Editors, Part IV, in which it once again becomes ASTONISHINGLY clear why it’s important to do some background checking before you make your agent and editor selections

Hello, readers –

Pardon my Dickensian title, but today, I am going to be writing about an editor with such a specific specialty — AND from a house that accepts unagented work, no less — that the idea that any of you out there who write in her area might NOT be aware of her preferences prior to making your conference choices…well, let’s just say that it’s not a prospect I like very much. And WHY would someone registering for the conference NOT know what this particular editor buys? Say it with me now: because she did not post a blurb on the PNWA site.

In case you’re tuning in late to find me apoplectic, welcome to my ongoing series on the editors who are scheduled to attend this summer’s PNWA conference. I have been gleaning as much information as I can on them, so you may make your appointment choices wisely. If you are looking for the scoop on the agents who will be attending, check out my EXTENSIVE series on them, April 26 through May 17.

Okay, back to my jumping up and down. If you have already registered for the conference online (which is easy to do! On this very website!), you may have noticed the name of Carrie Obry in the editors’ column. Being a thoughtful, observant kind of person, you might perhaps have wondered (a) what publishing house currently employs her and (b) what kind of books she is empowered to acquire. Little things like that. If you have been following this series on editors, you might also have – because you are so clever – wondered IF she is empowered to acquire unagented work.

If you did indeed wonder these things, my bright-as-buttons friends, and that wonder made you hesitate about selecting her as an appointment choice, congratulations! You are thinking like a publishing professional. One of the great rules of the industry: never buy a pig in a poke.
I’m not entirely sure what a poke is, in its natural state, but in this context, it means don’t do business with people whose credentials you don’t know.

That’s really what made Random House look bad in the eyes of the industry in the A MILLION LITTLE PIECES debacle, you know — not that they might have knowingly perpetuated a fraud upon the reading public (which happens too frequently to stir much comment, and besides, didn’t the book sell considerably better AFTER the scandal broke?), but that they did not do the requisite checking to see, say, how long Mssr. Frey had actually been in jail. And, since the book had originally been pitched as fiction, the industry expectation would have been that they would ask at least a FEW questions before the book hit the shelves at Borders.

A corollary of the great rule is that specialization saves busy people time. Remember yesterday’s post, where I told the story of the editor who scoffed when I suggested that there were writers out there who would hold off on submitting their work to agents on the strength of an editor’s conference request to see the first chapter? His attitude was far from unusual: few annoyances are as deeply resented within the industry as having one’s time wasted. So the idea that any reasonable person would sit immobile for three to six months while someone he had barely met did or didn’t get around to reading his submission, without taking prudent further steps to promote the work, was absurd, within his worldview. This is an industry where it does pay to be proactive.

In that spirit, then, I tracked down some facts on Carrie Obry, who (and it may surprise you to hear this, after the preceding diatribe) should probably be your top-ranked editor if you write NF on alternative health, healing, or New Age-oriented self-help. Because, you see, not only is Ms. Obry an editor at St. Paul-based Llewellyn, near the top of the heap of New Age publishing houses, but she was hired in 2003 SPECIFICALLY to expand Llewellyn’s offerings in these areas.

So: yoga, anyone? (And no jokes, please, from those of you familiar with Llewellyn’s line of tarot and divination books: no, I don’t think Ms. Obry expected us to find out where she worked through skrying or passing a pendulum over Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers.)

Oh, and did I forget to mention that Llewellyn not only accepts, but encourages submissions from unagented writers? Bless them, Whomever, because they make their submission guidelines so very easy for prospective authors to find.

If you are unfamiliar with Llewellyn’s traditional strengths (they produce a very beautifully-packaged astrological calendar series every year, for example), check out their website and see whom they are publishing these days. Fair warning: because they primarily produce esoterica, a LOT of their authors seem to write under pseudonyms. If you are in the greater Seattle area, it’s even easier to get a sense of their offerings: East/West Books on 65th and Roosevelt usually is stuffed to the brim with their titles.

I am harping on Llewellyn a little, because in the past, I have met quite a few authors at the PNWA conference who habitually preface their pitches with, “I know you’re not going to believe that this is a true story, but…” or “Most mainstream publishers are really hostile to channeled work, but…” If you have ever uttered these phrases, or ones like them, in connection to your writing, Llewellyn might be an excellent fit for you. The house’s motto, “new worlds of mind and spirit,” seems to be genuinely reflective of their acquisition philosophy: they are open to innovative approaches, and they are not overly fettered by a sense of normalcy.

Llewellyn describes its offerings in Ms. Obry’s area as books that “will encourage you to take a healthy degree of responsibility for your wellness by giving you the tools to understand it — holistically.” Traditionally, the house’s preference has been for books that are very straightforwardly hands-on; be the book about how to hold a séance or how to have tantric sex, they like clear how-to writing on esoteric subjects.

If you are curious about what this translates into in terms of sentence and paragraph structure, Ms. Obry wrote a column on sound healing some years ago for New Worlds, Llewellyn’s magazine/catalog. In it, Ms. Obry was kind enough to define true health, à la Llewellyn:

”True health involves the whole you — mind, body and spirit. These days, I hope no one will refute that, but we workaday folks, as involved as we are with mundane demands, can easily forget to incorporate patterns that support holistic health into our daily lives. Rarely would we hesitate to see a doctor and take medication if we had strep throat, but what do we usually do if we feel disengaged, anxious, stressed, overworked or over-stimulated? Don’t accept the popular message that these unpleasant states are endemic to our busy and disconnected consumer age. Empowering yourself by nourishing your mental health will have a positive impact on your wellbeing — and you will have fun while doing it.”

If you are planning to pitch a self-help or health book that is not very New Age in philosophy, do not be too quick to dismiss Llewellyn as a possible publisher; Ms. Obry sounds as though she might be open to a very non-woo woo book on incorporating healthful practices into everyday life. It is probably worth trying to finagle a seat at one of her group pitch meetings, if you could fit your book into that mold. However, as the meeting rosters of editors who do not post pitches tend to fill up more slowly than those who do, you might want to rank another editor first, if your work is easily accessible to a more mainstream audience – and then rush to the appointments table as soon as they open, to see if you can slip into one of Ms. Obry’s groups.

I have a very serious caveat to append to this advice, however. Since we do not have information from Ms. Obry herself, and since the information I was able to find on her editorial habits was a couple of years old, it is in fact possible that her preferences have changed in the interim. It is even theoretically possible that she no longer works at Llewellyn. The logic above may – and I dread to say this, but it is not inconceivable – may not be a trustworthy guide.

I’m just being honest here.

How can you find out for sure? The same way that you would with an agent who did not provide a conference blurb: go to the editors’ forum at the conference and listen carefully to what Ms. Obry says she is looking to acquire. There is no way that you could conceivably get more up-to-the-minute preference information than that.

You see, I have been hanging around the publishing industry long enough that I don’t like the idea of any of you buying a pig in a poke.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

P.S. to the loyal reader who wrote in asking for recommendations for books on pitching: since verbal pitches (as opposed to written ones) are actually not the primary medium by which writers gain the attention of agents and editors, there is surprisingly little out there specifically designed to help writers prepare for this daunting process. I shall do some investigation, however. In the meantime, the practice of verbal pitching by the author is borrowed wholesale from the motion picture industry, where screenwriters give verbal pitches all the time. Check out the screenwriting section of a well-stocked bookstore, and see if you can find a book with a good how-to chapter for fledgling screenwriters.

That being said, don’t forget to mark your calendar for June 24, my class on how to prepare yourself for a pitch meeting!

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