Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Doctor Takes Questions: A Q & A on Publishing with Doug Morrison

I recently learned of writer Douglas Morrison's blog, The Novel Road, which is worth a visit for anyone interested in the writing trade, especially the fiction side of it. He posts links to a variety of other blogs and articles, and has been conducting his own series of author interviews, with writers such as Brian Haig, Robin Becker, and Dale Brown. Doug flattered me by including me among his interviewees this month, asking a lot of good questions about editing and publishing, which I answered to the best of my ability. The best part is that Doug included two of Thomas Rowlandson's satirical images with his post. (The one here is captioned Dr Syntax, in the middle of a smoking hot political squabble, wishes to whet his whistle.The Doctor is in black by the fireplace, next to one of the smoking squabblers.)

Here's the Q & A, with thanks to Douglas Morrison:

Doug Morrison: Do you have a character, from a manuscript you have edited, that has left a mark on you?

PG: Many, so I’ll pick one from a manuscript I’ve just published: Stephen Douglas, who lost the presidential election of 1860 to a dark-horse candidate named Abraham Lincoln. Douglas was on what we’d consider the “wrong” side of the slavery issue, and he had often acted from expediency and ambition. But when he knew he was about to lose the office he had coveted for his whole career, Douglas barnstormed the country trying to hold the Union together. He literally died trying to prevent the Civil War. The story is told Douglas Egerton’s book Year of Meteors, and I found it surprisingly moving.

Year of Meteors by Douglas R. Egerton: Book CoverDM: The editor in you must have an intuition for the “special” book; the one that seems destined to huge sales or a place in literary history. Among the books you have worked with, what made your “I knew it” list?

PG: The humbling thing about being an editor is the flip side of your question: how many of the books you know are special never achieve the sales they deserve. That’s much more common than thinking “I know it” and seeing the title on the bestseller list. But it’s exciting when you’re right. I knew David Hackett Fischer’s Washington's Crossing was a masterpiece when I first read it—it was brilliantly researched, wonderfully written, and thrilling to read. It became a New York Times bestseller and won the Pulitzer Prize for history. But I have had the same feeling about other books that never hit the jackpot that way.

DM: The editors I’ve researched, seem to stick to comfort zones when they choose a manuscript. Have you ever gone outside your comfort zone?

PG: I’d hate to think I always publish in a “comfort zone,” because I think you should always be looking for works that challenge you and that are different from what you have done before. At the same time, it’s hard to be a good publisher for a MS you don’t know anything about or you’re not enthusiastic about. For instance, my politics are moderately liberal, but I’m always ready to publish books that make good arguments for conservative positions, or far-left ones for that matter. On the other hand, I’d never be the right editor for a book on organic gardening, because I’m not a gardener of any kind. I don’t think you should edit a book that you’d never buy in a bookstore. To publish something well, you have to know how to connect with its intended reader. So I don’t ask, “is this in my comfort zone?” I ask, “do I know who would want to read this and how I’d get them excited about it?”

DM: Publishing Non-Fiction has a higher degree of speculation (i.e. advances, deadlines) than Fiction Publishing. Is this a true statement?

PG: To use a favorite publishing phrase: it depends. In general the advantage of publishing nonfiction is that you can identify the audience for it and have some idea how to reach that market—whether it’s organic gardeners, Obama-haters, Civil War buffs or dog lovers. You can make some guesses about the market based on how other titles have performed. In fiction, it’s much more unpredictable, with the major exception of genre fiction. Historical romances, cozy mysteries, steampunk, anything in a series –those niches help you target the readership. But for many novelists it’s hard to predict how a new work will sell, so it’s highly speculative. In general I’d say fiction is more of a guessing game for a publisher.

DM: What is Bloomsbury Press looking for right now?

PG: That’s a question I’m always reluctant to answer, because there aren’t one or two things we’re “looking for.” We are always looking for well-written books that have something interesting and preferably original to say, on a subject of importance. I have written more about this on our website, bloomsburypress.com.

