We’re very happy to have Gabe Robinson onboard as a new Pubmission Editor Reviewer. He’s new to the Asheville area after moving south with his family from New York City, where he was an acquisitions editor with HarperCollins. I had coffee with him last week not only to talk about his role as a new Editor Reviewer for Pubmission but also to get some insights from someone who was tasked with acquiring books for one of the Big Six.
Admittedly, some of what he had to say was disheartening, especially for those of us like me who’d rather focus on our craft instead of our image, but Gabe’s personal devotion to good quality writing over flash and marketability made me extremely happy to have him onboard with Pubmission.
What Gabe has to say is valuable not only to aspiring authors, but also to publishers who are trying to find their way through the submissions process.
(And if you’re a fiction or nonfiction writer looking for an opportunity to work with a former editor from HarperCollins, our Editor Coaching feature is your opportunity!)
Pubmission: You’ve worked for publishers both in the U.K. and the U.S. Any notable differences between the two in terms of how they approached the editorial process?
Gabe: To be honest, American publishers seem to do more actual editing. That’s not to say that British publishers don’t edit, but in my experience, American publishers seem to pick books apart a bit more than their British counterparts.
This is true of both developmental editing and line editing, but I find it applies more to the line editing. Whereas a manuscript edited in America might have several markings on every page, the same manuscript in the hands of a British editor might have several pages with no markings. Again, this is from my own experience, and I’m sure it’s not true across the board, but that’s what I’ve seen. I don’t think it’s a matter of British publishers not doing their jobs. Not at all. I think it comes from approaching manuscripts in a different manner. Though British and American cultures share much in common, the British book market is different from America’s, and what Americans may see as crucial to a story for the American book market, the British may see differently for their own market.
Pubmission: Can you shed some light on what it was like to do acquisitions work for one of the Big Six? When you found a manuscript you liked, what steps did you usually take internally before you could offer a contract? How important is it to have a strong author platform?
Gabe: Acquiring at HarperCollins was great in that I had some big resources at my disposal and I was surrounded by lots of really smart people who really knew books. It was also tough at times because the bigger houses sometimes seem more hesitant to take risks. This might sound surprising, but I found it to be true. They do take risks, as any business does, but big houses are often looking for a “sure thing.” That made it difficult for me as an acquisitions editor because I often prefer books that are a bit quirky or not so easy to fit into a box. If a book wasn’t in line with what was clearly working in the current market, it was very difficult to get that book through the acquisitions process. For more senior editors, it got a bit easier, as they might have several successes under their belts and therefore were given a bit more wiggle room. But for a junior editor, it could be very difficult to get a book through the acquisitions process that didn’t have some obvious commercial viability.
And I found that commercial viability often trumped literary merit. If a book was well written but difficult to categorize, it would almost always lose out to a book that wasn’t so well written but had elements that fell in line with what seemed to be working in the current book market.
Concerning the acquisitions process, it generally looked something like this:
- Receive manuscript from agent.
- Like manuscript well enough to pursue it.
- Let agent know I’m interested and see if any other publishers have expressed interest.
- Get second reads from co-workers (editors, publicists, sales, marketing team).
- Bring the book up at the weekly editorial meeting and hope that the co-workers who read it have something good to say about it.
- Make an impassioned plea for the book at the editorial meeting after hearing from those who gave a second read.
- Talk with the publisher about the book and see if there’s the possibility I could make an offer.
- Get projected sales numbers from the sales team and have the finance team run a P&L (profit and loss statement) based on the sales team’s numbers.
- Show the P&L to the publisher and suggest an amount I could offer.
- If approved by the publisher, make the offer to the agent and hope he/she accepts it.
You’d always have variations on this process, both those were generally the basic steps I had to take. If a book was a big buzz book and you thought things might move quickly on it, you might skip steps 4-7, but normally it was a pretty involved, and sometimes lengthy, process.
As far as having a strong author platform goes, things have changed quite drastically in the business in the past several years. Whereas it has always been important for a nonfiction author to have a strong platform—expertise in a particular field, name recognition, strong publishing history—it’s become more and more important for fiction authors to have some sort of platform.
It used to be that a fiction author just needed to be able to write a good story or be a strong literary craftsman, but now it seems that even fiction authors need some sort of “X factor” to set themselves apart. It could be a strong social-media presence, or co-authoring books with a well-known author, or knowing someone at the Today show who swears they can get your book a mention—whatever it is, publishers are increasingly looking for their fiction authors to have something they bring to the table on top of just good stories or writing skills.
Obviously, if you’re an established author, say an Elmore Leonard or a Cormac McCarthy, you’re not going to need something like this. But for authors just starting out, it’s becoming more and more important to have something that publishers can tout in addition to pure talent.
Pubmission: What advice can you give to publishers new to the acquisitions process or considering closing their doors to unagented submissions?
Gabe: My biggest piece of advice is to think outside the box. As I mentioned before, big publishers are often looking for something sure, which means they’re not always willing to take chances on something that might feel different. So often I heard in editorial meetings that some book was the next “such and such” big book (e.g., the next The Da Vinci Code, the next James Patterson). Copycats might work for a bit, but the market soon becomes saturated, and then everyone is waiting again for the next big thing.
