scheduled to appear at PNWA is Colin Fox of Warner. Here’s what he has to say for himself, in the post elsewhere on this fine website:

“Colin Fox (Editor) has worked at Warner Books for nearly six years, editing both fiction and nonfiction. His list of novelists includes such folks as the Pacific Northwest’s very own Robert Dugoni, along with David Baldacci, Brian Haig and Donald E. Westlake. On the nonfiction side, Colin has edited Billy Crystal, Lou Dobbs, Tucker Carlson, Henry Louis Gates, the family of Terri Schiavo, comedian David Cross and country star Gretchen Wilson. His primary areas of interest include commercial fiction, politics, current events, gambling, narrative nonfiction, pop culture, sports, business and humor.”

Hmm. He works with some pretty heavy hitters, but he’s trying not to be intimidating (“such folks” is a nice down-to-earth touch). I’m not sure that the NF list tells us much about how he would work with a writer new to the biz, as presumably “such folks” were pretty well-established as celebrities before he worked with them. Also, current event books are almost invariably written by well-established journalists, pundits, or political players, another kind of celebrity.

Let’s take a gander at what he’s acquired in the last three years, to see what he’s looking for in non-celebrity books, as well as what flavors of commercial fiction he favors:

Fiction: “Co-author of THE CYANIDE CANARY Robert Dugoni’s debut legal thriller A MATTER OF JUSTICE, billed as ‘in the tradition of Scott Turow and Brad Meltzer.'” (Acquired 2005, in a 2-book deal; if this deal sounds familiar, it was because it also appeared on the sale list of agent Meg Ruley.); Donald Westlake’s next three books (acquired 2003).

NF: Politics/Current Events: “Parents of Terri Schiavo Mary Schindler and Robert Schindler and siblings Suzanne Schindler Vitadamo and Bobby Schindler’s untitled memoir, promising to ‘share their love and sorrow, joy and pain, and some shocking revelations as they honor Terri’s life, mourn her death, and finally tell the whole story.'” (Acquired 2005 by Jamie Raab at Warner, but Colin Fox was the actual editor.)

NF: Gambling: THE PROFESSOR, THE BANKER AND THE SUICIDE KING author Michael Craig’s THE FULL TILT POKER STRATEGY GUIDE: Tournament Edition, “a comprehensive tournament strategy guide, featuring tips from the site’s high-profile pros (including Howard Lederer, Chris Ferguson, Erik Seidel, Andy Bloch, Mike Matusow, and Ted Forrest) on all of the varieties of tournament poker.” (Acquired 2006, for buckets of money, as I suppose is appropriate for a gambling book.); Card Player magazine columnist Matt Lessinger’s THE BOOK OF BLUFFS: 66 Poker Bluffs and Why They Worked, “a detailed look at the fine art of bluffing your opponents out of monster pots.” (Acquired 2004)

NF: Sports: Head writer of The Huddle.com David Dorey’s FANTASY FOOTBALL: THE NEXT LEVEL, “going beyond the stats and projections to offer the underlying tools, principles, and strategies for creating an optimal fantasy team year in and year out.” (Acquired 2006: please note that this book was sold to him by an agent who is scheduled to come to the conference, Byrd Leavell.)

NF: Humor: “Star of Fox’s Arrested Development and HBO’s Mr. Show David Cross’s first book, a collection of essays and stories.” (Acquired 2005); Comedian Billy Crystal’s 700 SUNDAYS, “based on his Broadway play of the same name, a poignant and personal portrayal of his youth.” (Acquired 2005, again by Jamie Raab, but Colin Fox was the actual editor.)

