Editors, Part III: Boys and their toys

Hello, readers –

I’m going to begin on a personal note today: thanks to all of you who have been writing in to congratulate me about my memoir’s coming out, but no matter what Amazon is saying about the book, it has NOT been released. Not even a little bit.

To the best of my knowledge, the review copies haven’t even gone out yet, so I’m not sure why Amazon is saying otherwise (as, I’m told, are some bookstores). I’ve asked my publisher to look into this, but to be perfectly honest, I have absolutely no idea when the book is coming out. Really. I wouldn’t kid about such a thing.

And if it surprises you that the author might not be kept in the loop about that sort of information — welcome to the publishing industry, baby. The author is often the last to know about major decisions about her own book. I did not even see the book cover prototype before it was posted online — which I discovered by accident — featuring a title that I had thought was still the subject of spirited debate. Not only have I been left out of the loop, I’m not even sure that the loop has ever visited my time zone.

When it does come out, trust me, my readers will be the first to know. Or at any rate, the first to know after I know it myself.

Okay, that off my chest, we can get back to business. Welcome to the third installment of my series on the editors scheduled to attend this summer’s PNWA conference. (If you are looking for information about the attending agents, in order to make your ranking choices wisely, please see my postings for April 26 to May 17.)

I’ve heard a little grumbling out there after last week’s posts, where I broke the news that since most of the major publishing houses have firm policies specifically precluding the possibility of acquiring unagented work, it is highly unlikely that even an editor who ADORES your conference pitch will attempt to pick up your book directly. It does happen, from time to time, with editors from smaller houses with less draconian policies, but generally speaking, the best an editor from a major house can do for a conference attendee is provide a sterling recommendation to an agent to handle your book.

It is very, very easy to lose sight of this fact at a conference, especially when you’ve just heard a fabulous speech at the editors’ forum by an editor who seems perfect for your work. Once they start waxing philosophical, editors tend to sound very much as though they are at the conference SOLELY to acquire books, but history tends to show otherwise. If you find yourself starting to doubt this when you hear them speak at the forum, shoot your paw in the air immediately and ask point-blank how many of them acquire unagented work.

Then listen to the dull, unconscious moan that rises from the crowd after the answer.

At conferences past, both locally and elsewhere, I have seen the responses to this question clear an editor’s appointment schedule faster than an earthquake sends people scurrying under the nearest table. But, as I said last week, there are a number of very solid reasons to go ahead and make a pitch to an editor from a major house. Just do not go into the meeting expecting to be discovered, and you can get a great deal out of it.

”Wait just a second,” I hear the more conference-experienced of you out there murmuring. “I’ve been at editorial appointments where an editor from a major house asked for my first chapter. In fact, I’ve been to appointments where the editor asked everyone at the table to send him something. If the majors don’t take unagented work, why would he do that?”

An excellent question, and one with a very, very simple answer — or rather, with one nice public answer and one less nice private one. The public answer is that conscientious conference organizers like the PNWA’s generally extract a promise from attending editors that they will be open to having SOME writers send them submissions. This is why — and we’ve all seen this happen — sometimes editors will just ask everyone at the meeting table to send the first chapter. Some editorial assistant will read it, and the promise will have been fulfilled.

Don’t be surprised, though, if the promise takes months to be fulfilled, or if you do not hear back from the editor at all — because, you see, the major houses are simply not set up to receive submissions from unagented writers. Thus, without the well-regulated pattern of nagging, “Have you read it yet?” calls a good agent provides, conference submissions tend to fall through the cracks.

It is completely legitimate to ask an editor at a conference what kind of turn-around time to expect, but don’t be floored if it is expressed in months, rather than weeks. A couple of years ago, right after I won the PNWA Zola award for best NF book, I was in a group pitch meeting with an editor from St. Martin’s. As I have both friends and clients who have published through St. Martin’s, I was aware of their policy about unagented work (con), so I asked the editor what kind of turn-around time my tableful of colleagues should expect from him.

”Three to six months,” he answered, straight-faced.

Readers, I couldn’t help it: I started to laugh, with rather annoyed the gentleman. He was probably just being honest. We subsequently had a rather interesting little conversation (which I’m not sure mollified him much) about how conference-going writers often hang their hopes on the implied editorial promise to read their submissions, and thus (unwisely, I think) don’t continue sending out queries while they are waiting to hear back from the editor who seemed so nice at the conference. The editor professed not to be aware that writers did this: “It’s a business,” he scoffed. “They should know better than to spend that much time on a single prospect.”

You will forgive me, I hope, if I heard this as a pretty explicit directive not to bother to send him anything at all.

So why, I hear you wondering, would an editor at a major house bother to have an assistant read conference-gleaned submissions in the first place? For one very simple reason: because your book may be the next DA VINCI CODE, that’s why. Nobody wants to be the editor who had the chance to buy the rights to a blockbuster for a couple of thousand dollars and blew it. No, everybody wants to be the editor who recognized the embryonic talent and directed it to an agent with the implicit understanding that no other editor would see the work and bid it up before he acquires it himself.