DM: I send you a 150,000-word manuscript. It’s a mess, the title is even misspelled , but you read the first page and it catches your interest. Do you send it back with a note explaining, “Spell Check”, margins and sentence fragments, or do you keep it? What state do you like to see a manuscript in before you work on it?

PG: In all honesty, if you can’t spell the title I’m not going to read much further unless your first paragraph is stunningly brilliant. Authors who can’t achieve a baseline level of professionalism are, in my experience, extremely unlikely to write a book that can be published with success.     

DM: How much author editing is too much? Where should an author stop editing before submission?

PG: Keep editing until it’s really good, but by that I don’t mean “tinker obsessively with your MS for months.” Get feedback—candid feedback—from readers you trust. I work with a lot of scholars. In the academic world, even the most senior authors routinely show their drafts—sometimes single chapters, sometimes whole manuscripts--to other people who know their subject really well, and get their comments. It amazes me how often an author will say something like “I showed this to three readers and they all thought it was the best thing I’ve done,” and it turns out the readers are her husband, her mom and her next-door neighbor. Find some readers who aren’t afraid to tell you your script is boring, and get their comments.

DM: Freelance editors, hired by authors. The consensus with literary agents seems to be an author doesn’t need one. You would think a closer to finished manuscript would cost them less to move forward?

PG: I don’t know which agents you have talked to, but I question that “consensus.” Most of the agents I know tell me it’s getting harder to sell anything that needs work, because editors are reluctant to take on really time-consuming projects. And I know a lot of freelance editors who are being hired by authors and agents to get their work ready to submit to publishers.

DM: I’ve written about how I think editors may be going into a “Gold Rush” market for their skills. I base this on the increasing number of fairly sloppy e-books that seem to make it onto the market. Will Amazon, Barnes and Noble, etc, have to address this problem? If so, what’s your solution?

PG: I’m not sure what problem you’re referring to. The sloppiness of e-books is often a problem not in the writing or editing, but in the conversion of print book text to e-book format. This is a matter, more or less, of proofreading, not “editing” of the kind that I do. And I think it will dwindle away as publishers learn to plan their work flow to incorporate e-books. That said, I am sure that the skill of editing manuscripts and preparing them for publication is one that will continue to be needed, in whatever format books are produced.

DM: I’ve written a post on literary agents, in an ongoing series I call “Writer’s Angst”. What would you like writers to know about the world of the editor? The Publisher?

PG: Even though we have to say no to 95 percent (or more) of the submissions we receive, no editor was drawn into this business by the idea of turning people down. We’re always hoping that the next thing we read is going to be something that we love.

DM: Dr. Syntax is an incredible site, offering insights to both new and experienced writers. How do you find the time to blog and maintain the incredibly high standards at Bloomsbury Press, as well as have a personal life?

PG: Thanks for all those flattering adjectives. I squeeze the blog in as best I can, and readers will probably notice that I sometimes go a long time between posts, which mostly reflects how much else is going on in my working life at any given time.

DM: You wake up one day and decide to pitch it all to write a great book. What would the subject be and who would edit it?

PG: I have often thought I’d like to write about the history of publishing in the early 20th century, which is so often held up as a golden age. I’d love to examine how the dynamics of the industry worked. I suspect the book business in Maxwell Perkins’ day was closer to ours than we commonly believe.

DM: The Publishing Industry is facing enormous challenges in the not so distant future. A number of smaller Houses have closed, Literary Agencies are taking on fewer, if not more select clients. Paint us a picture of the Publishing Industry five years from now.

PG: Predicting the future of publishing even two years from now is probably impossible. But I think within ten years it will look very different. E-books will be a much bigger piece of the market, but we don’t know whether they’ll be the predominant format. Conversely, retail bookstores will be many fewer in number. The shrinking of retail space is going to hurt the revenues of publishers, big publishers in particular, and we may well see more consolidation of major houses. I suspect author advances will go down on average—again I mean at the larger houses. Meanwhile I think we’ll see an increase, maybe an explosion, of alternatives to the big-house model of publishing. Smaller houses, e-book-only publishers, houses that sell books on a subscription basis as well as conventional print sales. Maybe every bookstore will have an Espresso machine printing books on demand in the front window.