interview by Suzanne Welsh
In this industry many times you meet people through connections or friends. Today's guest, Tracy Bernstein, comes to us through a conversation I had with my dear friend, Jo Davis. Jo's debut book of her sexy firefighter series, Trial By Fire, will be released in August by New American Library (NAL). While we were munching away on southwestern spring rolls at a favorite restaurant and discussing PR for her book and the Romance Bandit blog, Jo kindly offered to approach Tracy, her editor, about blogging with us. I was thrilled and jumped at the chance to say YES!! What a great friend!!
So, welcome to the Bandit Lair, Tracy. Have a seat and a cold margarita. Don't mind the cabana boys, they're Joan's Romans and Anna S.'s hockey hunks!
Please tell us a little about your NAL title, your job/workload on a daily basis, and your previous experience in the publishing industry.
I am executive editor of NAL, where I acquire and edit both fiction and non-fiction (my list is slightly tilted to the non-fiction side). I also run the Signet Classics program. In my (ahem) many years as an editor, I have worked at various other houses including Farrar Straus & Giroux, Henry Holt, Pocket and Ballantine.
How do publishing houses like NAL "position" themselves by positioning certain books in the market? Like, do you maintain an awareness of what other publishing houses are doing as part of your assessment of what to buy? Do you try to cover all sub-genres so you have a piece of each "sub-market" or do you have certain "specialties"? Or do editors simply buy what you love and want to read?
Like most publishers we try to publish broadly but not in every single possible area -- no one can be good at everything. You do have to narrow things down somewhat so that we can have a comfort level and expertise in what we do. But that's much more of an issue with non-fiction than fiction. So, for example, everyone knows we publish practical non-fiction but not hardcore "how-to" books (crafts, gardening, etc.). We don't have an official mission statement but NAL is a decidedly commercial house that maintains a mass market sensibility even when publishing trade paperbacks and hardcovers. We definitely think about what competing publishers are doing (we don't consider literary houses our competition, obviously) and talk about what we might learn from it (for example, trends in subcategories or cover design), but in the end a list naturally reflects the personal passions of the editors and publisher.
What turns you off the most in a query?
You'd be surprised how many queries are poorly written! I'm not about to read a submission from someone whose query letter is ungrammatical or fails at the elemental task of a query: explaining what the book is.
We all know the terms, "didn't grab me enough?", "didn't feel strongly about?" mean the story or voice weren't what the editor wanted. Any hints as to how to improve those, and is there ever a time to revise and resubmit?
Those kinds of comments don't tell you anything except we didn't like it, and I don't see how you can respond to that sort of general rejection. On the other hand, you might well take into consideration a more specific criticism, such as "the dialogue seemed anachronistic." But really, the best time to revise and resubmit is when we ask you to. Believe me, we will do that when we think someone is close to hitting the mark.
What trends do you see in the marketplace?
The two big trends right now are paranormal and erotic romance. Publishers are trying any variation of these you can think of.
While a writer shouldn't just write to trends, if she or he has more than one book to submit, what's hot and what's not for them to consider when making the decision on which to submit?
As you may or may not have heard, vampires are hot. :-) The interest in paranormal now extends to every other kind of imaginary being (shapeshifters, werecreatures of all kinds, dragons, faeries, wizards, immortal warriors of all kinds, etc.) Also, English and Scottish historicals still rule while American-set historicals (Native American or otherwise) are not in style. Historical (non-romance) fiction is also doing well. At NAL we have a saying that Henry VIII is ground zero; the closer to him in time period and setting, the more successful the novel.
What are the top ten things that will earn an author a rejection letter from you?
Wow, you're really making me work here!
(You noticed that, huh?)
1. A messy or amateurish presentation, whether of a query letter or manuscript.
2. A lousy letter, e.g. one that lacks a clear, concise description of the book or includes irrelevancies like "my friends all love it."
3. Less than stellar literacy. And don't tell me "that's what editors are for." NO, IT ISN'T. I will help you shape a book, not teach you remedial English. I'm not going to ding you for the occasional mistake, but when a manuscript is littered with basic errors, it's just too hard to read.
4. A plot we've seen a million times--or even once, if it's too close. Despite good writing, we don't want to reuse a premise.
5. Writing that is clumsy or labored--if I can see the seams, it's no good. This is often a problem in historical fiction.
6. Writing that is full of clichés.
7. A voice that is perfectly serviceable but not unique or special. A great voice is one that I would follow anywhere it cares to take me, because I want to hang around it.
8. A voice that doesn't gibe with the content--e.g., sometimes an author's natural wit and levity seems to be fighting a darker storyline.
9. Anything that makes me think the author is going to be difficult to work with. We don't have to be personal friends, but I do expect courtesy and professionalism. Life is too short to work with someone mean, narcissistic, condescending, sneaky or dishonest. I have relatives for that.
10. Unrealistic, super-obvious or naive marketing plans/suggestions.
Can you give us an idea of what a typical day in the life of an editor is like (or why does it take so long to hear back from editors)?
One thing that occupies my time is meetings--some on a weekly basis (editorial, art, marketing, inventory), others monthly (strategy, sales). I also do a lot of writing (editorial letters/e-mails, in-house memos, tip sheets, tinkering with cover and catalogue copy). I talk to agents about possible projects, or to my boss about projects we're trying to buy. I run profit and loss statements. Because my books are at all different stages of the publishing process, in the course of the day I'm likely to talk to contracts, production, managing editorial, publicity or sales. What editors almost never do during the day is read manuscripts or edit! We do all of that on our own time at night and on the weekends. So don't ever think we're goofing off when you don't hear from us for a while.
While Jo and I were talking, she said you've had some odd submissions during your course as an editor. What's your strangest submission story?
The receptionist called and said a package had been delivered for me. When I opened it up, there was nothing but a creepy looking doll inside. The next day, she called to say there was another package. This time it was a tape recorder. Because the packages had been hand delivered, I knew the person was local and imagined all sorts of deranged stalker possibilities. So I gathered some colleagues (I was afraid to listen to it by myself!) and played the tape. It was a cheesy dramatization of a little scene, complete with sound effects. Of course on the third day the manuscript was delivered (and as you may have guessed, it wasn't any good).
What book did you find recently that you believe will be a hit on the shelves?
No question, Trial By Fire by Jo Davis. It combines some of my favorite elements--suspense, romantic tension, sizzling sex, and hunky firemen! And it's the start of a series, so you have a whole little world you can get immersed in and live in for a while.
(Smiling at Tracy over this.) I couldn't agree more. Trial By Fire is one of the best books I've read in a long while and Jo is one of the strongest new voices to come to the world of Romance! Oh yeah, and then there's the whole firefighter thing? Oh, mama!
It always amazes me how much editors have to read for your jobs, and that most of you read in your spare time, too. Who do you like to read for relaxation?
For fun I mostly read women's fiction (I'm a big Elizabeth Berg fan, for example) and memoirs. This is a book I just published so forgive the plug, but it's also emblematic of the kind of book I read all the time in real life: Road Map To Holland by Jennifer Graf Groneberg. It's a gorgeously written memoir of parenting a Down syndrome child.
Thanks for being our guest in the Bandit Lair today and giving us a look into the world of an editor. Now it's your turn. Is there anything you'd like to ask us or our viewers?
Something I would definitely be curious about is what the readers think of all the erotica publishers are putting out. This is a developing field and we want to do it right! Do they see a consistent difference between romance lines and erotica lines? Are there sex scenes they want to see more or less of in erotica?
As a special gift one of our readers will receive a signed copy of TRIAL BY FIRE by Jo Davis. This book is scheduled to be released August 5th.