Hey, I’m just the messenger here.

Again: think about what else you can get out of your editorial appointment, and walk in determined to make such a good impression that you will be laying the groundwork for a possible future discussion, years from now, about your work.

On to our editor du jour, David Moldawer, who works at Riverhead, a division of Penguin. Mighty big publishing house, Putnam, with policies, I believe, similar to others of its size. Here’s what Mr. Moldower had to say about himself in the blurb he gave to the PNWA:

” David Moldawer (Editor) is an editorial assistant at Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA). David is looking to acquire nonfiction books on pop culture, science, technology, the internet, and psychology. Secondarily, he is seeking smart, funny fiction targeted at a younger male demographic.

” Prior to Riverhead, David worked at W. W. Norton & Company and Arcade Publishing.”

Okay, those of you who have been following the whole series, let’s see how well you have been paying attention. Mr. Moldawer has told you something VERY important in this blurb, but you would have had to be pretty familiar with the preferences of the agents coming to the conference to notice it. Any guesses?

One of the major patterns yours truly noticed in this year’s crop of agents is that an unusually high percentage of them were explicitly looking for books aimed at young men. This is surprising, because young men (and men in general) are not the biggest buyers of books in North America, outside of certain genres. So when I see an editor express an interest in them as his ONLY fiction preference, I begin to suspect that he may, let’s say, be open to back-room at the conference collaborations with those agents who share his preferences. I would suspect, perhaps wrongly, that he might have remotely considered the possibility of hooking up authors of these kinds of works with those agents on an informal basis. If I were being very conspiracy-minded, I might draw the conclusion that he has already talked to these agents about it.

So here is how I read the tealeaves on this one: if you write for men under 50, and your work is even vaguely humorous: find a way to score a seat in one of Mr. Moldawer’s group
pitch sessions. Otherwise…yes, it’s a chance to practice your pitch, but you might want to make an appointment elsewhere.

If you are unsure if your writing would interest Mr. Moldawer, check out his rather hefty web presence, starting with his personal website. Here’s what he says about himself there:

“David Moldawer is a writer, playwright, and videographer living in New York City. A Manhattan native, he graduated from Amherst College with a B.A. in Theater in 2000, and has been writing and making videos ever since. His plays have won teeny little awards and notices here and there, and his story, Scotty Buys a Pair of Scrubs, was published in the Portland Review…David works in editorial at a prestigious publishing imprint, and lives with his girlfriend and their dog.”

He sounds like an interesting guy, doesn’t he? He’s a short story writer in his own right (so he should have known better than to introduce characters with so little character development: what KIND of dog? Who IS this girlfriend, and is she in the videos?), whose personal tastes in fiction run to SF – he regularly writes reviews of new SF releases. But please, SF writers, don’t get your hopes up: I could not find one scintilla of evidence that Mr. Moldower is in a position to acquire SF books, alas. (Riverhead’s list focuses on literary fiction, narrative NF, memoirs – none of which are noted for being the reading preference of those sporting Y chromosomes, I might point out. They also publish spiritual texts — seriously, the Dalai Lama is one of their authors.) This confirmed my gut feeling on the subject: in one of his many personal blurbs floating around in the ether, Mr. Moldower reports that he “unleashes his inner geek writing reviews of the latest scifi (sic) books.” (As those of you fond of the genre already know, insiders have never called it sci fi, however spelled: amongst the cognoscenti, it is always SF or not abbreviated at all.) But then, he is quite young (he’s only been out of college for 6 years), and junior editors move around a lot: he might well end up editing SF some day.

If I were going to spend half an hour of my life, sitting around with an editor from a major publishing house who is not going to buy my work and listening to other people’s pitches, I have to say, Mr. Moldower sounds as though he would be a good choice for a table companion. I’m always a big fan of publishing professionals who have the personal guts to keep writing and sending out their own work, so they know what the process feels like from both sides. And Riverhead, from all I hear, is a good place to be a first-time author – although their reputation for that rests in their literary fiction, which he is apparently not seeking.

So would I pitch Mr. Moldower a literary novel, memoir, narrative NF, or spirituality book, since he did not specify that he is looking for these strengths of his imprint? Personally, I would not schedule an appointment in advance to do so, for as I said above, I think he’s coming here looking for something else. However, if I liked him at the editors’ forum, and if some spaces in his group pitch sessions opened up (possibly after some of his scheduled appointment-holders ask whether his house takes unagented work?), I might make the effort.

More editors to follow tomorrow – I really do want to finish up this week, so I can move on to discussing other conference matters, like how to construct a pitch. And for those of you who haven’t yet done so, mark your calendars now: on June 24, I shall be teaching a Writing Connections class on getting through your pitch without fainting or screaming. If you live within driving distance of Seattle, I would love to see you there!

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

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