NF: Religion/Spirituality (which, please note, was not on his general interest list): LA Times Rome bureau chief Tracy Wilkinson’s “untitled book about the chief exorcist for the Diocese of Rome, Father Gabriele Amorth, and the new generation of exorcists who are following him, along with tracing the history of exorcism from its roots in the early days of Christianity to its current revival.” (Acquired 2005)

NF: Memoir (which, please note, was not on his general interest list): Country music singer Gretchen Wilson’s GRETCHEN WILSON: I’ll Tell You What a Redneck Woman Is, co-written by Allen Rucker, “telling her rags to riches story and offering a roadmap to living the fun, independent and empowering life of a Redneck Woman.” (Acquired May, 2006 — for publication this coming November! Lightning speed that makes the 1-year sprint to get the Schiavo book out for the first anniversary of her death look like a casual mosey…)

Don’t be surprised that this list is not longer — editors, even at major houses, simply do not acquire very many books in any given year. Thus the tough market. However, since Mr. Fox is listed on several sales here as the editor, with someone else doing the actual acquisition, it is possible that I’ve missed some books. However, I couldn’t find any narrative NF or business books at all, and his main sports seem to be couch- or chair-based.

Also, don’t be too put off by the fact that most of these books are written either by celebrities or people with tremendous, already-visible-at-the-time-of-acquisition platforms. Two of these books — the fantasy football book and Robert Dugoni’s thriller — were sold by agents coming to this summer’s conference, Byrd Leavell and Meg Ruley, respectively. Which opens up the very real possibility of a backstage-at-the-conference deal (which happens more than you might think). If Mr. Fox hears a pitch in an appointment that he really likes, he might well give one of these agents a heads-up about the author and the project.

Which, in case you don’t know, is usually what editors at the major houses do anyway, when they find a project at a conference; in Mr. Fox’s case, we simply have a better idea of which agents he might pick. Given Warner’s list in general and Mr. Fox’s list in particular, I would be astonished if he directly acquired any book at any conference, rather than referring a book he liked to an agent.

Why? Most of the major publishing houses have firm policies against acquiring unagented books, although some editors have been known to find ways around such rules. For this reason, you are far, far more likely to have your work picked up by an editor from a small press at any literary conference than an editor from a large one.

And yet there are a couple of very good reasons that you might want to try to get an appointment with an editor like Mr. Fox from a major house. First, as I said, if he falls in love with your project, he may well help you find an agent to sell it to him. Books discovered at conferences have in the past been sold in this way, over drinks while the conference festivities are still roaring away. You might get lucky.

Second, and infinitely more likely, you may well end up working with one of these editors one day, and it is a real advantage if, when your agent is drawing up a list of editors to whom to send your book, you can say, “Oh, I know her — we met at the PNWA conference two years ago.” This has happened twice to me in the last two years, in fact, and in both cases, the fact that they could put a face with the name proved helpful. Also, having spoken with these editors in the past, I had some idea of what they might be like if we did indeed work together.

This leads me to a piece of advice I have literally never seen in another other forum devoted to writers: think of your conference meetings as a chance to impress agents and editors with your personality, as well as your work. Or at least. as a time when it is extremely important not to make a bad impression. Negative first impressions, I have found, linger FAR longer than positive ones, and you certainly don’t want to be the writer who is remembered for having lost her temper and thrown a glass of water at someone in a group meeting. Be as charming as you can without being smarmy.

If you meet an editor from a major house at the conference who strikes you as someone you might want to work with down the road (as in, after you land an agent), go ahead and send her an effusive thank-you note after the conference. Couldn’t hurt, and such graciousness is so uncommon that the editor may well remember your name later on, when your agent slides your manuscript across her desk.

And, as always, remember that you want to walk out of the conference with as many invitations to send your first chapter or proposal as you possibly can. It’s usually easier to finagle an extra editorial meeting than an extra agent one, so keep checking in with the appointment table at the conference; since the editorial meetings are done in groups, there is often a spare chair to be had at the last minute. Yes, that editor from the major house with the agented-work-only policy probably won’t pick up your book, but there’s always the off chance that he’ll refer to you a terrific agent. Not to mention being a great opportunity to practice your pitch, and hear what other people are writing.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

PS: Jot it on your calendar now: on June 24th, I am going to be leading a seminar for PNWA members on how to polish your pitches before the conference. Details follow.