Harry Potter was initially rejected by several publishers, probably because it was a new idea—kid sorcerer goes to magic school. It was the first of its kind. But then it blew up, and all sorts of magic-themed books started to hit the shelves. I’m sure all of those publishers that initially rejected it are still kicking themselves. If they’d only taken a chance and gone with something that was outside the box.
An unagented submission may very well be unagented because the book doesn’t fit nicely within the context of what’s currently working in the market, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a viable project. Take a chance on things. The current market status is extremely important to consider, but it shouldn’t keep you from seeing the potential in a project that doesn’t fit nicely into a box. Keep an open mind as you read submissions and realize that different may very well be what the reading world wants to see.
Pubmission: Harper Collins accepts only agented submissions. While you were there, did you start to see a shift in the role agents were playing? What were some of your other sources for new content?
Gabe: One thing I noticed while at HarperCollins was that agents were increasingly moving away from the role of gatekeepers to that of marketers. Agents now don’t so much weed out the untalented from the talent. Rather, they sell an image, talented or not. This is where my comments on platform come into play. An author has written a so-so story but he’s well-connected in the media world, the agent sells the media angle. Story is secondary. A big name has an idea for a book but isn’t sure what it is, doesn’t matter according to the agent. Sell the name and people will buy the book, regardless of what it is. It’s all about how you market something. From what I saw of how agents work, if you can frame a project in the right light, it’s marketable no matter how good the actual material is.
One thing that contributed to this trend is the proliferation of online content in the past decade or so. Before I left HarperCollins, it seemed that every other book brought up in editorial meetings was based on some blog or another. Many of these bloggers had no intention of ever writing a book when they started blogging, but their websites started to become popular, and pretty soon agents started knocking on their doors. Then the agents come to the publishers saying here’s this blog, the content may be a bit wacky, but it gets X number of hits each month so it would surely make a good book, right? Many times it does, and the blogger ends up selling many, many copies of a book based on his/her blog. But just as often it fails, as the idea was made to sound better than the reality. But in those cases, the agent did his/her job just as well as when a book actually succeeds. The agent sold the idea to the publisher, and that’s all that matters. I think more and more ideas for book content will come from online as the Internet and social media outlets continue to evolve.
Pubmission: I read an article recently that talked about how bottom-line-driven executives were hurting the picture book market. From my personal experience in the industry, I’ve seen how a lack of marketing and sound financial vision can kill a publishing company. What’s your take on what should matter most when making a publishing decision, the quality or the marketability of the content?
Gabe: Personally, I’d go with quality every time. So often I saw an author’s book make the bestseller lists and get all sorts of media attention because either the author or the book were easy to market, not because the book was a quality work, only to have the book end up losing the company lots of money. Immediate success in the form of making a bestseller list or getting lots of media attention does not mean the book will be successful financially. But the funny thing is that publishers still seem so focused on frontlist success. Get a book on the New York Times’ bestseller list and we’ve done our jobs, even though we’ve lost thousands and thousands of dollars. You want to know what keeps publishing houses afloat? Surprise successes and a strong backlist. And if you look at surprise successes and strong backlist titles, they almost always have one thing in common: quality.
The books that will sell steadily week after week and month after month are the ones I think publishers should be looking for, but so often they want the ones that are going to sell well and get on the bestseller lists for a few weeks, maybe a month. Why not go for something that is good enough to sell twenty times more copies over the course of a year than a poorer quality but more “marketable” book is going to sell in what publishers consider those oh-so important first few weeks? And in my opinion, quality should be the most marketable element of a book. But many publishers just don’t seem to see things that way, choosing rather to go with the marketability of an idea or person rather than the quality of a project. Take a look at the titles that have been on the bestseller lists for thirty, forty, fifty weeks, and I can almost guarantee you that these are good, quality books. Perhaps they weren’t the most marketable books when they first came across an editor’s desk, but their quality carried them past where “marketability” said they would come up short.
Pubmission: As an Editor Coach on Pubmission, what type of feedback can writers expect from you? What types of books do you like to read by choice?
Gabe: I’ve had a lot of experience shaping the narrative flow of stories, both fiction and nonfiction. I can tell you when a scene needs to be condensed or when it needs to be beefed up, when we need to see more or less of a character, how a certain plot point is confusing or isn’t quite effective, what a section needs to be more compelling. I’m very comfortable working with these bigger picture issues, but I also have a lot of experience editing on a finer scale, too: pointing out when a sentence reads awkwardly or doesn’t communicate a point as effectively as you’d hope, noticing contradictions within the text, rearranging paragraphs to achieve a smoother narrative flow. Basically, when I read a manuscript, I’m looking for the smooth, effective communication of whatever it is you’re writing about, and all of my edits will be purposed according to this.
As far as what I like to read, I’d say eighty-five percent of it is fiction. I like literary fiction, the quirkier and darker the better, but I like anything with a good story and good writing. The last three books I read actually give a pretty good picture of what my reading pile looks like: In Cold Blood (narrative nonfiction), The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (literary fiction), and Mystic River (mystery/thriller, straddles the line between commercial and literary). All three were excellent, and all three had in common good writing and good stories. In a nutshell, that’s what I look for in a read, no matter what genre it falls into.
Thanks, Gabe! Again, if you’d like to get editing help from Gabe, he’s available as an Editor Coach. If you’re ready to submit your work to one of our publisher members, Gabe can also provide you with an Editor Rating and a short critique.