Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Other Side of the Desk

I've been working as a junior editor at Samhain Publishing now since the end of January, and in some ways this is my ideal job. I can take everything I know about literature, grammar, and writing, and all those many years experience of commenting on essays and articles and put them toward the literature I've come to love.

It's been a long, long while since I've blogged, but I thought I'd share some dos and don'ts for writers from my experience so far with an e-first publisher. So here goes:

1. Do your homework: I read a lot of slush, and it always amazes me how odd some of it is. It's so easy to read up on the proper way to format a manuscript (double space, no weird fonts) and how to write a query letter, but I've seen so many writers who haven't taken the time to put that information and knowledge to use.

The thing is, first impressions matter. If I open a manuscript that's in comic sans with strange font sizes and weird spacing, my initial impression--my first impression--is that this is not the work of a professional. Now the book might be great. I might be able to get past the wonky font stuff (usually by changing it so it doesn't distract me), but why make things harder on yourself?

2. Don't undersell yourself: I've seen an alarming number of submissions that basically outright state that this is either a first manuscript, that they treat writing as a hobby, or that they don't know if it's good enough yet. Why would you do that? Present your work positively and professionally. I don't care if this is the first thing you've ever written. If it's good, I want it. If it's the 10th book you've published, and it's not good, I don't.

3. Don't over-sell yourself: A clean, professional query is more important that one filled with "personality" or every minor contest that you've placed in (but not won). In your bio, you just need a sentence or two to prove that you are a professional

4. Not all agented manuscripts are equal: I've been passed a few submissions from the submission coordinator that are agented, and that's always exciting, because you assume that this means the submission is going to stand out, right? Not so much. While it's true that getting subs from an established agent makes me over-the-moon excited, getting subs from a start-up that no one's ever heard of doesn't really have any effect on me. Get an agent if you can, but a meh agent is not necessarily better than no agent. And if your agent isn't giving you editorial feedback, think twice. It's always odd when I read an agented sub that's filled with typos and grammar/punctuation errors or weird formatting issues.

4. When you get a contract, learn from your editor: When that magical day comes when someone finally offers you the contract, it's time to continue being a professional. My favorite authors to work with so far are the ones who can take a holistic comment or suggestion and implement it effectively--not just in the manuscript I'm working on but in all the future ones.If your editor says you have POV shifts, for example, or use too many -ing verbs and passive voice, that's something to watch for from now on. Take that and apply it to everything that you write from there on out. The better your next manuscript is, the more likely it is that it will also get a contract without a revision.

5. It really is a matter of taste: I think this was one of the most eye-opening things for me to learn. I've queried more people than I care to admit, and I've always heard this, but dealing with submissions has made me really understand the truth of it. If I get a manuscript that I feel like putting down or start to skim, that's a bad sign. All in all, I usually end up reading a manuscript anywhere from 3 (rare) to 7 or 8 (more likely) times. I really have to love a story--the voice of the author, the characters, the set up--or those readings are going to get really torturous really fast. I'm only part-time at Samhain, so I need to be even more careful of which books I request a contract for. Each book means one less spot in my publishing schedule, and since I'm really interested in authors who can build careers or readerships with us, I have to really love what you're doing.

6. Not all publishers are equal: Because I'm also a writer, I understand the urgent, almost desperate desire to be published likerightnow! But now that I've seen just how much goes into editing a book, developing cover art, formatting and checking ARCs, preparing writers for promo opportunities, etc, I'm astounded when books go from done to published in a month or so. Going with a smaller press or an indie press has become one way to break into the industry, but be careful to ask questions before you sign on the dotted line. You want to make sure that you are assigned a single editor (hopefully the one that offered for your work) who will be your point-person the whole time.  Ask how many rounds of edits you can expect, because even though we all believe our work is great, even veteran writers should get 2-3 edit passes. You want to see what opportunities are available for input into cover art and what help the publisher's going to give you in trying to secure promotional opportunities.Basically, ask the questions that will help you determine whether giving up your rights and a good percentage of the sale of each book is a good deal for what you're getting in return.

I want to mention that these are just my opinions and not necessarily the opinions of Samhain or any of the other editors who work there. But it's been eye-opening to be on the other side of things, and I wanted to share.

If you have other questions, I'm happy to answer them in the comments.Or you can follow me on Twitter @EditorLisaD and ask there :O)

Happy Writing!


Cari Hislop said...

A lots of good advice. I think if someone has only finished their first or second book they might not realize that they're still on a steep learning curve or that the learning curve never really goes flat. There's always things we can improve. My brilliant editor really helped me polish up my latest book (number 12 - the first two languish in the machine). I've been learning to avoid the passive voice, clarifying, getting enough description, word flow etc.

It's just as well I'm not an editor (not one of my talents) if I opened a file and saw Comic Sans I'd have a hard time not pushing the delete button. I hate that font! I worked once with someone who always used Comic Sans in her public fliers and notices for the door of the shop. That font does not shout, trust me with your credit card details.

Amy Valentini said...

Great insight! Thanks. It's also great knowing that I'm already doing the things you suggest which means I'm that much closer to that 'perfect' moment. I hope anyway - if my writing really sucks, it won't matter how good it looks, right?! : )

susannac said...

Thanks! I really enjoyed your comments. My day job for more than 10 years has been grant writing, and I also teach classes on it. I have heard horror stories from grant managers at funding agencies about submissions that are hand written or otherwise don't follow formatting. I tell my students that if the instructions say Times New Roman 12 point double spaced, and you deviate from that at all, it doesn't matter how stellar the prose is or how fabulous the project. They already know you're trouble because you can't follow the simplest instructions correctly. You may get funded, but you are highly unlikely to. And if you do, they are going to be watching you intently because they will expect you to be more work. Usually there are applicants (and novelists) who are as good as you are at the central task, and who also can FOLLOW DIRECTIONS (I capitalize that on all my handouts). Those people are going to get the money/contract. At least I know, in my fiction writing life, that I will get one aspect of the work done properly. :D

Aidee Ladnier said...

Thanks so much for this post! As someone still on the other side of getting a novel published, I'm going to take this advice to heart. I'm also going to follow you on Twitter in case you post more gems. :)

Lexi said...

Lisa, Slush Pile Hell is one of my favorite sites. Bet you could add a few zingers of your own! Interesting and wise post.

Lisa Dunick said...

Lexi- Sadly, I think I'd feel bad sharing. Mostly I just want to help :

Lisa Dunick said...

Lol. Yeah, we have this thing about giving every sub a fair shake. If it's just the font, I could maybe get past it, but most of these mistakes come in groups

Lisa Dunick said...

Well, looking like you know what you're doing gets you in the door

Lisa Dunick said...


Chris Bailey said...

Great tips, Lisa! One thing that really hit home was your statement, " I'm really interested in authors who can build careers or readerships with us." Which emphasizes that, along with everything else, you have to have a story that fits the publishing house.

It's a complex biz.